* Another update on 2e kid with writing difficulties

Super Teacher WorksheetsIn previous posts, I described the writing struggles of Tony, a twice exceptional student with a remarkable memory and tremendous anxiety about writing.  In November, I started systematic instruction on adjectives, making use of the worksheet generators on Super Teacher Worksheets.  I have created matching worksheets beginning with general adjectives which would match a variety of people (such as young, nervous, silly) and progressing to more specific adjectives.  Here’s a sample:adjective 3

In my last update at the beginning of December, Tony was able to generate between 3 and 14 adjectives about objects in three minutes.  (He especially enjoys timed challenges.)  His ability to describe people was a particular weakness, so our last few sessions have focused descriptions of characters.

During our last session, Tony’s responses demonstrated the effectiveness of our work.  He generated as many as 28 adjectives to describe people, with an average of 24.  He also did that in TWO minutes time, not three.  You rock, Tony!

* Update on student learning adjectives

In a previous post, I elaborated on a strategy I was using to support a student with writing difficulties.  This student is Tony, my twice exceptional kiddo.  He continues to struggle with the writing process, specifically when trying to generate ideas.  After we discussed his writing graphs, in conjunction with my observation of his work and verbal interactions, I decided to address his weakness in generating adjectives.  He has a fantastic memory, so I want to avoid simple memorization tasks.  On the other hand, he needs a repertoire of adjectives which can be recalled fairly easily.  I know he will be asking his brain to retrieve this information when he is highly stressed, so Tony does need to overlearn some adjectives.  Currently, his preferred adjectives are ‘fun,’ ‘nice’ and ‘annoying.’  Interesting combo.

I am using three activities for practice: matching worksheets, timed verbal responses to a category (such as ‘buses’), and Quizlet, where he must match adjectives to nouns.  Here’s an example of his first effort with adjective matching (created on Super Teacher Worksheets):

adjective 1

We previewed all the words on the paper first; it took him 75 seconds to complete the page with multiple errors.  (Note the quality of his lines.  You can see the unsteadiness/weakness in his graphomotor skills.)  On a second sheet, Tony completed the paper in 60 seconds with fewer errors.

Tony’s verbal production of adjectives is consistent with his efforts on the matching worksheets.  Since he is a HUGE fan of timed activities, he is allowed three minutes to generate words that describe familiar nouns.  His scores range from 6 to 14.  I allow a maximum of three color words and his three favorites (above) are not allowed at all.  He thinks that’s a bit mean.

FInally, he is matching adjectives and nouns on Quizlet, which is a way for him to overlearn some paired associations.  With his spectacular memory and love of timed activities, Quizlet’s Scatter game is a perfect match for him.

Will these strategies help Tony when he writes descriptive paragraphs?  Will they reduce the mental effort and working memory he must now exert?  Will they improve his confidence in generating descriptive words?  I’ll keep you posted.

* Helping a student use adjectives

I’ve been asked to elaborate on previous posts regarding a student who struggles to generate ideas for writing.  Specifically, he cannot think of descriptive words to add to his his map (or writing plan).  This problem creates tremendous anxiety since he feels time pressure to complete an assignment that he can’t even start.  The more anxious he becomes, the less he can think of anything useful.  I did note that he doesn’t use adjectives in conversation, despite his strong verbal reasoning skills.  Here’s a sample worksheet which requires drawing connecting lines, not writing words.  (I made it on Super Teacher Worksheets, a fabulous site; check out this post for details).  I can count on this student’s excellent memory to store some of these adjectives, especially when I ask him which sense he might use to think of that adjective.  I am hoping to link his word retrieval to a specific mental “folder.”  I also chose adjectives which could possibly describe more than one noun; my goal is to generate a bit more focus as he matches the words.  I can also increase his focus by timing him on this task, then have him a complete a comparable sheet and see if he can beat his previous time.  This student enjoys time challenges when they’re not in the context of actual writing.   matching adjectives

* Follow-up on writing surveys and graphs

I previously posted on the value of eliciting student feedback on writing through surveys and graphs.  I concluded that the student started to flounder while generating/mapping his ideas.  What would account for this problem?  Anxiety is a huge factor, which means that his higher thinking processes are compromised before a single word is written.  Another detrimental factor relates to his assigned writing topics.  He is not typically allowed to write about his personal interests; instead, he writes about seasonal and science /social studies topics.  Third, his weak spelling skills are compromised as his working memory is depleted.  Finally, I make inferences about his reasoning process, based upon my previous experiences with him and review of writing samples.  I know that he appears to have word finding issues, with particular difficulty using descriptive words.  Even with his favorite topics, this student often uses weak adjectives such as “nice” and “good.”  In fact, his weaknesses in specificity are also apparent in conversations.  He uses words like “things” and “stuff,” speaks in short sentences (often exclamations), and overuses adverbs.  He does not qualify as speech-language disabled in part because he has a strong receptive and expressive vocabulary, can sequence his ideas well, and follows multi-step directions easily.

I have already taught him how to identify parts of speech, which has led to an improvement in his skills and confidence.  My next steps will focus on improving his use of adjectives and ability to generate adjectives by category.  I will begin at the receptive level, matching adjectives to nouns.  The following is a sample using word cards and Velcro (no writing!).


I will address his spelling weaknesses through MegaWords, a solid program that focuses on syllable types, spelling patterns, and affixes. Megawords

I will make some use of McGraw Hill’s direct instruction program called Reasoning and Writing.  I’ll have to pick and choose my lessons since his skills are uneven.

Reasoning and writing

I’ll keep you “posted!”

* Writing Graphs

I use writing surveys when I want to start a dialog with students about writing; I will also periodically repeat the survey or create one that better matches the student after progress has been made.  Graphs are another effective way to help special needs students share feedback about the writing process.  For my students who are high functioning autistic, graphs are especially helpful when words are inadequate.  Twice exceptional students also find these graphs helpful in sharing strong feelings of inadequacy.

I often create a graph as I am working with a student.  Kids are used to this process with me and typically look forward to showing me EXACTLY how they feel and where things break down in the writing process.  The graph below  uses a scale of 0 to 10.  I let the student decide which represented the hardest level (in this case, 10).  This student also chose the colors to use.  Red indicated extreme difficulty, orange depicted a level below that, yellow was third in difficulty, and green meant things were mostly OK (although on an additional page, the student also used a single green line for “no problem at all.”  The “icons” I drew represent, in order from left to right, time pressure, generating ideas, understanding teacher directions, creating a web or plan, writing in complete sentences with punctuation, staying on topic, spelling, working memory, and rewriting a final copy.

writing graph 2As you can see, this student has significant problems with the pressure to complete a writing assignment on time, use correct spelling, and rewrite his rough draft.  The second page of his graph (not shown) indicated anxiety during writing was high. Once we reviewed the top three issues (with a solution of using a laptop or tablet for the writing process), we examined the areas in yellow and orange.  (By the way, I REALLY dislike the continual rewrites that students are forced to complete.  Much of the time, that step is required so the work looks good in the hallway.  Yuck.)

As we discussed these problems, I could tell that the above graph gave us relative information but did not adequately convey the struggles this kid was having while writing.  Here’s the follow-up graph.  As we talked about the writing process again, it was evident that idea generation and mapping were essentially the same for this student, so I crossed out that second box.  That left us with these areas of concern, from left to right: mapping/idea generation, remembering the directions, staying on track while writing (focus), and working memory.  The student changed the meaning of “staying on topic” to “staying focused” because his attention difficulties increased significantly while trying to generate ideas.  Notice that “understanding the teacher directions” and “staying on task/track” have now switched colors (from green to red in the former area).  This kid is having a really hard time in writing.  (That last icon is supposed to depict a brain and pencil, with drops of sweat- or blood?)

Writing survey 3

The next post will focus on some strategies to help this student with all these red zones.

* Graphic Organizers

Brain-based research supports the use of graphic organizers in providing an overview of instructional units.  I have found that these road maps, as I have referred to them with students, assist kids in understanding the hows, whys, and whens of specific units.  For example, I have used graphic organizers in writing instruction to give kids an overview of a final product (such as a letter, research paper, or how-to story), including a list of skills they will need to acquire in the process.  These maps also indicate the steps we will follow.  The following is an example of a student version of a map for letter-writing.

Letter writing graphic organizer

With teacher support, students can see what skills they will learn and the steps they’ll follow in writing a letter.  To make this a more powerful tool, kids make a personal connection from the start by indicating the recipient of their letter and what form of “art” they will include (both brain-based strategies).  Since I have typically worked with kids who are easily distracted and function at widely varying levels, I am not likely to post this type of map on the wall.  Instead, students have access to their own copy, which can be easily adjusted for reading and developmental levels.

In my teaching experience, the most commonly used class-wide graphic organizers are K-W-L charts (what I KNOW, what I WANT to know, what I have LEARNED).  I never found these charts very useful for a number of reasons, although group or individual discussions of any of these points could be helpful.  Why not? First, my groups have been diverse and not everyone could meaningfully contribute to the first two categories.  For the same reason, I have preferred individual maps (or graphic organizers) so each student will have a variation of the map which best suits their needs.  I do want students to identify what they have learned, but with special needs students, I have often had to guide that understanding as well.

This raises the question of how best to use concept maps for teaching.  To what extent should students have a road map for what they need to learn?  Mariale Hardiman’s Brain-Targeted Teaching Model provides numerous examples of effective graphics that prepare students for their learning adventure by providing an overview of where they are going and what they’ll do along the way.  I almost always use some sort of graphic for guiding our way, but prefer to use maps with “shorter” steps.  For a student who is well behind in reading, math or social skills, for example, it would be overwhelming to see the long road that lies ahead.  Instead, my graphics zoom in on the next few steps of the way.  The examples in Hardiman’s book were designed primarily for units in content areas such as social studies, where the big picture can help activate prior knowledge and create excitement and anticipation.  For students struggling to read, identifying “vowel teams” can be just as significant.

I think the use of graphic organizers can help students understand why they are working on specific skills, which is a crucial understanding.  Kids learn best if they grasp the usefulness of a skill, or some evidence that they will be happier on the “other side” of what appears to be a chasm.  Here’s a sample map for an anxious student who has no idea why he must learn anything about decimals (and who fears it will be impossible). However, he is very interested in using money and wants to buy some pets.  This chart can be easily turned into a checklist for him to track his progress in learning the needed skills.graphic for learning decimalsHe already has some understanding of many of the skills listed above, but he thinks that these skills are useless.  His map includes a skill he has solidly acquired, identifying place value of whole numbers, to generate some hopefulness about his ability to reach the goal.  The relative size of the “Why” section is to help keep his eye on the prize.

Honestly, I will never use maps or organizers for everything I teach, primarily due to time constraints (such as blogging instead of lesson planning!).  When I run into difficulties, as with the student described above, you can be sure I will start creating graphics.  Besides supporting student learning, these step-wise maps force me to examine my own teaching.  Am I following an appropriate sequence of skills for this student?  Am I helping him make meaningful connections between these skills?  Am I giving him a reason to learn?  Graphic organizers encourage both teachers and students to reflect on the learning process.