“With that handwriting it is impossible to understand what he writes”; Three out of every two words are misspellings. Concerns like these are shared by teachers when we talk about learning difficulties in writing. However, writing is not just having legible handwriting and respecting spelling rules.
Writing involves basic calligraphy and spelling processes, but also complex planning and review processes, aimed at providing the text with organization, coherence and quality.
Effective teaching should address all these processes from the beginning of formal instruction, despite the tendency of the educational system to emphasize the former.
Different skills and rhythms
Now, in the classroom, diversity is the norm: each student has their own abilities, their own pace of learning. For this reason, a writing curriculum that jointly addresses simple and complex processes can be somewhat difficult for a part of the student body.
The question is: how do we structure such a complex curriculum so that it is accessible to all students, guaranteeing personalized support for those who need it? The response to intervention model offers an answer.
The response to intervention model constitutes a framework on which to structure the teaching of any of the three basic school skills: reading, writing and mathematics. It was created to prevent learning difficulties through early detection of students at risk of presenting them and multilevel support, adjusting instruction to the learning needs of said students.
Within this model, teaching is structured in three levels. The first level pursues an effective instruction aimed at achieving the curricular objectives and aimed at all students.
Those students who do not respond to this level, that is, those whose learning rate is significantly below the average of their reference group, are referred to a second level, which offers more intense instruction in small groups, focused on the needs of these students at risk.
For those who still do not respond, a level 3 is proposed, of individualized instruction, generally already associated with the presence of learning difficulties.
Teaching practices used at these levels must be based on empirical evidence. Mobility between levels will be determined by the continuous monitoring or evaluation of the progress of the students.
Different levels in writing
Although this model has been widely validated for the prevention of learning difficulties in reading, its presence in the teaching of writing has been relegated to the background. We have investigated the effectiveness of applying a structured writing instruction program at the first two levels of the response to intervention model at the start of compulsory schooling.
In our study, 161 Spanish students of the 1st year of Primary Education participated. During the first months of the course, all of them received level 1 instruction in spelling, calligraphy and text planning.
Next, those students whose learning rate in these first months was below average were identified. During the second half of the course, the “at risk” students received level 2 support tailored to their needs, through tasks carried out outside the classroom with the help of their families.
The following year, in the second year of primary school, all students continued to receive exclusively level 1 instruction. Throughout the process, student progress was monitored through a text writing task applied once or twice a week. In addition, four standardized formal assessments were carried out, before and after each level of instruction.
Positive results, but difficult implementation
The results showed a significant improvement in textual quality in the majority of the participating students. In addition, during the Tier 2 support program, at-risk students showed significantly faster learning progress than their peers in aspects related to quality, text length, spelling, and penmanship.
After the experience, a considerable reduction in the gap that initially separated the students at risk from their classmates with standard performance was observed.
Now, is it feasible to apply this individualized teaching model in an educational context such as Spanish, where there is only one teacher per classroom compared to a high ratio of students?
This experience seems to show that it is, using families as a support resource in teaching writing. Both the participating teachers and families expressed their agreement with both programs and their willingness to participate in similar experiences again.
Author Bios: Maria Arrimada Garcia is Professor in the area of Evolutionary and Educational Psychology and Raquel Fidalgo is University Professor in the Area of Evolutionary and Educational Psychology both at the University of León