A faculty member in Clemson’s College of Education has earned an early career award and accompanying funding to research and design a sentence writing intervention for students with learning disabilities. Abby Allen, assistant professor of special education, will use the Institute of Education Sciences’ Early Career Award over the course of four years to design the intervention.
With the intervention, Allen hopes to fill both a research and practice gap she first recognized during her time as an elementary school speech-language pathologist. She and her fellow teachers frequently grappled with how to meet the needs of young struggling writers and often faced a lack of available writing assessments and interventions. The need for better tools is what ultimately led Allen to pursue her doctorate.
“My doctoral studies only confirmed the critical need for early writing research, particularly in sentence construction for struggling learners,” Allen said. “My hope is that this project will enable me to create a tool that will help teachers provide additional supports to their students in writing and will help improve student performance in a critical and understudied content area.”
During the first year of the project, Allen will develop the intervention by studying research literature and interviewing first and second grade teachers. With feedback from participating teachers, Allen plans to emerge with example lessons that she will then deliver to students so she can gauge the lessons’ effectiveness.
Allen plans to repeat this process in years two and three of the research, revising the intervention along the way based on teacher and student feedback. During the final year of the project, Allen plans to deliver the intervention lessons to around 40 students to see if the lessons improve their sentence writing.
Allen hopes to create an effective intervention by designing one that can meet each student where they struggle most, whether that be in the resulting sentence (mechanics, spelling, structure) or in the writing process itself. She believes another key to a quality intervention for a student with or at risk for a learning disability is one that provides explicit and systematic instruction in skills the student is lacking.
“Students with learning disabilities in written language typically do not do very well when given a broad task with little guidance,” Allen said. “We want students to be creative, yes, but we also have to show them how to do what we’re asking. Students with learning disabilities have enough to overcome with their language-based learning problems, so we don’t want them to have to infer or guess at how to complete a learning task while also learning a new writing skill.”
Allen said a quality, reliable early intervention for this population of learners is critical because it establishes their educational trajectory in the future. The tricky part, she said, is finding a happy medium. Educators should not rush to label a writing disability, but they also should not brush off early struggles as something students will “just figure out.”
Allen said a common misconception is that writing means constructing stories or paragraphs. Early writing skills also include identifying print in the environment, spelling out words and pointing to and talking about words, according to Allen. She hopes to design an intervention that takes all of these skills into account and acknowledges their importance.
Allen looks forward to the opportunity to demonstrate through her research and its resulting intervention that learning can be most positively impacted when the widest range of writing skills possible can be supported as early as possible.
“Early writing intervention means we’re identifying kids who are struggling with communication and written language and supporting those early skills,” Allen said. “We do this in the hope that those struggles don’t become major writing problems later on.”
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