Academic journal article School Psychology Review

Determining an Instructional Level for Early Writing Skills

Academic journal article School Psychology Review

Determining an Instructional Level for Early Writing Skills

Article excerpt

Writing skills are essential for satisfactory academic progress during kindergarten through twelfth-grade education and for later vocational success (Graham & Perin, 2007), but writing problems often go undetected until late elementary or middle school, when they become increasingly difficult to remediate (Baker, Gersten, & Graham, 2003). Early identification and intervention are critical for preventing the long-term negative consequences of persistent writing problems (Berninger, Nielsen, Abbott, Wijsman, & Raskind, 2008). Given that previous research has established that early writing skills (e.g., transcription skills) are related to compositional fluency (Graham, Berninger, Abbott, Abbott, & Whitaker, 1997), the successful development of these skills might establish a foundation on which to develop later writing skills, contributing to the reverse of the national trend in poor writing outcomes (Salahu-Din, Daane, & Persky, 2008).

The learning hierarchy (Haring & Eaton, 1978) is an intervention heuristic that could guide intervention development for writing problems. In using the learning hierarchy, interventions are identified by matching student skill with one of four phases of student learning (Haring & Eaton, 1978). First, interventions focus on skill accuracy (the acquisition phase) through high modeling and frequent cueing. Next, interventions are targeted to enhance the speed with which the skill is performed (fluency phase) through additional practice and contingent reinforcement. Once a student can accurately and fluently exhibit the skill, efforts can focus on the later phases of maintenance and generalization.

Although research supports the learning hierarchy as an intervention heuristic (Burns, Codding, Boice, & Lukito, 2010), it remains unknown as to when the intervention focus should change. The instructional level is a potential criterion that could be used to identify whether the intervention should focus on acquisition, fluency, or maintenance/generalization. Gickling and Armstrong (1978) operationally defined the instructional level for reading as material in which the student could read 93%-97% of the words. Reading less than 93% of the words represented a frustration level and exceeding 97% was an independent level. Researchers have found that task completion, task comprehension, and time on task increased when instructional level material was used (Gickling & Armstrong; Treptow, Burns, & McComas, 2007). Moreover, students provided with an acquisition intervention (i.e., high modeling and cueing) to facilitate an instructional level in reading experienced increased and sustained growth over a period of 15 weeks compared to a randomly assigned control group (Burns, 2007).

Math intervention research also supports the instructional level as a decision-making criterion. Burns, VanDerHeyden, and Jiban (2006) empirically derived instructional-level criteria for math by computing slopes of growth and finding the mean baseline score for students with the highest growth. Students who did not experience high growth rates may have (a) demonstrated proficient skills before instruction (i.e., an independent level) and had little room to grow, or (b) started too low (i.e., at a frustration level) and the instruction did not adequately address their learning needs (Burns et al., 2006). Analysis of a subset of the data used for validation showed that students who had initial math scores within the instructional level made the greatest gains over time (Burns et al.). Recent meta-analytic research that used the Burns et al. (2006) instructional-level criteria found stronger effects for acquisition interventions (modeling and cueing) provided for students with frustration-level skill than for those whose baseline performance represented an instructional level (Burns et al., 2010).

Identifying an instructional level for early writing skills could help interventionists determine the type of intervention struggling writers need (e. …

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