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Writing Better

Writing Better

Effective Strategies for Teaching Students with Learning Difficulties
Authors: Steve Graham, Karen R. Harris

ISBN: 978-1-55766-704-5
Pages: 192
Copyright: 2005
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Stock Number:  67045
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Whether they have learning disabilities or just need extra help, struggling writers can improve their skills dramatically if they get the detailed, explicit instruction they need. This practical guidebook shows elementary school teachers how to make this systematic instruction part of their classroom. Educators will find a wide range of specific strategies that include

  • activities for every phase of the writing process, from brainstorming and goal-setting to revising
  • proof of effectiveness with students who have learning disabilities (field-testing data included)
  • guidelines on how to teach the strategies and use them across grades
  • easy-to-learn formats for students, such as mnemonic devices and short step-by-step action plans
  • exercises specially tailored for different types of writing, including stories, explanations, persuasive essays, reports, and comparisons
  • everything teachers need — no additional materials necessary
Photocopiable student worksheets give teachers ready-to-use writing activities, and before-and-after examples of student writing demonstrate how the strategies work. With these practical, scientifically validated ideas and exercises, teachers will help struggling students develop a toolbox of skills to improve their classwork and change the way they feel about writing.

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Section I. Introduction: The Power of Writing

  1. Writing Uphill: Why Strategy Instruction Is Important
  2. Writing Is a Dog's Life: A Guide to Writing Difficulties
Section II. Strategies for Teaching Planning, Writing, and Revising

  1. How to Teach Writing Strategies
Section III. Writing Strategies that Can Be Applied Broadly

  1. PLEASE: A Paragraph-Writing Strategy
  2. PLANS: A Goal-Setting Strategy
  3. STOP and LIST: Goal Setting, Brainstorming, and Organizing
  4. The Peer Revising Strategy
  5. The CDO Revising Strategy
  6. Summarizing Written Text
Section IV. Writing Strategies That Are Genre Specific

  1. Story Writing
  2. Persuasive Writing
  3. Writing Explanations
  4. Writing a Comparison/Contrast Paper
  5. Report Writing
Section V. Strategies for Self-Regulating and the Writing Process

  1. Self-Monitoring
  2. Goal Setting
Section VI. Making It Work

  1. Guidelines for Implementing Writing Strategy Instruction

Appendix: Sources for Quotes and Anecdotes

Excerpted from Chapter 7 of Writing Better: Effective Strategies for Teaching Students with Learning Difficulties, by Steve Graham, Ed.D., & Karen Harris, Ed.D.

Copyright © 2005 by Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Revising is particularly effective because it allows writers to correct their mistakes. Consider the consequences of the following directions before they were amended.

Important Notice: If you are one of the hundreds of parachuting enthusiasts who bought our Easy Sky Diving book, please make the following correction on page 8, line 7. The words "state zip code" should read "pull rip cord."
Kurt Vonnegut, the author of Slaughterhouse-Five, provided another reason for revising, noting that anyone can write well "if only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it a little each time." Or as the novelist Robert Cormier put it, "The beautiful part of writing is that you don't have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon." Stephen King, the horror writer, seconded this sentiment: "Only God gets it right the first time."

How then can teachers get students with learning disabilities to revise more frequently and skillfully? One solution is peer response: Peers read each other's papers and provide suggestions for improving them. This makes the audience an integral part of the writing process, allowing the writer to get advanced feedback from one or more readers. By interacting directly with the audience, the writer becomes more conscious of the needs of the readers.

The revising strategy presented in this chapter is centered around peer response. Peers provide suggestions to each other on how to improve their first drafts using a specific strategy and selected evaluation criteria. We believe that the combination of peer response and strategy instruction is an especially powerful procedure. Strategy instruction provides students with an explicit framework for responding to a peer's writing. Peer response provides a motivating social context for using the strategy, as peers work together to improve their writing.

Evaluation of other students' writing using specific criteria is also beneficial, because it helps children acquire knowledge about how to write (Hillocks, 1986). By actively applying criteria, such as clarity or detail, to evaluate other students' writing, children gain knowledge about what is important in writing. This new knowledge is then used to guide their own production of future compositions. Focusing attention on substantive issues such as clarity and detail further increases the likelihood that students will make revisions that affect the meaning of what they write.


The peer revising strategy (MacArthur, Schwartz, & Graham, 1991) includes two parts: one in which revising focuses on substance (Revise) and a second in which revising concentrates on mechanical issues (Edit). The steps for Revise are presented in Figure 7.1; Edit is summarized in Figure 7.2. The teacher assigns each student a writing partner. The author of a paper is called the writer. The student providing feedback on the paper is called the listener. The steps for Revise and Edit are written from the perspective of the listener.

Once a writer finishes the first draft of a paper, Revise is initiated by sharing the paper with the listener. First, the writer reads the paper aloud while the listener reads along. Active listening is stressed, and the listener is encouraged to ask questions about anything that is unclear. The read-along arrangement ensures that the listener knows what the writer wrote. Some listeners will not be able to read the writer's paper unaided because of limited reading skills or because of writing errors involving handwriting, spelling, punctuation, or sentence construction.

After the paper is read, the listener tells the writer what the paper is about and what she or he liked best. This helps ensure that the listener pays attention and starts the peer response process off on a positive note. In telling what the paper is about, the listener is encouraged to comment on main ideas or important parts.

Next, the listener reads the writer's paper, asking for help from the writer if a particular part of the paper cannot be read. While reading, the listener asks two questions: "Is there anything that is not clear?" and "Is there any place where more detail can be added?" If a part is hard to understand, a question mark is placed next to it. The listeners are asked to make at least three suggestions for things the writer can say more about. These suggestions are written directly on the paper, using carets to indicate where they go.

The two students then get back together to discuss the listener's recommendations. The listener is encouraged to make specific suggestions for executing the recommended changes. The writer asks questions about anything that is not clear. The writer then revises the paper, using the listener's suggestions. The writer does not have to use all of the suggestions, only those that he or she believes will make the paper better.

The second part of the strategy, Edit, involves correcting errors. Before returning their revised paper to the listener, writers check their own paper, correcting any errors they find. Students use the checklist in Figure 7.3 to complete this task.

Once a writer checks his or her paper, it is given to the listener who uses the checklist in Figure 7.3 to mark and correct any errors missed by the writer. The two students get back together and discuss any corrections made by the listener.

Teaching the Strategy

The general procedures used to teach the peer revising strategy are presented in Chapter 3. As a result, only procedures specific to teaching this strategy are provided here.

First, it is easier to use the peer revising strategy if students do their composing on the computer instead of by hand. With this strategy, a child's paper is marked by the listener when feedback is provided during Revise and Edit. Papers are also written on when the writer corrects mechanical miscues during Edit or when other changes are made during the writing process. Unless the student is willing to recopy the paper on one or more occasions (many students with learning disabilities resist this), it can become so messy that even the writer cannot read it. Composing on the computer makes it easy for the writer to make neat copies each time revisions are made, eliminating the tedious and time-consuming process of recopying by hand.

When teaching the peer revising strategy, we first teach students Revise, and once they have mastered this process, Edit is taught. This is done for two reasons. First, it focuses students' attention on the importance of substance right from the start. Second, it makes learning the strategy easier because only one part is taught at a time.

As teachers demonstrate how to use the strategy (i.e., Model It), we find it especially beneficial to show students a videotape of two peers executing the strategy. Seeing other children perform the strategy reinforces students' beliefs that they can do it as well. Teachers who cannot make such a videotape can have two writers who already know how to use the strategy model it for the class.

Our final instructional caveat is illustrated in the following letter to a sick child.

Dear Erika,

I hope you get well soon.
Mrs. Dickey forced us to write this letter.
So I'm not writing it because I like you.

Your friend, Leon.
Children's interactions are not always positive. Teachers need to emphasize that feedback and suggestions are to be delivered in a positive manner. Furthermore, as students practice applying the strategy (i.e., Support It), each child needs to practice being both the writer and the listener. At first, especially with younger children, the teacher needs to provide the listener with considerable help in responding to the writer's paper. This includes providing hints as to what parts of the paper are unclear or lacking in detail. It may also involve re-modeling how to use the strategy.

What to Expect

The peer revising strategy was validated with fourth- through sixth-grade students with learning disabilities as they wrote and revised narrative text (MacArthur, Schwartz, & Graham, 1991). Each student's score on an individually administered intelligence test was in the average range (i.e., 85–115). All students' achievement on individually administered measures of reading and writing, however, was at least 1.5 years below grade level. None of the students was receiving other special education services and all of them spoke English proficiently.

When fourth- through sixth-grade students with learning disabilities used the peer revising strategy, it not only changed their revising behavior but also had a positive effect on what they wrote (MacArthur et al., 1991). In comparison with students in a more traditional process writing program (Graves, 1983), children who used the peer revising strategy made almost three times as many revisions (effect size = 1.29), and almost twice as many revisions involved words, phrase, and larger units of text (effect size = .64). The strategy had a strong impact on the overall quality of students' text (effect size = 1.19) and a moderate impact on decreasing spelling errors (effect size = .54). Students reduced spelling miscues by 40% from first to second draft. Furthermore, students who learned to use the strategy internalized the evaluation criteria included in Revise because they identified these elements when asked to define good writing and revising.


The specific peer response strategy presented here has not been scientifically tested with elementary-age students beyond fourth- through sixth-grade students with learning disabilities (see MacArthur et al., 1991). There is good reason to believe, however, that this strategy can be applied broadly, at least with children without disabilities. In a series of studies, children in general education classrooms ages 6–11 were taught to use a peer planning and revising strategy (Nixon & Topping, 2001; Sutherland & Topping, 1999; Yarrow & Topping, 2001). Use of the strategy resulted in improved writing for all age groups. The revising part of the strategy used in these studies shared many similarities with the peer revising strategy described in this chapter. Both strategies involved the writer and listener reading the first draft, the listener providing feedback involving substance and form, and the pair discussing these suggestions. It is important to note that no attempt was made to determine the unique impact of either the planning or revising strategies in these studies. Thus, any application of peer revising to students other than fourth- through sixth-grade children with learning disabilities should be carefully monitored (see Chapter 17).


One way to extend the peer revising strategy is by adding, substituting, or even removing one or more of the evaluation criteria included in Revise or Edit (see Stoddard & MacArthur, 1993). For example, in the version of the peer revising strategy presented here, the listener asks questions about clarity and detail. The complexity of the strategy can be increased by adding other criteria involving attributes such as completeness (e.g., Does it have a good beginning, middle, or ending?) or organization (e.g., Does the paper follow a logical sequence?). Likewise, the strategy can be made easier by eliminating one or more criteria.

Another way to modify the strategy is to match the evaluation criteria more specifically to the type of paper students are writing. If students are learning to write fiction, for example, the evaluation criteria might focus on the character (e.g., Do you need to know more about the main character?) or other common aspects of a story. Regardless of which modification is made, teachers need to carefully monitor the success of any new evaluation criteria on students' writing (see Chapter 17).

Excerpted from Chapter 7 of Writing Better: Effective Strategies for Teaching Students with Learning Difficulties, by Steve Graham, Ed.D., & Karen Harris, Ed.D.

Copyright © 2005 by Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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