Writing: The final frontier?

by Nina Lorimor-Easley


Many of our students make it all the way through remediation and can consistently spell complex, multi-syllable words on cue, but when it is time to write, the wheels fall off. Why is this?

First, writing is complex. Not just complicated – complex. Very complex. In order to write a logical sentence, we have to know:

  • what we want to say,
  • what words we want to use to say what we want to say,
  • what sounds make up those words,
  • what letters make those sounds,
  • and what those letters look like.

And the whole time we are thinking about all of these things, we have to think about what we want to say next. That is some serious brain power, especially if parts of that thinking process are not happening automatically. Oh yeah – and then there are capital letters, spelling options, punctuation, spacing, letter formation, baseline orientation, blah, blah, blah.

In school, preschool through 3rd grade is spent largely on reading skills. After third grade, the focus shifts and our students become responsible for content. We often refer to this as the shift from learning to read, to reading to learn. It’s at this time that writing begins to come into focus. In the general education classroom, there will be minimal reading instruction beyond grade 4, but writing instruction will be intense for years to come. If any reading support is offered, it will most likely be at the morphological level (see the word, hear it once, see a picture and consider it learned) because we assume that foundational language skills are in place.

So if we do the most basic math, we actively provide five years of intense reading instruction combined with emerging writing instruction, followed by nine years of writing instruction. If a student has a language-based learning disability and is unable to master all of those skills taught up through grade three, then once they begin fourth grade and are re-focused to writing, they have little to bring to the table.

Writing is hard, and it is a large and complex construct. Writing may need to be explicitly taught, just as reading needed to be taught. This all goes back to the assumptions we do, but should not, make. We cannot assume that reading equals intellect or that intellect should equal reading ability. We cannot assume that reading ability equals writing ability. For many students, after explicit reading and spelling instruction, explicit writing instruction will be the next step to bring it all together on a page.

For parents and teachers, this means a tightrope act of supporting with technology, accepting imperfect work, finding alternative means to prove knowledge, and wondering if we are helping too much? Helping enough? Not helping at all? There are no easy answers, but it is imperative to keep trying, keep teaching, keep supporting, expect growth, and then accept it as it comes. Don’t be disappointed in a lack of magic, rather revel in the presence of progress.

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