Compositional Divide

mountaintopTeachers have often heard how basic skills, such as memorization of content is required before higher level skills such as creating a new product can occur. Students are supposed to master how to recognize letters and sounds before combining phonemes to make words, comprehending written phrases, infer meanings and evaluating themes. However, the way some students acquire skill in writing flies in the face of this theoretical structure.  Rather than being a single peak, it is like a series of mountain ranges that vary in their structure.

Students may not perceive many of the letters in a word correctly; they may have little grasp of how sounds make up words. But they may have understanding of content due to a strong deductive ability.  They may have a great insight and misread “was” with “saw.” Students with reading and writing disabilities often process the written word in a different manner that results in performance gaps. What the student is able to think does not get expressed well in writing.

These students need remediation in the areas in which they struggle. Three years to learn basic rules of reading is often not enough. They need additional practice with higher level phonetic spelling rules, punctuation and usage. There are educational programs published to help students with this kind of learning disability. The best program materials are recognizable by reams and reams of pages going through a logical, systematic introduction of letters and sounds for words from simple to complex five or six syllable words. They are not exactly thrilling reading and writing exercises, but they are necessary for some students to achieve.

Difficulty writing legibly often results in a cascading set of other problems with writing. This physical struggle to write can result in omitted words and jumbled meanings. However, these students may be very talented at drawing, an indication that a different part of the brain is used for image perception.  Additional practice with handwriting can be useful, but it will slow down the student’s writing and may not help with the omissions – a result of the difficulty of transferring thoughts to paper rapidly enough. The most practical answer to this problem is for the student to learn to type on a word processor.

Teachers need to use different strategies with students that are better at lower order thinking skills, but have deficits in abstract reasoning. They can memorize correct spelling and punctuation, and repeat words, and phrases, but may not always comprehend beyond a basic level. They tend to have difficulty putting information together in an interesting manner. They write what they have heard before.These students need to go beyond simple brainstorming before they begin writing a draft. They may need to create an outline with a section for each paragraph. Sentence outlines actually force them to complete the thoughts. The teacher needs to review the content of this outline before the students ever attempts to write composition.  Ask them to visualize scenes from the outline and ask for details until they are able to focus on the thoughts and images that are behind the words they use.  It also helps for these students to use word processors as they write in order to insert ideas, examples, events, descriptions and details at appropriate places.

One of the best strategies to help all writers is look at samples of each one’s work and help them list goals that they want to achieve. If these goals are specific enough, the students will be doing different types of writing assignments at the same time.  This is necessary if they are to improve.

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