Recently, I observed eighth graders working on a writing assignment. The prompt, “Write about a decision you made” was an uninspired one that usually failed to provoke much of a worthwhile response from struggling students. (Honestly, how many major decisions did you make by the time you were twelve?) Most students instinctively knew that they had been going with the flow as parents, coaches, teachers, and dominating peers pulled the strings. I questioned whether assigning a composition on the topic would change that reality. However, the main problem with the one size fits all prompt was that the students differed. It created an additional challenge dealing with students with varying disabilities.
This particular rainy Friday, I was providing support for two students. The first one (I’ll call her Syndey) was writing about the consequences of a decision to ride a bike that had been sitting in the garage over the winter without making sure it was road worthy–an honest, but not exactly an earth shaking decision. Her rough draft was hard to read: her handwriting was almost illegible; she left out words and punctuation marks; and sometimes there seemed to be no relationship between one sentence and the next. I read two of these severed sentences aloud, trying to deduce the glue that was suppose to hold them together. As I read the word “decent” Sydney corrected me, “It says decadent.” Decadent actually made sense.
Starting over from the beginning, I read the entire draft out loud with Sydney filling in the gaps. I began to recognize planning, reflection, and even humor in her thoughts about her risky bike ride. However, much of this did not make it to her paper in comprehensible form. She was not able to process words in writing at the same level as she was thinking, resulting in errors and omissions that spoiled the composition. Towards the end she got frustrated trying to fill the required two pages with her simple premise and began to ramble. “Don’t read any more,” she begged me near the end. She was aware of her failures, but didn’t know how to start fixing them.
The other student (I’ll refer to him as Charles) wrote about the deciding to attend the AVID class (a decision essentially made by the school counselor). This composition had all those glowing phrases to make the opportunity seem like a dream come true. Also, I could not have asked for a cleaner example of handwriting and spelling. However, the first paragraph began with “I was so excited to get the letter,” and proceeded to state that AVID was a wonderful opportunity that taught him so much. The second paragraph, which began with “I was so excited to get to the first class,” and again reiterated that AVID was a wonderful opportunity that taught him so much. In case the reader did not understand, he repeated this information again in the third paragraph. So I asked him to alter the almost identical content of the paragraphs, select a particular focus for each one and add details about the focus.
Charles immediately started writing and came back. He was so excited about the first day of class because the teacher ” would always be there for me.” My response (regretfully a bit sarcastic for a seventh grader) was “Wow, you could tell the future. You knew the teacher would always be there for you on the day you met her!” Charles wrote in generalities, processing words as sound bytes that he strung together in the way he had heard them before. He was excelled at parroting, and until he hit middle school this deficiency in abstract thinking had not been a problem.
Obviously both students needed remedial help for disorder of written expression, but not the same kind. So often schools jump from one writing program to another because they never seem to work for all the students, and they never will. Improving problems with written expression require programs tailored to the student’s specific weaknesses.