Although we have no doubt that a single, dedicated teacher can have a significant impact on a struggling writer's development, this is not a job for the Lone Ranger. Preventing writing difficulties and intervening successfully when such problems occur requires a sustained and concerted effort on the part of the school, parents, and the community. For many children with LD, writing problems are a chronic, not a temporary, condition. There is no quick or easy fix that will make their problems disappear. It is not only important to intervene early, but also to provide a sustained and coherent effort over time.
Although technology can support and even change how students with LD write, it is important to keep in mind that it does not make writing instruction superfluous. For instance, many of these students often fail to take advantage of the power of word processing when revising because they continue to revise in the same old way, mostly trying to correct mechanical errors. Teaching them to focus their attention on substantive changes when revising, however, can result in a much greater use of the editing features of word processing, as the students are more likely to make additions and rewrite parts of their text. Similarly, a spell checker will not eliminate spelling errors or the need for spelling instruction, as students with LD only correct about one-half of their errors when using such devices. Clearly, the impact of technological tools will be restricted if students with LD fail to develop the knowledge, skill, will, and self-regulation so critical to effective writing.
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The two compositions presented above were written by Arthur Dent 1, a 5th-grade child with a learning disability (LD). The first was written at the start of 2nd grade in response to a picture of a young girl showing her father a large fish she had caught. The second exposition was Arthur's written reply to his 5th-grade teacher's query, "Should children have to learn a second language?" Although these two compositions make it clear that Arthur has made some progress as a writer during the 3 intervening years, they also highlight several continuing problems. One, his responses are inordinately short, containing few ideas and little elaboration, and two, it is difficult to decipher his writing, because of spelling, punctuation, and capitalization miscues.
Concern about Arthur's writing capabilities initially surfaced in 1st grade. His teacher observed that he was reluctant to write, often became frustrated while writing, and avoided working or sharing his writing with others. Teachers in 2nd and 3rd grade indicated that Arthur would hurry through writing assignments, doing little or no planning in advance, and writing quickly, taking short pauses to think about the spelling of a word or what to say next. They further noted that it was difficult to get him to revise his written work, and when he did revise, his efforts typically focused on making the paper neater, correcting spelling miscues, and changing a word here and there. As a consequence of his difficulties with writing, Arthur was tested for learning disabilities at the start of 4th grade. Although his intellectual capabilities were within the normal range, he scored 2 standard deviations below the mean on a norm-referenced writing test, qualifying him for special education services.
A third study by Graham, Harris, and Fink replicated the earlier finding that supplemental handwriting instruction can boost compositional fluency, but it did not replicate the finding that it enhances writing quality as well. First-grade children with poor handwriting were randomly assigned to a handwriting treatment condition and a contact control condition (i.e., instruction in phonological awareness). The handwriting treatment included instruction in naming, identifying, and writing the lower-case letters of the alphabet as well as repeated writing exercises designed to increase handwriting fluency. After approximately 7 hours of instruction provided by specially trained tutors, students assigned to the handwriting condition made greater improvements in handwriting than those in the contact control group. They also evidenced greater gains in crafting sentences, as in Berninger et al., and generating text when writing a story. Handwriting instruction, however, did not improve the overall quality of the stories that these children produced. On 6-month follow-up probes, most of the advantages obtained by the handwriting group were maintained, including their superiority in crafting sentences (no conclusions could be drawn about story writing, though, as this measure was not administered at this point).
A second investigation by Jones and Christensen extended this initial finding by demonstrating that supplemental handwriting instruction improved not only the handwriting of 1st grade children with poor penmanship, but the quality of their writing as well. Over the course of an 8-week period, the participating children received extra handwriting instruction (individually or in a small group) from a teacher aide or parent volunteer (10 minutes per day). Instruction focused on learning how to form the lower-case letters of the alphabet, correcting errors in letter formation, and writing letters fluently. At the end of the 8-week period, both the handwriting and story writing quality of children who received this extra instruction improved to the point where it was indistinguishable from that of their regular peers who were initially better hand writers and story writers.
In the earliest study (Berninger et al., 1997), 1 st grade children with poor handwriting were randomly assigned to 1 of 5 handwriting treatment groups or a contact control condition (i.e., instruction in phonological awareness). The handwriting treatments evaluated 5 alternatives for learning how to write the lower-case letters of the alphabet: (1) write the letter after seeing the instructor write it; (2) write the letter after examining a copy of it containing numbered arrows showing the order and direction for each stroke; (3) write the letter from memory after examining an unmarked copy of it; (4) write the letter from memory after examining a copy containing numbered arrows; and (5) write the letter while looking at an unmarked copy. After 8 hours of instruction with a specially trained tutor, children in the 5 treatment groups made greater improvements in handwriting than students in the contact control condition, with the most successful treatment being the one where children wrote the letter from memory after examining a copy containing numbered arrows. This same group had higher scores on a norm-referenced measure of compositional fluency, assessing students' ability to craft sentences, than children in the contact control condition or the other handwriting conditions. This finding is especially noteworthy because it showed transfer from instruction in handwriting to composition fluency, at least for the group that made the largest handwriting gains.
Enjoyed the post, Henry. No matter how many decades I write, I never tire of studying craft. There’s always more to learn. I especially like it when writers include excerpts as you did. The one you chose from Peter S. Beagle’s Chilren of the Shark God really hooked me.
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The Self-Regulated Strategy Model has been used to teach a variety of planning and revising strategies to children with LD (see Harris & Graham, 1999). These include brainstorming, semantic webbing, generating and organizing writing content using text structure (e.g., story grammar), reading to locate information, goal setting, revising using peer feedback, and revising for both mechanics and substance. Instruction in these strategies has led to improvements in 4 aspects of students' performance: quality of writing, knowledge of writing, approach to writing, and self-efficacy (Graham et al., 199 1 b). For readers interested in a more detailed presentation of these strategies or the Self-Regulated Strategy Development Model, see Harris and Graham (1996).