Preventing Writing Difficulties: Providing Additional Handwriting and Spelling Instruction to At-Risk Children in First Grade

Article excerpt

The intervention described in this article focuses on providing extra handwriting and spelling instruction to young children who are at risk for writing difficulties. Such instruction is important for five reasons.

* Difficulties with text transcription skills, such as handwriting and spelling, can blur or even change the message that a writer is trying to convey. Consider how the misspelling at the end of the next sentence changes the meaning of this response to the often repeated phrase: "If you play this record backwards . . ." "I heard that if you play 'Stairway to Heaven' backwards, it says something about Satin" (Lederer, 2005, p. 156).

* Poor handwriting or spelling can influence perceptions about a child's competence. When researchers ask adults to evaluate two or more versions of a paper that differ only in spelling, handwriting, or both, papers that are less legible or that include more spelling miscues than others receive lower marks for writing quality than papers that are more legible or that contain fewer or no spelling errors (Graham & Weintraub, 1996).

* Difficulties with handwriting or spelling can interfere with the execution of other composing processes (Graham, 1990; Scardamalia, Bereiter, & Goleman, 1982). To illustrate, a student can forget something that he or she had planned to say when he or she has to switch attention during composing to such mechanical demands as thinking about the correct spelling of a word.

* Early problems with text transcription skills may constrain a child's development as a writer. Children who experience difficulties mastering these skills may avoid writing and develop a mindset that they cannot write; such a mindset can result in arrested writing development (Graham, 1999).

* Difficulties with spelling may affect the vocabulary that students use in their writing. A student who does not know how to spell a word may decide not to use it or may select a word that is easier to spell, thereby decreasing the diversity and complexity of the words in their compositions.

The consequences of poorly developed text transcription skills led us to develop a multicomponent instructional program that would help boost or accelerate the handwriting and spelling development of children who are at risk for writing disabilities in first-grade classrooms.

The CASL First Grade Handwriting/Spelling Program

We designed the CASL First Grade Handwriting/Spelling Program to improve students' skills in writing the letters of the alphabet, handwriting fluency, knowledge of sound and letter combinations, spelling patterns involving long and short vowels, and words that students commonly use when writing (for a copy of the manual, send an e-mail to steve.graham@vanderbilt.edu). The program includes forty-eight 20-minute-long lessons divided into eight units, with 6 lessons in each unit. Each unit focuses on two or more spelling patterns involving short vowel sounds, long vowel sounds, or both (the only exception is Unit 1, which just focuses on short /a/). The sequence is as follows: short /a/; short /o/ and /e/; short /i/ and /a/; short and long /a/; short and long /;/; short and long /o/; short and long /e/; and long /a/.

The first five lessons in each unit follow a set pattern that includes five different activities: a phonics warm-up, alphabet practice, word building, word study, and writing.

First, students complete a short (2-minute) phonics warm-up (Activity 1). The purpose of this activity is to improve students' skills in identifying the letters that correspond to sounds for consonants, blends, digraphs, and short vowels. During the 48 lessons, students work on 46 different sound and letter combinations by using cards that represent each sound and letter combination with a picture on one side (e.g., a picture of a dog) and a corresponding letter on the other side (e.g., the letter d). The teacher holds up a card and says, "What letters make the sound that you hear at the (beginning, middle, or end) of this word? …