11 Tips to Teach Writing in Special Education

Writing is a challenging for many students, whether it is the physical act, thinking of ideas, or structuring and organizing their thoughts it can be a challenge. And the thing about writing, it isn’t isolated to just english language arts. It is in almost all of the different subject areas. That is why being able to teach writing is going to be so crucial for your students to find success. With a streamlined approach and these 11 tips, I know you and your students will be successful writers in no time!

1. Create a Supportive Writing Environment

First and former, you need to create an environment that is supportive of writing. This is so important especially at the beginning of the year. It will really set the stage for the rest of the year.

This can look different depending on your students, their needs, and the space you have. However, there are some things that you can use that can support any and all students. 

Visual Aids

Using a visual support can help all students with special needs and those without. They can visually support students in knowing what comes next by using a first-then board, expectations of how their bodies should be, materials they may need, or expectations of what they need to write.

Writing Tools

This is something that you should consult with your occupational therapist.  As special education teachers, we are not trained in what supports can help our students physically. This can range from weighted pencils, pencil grips, seating and more. These can make a huge difference in your students ability to write!

Accessible Writing Spaces

Sometimes students need a different space to write other than their desks. They may need a location that has minimal distractions which could look like a separate location, coming to a small group table, or putting up a physical boundary around them to help them focus.

Flexible Seating

Some students do best when part of their bodies are able to move while they write. There are so many options out there, but here is an entire blog post that wraps up some of my favorite flexible seating for students who just need to move.

2. Using Writing Prompts Effectively 

No matter the grade level, it is important to be thinking of the different prompts we provide our students. Writing prompts can support our students and help them feel success with their own writing. It can stimulate some ideas to help their creativity, give them a starting point, or allow them to focus on other parts like the mechanics instead of having to come up with the topic as well.

But this can be challenging in special education classrooms when you have students at a variety of different levels. For me, writing instruction was always the thing that took so much time to plan because I was constantly trying to differentiate for all of my learners. So I decided to make monthly writing notebooks that differentiated for me and made it themed. 

These monthly writing notebooks have four different levels, so students can access it no matter the level. Some just copy the sentences others trace, and some more answer a question prompt. These have been a time saver for me and so many other teachers too.

3. Differentiate 

Differentiation is our middle name as special educators. So I know you are an expert, and we will get into some more specifics about how to differentiate in the following tips. But I wanted to remind you how differentiating decreases behaviors. Many, many times with writing- even if you craft engaging lessons, students still display behaviors. 

Why is that?

Because students can perceive writing as hard- whether is it the physical act of putting pencil to paper or the idea of coming up with a compete sentence. When we differentiate we can make it more accessible so students do not view it s aversive and are more likely to become engaged and decrease some of those escape avoidant behaviors.

We can differentiate by tailoring it so specific needs, using a variety of materials, or even flexible groupings! Keep reading as we dive into more of these.

4. Use Student Interests

I love using student interest as a secret weapon to hook students in. Sometimes I provide individual students with their own writing prompts about something they really like. This could be Pokemon, football, dance, Frozen etc. The reason being- I would rather have students write something than nothing. 

If I need to start by having them write about a completely different topic, then I will do it. Then I slowly start the process of getting them close to the goal of writing what we are talking about! 

I also like to connect it to their real life. Whether this be about their own personal experiences or something in their world they find fascinating.

5. Provide Graphic Organizers

Graphic organizers are must haves, especially for middle school and high school students. These help to visually plan out their writing. It shows how to structure it and gets their ideas out on paper so they don’t forget what they want to say.

After the planning is done, they provide a step by step plan on what they need to do to write. These writing supports again not only help students with disabilities, but can help general education students as well. These do not necessarily have to be used forever either. Some students just need to learn the structure and the critical steps are in a writing assignment and the next time they may not even need it! (But I usually suggest still using it- but you know your students best)

6. Model Writing

We cannot assume students know how to write. Even if they were supposed to come to you with this knowledge they may need additional teaching. One great way to show what you expect is to model it!

When you are modeling the writing, talk through your thinking process. Verbalize your words as you write. These simple lessons can help students realize the thought process they should be using when writing on their own. As students gain these skills, it will make independent work but easier for you and your students!

You can also do some shared writing. This is where you may work together with one or several students on a writing pieces. You can talk about ideas, make decisions together and implement writing strategies. This can alleviate some of the stress students have when asked to complete an assignment on their own.

7. Use Guided Notes 

Guided notes can be another support you can use. These can be used for all types of instruction, but can help guide students with their writing as well. Some guided notes require sunsets to fill in the blanks to make a complete sentence. They can then turn these key points into paragraphs.

We need to remember that this is just one step in the writing process. Of course we want students to develop the entire sentence on their own, but this can be challenging for many- so this is a great bridge before students are able to make the jump to writing complete sentences or paragraphs on their own.

8. Scribe for Students

For some students the act of writing is so challenging, they immediately give push back. One way to get around that is to scribe for the students. Use this approach when your goal is focusing on the content. You want to allow the students to get their ideas down on paper. This may mean you write verbatim what they say- there may be grammatical errors, but the focus is the content, not the structure or the handwriting.

This will build confidence in students. Some students LOVE to write stories- but the physical act of writing is so incredibly daunting, they would rather just not. You can also look up voice to text apps. There are many that do this but sometimes the technology piece can be cumbersome and again require additional teaching.

9. Integrate Technology

Technology can be a wonderful tool  for students. There are so many different ones out there. 

Assistive technology tools to consider:

  • Speech to text: This is embedded into google docs or use Otter ai.
  • Word Prediction: This can be helpful in giving students different options to complete sentences
  • Graphic organizer apps

You can also use different technologies like making writing projects using multimedia, integrating text, or audio to allow students to show their knowledge in unique ways. These can be more engaging and fun than just pencil to paper tasks as well.

10. Teach Explicitly

It is so important to have a systematic approach and to teach with an explicit instructional writing program. This could look like having a certain skill focus. So teaching specific writing skills like sentence structure, paragraph organization, and grammar rules. It could look like breaking down an assignment and teaching step by step instructions and offering detailed guidance on each stage of the writing process, from brainstorming to revision.

11. Break into Chunks

Breaking into chunks is a great accommodation for students and adults. Even writing this blog post, I broke it down into chunks to be able to give my full attention to it without becoming overwhelmed.  

Here are some ways you can break your writing instruction into chunks:

  • Task Segmentation: Divide assignments into clear, sequential steps, providing deadlines for each stage.
  • Mini-Lessons: Teach short, focused lessons on specific aspects of writing, allowing students to master one skill at a time.
  • Checkpoints: Establish progress checkpoints where students can receive feedback and make adjustments before moving on to the next step.

Many times writing is a challenge for special education students. There requires additional support with the idea creation, the mechanics, and the physical act of writing. This means that we may have to change up our classroom instruction even from year to year to be able to support our students as well. 

We also know that not every writing curriculum is created equal, and most likely even with a comprehensive program, we will most likely make tweaks for our students. If you want a monthly journal prompt that has a variety of levels, and has been proven to work with my own students, you can grab them here. Buy monthly or save some dough and get the entire full year journal ready for you!

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