Developing Writing Skills in Bilingual Exceptional Children

Article excerpt

Developing Writing Skills in Bilingual Exceptional Children

Attention to writing skills in bilingual exceptional children has often taken a distant back seat to the children's oral language and reading skills. An oftentimes implicit assumption has been that reading ought not be introduced until certain levels of mastery have been attained in oral language; similarly, writing should be delayed until "requisite" reading skills have become established. Myklebust (1972) proposed a hierarchy of language abilities, beginning with listening, and proceeding through speaking, reading, and finally writing. Teaching strategies resulting from this framework have tended to dominate instruction in special education and language minority instruction, with the result that writing is often delayed until listening, speaking, and reading are mastered.

Recently, several studies have indicated that an hierarchical assumption is fundamentally flawed as an instructional model (e.g., Downing, 1972). For example, Read (1981) argued that it is important to decouple reading and writing instruction and to encourage children to express their ideas on paper. Thus, just as reading experiences may help bootstrap oral language sophistication, so too experience in writing may provide a context for reflection about the language that the child is trying to master orally and orthographically.

Even when writing is introduced into the early instructional context of exceptional children (whether monolingual or bilingual), it is often introduced in a "discrete skills" format (i.e., handwriting, punctuation, and spelling), to the detriment of the communicative purpose of written messages. Little emphasis has been placed on thematic and organizational elements of writing, on the purpose(s) for which writing is being done, or on the processes involved in writing. Similarly, a frequent criticism of language arts instruction (both reading and writing) for many linguistic minority children is that it focuses on discrete skills to the detriment of the more global task (cf. Edelsky, 1987; Edelsky & Jilbert, 1985).

In this article our intention is to outline some productive approaches to the study of the writing of bilingual exceptional children. We begin with a review of two theoretical perspectives that have been generating interesting empirical research on writing. The first perspective is primarily concerned with the cognitive processes taking place within the individual. Concern is with the information-processing demands of particular tasks and the implications of those demands for the quality of the writing process and product. The second perspective emphasizes the interpersonal context of writing and is often referred to as a functional-interactive approach. It emphasizes the communicative functions of written language and literacy. We then consider the implications of these perspectives for effective writing instruction with bilingual exceptional children. Finally, two illustrative research projects are described.


Cognitive Process Perspectives

Cognitive Developmental. One focus of much cognitive-developmental research on writing is on tracing the evolution of a writing system in the very young child. Gundlach (1981) has suggested that early writing shows a functional association with other activities such as gestures and symbolic play (Pellegrini, 1980; Vygotsky, 1978). The relationship between drawing and writing appears to be particularly strong. At very young ages (e.g., 2-3 years), however, children begin to differentiate between their drawings and writings and view their writings as communicative messages (e.g., Baghban, 1984; Grinnel & Burris, 1983).

A second development focus has been on the child's construction of written language principles, including those associated with the orthographic representation of sound. Read (1981) has described the acquisition of spelling principles evident in the "invented" spellings children construct in their early writing. …