The most important words a student can hear from their teacher or parent are, “I want to hear how you think and feel about this.” Helping students express themselves through writing is critical in every class at every grade level.
Self-expression is so important today that I felt compelled to write about one of my favorite teaching activities as the new school year gets underway. It’s helpful for all students, but especially those with learning disabilities.
Children who experience reading difficulties often have writing problems. Dysgraphia is the fancy word for it. With dysgraphia, students clutch the pen or pencil, have trouble staying in the lines, or printing or writing the letters legibly. It sometimes seems more like a fine or even gross motor difficulty.
With dysgraphia, students also misspell words and have difficulty putting words into sentences. For some students, writing difficulties might be so severe that it’s impractical for them to write on paper. They are more comfortable writing on the computer. They still express themselves well this way.
However, if a student only misspells words, learning how to write cursive and journaling may be helpful for them to learn both writing and reading. In fact, there’s evidence to show that students might benefit from learning cursive.
Not only do children learn to write with a left-to-right flow, it helps with writing bs and ds correctly. It also provides practice blending sounds. This helps older students who reject phonics work they see as being more appropriate for younger students.
When I was teaching, I attended in-service through the National Writing Project, based on the work of Donald Graves. Graves was known as the father of the process approach to writing.
Self-expression is critical and can change a student’s outlook about writing.
It’s the reason why many rejected Common Core. When David Coleman who helped write CCSS, spoke to teachers and joked that that no one gives a shit about narrative writing, what students think and feel, we immediately knew that Coleman was a fraud. He didn’t understand kids or good teaching.
But this wasn’t a gaff on Coleman’s part. Denying children the opportunity for free expression in school has been an intentional byproduct of NCLB. With the advent of standardized tests, writing has been reduced to measurable output where students write about neat topics that determine if they have mastered a rubric.
Students with learning disabilities sometimes don’t believe they can write. Graves worked with children with learning disabilities. He believed that most children could learn how to write.
The key is to let students write what they want to write. Provide them topic ideas only if they ask.
Having children keep a journal, giving them 15 minutes or more everyday to write their thoughts and ideas, usually results in improved language skills and confidence. Practicing writing and getting to sometimes rewrite corrections can help children learn to spell and write better.
The last thing a child with reading or writing problems might expect is for a teacher who knows they have dysgraphia (writing disability) or dyslexia, to say they’d like them to do daily journal writing. Students will likely say they can’t do it. They’re thinking about their awful handwriting and spelling. Some students find writing painful. They’ve written before and have nightmares of red pen circles and crosses on their paper. For them, writing is to be avoided at all costs!
But when students are told that their journals will be not be graded it’s like a weight has been lifted! Teachers should not grade journals, although helping students correct their favorite pieces is usually rewarding.
All children, even the youngest learners, like to express themselves and this is critical language learning.
Early childhood teachers, including preschool teachers, have children dictate stories during group time. They print these stories on big sheets of paper for other children to see. This validates a child’s ideas. Or teachers put the stories on paper and let children draw pictures to illustrate what they said. Children are proud of what they write and say and especially to see their words on paper.
Teachers must be ready to decipher the words that don’t make sense in a student’s writing. But they can do this by sitting down with the student and gently asking them what they meant to say. No judging.
When a student’s words are valued, language becomes their friend. This has added value for students with learning disabilities who often have difficulty expressing themselves. What’s important is letting students know that their words matter, that it is important to hear what they want to say.