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Special Education Articles: Learning Disabled Articles: Turn Students with LD into Writers

Turn Students with Learning Disabilities Into Writers

By: Bonnie Terry, M. Ed., Educational Therapist, Learning Disabilities Specialist

Bonnie Terry, M. Ed., Educational Therapist and Learning Disabilities Specialist spoke at the CEC/CSF CA State Conference on Turning Students with Learning Disabilities into Writers. The following is a summary of her talk.There are several key points to turning your L.D. students into writers. To begin with you need to have abasic understanding of why we teach with associations. Several studies have found that the easiest way for students to master material is to teach the material with an association that students can relate to. When students have a concept from their background to attach the new concept to and they will retain it better. As stated by Kimberly Kassner in You’re a Genius and I Can Prove It 1994, "Association is the basis ofall learning, and without association you can learn nothing."Eric Jensen states in Brain Compatible Strategies 1997: "In the learning context, it makes sense to take advantage of this amazing organ [the brain] that is hungry for pictures, movies, and images.... After two weeks, the effects of direct instruction have diminished. But the effects of peripherals [posters, pictures, drawings, & symbols] often go up." (Brackets are from elsewhere in the text.)

Dr. John Brown from Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland stated at the 1999 ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) Conference on Teaching and Learning "Give students a model for the process, and create opportunities for them to practice the process. Provide students with graphic organizers or representations of the model to help them understand the process."

Keeping this in mind, when wanting students to remember the concepts that we are teaching, it makes sense to teach with associations. Students retain information longer when they can attach a concept to something that is familiar to them.

It is best to use a step-by-step approach to writing instruction to build upon success. The first thing to do is to not jump right into writing a paragraph! Instead, have the students practice note taking skills. Becoming proficient at note taking is an important component for succeeding in school and in most jobs outside of school. Note taking is a precursor to paragraph, essay, and report writing.

Step 1. After reading a selection, decide if it was informational (expository) or if it had a beginning, middle, and end (narrative).

Provide your students with fill-in-the-blank note taking forms. Students can at times stare at their blank papers, frozen, unable to take notes. They do not know where to start. Once given fill-in-the-blank note taking forms, they are able to succeed at this. Younger students often start out by dictating the notes and we write them either on the board or on a second fill-in-the-blank form. We write their notes using different colors for each thought so that the students are able to recopy the notes with greater accuracy. In this way, the students do not lose track of their train of thought while trying to write it out. As soon as the younger students are able, they write the notes independently.

Step 2. Take notes using fill-in-the-blank note taking forms like those in Ten Minutes to Better Study Skills™. Spend several weeks at this step, getting in lots of practice with note taking. Then students are ready for step 3 - writing a paragraph from their notes. Again, do not just expect the students to know how to do this. They can have a habit of freezing up when expected to do this independently the first time out. Instead, provide another fill-in-the-blank form with an association they can relate to.

When teaching my students how to write the basic American paragraph, do it with a model, an association, they can relate to. Since the ‘hamburger’ is familiar to most students, I teach the basic paragraph with a 3-dimensional hamburger and a graphic organizer fill-in-the-blank hamburger. I put the format on the overhead in the form of a deluxe hamburger. If the students can make themselves a hamburger or a sandwich, they can write a paragraph.

1. The topic sentence is the top of bun.

2. The detail sentences are the ingredients of hamburger . We want an interesting paragraph, so we’ll have to make it a ‘deluxe’ hamburger with tasty ingredients.

3. The concluding sentence wraps up or restates the topic. The bottom bun is bread like the top, but it is usually a bit thinner. Without the conclusion, you would have a sloppy mess, so you need to conclude or ‘wrap up’ your thoughts.

On the day the students do their writing, place the 3 dimensional hamburger in front of them and remind them how the paragraph is constructed:

  1. First, we tell you what we are going to talk about (topic sentence).
  2. Second, we tell you about it (details).
  3. Finally, we tell you what we told you (concluding sentence).

As you can see, the secret to writing a good American paragraph is to make a good American hamburger.

Hamburger Paragraph Writing Tips

The basic American paragraph has three parts.

The writer first tells the reader what he is going to write about
(the main idea- thesis).

The writer tells you about the main idea
(gives several supporting details).

The writer tells the reader what he told you
(concluding or ‘wrap up’ statement).

Tip: Don’t forget to indent each paragraph!

Step 3. Use the graphic organizers in Ten Minutes to Better Writing Skills™ book to help the students get all the parts of the paragraph.

Step 4. Have your students do their rough drafts and final copies in spiral notebooks. Do the rough drafts on the right hand side of the page and write on every other line to make it easier to put in any corrections.

Step 5. Change boring verbs to more interesting ones, add description words, check punctuation and capitalization. The Writer’s Easy Reference Guide is a great resource for this.

Students should write their rough draft without being hindered with word choice. Then go over the rough drafts together and underline the verbs. After underlining the verbs, look at lists of interesting verbs and substitute in more interesting ones. Always provide students with lists of interesting words to choose from! [example: The house was dark last night. If the students change the verb was to remained the quality has dramatically improved. The house remained dark last night.] The Writer’s Easy Reference Guide™ has lists of interesting words for students to choose from. It also has capitalization and punctuation rules in it.

Step 6. Final copy: Then have students recopy with the corrections on the left-hand side of the page. This also gives them a record of their growth in writing as they fill the notebook.

Give the students experience writing paragraphs before moving onto essay writing. Doing this will provide students with the confidence and experience they need to master each step. After successfully practicing paragraph writing, move on to the next step - getting ready for essay writing.

Give the students the "secret" to writing essays: plug your thoughts into the formula of the basic American Essay as found in English text books, Ten Minutes to Better Study Skills™, and The Writer’s Easy Reference Guide™. Just like a paragraph, the essay first tells what you are going to talk about (thesis paragraph), then has at least three detail paragraphs, and finally a fifth ‘wrap-up’ or concluding paragraph. Show a lot of examples so the students realize they do not have to ‘reinvent the wheel’. Work through the Improving Your Writing section of Ten Minutes to Better Study Skills™. For 4th through 8th graders pick out articles from
Reader’s Digest, Children’s Digest, The Curious Reader, and Children’s TIME.

Step A: Read the article.

Step B: Identify the main idea.

Identify and list some of the details (supporting statements).

Identify the concluding statement.

(Sometimes do this identification orally, other times use a graphic organizer like those found in Ten Minutes to Better Study Skills™.)

Step C: Choose just one of the paragraphs and find the subject and the verbs of each sentence.

Notice the different lengths of the sentences.

Good writers use a variety of sentence types and lengths.

Step D: Talk about the different types of verbs that are used and encourage students to use interesting verbs in their writing (Provide students with a list to choose from and I have been known to outlaw the verbs like, was, is, and wants.).

The first several times do these steps as a class, then as a small group, and finally on an individual basis. Then go back to the students writing their own essays, keeping these items in mind. Sometimes have older students do this with peer editing. This identification with peer editing of the first drafts helps the students see if their writing is clear. Can fellow students identify their thesis statement, etc.? This study has tremendously helped my students to improve their own writing. It helps them to both focus on the different components of the essay and vary the types of sentences they use. The end product is a much more interesting essay.

Once students have practiced this, go back to work on note taking and either paragraph or short essay writing. It is a continual process each week.

  1. Read a selection and decide if the selection is informational (expository) or has a beginning - a middle - and an end (narrative).
  2. Take notes from what you read using fill-in-the-blank forms (Ten Minutes to Better Study Skills™).
  3. Put notes into fill-in-the-blank paragraph format (Ten Minutes to Better Study Skills™).
  4. Write a rough draft. (Use the spiral notebook.)
  5. Check your word usage; use lists of interesting words from The Writer’s Easy Reference Guide™. Check for capitalization, punctuation, and formatting mistakes.
  6. Write your final copy. (Use the spiral notebook.)

Using this method has dramatically improved the quality of my students writing!

For information on resources referred to, contact Bonnie Terry at (530) 888-7160, www.bonnieterrylearning.com, or e-mail: btlearn@jps.net.
Copyright 2000-01 Bonnie Terry, M. Ed.


Bonnie Terry is a Learning Disabilities specialist as well as the owner of Bonnie Terry Learning which is a company that produces quality educational books and games. Bonnie Terry Learning's books range from phonetic reading drills for reading fluency, items to help one's study skills, spelling the 500 most used words and more. The games help with building on reading comprehension, sentence building and structure, and math skills. Guides which are able to be placed in one's binder. The Writer's Easy Reference Guide covers all your needs for writing; such as paragraph and essay writing tips, bibliography tips, types of sentences in the English language, words to make your writing more interesting, transition words, common prefixes, suffixes and root words, help / being verbs, capitalization words, punctuation rules, parts of speech definitions, how to write a business letter, and more! Details on the Math Easy Reference Guide are soon to come. Videos cover tips on using The Sentence Zone, spelling techniques, and the Peoples to Peoples' Educational Tour of China.

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