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Topics in Language Disorders:
doi: 10.1097/TLD.0b013e3182740efe
TLD Special Issue: Access to Writing for Students with Diverse Disabilities

Issue Editor Foreword: Access to Writing for Students with Diverse Disabilities

Section Editor(s): Sturm, Janet M. PhD, CCC-SLP; Issue Editor

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The author has disclosed that she has no significant relationships with, or financial interest in, any commercial companies pertaining to this article.

Writing is both a cognitive process, executed by the author, and a social-interactive process, where the author communicates and shares his or her work with others (Purcell-Gates, Jacobson, & Degener, 2004). Historically, writing assessment and instruction for students with developmental disabilities (DD), who are often beginning writers, has not drawn upon these processes. Although a critical foundation of literacy is knowing that text, like talk, can be used to interact in and with the world, children do not benefit from instruction when they are exposed to literacy concepts that are too remote from their present level of knowledge and abilities. (Kaderavek & Rabidoux, 2010, p. 242)

Students with DD, who present with a diverse range of needs, often have received literacy instruction that could be described as abstract and remote (e.g., worksheets, copying, and tracing) (Hedrick, Katims, & Carr, 1999). The historical reality is that students who are at-risk readers and writers are most likely to receive primarily print-component–focused instruction that fails to emphasize meaning (Snow, 2006). Abstract, decontextualized instruction inhibits literacy learning on two levels, by failing to provide meaningful, authentic experiences that support students in using deeper cognitive processes that enhance learning and by failing to support students' use of text to interact with the world.

Although use of decontextualized literacy activities with students with DD are still prevalent, evidence describing the use of authentic and meaningful instructional practices to increase the writing abilities of students with DD is emerging with positive results (Joseph & Konrad, 2009; Koppenhaver & Williams, 2010). Educators' positive perceptions of students with DD as capable learners also exist. National mandates, such as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS, 2010) initiative, are having a dramatic impact on instruction in the United States by defining literacy and communication expectations for all students, including those with disabilities. The CCSS place newfound and extensive instructional emphasis on writing, the most often neglected of the three Rs, where students are expected to learn and master all writing processes (planning, composing, and revising) and write using a range of genres across curricular subject areas. The CCSS are changing the face of instruction for all students, but these changes are potentially the largest and most significant for those with DD, who are at significant risk, given the multiple intrinsic and extrinsic constraints that have been described in the literature (e.g., cognitive and linguistic needs, lack of curricular materials, and limited expectations on students; Blosser et al., 2012).

The ability to provide instruction that is relevant to the individual abilities of students with complex writing needs hinges upon assessment tools that are formative (guiding instruction) and summative (engaging in progress monitoring and documenting educational effectiveness). Tools that are sensitive enough to detect the fine-grained linguistic and communicative changes observed in the writing samples of beginning writers, ranging from scribbling to paragraph-level writing abilities, are needed. Current assessment tools for beginning writers are not sufficiently or appropriately designed to assist in setting instructional goals for individual learning needs (Heritage, 2010).

This issue addresses both writing assessment and instruction for students with DD, including those with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), intellectual developmental disabilities, and complex communication needs, who present with a range of abilities and needs. The goal of this issue of Topics in Language Disorders is to provide readers with (a) a Developmental Writing Scale (DWS) for beginning writers that supports formative and summative assessment (Sturm, Cali, Nelson, & Staskowski, 2012), (b) a qualitative study that describes the composing process and communication of young writers with DD and demonstrates evidence of two theories of writing (cognitive and social-interactive) as students engaged in authorship (Staples & Edmister, 2012), (c) a description of the Enriched Writers Workshop, an approach that provides a framework for comprehensive high-quality writing instruction for students with DD (Sturm, 2012), and (d) a study examining the effects of a planning and self-regulation strategy on the persuasive writing of children with high-functioning ASD (Asaro-Saddler & Bak, 2012).

The issue begins by addressing a central problem in education—the lack of comprehensive measure of qualitative changes in the beginning writer (scribbling and drawing to conventional paragraph writing). Sturm, Cali, Nelson, and Staskowski (2012) describe a 14-point DWS that captures fine-grained linguistic and communicative changes in beginning and atypical writers, with or without disabilities. The authors emphasize that current measurement tools are not sensitive to positive changes in the most beginning writers; they may focus on writing skill deficits; and they may not be instructionally relevant. In this article, the authors provide a report of the procedures used to develop a DWS for use in assessing writing samples of students in the beginning stages of writing development. A description of the five purposes of the tool is provided to clarify the theoretical constructs and purposes. Preliminary research on the reliability of DWS scoring and the tool's validity for meeting the five purposes shows that the DWS is useful for monitoring progress of beginning writers with significant disabilities. In their discussion, the authors state that an advantage of the DWS is that it provides teachers with specific information about students' conceptual understandings of written language that cannot be determined by traditional quantitative measures of writing progress, and it is instructionally relevant.

A challenge in education has been the perception that students with DD must present with certain skills before they are deemed “ready” to write. In their article, Staples and Edmister (2012) conducted qualitative research showing the writing and communicative outcomes of young writers with moderate to severe DD in a process-based, child-driven writing activity called Big Paper. Student participants were not required to demonstrate “readiness” to be part of the project. Big Paper involves providing small groups of students a large sheet of paper (e.g., 2 ft × 8 ft), and a range of writing implements, offering students open-ended opportunity to write side-by-side with peers and receive adult scaffolds, as needed, to foster writing development. A central aim of this research was to provide evidence (a) documenting student writing outcomes and student use of cognitive processes (drawing upon cognitive process theory) and (b) describing communication interactions among adults and peers (drawing upon social-interactive theory) during the Big Paper activity. Students in this project demonstrated increases both in writing quality and in their range of communicative interactions used during the Big Paper writing sessions. This study provides evidence supporting use of core principles of emergent writing for students with DD by offering activities that heighten children's awareness of concepts about print, writing mechanics, the purposes of writing, and the social-communicative nature of writing. The authors emphasize the social nature of writing, and the importance of access and opportunity to meaningful writing experiences, stating that educators should consider writing as a process and approach it as such, where the collaboration and conversation around the composition space is as relevant to learning as the written product itself, children may have greater opportunity to develop their understanding (and demonstrate that understanding) of the functions or purposes of composition.

In the article about the Enriched Writers Workshop, Sturm (2012) presents a comprehensive framework for high-quality writing instruction for students with DD that includes three components: national standards and policies, writing instruction, and progress monitoring. Best practices of instruction are provided by recognizing and drawing upon national mandates such as the CCSS. These standards can be used to guide relevant selection of goals for students with DD. Within the instructional component of the framework, the author describes an Enriched Writers Workshop approach that draws upon research-based writing practices to provide students with DD relevant, differentiated writing instruction. This approach is designed for students across a wide range of ages and combines writing process instruction with social communication instruction and cognitive strategy instruction. Case examples and classroom illustrations are used to show how the tools, skills, and strategies are targeted. The author indicates that the Enriched Writers Workshop draws upon cognitive theory and social-interactive theory and provides evidence of these theories, in the description of the approach and in the outcome measures. In the discussion, Sturm emphasizes that students with DD need high-quality instruction from the first day of school to optimize potential for literacy learning and to provide them access to the power of writing.

In the final article, Asaro-Saddler and Bak (2012) describe a single-subject design study where three 8- to 9-year-old students with high-functioning ASD were explicitly taught a planning and self-regulation strategy for writing persuasive essays. This study used a pure self-regulated strategy development (SRSD) intervention, using mnemonic devices and graphic organizers, which had shown to be effective with students with learning disabilities. This study expanded on previous research using SRSD to teach writing of persuasive essays to students with Asperger syndrome (Delano, 2007). Persuasive essays are one of the most challenging forms of expository writing because persuasion requires writers to convince others of their perspective and to offer opposition to imagined counterarguments. The complex, abstract thinking required when composing persuasive essays could be especially challenging for students with ASD. Results showed that students with ASD were able to master the strategy in seven to eight sessions. Measures of holistic writing quality showed positive changes for all three participants. Post-intervention, participants also presented with overt planning and self-regulation skills that were not evident at the onset of intervention. This study is promising in that it shows that effective systematic instruction targeting the persuasive genre can be provided to individual students with ASD while in a general education classroom setting.

This issue of Topics in Language Disorders presents a coherent group of articles that bring researchers, educators, and clinicians closer to providing writing assessments and instruction that guide best practice for students with DD across the age-span. The first article complements articles by Staples and Edmister and by Sturm by providing a measurement tool that can be used to examine writing samples that occur naturally in classrooms with environments that support child-driven topic and genre selection. The final three articles also share some commonalities. Each describes the importance of systematic scaffolds to foster success in student writers with complex writing needs, and the importance of communication while writing was emphasized. Each is also grounded theoretically in cognitive theory, social-interactive theory, or both. The articles are pertinent not only to students with DD but also to students with typical or atypical development who present with complex writing needs.

There is no question that there is much work to be accomplished to be able to (a) fully change educator perceptions of the capabilities students with DD, (b) provide a range of assessments of writing quantity and quality that are relevant to the needs of the most beginning writers, and (c) offer comprehensive, high-quality writing instruction for a broad range of students with DD. With the implementation of CCSS, paired with the increased availability of assessment tools, curricular guides, and technological tools, the path to conventional literacy for students with DD is promising.

—Janet M. Sturm, PhD, CCC-SLP

Issue Editor

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Asaro-Saddler K., Bak N. (2012). Teaching children with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders to write persuasive essays. Topics in Language Disorders, 32(4), 361–378.

Blosser J., Roth F. P., Paul D. R., Ehren B. J., Nelson N. W., Sturm J. M. (2012). Integrating the core. The ASHA Leader, 17, 12–15.

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Staples A., Edmister E. (2012). Evidence of two theoretical models observed in young children with disabilities who are beginning to learn to write. Topics in Language Disorders, 32(4), 319–334.

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Sturm J. M., Cali K., Nelson N. W., Staskowski M. (2012). The Developmental Writing Scale: A new progress monitoring tool for beginning writers. Topics in Language Disorders, 32(4), 297–318.

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