Improving the Compositions of Students with Learning Disabilities Using a Strategy Involving Product and Process Goal Setting

By Graham, Steve; MacArthur, Charles et al. | Exceptional Children, February 1992 | Go to article overview

Improving the Compositions of Students with Learning Disabilities Using a Strategy Involving Product and Process Goal Setting


Graham, Steve, MacArthur, Charles, Schwartz, Shirley, Page-Voth, Victoria, Exceptional Children


In recent years, one of the most influential conceptualizations of the process of composing is that writing is a problem-solving task (Flower & Hayes, 1977). Most writing tasks that children are assigned in school, however, can best be described as ill-defined problems; the rules, or methods, for completing the task are often unclear to students and they may have no systematic way to tell whether a particular solution is correct. Two strategies that can be helpful in working with ill-defined problems are to break the problem into several subproblems or add more structure to the situation. To illustrate the first procedure, a writing assignment might be subdivided into several subproblems: (a) planning what to say in advance, (b) writing the paper, and (c) polishing it by making final changes. By treating the problem as several subproblems, students find it less overwhelming.

The second procedure involves limiting or restricting the possible solution to the problem. For example, a writer could conduct a means-ends analysis figuring out what the final form of the paper will look like (product goals) and the means that will be used to reach the selected "ends" (process goals). By adding more structure to the problem, it becomes better defined and more manageable.

In the present study, students with learning disabilities, who were poor writers, were taught to use a planning and writing strategy based on both procedures. The strategy was structured around a means-ends analysis; the student set product goals for what the paper would accomplish and contain and further articulated process goals for how this would be accomplished. The writing task was also broken down into several related subproblems designed to facilitate accomplishment of the goals:

* Generate product and process goals.

* Develop notes.

* Organize notes.

* Write and continue planning.

* Evaluate success in obtaining goals.

A strategy of this nature should be particularly effective with students with learning disabilities for several reasons. First, goal-setting is not only a critical component of effective writing (Hayes & Flower, 1986), but the beneficial effects of setting goals on task performance is one of the most robust and replicable findings in psychological research (Locke, Shaw, Saari, & Latham, 1981). Goals affect students' performance by influencing what is attended to, mobilizing effort, increasing persistence, and motivating the development and use of strategies for accomplishing the target goals. Thus, goal setting appears to be especially beneficial for students with learning disabilities, who are often described as unable or unwilling to make active academic responses and deficient in strategy deployment (Harris, 1982).

A second reason that the strategy should be successful is that is provides students with a mechanism for executing and managing many of the mental operations considered important to planning and writing text (Graham & Harris, 1989a). Specifically, students set goals aimed at generating, framing, and planning text; and the strategy provides a mechanism for regulating the writing process. Students with learning disabilities often have difficulty with each of the processes. In terms of content generation, these students do not appear to be especially successful in employing strategies for self-directed memory search. Thomas, Englert, and Gregg (1987) found that students with learning disabilities were unable to produce multiple written statements about familiar topics, whereas others (Graham, 1990; MacArthur & Graham, 1987) have noted that students with learning disabilities possess much more knowledge than is reflected in their written products.

Students with learning disabilities also appear to have some difficulty in using genre-specific knowledge to retrieve and frame relevant information. they frequently fail to include critical elements such as how a story ends (Graham & Harris, 1989b; Nodine, Barenbaum, & Newcomer, 1985) or the premise and conclusion to their essays (Graham, 1990). …

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