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Students Who Struggle with Writing Can Benefit from Self-Regulation Strategies

Article about Linda Mason's research on students who struggle with writing

by Joe Savrock (December 2007)

mason_linda.jpgUNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Writing is a difficult task for large numbers of K–12 students. While some students find the writing process to be quite easy, others are overwhelmed by the prospect of planning, organizing, and expressing their thoughts into readable text. And for those students who have learning disabilities, the process is even more demanding.

Linda Mason, assistant professor of special education at Penn State, has done extensive research on students who struggle with reading and writing. She has collaborated on a number of research projects to generate strategies for developing reading and writing skills as well as giving teachers the most effective types of interventions. In addition, she has co-authored a newly released book, Powerful Writing Strategies for All Students (2008, Brooks Publishing), that offers field-tested strategies for improving student writing.

Mason’s work focuses on expository reading comprehension and written expression. “These are often the two academic areas with which children experience the most difficulties,” she said.

To help students improve their expository reading comprehension and written expression skills, Mason advocates an instructional approach known as self-regulated strategy development (SRSD), which was developed by Karen R. Harris and Steve Graham at Vanderbilt University. Mason has undertaken a number of studies that examine the effectiveness of SRSD instruction to teach writing and reading comprehension strategies.

The SRSD model is grounded in strategy development combined with self-regulation procedures. Strategy acquisition is developed in six instructional stages: (a) developing pre-skills for individual student’s learning deficits ; (b) discussing and describing the strategy; (c) memorization of  the strategy steps; (d) modeling the strategy while thinking out loud; (e) teacher-supported guided practice; and (f) independent practice. Self-regulation of strategy use to promote generalization and maintenance of learning is fostered through teaching students to set goals, self-monitor their performance, use effective self-statements, and self-reinforce.

In her combined approach for reading comprehension and writing research, Mason and her colleagues employ two strategies for SRSD instruction. The first strategy is TWA (Think before reading, think While reading, think After reading). TWA encourages students to think about their reading task at three points—before reading (about the author’s purpose, what the student wants to know and learn), during reading (about reading speed, linking knowledge, and rereading parts), and after reading (about the main idea, summarizing information, and what the student has learned).

The second strategy, PLANS (Pick goals, List ways to meet goals, And make Notes, Sequence notes), allows students to develop personal product writing goals and provides a means to evaluate their performance. Using notes that they wrote capturing the main ideas and the details during reading with TWA, students complete PLANS by selecting goals for writing and revising an informative essay.

Mason stresses the importance of implementing SRSD instruction for TWA + PLANS sequentially. The reading comprehension strategies should be taught first, followed by instruction for outlining and then essay instruction.

The research shows that SRSD instruction for TWA + PLANS results in definite student improvement in both reading comprehension and informative essay writing. Mason expresses confidence in the positive effects of SRSD instruction. She notes that every SRSD study to date has shown a positive impact on student performance.

“Given the results of our research, we are scaling up TWA + PLANS to include language instruction and classroom discourse,” said Mason. "Our goal is to improve students’ learning across three literacy domains—reading comprehension, language and vocabulary, and written expression.

In addition, to examine the effects of TWA + PLANS on student performance, Mason is validating the effects of SRSD instruction in persuasive writing with less-studied student populations. “SRSD in writing instruction is most often used for students with learning disabilities,” added Mason. “Current research is validating the effectiveness of writing instruction in the general education classroom as well as with the most difficult students—for example, students who have behavior disorders.”

Students with behavior disorders is the focus of a new four-year, $1.8 million research project funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Mason is teaming with fellow Penn State researchers—co-principal investigator Richard Kubina and faculty associates Kathy Ruhl and Jonna Kulikowich, as well as co-principal investigator Margo Mastropieri of George Mason University—to study the effectiveness of SRSD on the performance of 7th and 8th grade students with behavior disorders. The collaborative project calls for teachers in four school districts in Pennsylvania and Virginia to employ SRSD in their instruction. The purpose of the project is to improve student on-task behavior as well as student attitudes and teacher perspectives about writing instruction.