Writing is hard. It’s overwhelming. It takes planning and forethought and confidence. These are things that many students lack; especially students with a disability. This subset of students come to school with a gamete of things against them. Most have experienced years of failure. If they are younger, they may not have experienced the failure in school, but they probably have in other ways. Learning is hard. Reading is hard. Then when you ask a student to take something, anything, but probably a subject they don’t really care that much about and write about it… well, forget it. The effort they would have to expend would be not worth the output for them. If they can choose what to write about, it starts another chain of issues.
Let’s break the writing process down to bare bones, what a student sees. First, you have to know what you are going to write about. If it’s open for choice, this in and of itself can overwhelm a student. Their thoughts could range from, “I can write about anything? Can I write about my dog? What about my cat or fish or brother or sister…. Can I write about how my nose itches? Can I write about my favorite show or video game or vacation?” If they’ve been given an open writing assignment the answer is yes, but the sheer volume of things they can write about may be so overwhelming that they never make it past that to actually begin writing. So start with a conversation. Start by talking. These students with disabilities have amazing stories, amazing things to share, but often are not listened to or asked. Their story telling can be a bit fragmented or unorganized so sometimes adults don’t take the time to listen, truly listen.
If you can get a student past that first step and they know what they want to write about, they then have the daunting task of putting all of their thoughts on paper. Transferring the thoughts in their head to actual writing is another hurdle. Where do they start? Why do they start there? How long does it have to be? These questions begin floating around their head and become the next distraction to get past. When you throw in spelling words they don’t know and then the knowledge that what they put down will be seen by others, often they don’t start just to avoid that embarrassment.
So how do you help them? Well, that’s a great question. One that 19 years as a special education teacher, I am still working through and trying new things. In the past, I have color coded different parts of the writing- title is blue, topic sentence is red, details are yellow, summary is green. I’ve also used technology to help others. For one student in particular the act of writing was hard due to some fine motor issues, but typing was easy for him. He was able to grow that year with his writing because he felt comfortable typing. With another student, he was able to write, but editing the piece was awful for him. I took his writing and cut it in to smaller parts and taped each section on a page in a notebook and he would rewrite each section editing and making changes along the way. Seeing only smaller parts made this task less daunting for him. Now the most current technology is the speech to text feature that is available for students. I have used this only a little and most students were able to get their thoughts down, but struggled with then editing what they saw. When you use this feature, you have to say “period” if you want to end a sentence. This is a skill that many students struggle with. If they get thoughts down, but then have to go back and add periods and capital letters, that part will be a struggle. It is a new skill that will need to be taught and not one that I ever had any particular training on teaching the many years ago when I was being trained. So not only do the students have a hurdle, the teachers do too.
Overall, as a teacher, we have to figure out how to make writing less overwhelming, how to help students see writing as a way to express themselves and share their thoughts with others. I think the most important part of this as a teacher is to make the students feel heard and successful when writing. If you can show that you really care about what the student is sharing, they will want to continue to share. Even in writing.