Prof. Shawn Datchuk: Writing strategies for all students

Shawn Datchuk completed his PhD in Special Education at Penn State and currently serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Iowa. He researches a wide range of topics on writing for students with disabilities. His passion for the field comes from his time spent in the classroom where he realized the importance of helping students become proficient writers. Shawn spent several years at a charter school network in New Orleans where he was a special education teacher, director of special education, and academic director.

 Thriving Schools: Why do you think writing instruction doesn’t garner as much attention as reading and math?

Prof. Datchuk: Well, I’ve been trying to figure out the answer to that question for about 5 years now. And I’d say my answer is two-fold. The first part of it is that there doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day. When you have students who also struggle with mathematics and reading, many schools just opt to put their time and resources there. The second part of it, though, is that writing is difficult to instruct. In some samples of students, the number of students with writing difficulties is far greater than the number of students with reading difficulties. Virtually all students who struggle with reading are also going to struggle with writing. I’d also add that many teachers report not feeling confident or knowledgeable about what particular writing skills their students need help with.

Thriving Schools: I think your last point about educators struggling with writing skills is a great way to launch into specific techniques and strategies that you recommend. Let’s start with the areas of handwriting and spelling. Could you give us one of your favorite classroom strategies?

Prof. Datchuk: According to the research, handwriting and spelling act as a bottleneck to writing development. Students need to reach a tipping point in their handwriting speed and spelling proficiency before the quality and quantity of their writing starts to grow. One of the best low-tech interventions you can do on the handwriting side is to use visual cues. This is where you have dotted lines, arrows for direction, and numbers to depict the order in which students should trace a letter. As an example, for “m,” we’d have the letter being dotted (so students can see its shape) and an arrow pointing down at the left end with a number 1 next to it (so they know where and how to begin).

Thriving Schools: Are there any good resources you recommend for showing teachers how these visual cues should work?

Prof. Datchuk: Absolutely! I really like the CASL handwriting program that was produced at Vanderbilt. It’s really targeted for students in Kindergarten or 1st grade. The lessons take about 10 minutes a day and teachers have found a huge impact on handwriting, using it as little as 2-3 times a week. So, in just a couple of weeks, you can teach your students how to be proficient hand-writers!

Thriving Schools: And what are your thoughts on the spelling front?

Prof. Datchuk: For spelling, the best thing that you can do as a teacher is to have students handwrite the letters they’re working on immediately after a phonics lesson. For example, let’s say your class is working on understanding the letter sounds for “F,” “A,” and “M.” Have students write the letters as they’re pronouncing them and spell words that they’re learning how to read. The second suggestion I’d give is having students memorize high-frequency spelling rules, like “i" before “e” except after “c.” And then there’s this third set of words that students need to memorize, where there’s no rhyme or reason why it’s spelled that way. For instance, “She has many friends,” is a situation where every word in the sentence doesn’t follow a phonics relationship. So you just need to know certain words and know that’s how it’s spelled. And where teachers can go with that is to have a list or billboard in class of high-frequency words that require regular practice.

Thriving Schools: Let’s move on and talk about academic fluency. Why are speed and accuracy so important when it comes to writing?

Prof. Datchuk: I think as a field, we’re getting better with speed and accuracy for reading. And I think we’re on the cusp of seeing more and more teachers have that same buy-in with writing. It can be extremely frustrating for teachers to give 30 minutes for a writing assignment and see some students write an entire page while others struggle to write 1-2 sentences. And so teachers are starting to look at not only how much writing a student has produced, but also the time it took them. And they’re starting to use that information to inform what needs to happen next in their instruction, as it relates to the quality of student ideas, grammar, and coherence. So I think adding on a time element for students can be huge in figuring out what to do next.

Thriving Schools: Could you provide us with an example of a writing routine or activity that teachers could use to help with fluency?

Prof. Datchuk: Sure! There are a bunch of writing materials that I’ve posted for free on my website. Click on the sentence practice tab. At the bottom of that page, there are 15 practice set worksheets that contain over 300 images. And the rationale behind what we’re doing is that for students who struggle with writing, giving them a story prompt can actually be a pretty scary task. Students think, “Oh, great. I’m going to have 10 or 20 minutes to think about how much I don’t want to be writing right now.” And if the student is already struggling, they’re actually going to be practicing a whole lot of errors. What my research has been showing is that we can help students write more by giving lots and lots of these little pictures and giving them a short amount of time, like 1 minute, to write as many sentences as they can about a series of pictures. And at the end of the minute, teachers provide feedback and students are immediately given another 1-minute practice problem. So it breaks up a really long writing task into something that’s: 1) targeted, 2) really quick, and 3) something they get lots of feedback on.

Thriving Schools: Practicing like this seems to challenge a lot of traditional writing conventions. Are there any broad principles that teachers can follow to help teach like this?

Prof. Datchuk: Certainly. The first is that students need a prompt, whether that’s a story prompt or a picture prompt. The second is that you need to set a time frame for each writing task – and I recommend going shorter rather than longer because students are given feedback more quickly and more often. Like I said before, if you’re doing sentence practice, 1 minute per sentence will be fine. If you’re doing paragraph practice, 3-5 minutes will be more applicable. Then, at the end of that time, a teacher (or a knowledgeable peer, if the class has been prepared for this) is able to give feedback. And this feedback should be on a very specific skill or set of skills. If you try to give feedback on everything, it can be very overwhelming for a student who is struggling. And then after that, get right back into practice and give students another 1 minute or 3-5 minutes, depending on the type of practice. It’s been shown that breaking practice up into these shorter segments, with feedback after each round, has been proven to increase the quantity and quality of student writing.

Thriving Schools: The last item we want to discuss is how to improve student outcomes from grammar mini-lessons. What are your thoughts here?

Prof. Datchuk: Sure. Let me give you an example. So I’ve seen situations where teachers decide to go and do a 10-15 minute mini-lesson on some grammar skill, like subject-verb agreement with “was” and “were.” And this can be a great skill. Unfortunately, what typically happens is that lesson or skill doesn’t transfer over to students having to write paragraphs or essays of their own. So what that means for teachers is that when they’re crafting those short mini-lessons, it can be very powerful to take that isolated skill and to also use it in sentence or paragraph writing. Again, these mini-lessons on specific grammar skills are great, but there needs to be a linking or bridge between understanding the grammar skill and getting an opportunity to practice it.

Thriving Schools: Do you have any good resources for linking that grammar instruction to writing or composition tasks?

Prof. Datchuk: On my website, under the sentence instruction tab, there are some example lessons provided as to what this would look like. Each of these lessons are designed to take about 20 minutes and fit into those “supplemental” teaching blocks we were just discussing. A second idea I have for you is the curriculum called Expressive Writing, by McGraw Hill. It breaks up each of the grammar skills in isolation, provides explicit writing practice on those skills, and then ties it together with the next, more complicated skill. But it is a time-intensive program – it contains about 50 lessons that take about 50 minutes a piece.

Thriving Schools: We know a lot of your research deals with students with learning disabilities. How do you think about using or modifying the strategies you’ve discussed with us for these students?

Prof. Datchuk: What we’re finding is that the research-based practices I’ve talked about today help not only students with learning difficulties, but they can be applied to help just about anybody. And that’s an encouraging finding, because it means we can leverage our knowledge in these areas to help all students who might be struggling with writing.