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TLD Special Issue: Access to Writing for Students with Diverse Disabilities

An Enriched Writers' Workshop for Beginning Writers with Developmental Disabilities

Sturm, Janet M.

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doi: 10.1097/TLD.0b013e318272609b

“We've been told that we should be teaching writing based on the general education curriculum and to show progress in our students, but we didn't have any way to do it. Up until this year, my students, who are high school age, have been copying and tracing and writing their names and addresses. This Enriched Writers' Workshop approach gave me a way to provide differentiated writing instruction to our students and allows them to be authors and to share their writing with us and with their peers.”—Comments from a special educator who works with students with moderate intellectual developmental disabilities.

THE ABILITY to use written language opens unlimited possibilities for self-expression across multiple contexts and partners. Writing, since its historical beginnings, has involved the use of conventional symbol systems—at first, shapes, and later, letters of the alphabet—to represent the fleeting immaterial sounds of spoken language (Schmandt-Besserat, 2009). Composing tools, such as pencils and keyboards, enable writers to produce representations of spoken language in written form. Writing thus allows individuals to engage in authentic communication with themselves and others to express basic and abstract ideas. Writing also leaves a permanent record of that communication.

The ability to write, by representing spoken language on the page, is especially critical for students with developmental disabilities (DD), including those with complex communication needs (CCN), who, by virtue of these needs, require various forms of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). AAC supports (aided and unaided; symbolic and nonsymbolic) make it possible for students with CCN to participate in social interactions through oral and/or written communication. In this article, students with multiple impairments associated with DD are characterized collectively as having CCN. Complex communication need is used here to refer to having complex needs, often involving intellectual disabilities and diverse other comorbid conditions, regardless of whether students require AAC to generate spoken language.

A small body of research has been conducted that describes the writing abilities and instructional needs of students with DD and CCN, including those with intellectual developmental disabilities (IDD), severe speech and physical impairments (SSPI), and autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Descriptions of the writing produced by students with moderate IDD and ASD shows that they present with a range of abilities, from scribbling to paragraph-level writing (Bedrosian, Lasker, Speidel, & Politsch, 2003; DeLaPaz & Graham, 1997; Guzel-Ozmen, 2006; Kaderavek & Rabidoux, 2004; Katims, 1991; Richards & Sturm, 2008; Sturm, Knack, & Hall, 2011; Sturm & Koppenhaver, 2000). Within this group of students, cognitive and language limitations interfere with learning, resulting in difficulties across features of writing such as spelling, vocabulary diversity, syntax, fluency, and organization (Bedrosian et al., 2003; Nelson, 2010; Richards & Sturm, 2008; Sturm et al., 2011). Some students with ASD may rely on a gestalt learning style, wherein whole units of language are recalled and used in chunks (Schuler, 1995). When composing, these students may retrieve and write gestalt units of language but may be unable to manipulate the smaller units of language to revise syntax or vocabulary. Fine motor limitations observed in students with autism and Down syndrome also have been found to impact overall text production, intelligibility, and fluency (Bird, Cleave, White, Pike, & Helmkay, 2008; Broun, 2009). Impairments in social interaction among students with ASD influence their understandings of written discourse as well as of spoken communication and, presumably, their production (Jurecic, 2007; Myles & Simpson, 2002). The development of students with DD as writers is also impacted by external barriers, such as reduced life experiences, low-quality and splintered writing instruction, and restricted opportunities to write (Carlson, 1981; Fallon & Katz, 2008; Koppenhaver & Yoder, 1993; Light, 1997; Smith, 2005; Sturm & Koppenhaver, 2000).

Although students with CCN and severe physical impairments have multiple factors (i.e., cognitive, language, motor, and sensory needs) that impact their writing development (Berninger & Gans, 1986; Harris, 1982; Nelson, 1992; Sturm & Clendon, 2004; Smith, 2005; Sturm, Erickson, & Yoder, 2003; Udwin & Yule, 1990; Van Balkom & Welle Donker-Gimbrère, 1996; Vandervelden & Siegel, 1999), minimal research has been conducted to document writing skills and instruction for these students. Previous research provides some insight into some of these challenges. For example, physical difficulties result in extremely slow writing rates (Koke & Neilson, 1987; Smith, Thurston, Light, Parnes, & O'Keefe, 1989). Concurrent hearing and visual difficulties have a major effect on processing of acoustic and visual stimuli, restricting students' linguistic and sensorimotor experiences in early childhood and their reading and writing experiences across childhood (Erickson, 2003; Smith, 2005). Given individual physical and sensory needs of these students, accommodations including AAC systems, and adapted or alternate writing tools, must be incorporated within the writing process. Limited world knowledge and experiences, and alternative modes of communication, may also result in a limited vocabulary set that can be used by students with SSPI for writing (Berninger & Gans, 1986; Carlson, 1981; Light, 1997; Smith, 2005).

Historically, writing instruction for students with DD has focused at a basic functional level, targeting drill and practice (e.g., tracing, copying, worksheets) of short phrases associated with social, vocational, and daily living skills (Hedrick, Katims, & Carr, 1999). No comprehensive curricular guides are currently available to educators. Perhaps the greatest external barriers, however, are the persistent attitudes and beliefs that these students are not capable of becoming writers, along with negative attitudes about teaching them, compounded by a lack of tools for providing written language services to students with CCN (Erickson & Koppenhaver, 1995; Fallon & Katz, 2008; Light & McNaughton, 1993). Attempting to overcome such barriers, researchers have recently described implementation of authentic writing instructional experiences that demonstrate that students with DD are capable learners, resulting in a positive shift in the instructors' perceptions of the students and in the students' perceptions of themselves (Asaro-Saddler & Saddler, 2010; Staples & Edmister, 2012; Sturm et al., 2011).

Clearly, writing instruction can be challenging for students and teachers alike; however, research indicates that systematic instruction can make a positive impact for these students. Joseph and Konrad (2009) summarized growing evidence, found in nine studies, that students with IDD can benefit from writing instruction that is effective for other students and that they can learn strategies to improve the quantity and quality of their writing. Strategy instruction is the most frequently investigated approach. For example, when provided explicit training in planning and self-regulation strategies, students with ASD improved their story writing ability (Asaro-Saddler & Saddler, 2010) and their ability to write persuasive essays (Asaro-Saddler & Bak, 2012). Research also showed that a modified approach to cognitive strategy instruction with students with mild intellectual disabilities could improve their overall time planning and writing of problem/solution texts (Guzel-Ozmen, 2006). In a conceptual review of eight studies targeting writing intervention research for students with CCN, Koppenhaver and Williams (2010) found that improvement in writing occurs with systematic instruction, regardless of researchers' perspectives on best practice. Research demonstrates that in order for students with DD to develop as writers, writing instruction needs to be embedded in their daily curriculum and must include accommodations using assistive technology (Joseph & Konrad, 2009).

The goal of this article was to describe a writing instructional framework that can be used to guide comprehensive, differentiated instruction for students with DD. Figure 1 shows how the Enriched Writers' Workshop approach fits within a comprehensive framework of writing instruction for all students, with accountability for improved outcomes. In this article, each component of the Enriched Writers' Workshop framework is described. Examples of components and adaptations to meet the diverse needs of students with DD and CCN are drawn from pilot classrooms in which the approach has been implemented to investigate the feasibility of the Enriched Writers' Workshop approach.

Figure 1
Figure 1:
A framework of writing instruction.


It is essential that students with DD and CCN have access to instruction aligned with national policies, standards, and frameworks. In 2010, The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were published, specifying literacy expectations by grade level and describing what all students, including those with disabilities, should know and be able to do (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010a). The English Language Arts standards for writing, in particular, address what students are expected to know about text types and purposes, text production, and writing distribution. They also address the ability to conduct research and to build and present knowledge across content areas. Thus, the written language CCSS cover the full range of genres.

The core standards do not specify the writing curriculum to be used by school districts. Individual states, teachers, and curriculum developers make decisions about how the standards will be achieved. When applying the CCSS for students with disabilities, the general education curriculum is used as the central framework and the ultimate goal. The CCSS paper related to application for students with disabilities (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010b) indicates that how these students are taught and assessed is of critical importance and must take into account the diverse needs of students with disabilities. These students must receive systematic, challenging educational opportunities that foster growth and support these students in excelling in the school curriculum and in their post-school lives. This writing approach is aligned with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act definition of evidence-based instructional practices (International Reading Association, 2002; National Institute for Literacy, 2012; U.S. Department of Education, 2010). Its component features are drawn from best practices of instruction that have been scientifically derived.


This Enriched Writers' Workshop combines a traditional Writers' Workshop approach with cognitive strategy instruction in ways that help students with DD or CCN learn what individuals must do to become skilled writers. It is grounded in two theories of writing instruction: social interactionist (Kaderavek & Rabidoux, 2004; Nystrand, 1989; Rogoff, Goodman Turkanis, & Bartlett, 2001) and cognitivist (Bereiter, 1980; Berninger, Fuller, & Whitaker, 1996; Flower & Hayes, 1981). The process-based Writers' Workshop approach is based on the belief that the act of writing is a social communication act. Literacy development is fostered through social interaction (Vygotsky, 1986); as students participate in Writers' Workshop, they learn that writers compose texts to make meaning that can be shared with others. Students communicate, both orally and in writing, throughout all phases of the Writers' Workshop. Cognitive strategy instruction, which is founded in cognitivist theory, is integrated within the Enriched Writers' Workshop through explicit instruction (i.e., whole-class mini-lessons and individual student conferences) to teach students how to engage in metacognitive problem solving, goal setting, self-regulation, and performance evaluation (Harris & Graham, 1996; Pressley & Woloshyn, 1995). Cognitive strategy instruction can be personalized for individual student needs while providing scaffolds to model what good writers do (Harris & Graham, 1996; Pressley & Woloshyn, 1995). Cognitive strategy instruction is especially suited to students with DD because it allows for individual supports to be provided flexibly but systematically, based on individual students' needs.

This Enriched Writers' Workshop approach is in alignment with the CCSS by providing improved access to rigorous writing content standards. For example, the CCSS specifies that all students must learn to write across content areas and use multiple genres to do so. The Enriched Writers' Workshop offers individualized, differentiated instruction that fosters access to meaningful writing experiences and promotes high expectations for all students within a classroom. It addresses the technological and instructional supports and accommodations needed to successfully implement the approach with a wide range of learners.

This writing approach was guided by evidence-based writing practices shown to be effective for both typically developing students (e.g., Graham, Kiuhara, McKeown, & Harris, 2012; Graham, MacArthur, & Fitzgerald, 2007; Graham & Perin, 2007; Graham & Sandmel, 2011; Harris & Graham, 1996; Pressley & Woloshyn, 1995) and students with disabilities (e.g., Asaro-Saddler & Saddler, 2010; Graham & Harris, 1989, 1993; Joseph & Konrad, 2009; Katims, 1991), with application for young students with disabilities, even in the early grades (Staples & Edmister, 2012). When examining evidence-based practices, traditional process-based approaches such as Writers' Workshop have been shown to be moderately effective when used naturalistically and with little or no explicit instruction (Graham & Sandmel, 2011; Hillocks, 1986). However, comprehensive, systematic process approaches that include explicit instruction, such as incorporating mini-lessons with strategy instruction, have been shown to be highly effective (Graham & Sandmel, 2011; Hillocks, 1986; Pritchard & Honeycutt, 2007). In order for students to build a repertoire of writing strategies, all facets of a process approach must be fully implemented, including not only instructional lessons but also the creation of a social culture of writers where everyone in the classroom engages in authorship (Graham & Sandmel, 2011; Pritchard & Honeycutt, 2007; Staples & Edmister, 2012). Development of the Enriched Writers' Workshop approach was based on the Writers' Workshop, process-based approach of several of the original authors (Atwell, 1987; Calkins, 1983, 1991, 1994; Graves, 1994; Reif, 1992), as well as descriptions of best practices for implementing a process-based approach together with strategy instruction (e.g., Harris & Graham, 1996; Pritchard & Honeycutt, 2007). The essence of Writers' Workshop is captured in Calkin's (1986) statement:

For me, it is essential that children are deeply involved in writing, that they share text with others, and that they perceive themselves as authors. I believe that these three things are interconnected. A sense of authorship comes from the struggle to put something big and vital into print, and from seeing one's own printed words reach the hearts and minds of readers. (p. 9)

Principles of a traditional process writing approach were used to develop the writing instructional approach for students with DD. In a traditional process-based Writers' Workshop approach, writing instruction occurs in a social-interactive community of learners. In this positive, nonthreatening environment, students' understandings of the writing process are developed (Pritchard & Honeycutt, 2007). All students work together to collaborate, share, and help, with everyone in the classroom viewed as a writing teacher (Calkins, 1994; Graves, 1994). Students' ownership of their writing is emphasized in that students make decisions about what to write (i.e., self-selected topics) and when to share writing (Atwell, 1987; Calkins, 1994; Graves & Hansen, 1983).

In the traditional Writers' Workshop, students participate in authentic instruction, where they develop skills to improve as writers and communicators in the writing environment. Writing instruction is delivered through mini-lessons where the teacher models a writing or communication concept through “think-alouds,” and students contribute to the lesson through discussion. Immediately following a mini-lesson, students engage in independent writing using self-selected writing topics. To enhance writing development, students and teachers interact and respond to written texts through the use of peer and teacher conferences and in small group work (Pritchard & Honeycutt, 2007). These conferences may occur immediately following a mini-lesson or during independent writing. A core aspect of Writers' Workshop involves students writing for real audiences, where writing is shared multiple ways, and for real purposes, such as publication and Author's Chair (Graves, 1994; Graves & Hansen, 1983). For example, in Author's Chair, students share their writing with the group and get responses from peer partners (Pritchard & Honeycutt, 2007). The Enriched Writers' Workshop approach fosters both students' development of intrinsic motivation to write and positive perceptions about themselves as authors.

To increase the quality of the students' writing products, and their overall communication during Enriched Writers' Workshop, strategic supports for students are embedded into the instruction. In cognitive strategy instruction, students are taught explicit and systematic steps to strategically plan, compose, and share their writing (Graham, 2006; Graham & Perin, 2007). Strategy instruction is woven into the Enriched Writers' Workshop approach for students with DD by providing them with a strategy description, engaging in a discussion of goals and purposes, and modeling of the strategy during the mini-lesson (Harris & Graham, 1996). In alignment with principles of strategy instruction, student mastery of strategy steps, guided practice and feedback, and independent performance and generalization (Harris & Graham, 1996) are fostered within and across Enriched Writers' Workshop sessions. Some of the methods used to integrate principles of strategy instruction into the Enriched Writers' Workshop are described in the following text.

Designed to foster development across language, communication, and writing skills, this approach comprises three core components: mini-lessons, independent writing, and Author's Chair. Figure 2 provides a visual depiction of the instructional components. In each Enriched Writers' Workshop session, students participate in a mini-lesson, independent writing, and Author's Chair. Figure 2 also provides examples describing broad instructional goals, individual student learning goals, and individual supports for each of the writing instructional components.

Figure 2
Figure 2:
Components of Enriched Writers' Workshop.

To implement the writing instruction component of the framework, writing mini-lessons and strategy “tip sheets” have been developed that use general education content but are uniquely suited to the needs of students with DD and those with CCN. The goal is for each student to participate in a mini-lesson, at his or her own level, and to apply concepts addressed in the tip sheet with instructor or peer support. Given the range of student abilities in a classroom, some students achieve independent performance and generalization quickly, whereas others continue to need ongoing instructor assistance.


The instructional mini-lessons developed for this writing approach address ways in which students can improve as writers (e.g., “Brainstorming topics,” “Say more,” and “Fearless speller”) or as communicators (e.g., “Ways to praise” and “Good comments”). A mini-lesson is truly short, only 5–10 min in length. If a student needs a break during a mini-lesson, then it is probably too long. Lessons with the youngest students (ages 5–7) often are only 2–3 min in length, and a strategy tip sheet is limited to one concept, or is not used. A mini-lesson may be repeated several days in a row, either in the same way for consistency or by focusing on a different concept from the tip sheet each time.

Each mini-lesson uses principles of strategy instruction by providing students with a strategy description, a discussion of goals and purposes, and modeling of the strategy. The strategies in Enriched Writers' Workshop target skills that are used by young children beginning to write. Supplemental Digital Content Appendix A (available at provides an example of the content and format of a mini-lesson titled “Say more” that is focused on increasing fluency in a beginning writer In this lesson, the instructor models and engages in guided practice with students, showing how an author might activate background knowledge and add text to a sample of writing that is very short. Students are active participants in the lesson and co-construct written content together with the instructor. Student mastery of strategy steps, guided practice and feedback, and independent performance and generalization are fostered by applying mini-lesson principles within (e.g., during independent writing and Author's Chair) and across writing sessions.

Concepts addressed in a mini-lesson are reinforced through the use of simple text and picture-based strategy tip sheets that use general education content but are uniquely suited to the needs of students with DD (see Supplemental Digital Content Appendix B [available at] for an example). Each strategy tip sheet highlights core concepts from the lesson and is given to students just before the start of the mini-lesson. To reinforce attention and processing of lesson content, instructors point to concepts on the tip sheet or help the students to do so. To bridge mini-lesson content into other aspects of the approach, the strategy tip sheets are integrated within independent writing sessions and during Author's Chair to support communication and writing development.

Independent writing

Independent writing in Enriched Writers' Workshop is a time in which each student is supported in producing a writing product that can be shared with others. Some students choose to produce more than one writing product, whereas others continue working on a piece of writing from an earlier session. At the onset of independent writing, students begin by choosing a writing topic. The Enriched Writers' Workshop is student-driven with respect to topic selection. Self-selection of topics not only is intrinsically motivating to students but also allows beginning writers, who may be working hard to get text onto a page, to write about a topic that they not only like but also about which they have background knowledge.

Beginning writers use drawing as the planning stage for writing during typical development (Sulzby & Teale, 1991). Many students with DD and CCN are unable to draw a picture and talk aloud about their self-selected topic. Because pictures are considered to be the planning phase for beginning writers, photo images are used in the Enriched Writers' Workshop as an alternative to drawings, allowing students with DD to plan their writing through a self-selected, individualized photo image. These photo images are obtained from a variety of sources: family photographs from home, photographs of school activities (e.g., field trips), magazines, and the Internet. At the onset of each independent writing session, students are presented with a communication board with photographs representing these sources and are asked where they would like to get their writing topic. Each student then makes his or her selection from the chosen topic source.

Depending on the students' individual tools and materials, they may make the final selection from photo images in their Author's Toolkit (personal photographs or individualized Internet images), a magazine, a field trip notebook, a PowerPoint file with photo images, or their AAC system. Some students make this choice independently, and others need instructor scaffolding at first, as they learn to communicate their choices. Because self-selected writing is an essential component of effective writing instruction, individualized photo images are used. Use of self-selected topics is intended to take advantage of students' background knowledge and to foster their intrinsic motivation to write. In this approach, student topics are never chosen for them and students are allowed to repeat selected topics for extended periods of time (e.g., an entire school year).

After students choose their topics, they begin writing. During independent writing, students generate text using a variety of tools, some of which include pencils, laminated alphabets, enlarged keyboards, alternate keyboards, onscreen keyboards (accessed via touch screen or scanning), alphabet flip charts, AAC systems, dry erase boards, and assistive literacy software (e.g., word prediction). Students often use more than one tool to create their writing products. Many students use multiple conventional, adapted, or alternative writing tools during a writing session (see Supplemental Digital Content Appendix C [available at]). The systematic use of a range of writing tools by a student is described later in the “Individual Student Supports” section.

Author's Chair

Each week, authorship is celebrated by having students share their writing in the Author's Chair. Key elements of Author's Chair include a decorated chair, a talking stick, and communication tools. Typically, a special chair is chosen for the classroom and decorated together with the student authors. A mini-lesson is held to introduce the Author's Chair and to make plans for decorating it. Some classrooms create and decorate alternative Authors' Chairs by developing special quilts (placed on a chair), an arch (placed over the author), or a decorated board (placed behind the author). These alternatives can be especially helpful when working with students who are using wheelchairs or other mobility systems. The critical component of the Author's Chair is that it is a special time and place for students to share their writing with an audience.

During Author's Chair, students read aloud their writing to the group. Students who cannot read their own writing can use a speech-generating device (SGD) or choose a special reader (instructor or peer) to share for them. If a student's writing is unintelligible, the instructor reads his or writing sample, with enthusiasm, emphasizing all content in the writing product (e.g., “Today, Tyler chose to write about the topic of school bus [instructor points to photo image]. Then he used his pencil to write lots of scribbles across his paper!”). See the Individual Tip Sheet in Supplemental Digital Content Appendix D (available at for a complete sample script modeling how a very beginning writing sample is shared during Author's Chair. Immediately after a students' writing is shared, the student asks the audience whether there are any questions or comments. Peers are given an opportunity to praise, make comments, or ask a question. A talking stick is given to the student to indicate that he or she would like a turn to share a comment or ask a question. Use of the talking stick not only helps provide a clear means for students to request a turn but also clearly identifies the speaker who has the floor.

To support communication during Author's Chair, all students have a strategy tip sheet in front of them that reminds them about comments they can make about an author's writing. For students who use sentences to make comments, but repeatedly use the same content (e.g., I liked your topic), the tip sheet serves as a reminder of the range of comments they can make to an author. If a student then makes a comment such as “I liked your topic,” he or she may be asked “Why?” by an instructor, with support, as needed, to expand his or her response and develop the ability to provide more information. Students who cannot use words spontaneously are supported to be successful communicators during Author's Chair through the use of communication boards and SGDs. For example, students can use an SGD to praise the author (e.g., “Awesome” or “Cool”) or they can make a specific comment (e.g., “I liked your picture” or “I liked your words”).

Communication supports are an essential component to the development of students' interaction skills. Students who cannot use words spontaneously can initiate interactions by requesting the talking stick to take the floor, and they learn quickly that tools are available that can support them in being a successful communicator.

Individual student supports

Given the diverse learning needs of students with DD and CCN, the ability to provide differentiated instruction that is sensitive to the abilities and needs of each student can be a challenge. Systematic consideration for individual supports, based on particular students' needs, allows differentiated instruction to be delivered simultaneously to a range of students within the Enriched Writers' Workshop. As stated previously, successful implementation of the writing approach involves identification of core learning goals for each student, as well as instructor scaffolds and technology supports needed for each. Individual supports are accomplished by developing individual education plan (IEP) goals and by identifying instructor scaffolds, writing tools, and communication tools that are tailored to students' needs. The implementation of these goals, scaffolds, and tools are accomplished through the use of Individual Student Tip Sheets and Author's Toolkits.

Individual Education Plan goals

Individual education plan goals for communication and writing that are in alignment with the CCSS are identified for students. These goals link to the CCSS and to the writing instruction provided to all students. Table 1 provides examples of written language standards quoted from the CCSS and offers three options for corresponding IEP goals, using different methods for targeting producation of informative/explanatory text for a kindergarten-level student in Enriched Writers' Workshop. Table 2 offers quoted excerpts of kindergarten CCSS for speaking and listening, with corresponding examples of IEP goals for communication that might be chosen for a student participating in the Enriched Writers' Workshop. Depending on a student's needs and abilities, methods could be customized to address individual considerations while remaining in alignment with the CCSS.

Table 1
Table 1:
CCSS and Three Alternatives for Constructing IEP Goals for Writing
Table 2
Table 2:
CCSS Speaking and Listening Standards for Kindergarten and IEP Goals for Communication

Students in any classroom environment represent a diverse group of learners who are at a range of ability levels. This diversity may be even greater when working with students with DD and those with CCN who use AAC. To successfully provide the instruction described later while meeting the multiple levels of needs of these diverse learners, it is essential that a student's core learning goals for writing and communication should be identified early in the implementation of Enriched Writers' Workshop.

Instructor scaffolds

The instructor scaffolds provided to each student are based on individual needs, and the range, extent, and type of support provided to a student are identified in advance. To ensure consistency and allow a range of instructors to easily step in and support a student, adult scaffolds are described in Individual Student Tip Sheets (see Supplemental Digital Content Appendix D [available at]).

The goal is for an instructor to provide the least amount of support and add additional scaffolds as needed. For example, when choosing a topic, a student's IEP goal may target showing a preference for a topic. The adult might start by saying, “Let's pick a writing topic that you would like to share today with everyone in our class.” Initially, the adult would support the student in doing a “picture walk” through classroom field trip pictures, Internet photographs, or magazines and say, “Show me what you would like to share today in your writing. I like ____; show me what you like.” Teachers, speech–language pathologists, paraprofessionals, or parent volunteers would do this repeatedly in the planning phase and encourage the student to demonstrate interest in a photo image to serve as the student's topic. Over time, most students are able to sit independently, review picture images, and show a preference by making a picture choice through pointing or picking up a picture.

A goal for another student in the topic selection phase might be to choose more diverse topics. The adult scaffolds for that student might involve saying, “I wonder if you might be interested in a new topic today. Let's look at your choices.” The adult would then present the student with his or her topic choice categories on a communication board. Once the category is chosen (e.g., Internet photographs), the adult would assist in reviewing the range of topics and verbally encourage the student to choose a new topic. However, the student always has the final topic choice, even if it is repetitive, and that choice is verbally acknowledged by the adult.

Writing tools

Students in the Enriched Writers' Workshop are provided with multiple means to compose during independent writing time. Writing tools include a variety of conventional, adapted, and alternative options. The writing tools used by a particular student during independent writing generally are chosen in advance and outlined in the Individual Student Tip Sheet (see Supplemental Digital Content Appendix D [available at]). This allows different writing tools to be offered systematically. Many student writers use two to three writing tools (e.g., pencil + drawing/writing, alphabet board + scribe, dry erase board + scribe) to generate their writing product, and they alternate among these modes within a writing session (see Supplemental Digital Content Appendix C [available at]). For example, a student with autism who does not have the fine motor skills to generate letters of the alphabet using a pencil may choose a photo image for his or her topic by using a direct eye gaze. The picture then is glued to the student's paper, and the placement of his or her name and date is modeled at the top of the paper by an adult. Next, the student is offered a pencil. When the student appears to be finished with the pencil, he or she is then offered an alphabet board and given a verbal cue to use the letters to write about the topic (e.g., Point to the letters you would like to use in your writing today”). As the student independently points to letters, the adult scribes the letters on the writing paper. Finally, the adult offers single-word choices related to the topic chosen on a dry erase board. The student chooses the words that will be included in his or her writing, and the adult scribes the choices on the student's paper.

Communication tools

In the Enriched Writers' Workshop, students engage in numerous meaningful communication exchanges. Students within a classroom have a broad range of communication abilities. Some students may not be able to use words spontaneously to communicate, whereas others may be able to communicate using single spoken words or multiple sentences. Because the instructional approach provides a natural environment for developing communication skills, it is important to scaffold the communicate abilities of all students so that every member of the classroom can contribute to the Enriched Writers' Workshop.

For students who cannot use words spontaneously to communicate, no-tech communication boards and SGDs can be integrated into all phases of the Enriched Writers' Workshop (mini-lessons, independent writing, and Author's Chair) to allow them to communicate successfully. For example, during the mini-lesson on brainstorming topics, all students may be given a two-sided communication board that contains a set of photographs representing topics they may all know (e.g., birthdays). Communication boards that contain popular pop culture topics (e.g., Justin Bieber) are also used. When students are provided with communication boards just before the lesson, everyone in the Enriched Writers' Workshop can be an active contributor. When students start the independent writing session, they also use a no-tech communication board to make a choice about where they would like to get their topic that day (e.g., personal photographs, field trip pictures, Internet images, magazines). During Author's Chair, students who need communication support are provided with no-tech and high-tech options that support meaningful comments to the author.

Coordinating individual student supports

Two core features of the Enriched Writers' Workshop facilitate the coordination of individual supports to students and maximize student learning: Individual Student Tip Sheets and Author's Toolkits. Table 3 presents features of these supports.

Table 3
Table 3:
Coordinating Individual Supports

The purpose of the Individual Student Tip Sheet is to provide a document that summarizes a student's core learning goals for each aspect of the Enriched Writers' Workshop and to provide a brief summary of individualized adult scaffolds, writing tools, and other communication tools. This summative document is designed to maximize student learning by providing a quick reminder of goals for that instructional moment and by offering a brief overview of tips for working with the student. This Individual Student Tip Sheet enables the student to receive consistent instructional supports from session to session even if the instructor varies. For each Enriched Writers' Workshop session, student tip sheets should be made easily accessible to all instructors and classroom volunteers. Ideally, the speech–language pathologist and classroom teacher collaborate to create the individual tip sheets for each student in the classroom. These goals are related, directly or indirectly, to the student's IEP goals. Supplemental Digital Content Appendix D (available at provides an example of an Individual Student Tip Sheet. The tip sheets aid in providing an educational experience that is meaningful, consistent, and in alignment with a student's learning goals. It also assists educators by making explicit how multilevel supports can be provided to multiple students within a group.

A second feature of the Enriched Writers' Workshop that is used to coordinate student materials, to provide consistent support to students, and to build student independence and foster ownership is the Author's Toolkit. This organizational system contains individualized student materials including strategy tip sheets, communication boards, photograph-based topic supports, and an ever-growing supply of written work authored by each student. The Author's Toolkit is a three-ring white binder with labeled dividers for each of the previously mentioned categories. In addition, a plastic pouch may be placed at the front of the binder for students who use letter tiles to spell their names, simple words, or engage in invented spelling. The plastic pouch can also be used to store photo images (e.g., clipped from magazines) for writing topics. Primary ownership of the Author's Toolkit belongs to the students, and most take pride in the content of their personal binders. Teachers refer to the students' toolkits to confer during all phases of the writing process.

The Author's Toolkit is introduced in a mini-lesson. A key concept highlighted in this lesson is students' ownership of their writing materials. A customized cover, developed by the person delivering the lesson, is shown as a model, and students are told that they will be making decisions about how their cover will be decorated. Peer and teacher conferences are held immediately after the lesson, and students are assisted in choosing ideas for their cover. The personalized covers may be completed that day or over a period of time. The end product is typically a collage of personal photographs, photographs of classmates, and Internet images unique to that student's interests.


Understanding the writing and communication outcomes for students in the Enriched Writers' Workshop approach is essential for two reasons. First, it demonstrates positive growth in students' skills over time, and, second, it assists in informing instruction (Sturm, Cali, Nelson, & Staskowski, 2012). Functional measures that are relevant to the abilities of writers and communicators with disabilities are used to support effective progress monitoring. As summative measures, they must be sensitive to the small changes that may be observed in these students as signs of progress. Effective outcome measurement also should be formative in nature to inform future instruction. The framework shown in Figure 1 depicts the curricular relationship between instruction and progress monitoring that is circular in nature, each informing the other.

Writing outcomes for quantity and quality

Writing outcomes for each student are examined using a set of writing quantity and quality measures shown in Table 4. Some students' writing products are examined using all the measures, whereas others are measured using a smaller set that is relevant to their overall writing goals. Ideally, these measures are used weekly to show the overall changes in a student writer over time. This is especially important when examining genre and topic diversity (Sturm, Nelson, Staskowski, & Cali, 2010).

Table 4
Table 4:
Writing Outcome Measures for Writing Quantity and Quality

Each measure contributes information about the writing quantity and quality of the beginning writer. The Developmental Writing Scale (DWS) supports measurement of small incremental writing quality changes observed in beginning writers (Sturm et al., 2012). Examining a student's total intelligible words assists in understanding two factors: writing fluency and the ability to compose words that are spelled in a manner that is intelligible to a reader. Total unique word counts aid in understanding vocabulary diversity. The genre diversity measure examines the diversity of writing types composed by a student (Sturm et al, 2010). Each writing sample is assigned to one of 11 genre categories (e.g., personal narrative, fictional narrative, description, opinion).

Together, these measures can be used over time, to show the progress of a beginning writer. Comparisons among the measures also can contribute information about a student's overall growth. For example, a student with autism may write about the same topic across a school year. One such student chose repeatedly to write about combine tractors; however, the genre diversity measure showed that the student attempted a range of genres (e.g., personal narratives, plans, descriptions, fictional narratives) about that topic and wrote an increasing number of intelligible words over time. Another student appeared not to have made gains in intelligible words (i.e., fluency) over time, but she did attempt new topics and genres. Topic diversity is also a powerful measure when a student has been writing with the same topic for an extended period of time but then begins to self-select new topics each week. At a minimum, each student's progress can be assessed using the topic diversity measure and the DWS. A student's choice of a photo image allows early measurement of topic diversity. Use of one or more writing tools (e.g., pencil, alphabet board, keyboard) allows students' writing to be captured on the DWS.

Communication outcomes

The naturalistic social interactive environment of the Enriched Writers' Workshop supports the potential for extensive communicative growth among students. Effective measurement tools that support progress monitoring of students' communication growth in the Enriched Writers' Workshop are currently under development (Table 5). Quantifying growth in some or all of the measures discussed later may capture growth in student communication during the writing instructional sessions.

Table 5
Table 5:
Examples of Communication Measures for the Writers' Workshop

The measures were created to capture the types of communication and supports from potential adult scaffolds used during Enriched Writers' Workshop. The communication environment within the Enriched Writers' Workshop affords students the opportunity both to initiate communication and to engage in a range of communication functions—especially statements, comments, and questions. Student communication outcomes are documented through both quantitative and qualitative data (e.g., special moments documenting a student's first initiated comment) that represent turning points for particular students.

With appropriate scaffolds, students may expand the diversity or depth of their comments and questions or be able to tell why they liked someone's writing. Immediately following a student's comment (e.g., “I liked your topic”), the instructor may ask the student to add depth to his or her comment by asking, “Why did you like his topic?” Over time, the student's ability to add content for telling why may become automatic. The Author's Chair also provides students an opportunity to practice orally content that was covered during a mini-lesson on genre writing. For example, in some classrooms, students have been observed, while making comments to peers in Author's Chair, to use words linked to the genre lesson earlier that day. For example, a lesson on writing plans for the future resulted in oral comments with future tense words such as “I want to....” A lesson on opinions resulted in comments using opinion words such as “I like...,” I love...,” “My favorite....,” and “I liked it because....”

For students with CCN who use AAC systems, Enriched Writers' Workshop also provides opportunities to work on a range of communication competencies (e.g., operational or social competence). Communication outcomes (e.g., using single-switch scanning to independently choose a photograph for a writing topic) can be identified to illustrate the positive gains a student has made while participating in the natural interactions inherent to Enriched Writers' Workshop.

Meet the Author: Student-centered celebration of outcomes

A culminating component of the Enriched Writers' Workshop is the Meet the Author event, a venue used to celebrate students' authorship. This special event, which includes important individuals in each student's life, is held annually in the spring. Before the event, mini-lessons are conducted that target the following areas: creating author biographies, choosing a cover for your published work, choosing your best piece, and sharing your writing. Special invitations are sent to parents, administrators, and other individuals important to the students' lives. At the event, trifold posters are prepared for each student that feature author biographies, student writing samples, and photographs of the author during Enriched Writers' Workshop. Outcome booklets featuring the measures described earlier, as well as the students' writing samples, are shared. On the Meet the Author day, invitees spend time viewing the posters and outcome booklets and hearing stories about the student authors. After the poster session, an Author's Chair session is held where students' biographies and their best writing pieces are shared. Questions and comments to the authors are opened to the entire audience. After the Author's Chair, special awards are given to each author for writing or communication gains. The event is concluded with cake and punch. Many photographs are taken to celebrate the authors' accomplishments. It is a proud day for students and their families!


The Enriched Writers' Workshop experiences of three students who range in age and vary in educational identification are shared here to illustrate how individual supports are provided for diverse learners. To show the progress-monitoring aspect of the Enriched Writers' Workshop, communication and writing outcomes for each of the students are described as well.

The first two students were in a special education classroom for students with moderate IDD. They participated in the writing approach one time per week for a 2-year period. The third student was in a classroom for students with CCN who have severe physical impairments and use AAC. Initially, when the writing approach was first implemented, Radha (Case 3) participated in the Enriched Writers' Workshop approach three times per week. Starting in the second year, her participation increased to five times per week.

Case 1: Dustin

Dustin is a 13-year-old boy identified as having moderate IDD. Dustin enjoyed interacting with others and would be described as an active participant in oral exchanges with instructors in the classroom. When communicating, he used complete sentences and could engage in multiple turns with a communication partner. At the start of the Enriched Writers' Workshop, he was able to write conventionally with relative independence but was anxious about his spelling and often asked the instructor for assistance with words. Table 6 describes individual supports provided to Dustin.

Table 6
Table 6:
Individual Supports Provided to Dustin

Across the 2-year period, Dustin made positive gains across writing and communication (Table 7). In Dustin's first writing product produced in the Enriched Writers' Workshop in his first week, he used seven words to create two partial sentences (DWS Level 8); he used eight words in his second week to generate two sentences (DWS Level 9). In a 5-month span, Dustin progressed to be a Level 12 writer on the DWS (three or more related sentences on a topic), using up to 40 words in a writing sample and maintaining his writing level during most writing sessions, between 11 and 12 across the 2-year instructional period, while composing on 22 different topics and independently choosing 7 different genres (e.g., stories, plans, descriptions, and explanations). Communicatively, he began to engage in rich interactions with peers engaging in multiple exchanges with an author and adding why he liked his or her writing (e.g., “I liked your story about Hawaii because it was funny”). He showed pride when chosen by peers to serve as a reader of their writing samples during Author's Chair. On a few occasions, he and a peer used a microphone to read chorally, and with enthusiasm, during the Author's Chair.

Table 7
Table 7:
Changes for Dustin in Writing and Social Communication Skills After Participating in an Enriched Writers' Workshop One Time per Week for 16 Months (Two Academic Years)

Case 2: Tyler

Tyler is an 8-year-old boy with moderate intellectual disabilities who is identified as having autism. Tyler was a peer of Dustin's, in the same special education classroom. He also participated in the writing approach one time per week for 2 years. Tyler would be described as a very limited communicator and emergent writer. Tyler required quite different, and more extensive, individual supports (Table 8), compared with Dustin. At the onset of instruction, Tyler would touch the pencil to his paper, producing marks and limited scribbles. During initial writing sessions, Tyler showed a preference for two topics by selecting the same two photographs. He spent only a few minutes using the pencil to write and often required a break in the sensory corner or the gym. He was unable to participate in Author's Chair on those days. During some sessions, Tyler was agitated and did not choose a photograph as his topic or use the pencil. Communicatively, Tyler made limited eye contact and did not readily engage with instructors or peers. He often wore a protective sensory suit during the instructional sessions and would come out, only briefly, during times in which he wanted to communicate. Tyler did not initiate communication with instructors or peers and did not engage in any vocalizations.

Table 8
Table 8:
Individual Supports Provided to Tyler

Table 9 provides a summary of writing and communication outcomes for Tyler. Tyler made progress in development of communication and writing skills across the 2-year period, becoming a more active participant in the process in both areas. After 2 years in the instructional program, Tyler presented as a student who was engaged in all phases of the Enriched Writers' Workshop and required few, if any breaks, during a 2-hr instructional session. Tyler consistently chose a photograph for his topic and increased his topic diversity, choosing 11 different topics out of a total of 37 writing samples. He continued to use a pencil to scribble but began to include a letter “t” on his paper. When creating his writing product in a writing session, Tyler used two tools to produce inventive spelling—He pointed to his choices on a laminated alphabet board (which an adult scribed) and independently used a keyboard paired with a word processor. When on the word processor, Tyler could independently write for 15–20 min. During that time, he used gestures to gain the attention of instructors in the room. When the adult reviewed his computer screen, he smiled, made eye contact, and bounced excitedly in his seat. Tyler also continued to use the dry erase board, with vocabulary presented by an adult, to make word choices that were scribed on his writing product. Tyler also initiated to take a turn in the Author's Chair each week and showed a clear preference when choosing the instructor who would read his work. While in the Author's Chair, he often vocalized into the microphone and pointed to his writing as it was read aloud.

Table 9
Table 9:
Changes for Tyler in Writing and Social Communication Skills After Participating in an Enriched Writers' Workshop One Time per Week for 16 Months (Two Academic Years)

Case 3: Radha

Radha is a 10-year-old girl with SSPI and CCN due to cerebral palsy. She used a range of AAC approaches to participate in various aspects of daily Enriched Writers' Workshop sessions. Table 10 provides a description of the individual supports provided to Radha. She consistently demonstrated a strong interest in a variety of communication topics through the use of her SGD and a paper-based communication book with personalized photographs and picture symbols labeled with whole words and phrases. Initially, Radha's writing was at Level 1 on the DWS (i.e., drawing/selecting a photograph). While using her keyboard page on her SDG or low-tech paper ABC display, Radha occasionally selected one or two letters but more often navigated away from the alphabet page to familiar picture symbols with whole words.

Table 10
Table 10:
Individual Supports Provided to Radha

Over 3 years, Radha made steady gains across both writing and communication (Table 11). She participated in Enriched Writers' Workshop daily and independently wrote for up to 45 min in a single session. Her topics expanded to include those discovered while using a “Places to Get Topics” communication board containing a range of choices. She no longer navigated away from her alphabet board while writing. She independently produced written work at a Level 3 on the DWS (i.e., strings of letters) by selecting letters on her high-tech AAC device interfaced with a word processor. With significant instructor scaffolding, she wrote longer pieces with many letters, often with a short word related to her chosen topic. Radha frequently asked to print her written work. She used a low-tech photo board with photographs of classmates, family members, and teachers to choose with whom she wanted to share her writing. She frequently requested to post her written work on display in the school lobby to reach a broader audience.

Table 11
Table 11:
Changes for Radha in Writing and Social Communication Skills After Participating in an Enriched Writers' Workshop Two to Three Times per Week for 16 Months (Academic Year 1) and Five Times per Week for 32 Months (Academic Years 2 and 3)

The previously mentioned cases illustrate the individual supports and communication and writing outcomes for a range of learners. When examining the overall writing abilities of students with DD, a range of performance is found. Some students who are beginning writers struggle across language areas, such as vocabulary and syntax, but they are able to produce words, sentences, or paragraphs on a page. Other students with DD may be learning that pencil traces, scribbling, or letters can be shared with others. Although students with DD may have diverse intellectual, linguistic, communicative, or physical challenges and abilities, all have the potential to benefit from writing instruction that fosters their communication and writing development.


This Enriched Writers' Workshop approach was developed during classroom-based instruction with students with moderate intellectual difficulties and other forms of DD. To date, this writing instructional approach has been used with more than 200 students with DD and CCN, ranging in age from 5 to 25 years. These students have had a range of diagnoses, including mild and moderate IDD, physical impairments, SSPI, and ASD. Students who have participated within the writing instruction also demonstrated a range of communication and writing abilities. Many of these students have been unable to use words spontaneously to communicate, whereas others have had relatively sophisticated spoken language skills. A range of writing abilities also has been observed in students who have participated in this instructional approach.

Evaluation of the complete approach, including outcomes of writing quantity and quality, is in progress. Currently, the evidence base for the approach comes from the fact that its component features are drawn from best practices of instruction that have been scientifically derived. Experience in pilot classrooms has also shown that a positive social environment, in which all students are celebrated as writers, contributes to the overall outcomes, apparently because students are motivated to participate and share.

Some students who participate in this instructional approach may become conventional writers who can say anything they want through a variety of texts. They also may learn that writing can serve multiple purposes and be shared publicly through rich communications. For other students, who are more emergent writers and communicators, the goals may be different, but small changes and growth are equally important. Some of these goals include development of the ability to communicate personal preferences (e.g., topics), using a range of writing tools to produce text using letters of the alphabet, initiating communication, and using a range of communication functions with a variety of partners. Both the conventional and emergent writers in this writing approach learn lifelong skills that can be used for valid purposes (e.g., writing a letter or choosing a topic and inventively spelling during a leisure activity).

The future of writing instruction for students with DD

The Enriched Writers' Workshop was first piloted in 2005 in a classroom of adolescent and adult students with moderate IDD who had never received systematic writing instruction. Several students had not been expected to engage in academic activities and were provided a curriculum focused exclusively on vocational and daily living skills. The mini-lessons described in this article were developed and implemented in this classroom each week. It was a trial-and-error process (e.g., a few students with DD provided reminders when the mini-lessons were not very “mini”). Initially, three students were part of the Enriched Writers' Workshop. After 3 years, as teacher and student interest grew, 15 students from two different special education classrooms in the same school participated in the instructional approach. After the Enriched Writers' Workshop was used in her classroom for 3 years, one teacher reflected, “When you first started this program I thought well, yeah, okay, good ... but now ... I would never have thought, after 30 something years of teaching, that some of the kids you are getting to write, were capable of writing.”

Although the Enriched Writers' Workshop has been implemented thus far only in special education classrooms, the instructional frame-work and component features of the appro-ach could be used to support a student in full inclusion in a general education classroom. Given that the instruction is based on traditional process-based writing instruction used in general education classrooms, the process of setting up accommodations for a student with disabilities may become more seamless.

To optimize student performance, it is critical that a positive shift in societal perceptions about the learning capabilities of students with DD occur and that educational barriers be eliminated. When using an inclusive model of literacy as the point of departure, literacy can improve quality of life, improve social interactions and relations, and support growth in communication across contexts (Kaderavek & Rabidoux, 2004). Schmandt-Besserat (2011), an archeologist who studies the origins of writing, described the power of writing, calling it “one of the greatest inventions on earth.” High-quality writing instruction, when systematically implemented, allows students with DD to have access to that great invention.


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            autism spectrum disorders; beginning writer; complex communication needs; developmental disabilities; writing instruction; writers' workshop

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