Written language tasks can be difficult for many students with AS because they involve many different skills and abilities that are often areas of weakness for students with AS. Keys a writer needs to unlock writing tasks include:
- Motor control and production. (For some students, dictation, speech recognition software, tape recording, keyboarding, etc. are essential alternatives to writing by hand.)
- Knowledge of form, content and use of language.
- Knowledge of writing conventions; phonological and orthographic knowledge.
- Knowledge of the topic.
- Long and short-term memory.
- Audience awareness: understanding of the purpose of writing, and knowledge of each teacher’s preferences, style, and expectations.
- Executive function (EF) skills: self-regulation, initiation, inhibition, planning, organizing, problem solving, maintaining focused attention, maintenance of set, freedom from interference (distraction), and goal directedness.
- Self-awareness and capacity for self-reflection. Can the student persevere in order to complete tasks s/he perceives as difficult?
Within the population of students with AS, any one or more of these areas can be troublesome. No wonder so many students have difficulty with written language!
Knowing when to use what skills, and how, is critical to producing accurate and appropriate writing whether you are a 3rd grader who is just beginning to write, or a college student writing a thesis. Not all of these skills and abilities are necessary for all writing tasks or types of writing, but most do come into play for most writing assignments. Students need to learn how, when, where and why to apply particular skills and abilities, and when to exercise appropriate executive function controls.
Assessment is critical to intervention. As we know, students with AS are a heterogeneous group so no one method of teaching writing applies to all. Given all of ingredients that influence writing, it is critical to know what areas and skills are weaknesses and what areas and skills are strengths for each student. We also need to be cognizant of the different demands (i.e. executive functions, cognitive and language loads, etc.) different types of writing place on students, and not expect them to perform at the same level on every task. What is critical is to provide students with the tools and behaviors that are necessary to perform to the best of their abilities.
Accurate assessment both formal and informal is key to gathering clear information about a student’s strengths/weakness in all areas of functioning. This information will help identify where the breakdown is and how it impacts a student’s performance—what exactly is preventing the student from successfully completing a writing assignment, and how we can address the issue.
Dr. Bonnie Singer and Dr. Anthony Bashir are speech/language pathologists who have done extensive research into language-learning disabilities and the impact executive functions have on the writing process. During a workshop I attended, Dr. Singer identified key steps to address when teaching students who have both language learning needs and deficits in executive functions (EF). She and Dr. Bashir have expanded these steps and incorporated them into the EmPOWER Program: A Strategy for Teaching Expository Writing. Their method has proven useful and effective for some students with AS, among others. It is my experience that no one method is the recipe for helping all students. All methods need to be modified and carefully fine tuned to fit the individual needs, deficits and strengths of students with AS, who present with theory of mind (TOM) deficits coupled with and EF deficits.
TOM deficits impact a student’s ability to take the audience’s perspective, put oneself in the shoes of a character, or infer unwritten aspects of the writing. Therefore it is essential that when teaching writing to first address students’ EF and TOM deficits pertinent to the writing process. The EF and TOM areas can impact writing in such as way as to make it almost impossible for many students to fulfill the requirements of a specific assignment, or sometimes even to get anything at all down on paper. This can happen even with very “bright” students, who earn high IQ, MCAS and SAT scores! To help students with AS competent writers and fulfill their intellectual potential, we need to provide them as early as possible with knowledge about who they are as learners, and with strategies to address their areas of need.
Listed below are Dr. Singer’s key steps (identified during that workshop), annotated with some additional points and relating to the areas of TOM and self awareness, based on my own experience with students with AS. Each of these points needs to be expanded into an instructional unit unto itself for the student with AS. (Many are presented in great detail in the EmPower Program materials.) Each area will apply differently given each student’s profile and the nature of the specific writing assignment.
- Question: Do I understand the directions/question/writing task? Are there key words?
- Act: Do I need help/clarification? Do I know who to get help from? Do I know whom to ask?
- Think: What strengths will help me complete this task? What weaknesses will hinder this task?
- Plan and initiate an approach: How do I start this writing task?
- Organize: Where am I going and how do I get there?
- Develop a specific focus for the paper: What’s my focus?
- Check my knowledge: Do I know about this topic?
- Set writing goals: What steps do I have to take to write this paper?
- Establish a writing schedule: Now what? What next—and what are the deadines?
- Choose appropriate strategies: What am I trying to say?
- Determine an initial thesis: What am I trying to say?
- Consider the audience: Whom am I writing to or discussing with?
- Create a draft of the paper: How do I bring all this together?
- Inhibit intrusions and monitor diversions: I don’t want to do this—but how can I get down to work?
- Sustain task and effort: I’ll just watch TV for a while—but how can I get back on task after a short break?
- Shift attention according to immediate task demands.
- Monitor ongoing behavior.
- Assess outcomes: Review assignment and paper’s purpose; evaluate the thesis and the development of the argument; evaluate coherence and cohesion, use of language, etc.
- Revise and rewrite: Make appropriate changes in text (vocabulary, sentence structure, tense agreement etc); create final version; consider overall appearance.
- Pass it in! Students may overlook this vital step—make sure they have a system for getting homework to school, and know when, where and how to turn in their work.
Needless to say, there are many different approaches to the teaching of writing skills. The critical thing is finding the approach that matches each student’s individual strengths and weaknesses. Also, knowing where the breakdown is will help the teacher identify the most effective method, style and techniques to use. Keep in mind that most students with AS, because of their TOM deficits, don’t see the forest for the trees; they need to be taught to look at the big picture. Always provide an explanation for why something is done; many students with AS don’t inherently know it and won’t intuit it. For instance, many students are given graphic organizers, but don’t really know how or when to use them, since they don’t understand why somebody would use one. (Also keep in mind that not every writing task lends itself to a graphic organizer!)
The other key area of instruction is helping the student recognize and understand who s/he is. What are the students’ strengths and weaknesses as they relate to themselves, their connection to others, and to their learning—including writing assignments? This instruction hopefully promotes the students’ understanding of how their daily performance (i.e. academic, social, emotional and behavioral) is impacted by their specific neurology, cognition, personality, and temperament. Paying special attention to EF, TOM, and cognitive limitations/strengths in relationship to written language can only help the student. Thus, helping students learn about the meta-cognitive tasks as well as the actual writing components, and how they come together during writing assignments, will ultimately help them become as independent and proficient writers as their cognition and neurology allows. Ultimately increased self-awareness, and knowledge of one’s own EF and TOM issues, can improve all areas of functioning—not just written language.
To assist you in helping your students with written language the following reference list is given. Also, books/curriculum for English Language Learners are wonderful tools for teaching these skills, as they are broken down very into very discrete steps.
- Englert, C.S. & Mariage, T. (1991) “Shared Understanding: Structuring writing experience through dialogue,” Journal of Learning Disabilities, 24(6), 330-342.
- BrainCogs and Essay Express: Strategies for Successful Essay Writing, FableVision Software Company, www.fablevision.com
- Fogarty, R. (1999), “The Thinking Log,” Clarity, Acton, MA, Research for Better Teaching.
- Harris, K. & Graham, S. (1996). Making the Writing Process Work: Strategies for Composition and Self-regulation. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.
- Heimlich, J.E. Pitteman, S.D. (1986) Semantic Mapping: Classroom Applications, Newark, DE: IRA
- Hochman, J.C. (1994) Basic Writing Skills, Harrison, NY: GSL Publications.
- Inspiration Software from Inspiration Software, Inc., Portland, OR
- King, D. (1995) Writing Skills 2, Cambridge, MA, Educators Publishing Services.
- Links (1997) Links Strategies Across the Curriculum: Reading, Thinking, Writing, Woburn, MA, Educational Performance Systems
- Schumaker, J.B. & Sheldon, J. (1985) The Sentence Writing Strategy, Lawrence, KS, University of Kansas.
- Singer, B. and Bashir, A., (2002 ), EmPower: A Strategy for Teaching Expository Writing, Boston, MA, Innovative Learning Partners, LLC, www.innovativelearningpartners.com/index.html
- Stern, A. (2000) Graphic Organizers: Teaching Tools and Learning Tools, Acton, MA, Research for Better Teaching.
- Tarricone, J.G. (1995) The Landmark Method for Teaching Writing, Prides Crossing, MA: Landmark Foundation
- Thinking Maps, Thinking Maps, Inc., Cary, NC, www.thinkingmaps.com
Dot Lucci, C.A.G.S. has worked as an educational consultant with schools and families all over the U.S. She is currently the Program Director of MGH Aspire. She has served on the AANE board and written classic articles about working effectively with students with Asperger profiles.