Instruction in a Strategy for Compare-Contrast Writing

By Macarthur, Charles A. | Exceptional Children, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Instruction in a Strategy for Compare-Contrast Writing


Macarthur, Charles A., Exceptional Children


Writing is an important activity and skill that is highly valued in our culture. It is essential to the development of knowledge in academic, professional, and technical fields, and the ability to communicate via writing is critical to the administration of business and government. From an individual perspective, writing is important to success in school, work, and personal life. In school, writing is valued as an important outcome in itself and as a critical means of gaining and demonstrating knowledge in other content areas. At work, writing skills are required in an increasing number of occupations (Mikulecky, 1998). In our personal lives, writing is a means of personal expression and a way to communicate with friends and family. Despite the importance of writing to individual success and social and economic progress, it has not received as much emphasis in educational reform as reading and math. The findings in a recent report indicated that writing instruction has been neglected in our schools (National Commission on Writing, 2003) and the authors called for significant changes in schooling that would place writing "squarely in the center of the school agenda" (p. 3).

Results from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) support the claim that more emphasis needs to be placed on writing instruction. Although the most recent NAEP results (Salahu-Din, Persky, & Miller, 2008) showed some improvement at Grades 8 and 12 from 2002 to 2007, it was still the case that only 33% of eighth-grade students performed at a proficient level, defined as "solid academic performance." Of students with disabilities, only 6% were proficient, whereas 46% scored below basic and 48% scored at the basic level, defined as "partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work." Note that NAEP policy is to include students with disabilities and to provide accommodations as needed; nationwide only 3% of all students were excluded because of disabilities.

Descriptive research on the writing of students with learning disabilities (LD) confirms that they are particularly in need of effective writing instruction. In general, they have difficulty with all aspects of writing, including the transcription skills of handwriting, spelling, and punctuation; language skills needed for sentence formation; and planning and revising processes (for a review, see Troia, 2006). In comparison to normally achieving peers, the papers of students with LD are generally shorter, less organized, lower in quality, less varied in vocabulary, and contain more spelling and sentence-formation errors (Nelson & Van Meter, 2007; Troia, 2006). In addition, students with LD have a less sophisticated understanding of the requirements of good writing (Graham, Schwartz, & MacArthur, 1993) and less knowledge about genre and text structure organization (Englert & Hiebert, 1984; Englert & Thomas, 1987). A recent cross-sectional study of students in Grades 2 through 8 compared typically developing writers and struggling writers, who were either identified as students with disabilities or at risk (Lin, Monroe, & Troia, 2007); with increasing age, typical writers focused less on transcription concerns and more on audience and meaning, whereas struggling writers continued to focus on transcription concerns even in middle school.

COGNITIVE STRATEGY INSTRUCTION

One approach to writing instruction that has been shown to be effective, particularly with students with LD and other low-achieving writers, is cognitive strategy instruction (Gersten & Baker, 2001; Graham, 2006). Strategy instruction in writing provides explicit instruction in specific strategies for writing, knowledge about writing, and self-regulation (Englert, 1992; Graham & Harris, 2005). Strategies are based on models of the cognitive processes involved in expert writing, including planning and revising, as well as self-regulation processes such as goal setting, self-monitoring, and task management (Hayes & Flower, 1980; Schunk & Zimmerman, 2007). …

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