How are our students doing?
In 2012, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released the first results of computer-based assessment for writing (based on 2011 testing). 24% of students at grades 8 and 12 performed at proficient levels, and far more students scored at basic and below (of the 8th grade students assessed, 54% scored at the basic level and 20% scored below basic; of the 12th graders assessed, 52% scored at the basic level and 21% scored below basic).
Results from the 2018-2019 Smarter Balanced assessment for writing are available from California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP)...
Results for students with NO reported disabilities:
Results for students WITH reported disabilities:
For good reason, writing has traditionally been, and continues to be, the #1 reason for referral for Assistive Technology consideration.
Why is this so important? Here are just a few reasons...
Being able to compose written material is a critical component of progressing through school.
A solid foundation in accurate written communication aides in securing employment and completing work-related tasks.
Writing encourages critical thinking and the formation of opinions.
It offers a way to express thoughts and ideas.
Writing is a way to connect with people through email, letters, and blogging.
Keeping a journal is a way to gain a deeper understanding of oneself. It can aid in recalling memories and gaining new perspectives.
Writing encourages creativity and imagination.
Learn more about the importance of writing in this video.
Feder and Majnemer did research of handwriting development and determined that students spend up to 60% of the school day performing handwriting tasks. When a student struggles with legible handwriting, it can interfere with academic achievement, have an impact on spelling, and negatively impact writing assignments. Legible writing is closely tied to self-esteem and is a critical life skill. According to Feder and Majnemer, the two most important aspects of handwriting are legibility and speed.
It's important for educators to understand that students may struggle with finger isolation, finger control and overall timing of motor movement which in turn affects successful handwriting. In many cases, use of alternative strategies, keyboarding, reducing volume of written work, and oral testing may be valid recommendations to assist students management of school work load.
Does Grasp Matter?
It's vital for:
development of proper muscles and motor movement patterns of the hand and fingers for ease in writing and drawing;
promoting the use of small muscles for writing versus using larger muscles of the wrist and arm that lead to fatigue and discomfort.
For the most part, a variety of grasp patterns can produce legible letters and functional speeds. Grasp needs to be comfortable, but doesn't need to be perfect. The ability of a student to maintain the strength to grip a writing instrument may impact longer writing passages as fatigue plays a role. Legibility does tend to decrease over longer passages for students that struggle to write.
Typical grasp patterns
The Role of Technology
Writing has transitioned from a solely paper-and-pen task to one where technology not only provides a new venue for writing itself, but also a vehicle for supporting the writing process (e.g. planning, drafting, sharing, revising, editing, evaluating, and publishing). But this evolving role of technology, and in particular the evolution of social networks, brings to question whether the process writing approach is too limiting for how we communicate in the 21st Century. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) published a policy brief in 2008 that asserted that writing is not just formulaic and it’s not necessarily a linear process.
What’s recommended is that “students need to engage in authentic, multifaceted and multi-directional writing processes. The role of teachers is to welcome new forms of writing that go beyond the traditional print-based approaches, and provide support for writing across the curriculum, allowing for multiple means of expression. New ways of collaborating online, shared digital writing experiences, and digital writing portfolios, are newer strategies meant to facilitate writing progress” (DeCoste, 2014).
Because of the integral role technology now plays, with much broader access to technology tools, DeCoste makes the important point that “mainstream tools should be considered prior to the use of specialized AT.” She also advocates for providing equitable and preemptive services for the range of students, not just students with disabilities, which is consistent with our model for Universal Design for Learning.
Characteristics of Good Writing Instruction
The research-based models and methods for teaching good writing are known, but the challenge is making it happen. Particularly when it comes to effective writing instruction across the content areas of the curriculum (e.g. science, social studies). If writing is considered to be “the most complex literacy skill that all students need to learn” (Wendling and Mather, 2009), then why don’t we have writing classes, writing teachers and writing specialists?
Here’s what we know [information summarized from: Denise DeCoste, Ed.D., OTR, The DeCoste Writing Protocol: Evidence-Based Research to Make Instructional and Accommodation Decisions, 2014]:
Writing begins with the development of foundational skills, that include: handwriting, spelling, sentence construction, typing and word processing, followed by the gradual achievement of more complex and refined writing techniques;
Learning happens by writing regularly and when given explicit instruction and clear feedback;
The process writing approach is considered to be a foundation for learning to compose. This means teaching students strategies and providing supports for: planning, drafting, sharing, revising, editing, evaluating, and at times, publishing. This is what it looks like...
The Foundations of Writing
The following information from DeCoste, 2014 includes essential aspects of writing... handwriting and spelling.
Is handwriting necessary?
Handwriting is formally introduced in kindergarten, with a focus on developing proficiency from grades one to three. By fourth grade we expect students to be able to handwrite for longer periods of time in order to complete longer answers to test questions and extended essays. They are expected to use handwriting for most in-class work (taking notes and completing worksheets). At the secondary level, students must balance speed with legibility as they are asked to write for extended periods of time.
Regardless of whether keyboarding replaces handwriting at some point along this continuum (or in some contexts, including writing assessment), as adults, handwriting remains an important life skill (e.g. taking a phone message, completing a form, writing a personal note, etc.).
It's critical that students develop some form of fluent transcription (manuscript, cursive or a combination, and keyboarding). There is some evidence that manuscript is easier to learn, and once mastered can be as fast as cursive.
Poor handwriting is characterized as: inappropriate spacing between letters and words, incorrect or inconsistent shaping of letters, poor pencil pressure, letter inversions and the mixing of different letter forms. Many students, prior to grade 3 (in the absence of physical or learning disabilities), transition through this process and eventually develop sufficient proficiency to write legibly. Estimates of true handwriting difficulties vary widely from 10 – 34% depending on the age of the student population looked at and the evaluative tool. The percentage typically decrease as students get older. Multiple studies demonstrate that girls outpace and tend to write more neatly than boys.
The Impacts of Struggling with Writing
Leads students to avoid writing and overall they see themselves as less competent writers;
Correlated with underachievement and low self-esteem;
Lower marks are more often assigned to students with poor handwriting quality.
What Does is feel like to struggle with Dysgraphia?
Using your non-dominant hand, then write your first and last name... backwards!
What about spelling?
Although most of us rely on spell checker and auto correct features to minimize the effect misspelling has on our communication, being able to spell plays a significant role in the development of fluent writing. Good spelling allows a writer to write with greater fluency while poor spelling can slow down expression such that it impedes fluent writing. This is true regardless of the medium for writing (pencil-pen or keyboarding). In addition, when students struggle with spelling, it can constrain cognitive
resources that would otherwise be used to address written composition.
In order to really understand spelling difficulties, and set up effective interventions, it's important to consider a student’s underlying linguistic knowledge. Neither standardized educational tests (e.g. Woodcock-Johnson III spelling subtest or the Test of Written Language, 4th edition spelling subtest) or traditional spelling tests using graded word lists give us this information.
Examination of linguistic skills is considered a formative approach that better informs instruction (Apel et al., 2012).
What about Keyboarding?
Let's dive deeper...
The good news is…word processing can have a positive impact on composing skills for typically developing students as well as students with disabilities. However, while keyboarding offers numerous advantages over handwriting, for some students learning to keyboard (particularly to the level of proficiency that will “free up” higher cognitive resources) in and of itself is a challenge.
What should students be able to do?
The Common Core State Standards state that:
In the 4th grade, students should develop sufficient command of keyboarding skills to type a minimum of one page in a single setting;
By 5th grade, students should be able to type two pages in a single setting.
How we build keyboarding skills into the elementary curriculum to support these standards is up to districts and schools.
What do we know about keyboarding rates?
Average speeds for adults who use computers daily with a mean age of 25, ranged from 17 WPM for slow keyboarders to 33 WPM for fast keyboarders (Weintraub, Gilmour-Gill, Weiss, 2010). This is our target for high school aged students.
Keyboarding compared to handwriting rates: In order for keyboarding to be an effective medium for composing written material, keyboarding speeds must be equal to or greater than handwriting speeds. The exception for this rule is those students who require an alternative to handwriting due to significant legibility deficits or physical impairments that require an alternative to pen-pencil.
In general, keyboarding instruction in the early primary grades may not be the optimal time for achieving keyboarding fluency (for young children the ability to generate text is more dependent on the ability to determine how to spell words than to locate keys). However, for older students to achieve keyboarding proficiency that leads to increased speed and quality of writing, direct keyboarding instruction is important.
General recommendations are:
Focus on familiarity with key locations in the primary grades;
Learn touch typing between 3rd and 5th grade once students have the fine motor, literacy skills, and have sufficient attention for keyboarding lessons;
To maintain baseline keyboarding speeds and improve fluency, students should have ongoing, sufficient writing time using the computer;
For students who struggle with legibility in the primary years, keyboarding (hunt and peck) should be practiced so that they can engage in literacy learning to develop spelling and composing skills;
When neither handwriting nor keyboarding automaticity is achieved after explicit instruction and practice, and/or when severe spelling deficits persist, other AT supports should be explored (e.g. word prediction, speech recognition).
It's critical for students to have some form of fluent transcription
(e.g. handwriting, keyboarding, speech to text) in order to reduce
the cognitive load and allow for the development of
higher-level writing skills.
How can we support struggling writers?
Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
Learn the basics about Universal Design for Learning. The framework supports ALL students, including those who struggle with writing. Dive deeper into the specific UDL checkpoints and visit these websites to learn more: Novak Education, Learning Designed, Understood, UDL Resources on this site.
Define appropriate and achievable goals and allow students flexibility in how they meet them;
Recognize and reflect on diverse learner needs by learning about their strengths, challenges, areas of interest, backgrounds, learning styles, talents, and planning skills;
Recognize barriers in the curriculum and problem-solve how to reduce or eliminate them;
Understand when students may require assistive technologies to support access and support learning;
Reflect on your UDL knowledge and implementation skills with the UDL Progression Rubric, a tool by Katie Novak and Kristan Rodriguez, authors of Universally Designed Leadership: Applying UDL to Systems and Schools (CAST, 2016);
In applying the principles of UDL to writing instruction, the authors of the book "Universal Design for Learning in the Classroom: Practical Applications" look at each of the three networks, identify potential barriers to writing success, and consider how some practical applications of the UDL guidelines could address those concerns through scaffolds.
Strategies & Tools for Diverse Learners
The tools and strategies on the Open Access AT Resource FlipKit are arranged by the types of supports a teacher might be looking for to support students who struggle with writing.
The FlipKit includes the following types of resources:
Tools to support legibility;
Tools to support composing and organizing written material;
Tools to support optimization of visual information and reducing screen clutter;
Digital notetaking and built-in accessibility features;
Teach Specific Notetaking Skills
For notetaking, learn to abbreviate words, using frameworks (like “Cornell Notes”);
Guided Notes: teacher prepared outlines of a lecture that guide the student through the lecture;
PowerPoint or Google slides can be adapted to incorporate guided note-taking;
Strategic note-taking instruction: an intervention that includes steps to help students focus on teacher cues (verbal and nonverbal) to discern what’s important and what vocabulary to pay attention to in the lecture; steps to help organize lecture content (such as clustering ideas and summarizing information).
“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”
~ Philip Pullman
See strategies and supports in action...
Apel, K. M., Masterson, J.J. & Brimo, D. (2012). Spelling Assessment and Intervention: A Multiple Linguistic Approach to Improving Literacy Outcomes. In A. C. Kamhi, Language and Reading Disabilities (pp. 226-243). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Boyle, J. (2012). Note-Taking And Secondary Students with Learning Disabilities: Challenges and Solutions. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 27 (2), 90-101.
Calkins, L. (1986). The Art of Teaching Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
DeCoste, D. (2014). The DeCoste Writing Protocol: Evidence-Based Research to Make Instructional and Accomodation Decisions.
Volo: IL: Don Johnston, Inc.
Feder K & Majnemer, (2007) “Handwriting development, competency, and intervention” Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology
Graham, S. B. (2012). Teaching Elementary School Students to be Effective Writers: A Practical Guide. Washington, D.C. : National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.
Hall, T.E., Meyer, Ann, & Rose, D.R. (2012) Transforming Writing Instruction with UDL: Universal Design for Learning in the Classroom. NY: Guilford Press.
Honingsfeld, A. &. Dove, M.G. (2013). Common Core for the Not So Common Learner. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Lange, A. M. (2006). Assistive Software Tools for Secondary-Level Students with Reading Difficulties. Journal of Special Education Technology, 20 (3), 13-22.
Langer, J. (1986). Children Reading and Writing. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
Murawski & Scott, (2019) “What Really Works with Universal Design For Learning”
Strickland, D., & Townsend, D. (2011). The Development of Literacy in the Elementary School. In D. Lapp & D. Fisher, Handbook of Research on Teaching the English Language Arts, (3rd ed.), pp. 46-52. NY: Routledge.
Weintraub, N. Gilmour-Gill, N., & Weiss, P.L. (2010). Relationships Between Handwriting and Keyboarding Performance Among Fast and Slow Adult Keyboarders. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 64, 123-132.
Wendling, B.J., & Mather, N. (2009). Essentials of Evidence-Based Academic Interventions. NJ: John Wiley and Sons.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress, https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/assessments/
Chart of Correct and Incorrect Handwriting Positions https://cdn.shptrn.com/media/mfg/324/media_document/8415/GripChart.pdf?1386200620
Cochrane & Key, “Speech Recognition as AT for Writing, A Guide for k-12 Education” (2020). https://www.lwsd.org/uploaded/Website/Programs_and_Services/Special_Education_and_504/Assistive_Technology/Speech_Recognition_as_AT_for_Writing_A_Guide_for_K12.pdf
Nate Network, “AT for Writing for Students with High Incidence Disabilities”, https://www.natenetwork.org/resources/at-for-writing-for-students-with-high-incidence-disabilities/
The National Assessment of Educational Progress, https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/assessments/
What You Need to Know, (2019) The Understood Team, https://www.understood.org/en/learning-thinking-differences/child-learning-disabilities/dysgraphia/understanding-dysgraphia#item3 Dysgraphia: