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Writing Instruction For At-Risk Students


Q. You don't often hear about big gains in writing achievement in low-income schools. It must be one of the most difficult tasks in education, to bring young students who are basically illiterate up to the standards of writing proficiency. What strategies work?


Here are some common-sense ideas from a longtime Texas teacher, Donna Garner. She has a special interest in helping at-risk students become good writers.

She has taught secondary-level students. But these tips are solid for any age, and for the whole range of abilities, too, not just kids who are struggling academically.

You might share them with your child's teachers or school board members, work toward the adoption of these policies in districts where they don't exist, and keep them in mind when encouraging or tutoring your own child:


-- Homework in English is graded for completion instead of accuracy. If a student follows the directions and completes the assignment on time, he receives a 100 even if every answer is wrong. Therefore, when a student makes a zero on a homework grade, it indicates that he is not putting forth the proper effort.

-- English grammar is a competency-based subject; language subskills must be taught gradually and systematically, in stair-step fashion, and at-risk students must commit to excellent attendance habits or they'll fall behind quickly.  When a student does not keep up day-by-day with his work, he cannot move to the next higher level because he does not have the foundation upon which to build the more sophisticated work. It is vitally important that students master each day's work so that they can move ahead successfully.  

-- Mrs. Garner suggests extra teacher time for at-risk students who seek it. She offers tutorials on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays for 45 minutes after school. Normally she can stay later if a student needs extra help.

Here are some of her other modifications:


Individualized grammar packets -- lowered reading level, sequential presentation


Peer tutoring

Individualized spelling list -- retesting of spelling words after writing corrections

Individualized reading list with reading level noted -- self-selection

Grade incentives given for book reports

Study skills techniques

Short-term goal setting

Oral book reports

Short answer tests

Graphic organizers for writing process

Computer writing lab

Writing partner

Flashcards and other manipulatives

Search and find library unit -- tactile/kinesthetic

Use of memory devices

Use of  memorization, teacher origination, and student origination levels

Teacher-modeled responses

Guided practice on tests


Newspaper articles provided in order to make topics relevant

Writer's conference with individual students when essays returned

Essays marked for content and grammar

Use of computer lab to input and bold corrections after essays marked

Notebooks used as organizational tool

Visual aids (overhead projector, VCR, blackboard, posters)

Tape recorder

Constant oral drill and repetition

Directions reviewed frequently

Grammar concepts introduced, reviewed, drilled, applied, and tested

Assignments broken into short segments

Preferential seating

Attention-getting cues constantly given

Class rules clearly defined

Minimum amount of note-taking

Directions not given until room is free of distractions

Hands-on library unit


By Susan Darst Williams Writing 21 2009


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