The achievement of students with special needs is a critical issue for all schools and teachers. Writing effectively is one of the areas in which students struggle most and in which classroom teachers struggle most to support them. This is the first in a four part series chronicling my efforts at teaching writing to students with special needs in a world dominated by the Internet and digital media.

Writing is always a process. For some students, it’s an even bigger struggle to know what steps in that process go in what order, or if they are relevant to the big picture at all. Knowing what to write is difficult, and often when given a topic that is not personally interesting, can lead to even bigger problems. In the world of my students, often times, this is the case. I’ve found the pre-writing strategies I discuss here are a good way to begin to overcome some of the inherent challenges students with special needs face.

My background is working with students who have special needs. Many struggle with comprehension and/or writing  and are in my Resource English class to help support and build these skills. The class runs just like any other general education English class, but I work with a Special Education background in mind. We read the same books, write the same types of essays, and have the same types of discussions. At my school, the overarching goal we have is Academic Discourse. Through Academic Discourse, all students are expected to respond to text in a thoughtful way. This uses language in ways that better prepares our students for life outside of high school.

The bigger struggle comes when students are expected, after high school, to be able to use technology and to use it properly to achieve specific work-related goals. This becomes a challenge when students are confronted with these high expectations and are also expected to have brilliant writing skills. To prepare them for this eventuality, my goal with my students is to teach them ways to support their learning through writing, by utilizing the online tools that they will eventually need to be successful adults.

In the case of writing, I have a process I use to help support my students with their work. Since my school requires that we follow an Academic Discourse model, my students already have high expectations. With Academic Discourse, not only are students expected to read and write as we have traditionally expected them to, but now they are expected to be heard. No matter if you’re the smartest kid, the shyest kid, it doesn’t matter: your voice will be heard. To ease them into this transition, there are many ways I have implemented modified learning to help support them on this journey.

For example, when beginning an assignment where my students will end up having to write a 5 paragraph essay, I automatically start with a rubric. If you show the students what is required of them, they will better understand the expectations that are part of the process. From there, I move on to the collecting of information. Since most of our assignments stem from articles we read about real-world events, such as those found on KQED’s The Lowdown. The goal is to find something of interest that they will all benefit from exploring. Included with the rubric is the assignment with guiding questions and sentence frames. (Here is a good introduction to using sentence frames to improve language skills.) Most of the students will use these questions and frames to help shape their final essay.

I usually start with a gallery walk. I place large poster paper around the room with the guiding questions, designed to trigger ideas from my students. This is non-confrontational and gets the kids thinking about the topic they will be writing about eventually. During the gallery walk, students have markers and are asked to pick different posters and go around and answer the questions on each poster. If they don’t know what to write, I ask them to write their opinions or questions they have. Each student is required to answer. They do not have to interact, as this is usually a quiet individual activity at first. After, I will have them walk to the poster they find most connected to their opinion or claim they want to focus on. Then they discuss their ideas with other students who have the same agreements. The posters stay up throughout the writing process. I eventually put these up on our shared space on the internet and keep them there for my students to access.

We then move onto the real nitty-gritty stuff – reading for meaning and understanding. Since this is the time of technology, we often utilize Google Apps for Education to obtain access to these articles. I will post excerpts from articles to my Google Classroom and share them with my students. I always teach my students annotation at the beginning of each year; this way they have a good grasp of how to best understand text. There are a number of programs that you can use. I use Google Docs and upload the text to each of my students so they each have a clean copy. They use highlighting, italicizing, as well as the comment feature to write their annotations. The expectation from annotating is that students write out their ideas, their questions, their understandings or confusions. I want my students to be able to write predictions, and summarize thoughtfully.

Typically we will include 2-3 texts for each essay we write in class. These are articles I find, they are articles my students find, or they are novels we are reading. Then, we find all the pertinent information that they believe is relevant to their final essay. The students seem to enjoy this process because although it’s a lot of work to read through a text and really read it for understanding, I find that they do more work when it’s in the online component than when they hand-wrote their annotations.

At this point my students have gathered several ideas by learning how to follow the online tools provided for them. Students learn to use a rubric as a checklist to know what I am looking for in their work, and students have learned the annotation tools to get them writing out their notes to help them write out thoughtful connections. Stay tuned for part 2, when we discuss using sentence frames and partner/group discussion to better develop student writing ideas.


Kira Miller

Kira Miller is a Resource Specialist in the East Bay, CA. She has been teaching in the Bay Area for the past 5 years. She has worked in a number of Special Education settings, including elementary, middle and high school environments. She has a Master's degree in curriculum and instruction and is going back for her Administrative credential in the Fall. Kira loves her job and has loved watching her career and the children she works with blossom.

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