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Understanding the writing process can be difficult, but it is necessary. Whether it is to improve student's writing quality or to help them pass a standardized test, having an organizational plan is the key to writing a successful paper. The Self-Regulated Strategy Development and the Cognitive Strategy Instruction in Writing approaches provide students with writing plans and help improve the quality of students writing. At Louisa County High School, the four square organizational plan has been the most successful approach to organizing writing. Early intervention with these methods would be more effective for the students.
Effective Writing Strategies
Whether students are in first grade, or twelfth, the writing process is an important skill that students must comprehend and perform daily. However, not every student has the ability to produce extensive and meaningful papers. According to Monroe and Troia (2006), some students, especially ones with learning disabilities, "tend to produce writing that is shorter, less coherent, less refined, and more riddled with mechanical errors" (p. 1). Whether the students get early intervention or not, it is essential that teachers help the students thoroughly understand the writing process. Consisting of pre writing, drafting, revising, and presenting, the writing process tends to be complex. For the teachers, the goal is to organize these tasks in a way the students can comprehend them and use them effectively. No matter what level the individual is on, by using acronyms or having a topic of interest, an organizational plan is the key to successful writing. Of the Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) approach, the four square method used at Louisa County High School has proved to be the most affective organizational plan.
The Self-Regulated Strategy Development Approach
The Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) continues to be one of the most effective strategies used to help students develop better writing skills. Developed by Graham, Harris, MacArthur, and Schwartz, the Self-Regulated Strategy Development approach is effective not only because the model provides extensive planning and organizing, but because it also teaches students how to pace themselves. Writing requires "self-regulation and attention to the composing process" and to be a skilled writer one must use "strategies to plan, write, and revise their compositions, as well as strategies to self-regulate performance" (Reid & Lienemann, 2006, p. 1). Self-regulation is critical in the SRSD approach. By learning how to cope with time, going through the steps of writing a paper will become much easier. Instead of stressing over writing a prompt based on a question, a student is given tools to help plan the writing and take them step by step.
The SRSD approach to instruction and its effectiveness can best be portrayed in studies with students who have attention deficit disorders. De La Paz (2001) conducted a study using three middle school students, two girls and one boy, with special educational needs (p. 4). Since one of the main factors of the SRSD approach is planning, the acronyms PLAN and WRITE were taught to the students to help them keep organized. PLAN (Pay attention to the prompt; List main ideas; Add supporting details; Number your ideas) is used for pre-writing. This is the part that helps self-regulate the students and the key to organizing thoughts. The main focus is to pay attention to the prompt and fully understand the meaning of the question. After understanding the essential idea, a student will be able to list ideas and supporting details. Before being taught the PLAN strategy, only one of the three selected students designed a brainstorm (being a simple organizational web). After the study was conducted, the plans were collected and every student made a plan, but "none of the plans was a simple web diagram" (De La Pas, 2001, p. 10). The new plans contained all of the elements necessary to begin writing: main ideas with supporting details. The PLAN system may help students easily organize their thoughts, but the WRITE acronym assist the students through the actual prompt.
WRITE (Work from your plan to develop your thesis statement; Remember your goals; Include transition words; Try to use different kinds of sentences; Exciting, interesting, $100,000 words) is used while one is writing. While writing, the student may frequently lose focus and go off topic. Although the PLAN system organizes thoughts, it is easy to forget the goals and the point of the prompt. With the WRITE strategy, students are able to stay on track and apply the ideas from the PLAN part to the actual essay.
However, the most crucial information received by the students in the study was the cue cards (see figure1 below). The cue cards help advance the paper by giving students a variety of suggestions on constructing their paper. The cue card lays out each step on how to assemble a paragraph, while giving suggestions to make the essay more complex. For an example, figure1 signifies several ways a student can start their essay by using what is called an attention grabber. This could be a short story, questions, or statements that introduce the topic the student will be writing about. The cue cards also introduce transition words and help students write paragraphs that flow. The cards give the writer more options on how to write the paragraph, expanding the normal transition sentence options to more complex ones. The cue cards lead to more advanced paragraphs and help assist students with paragraph development.
Figure1. Cue cards
Note: De La Paz, S. (Sept-Oct 2001). Teaching writing to students with attention deficit disorders and specific language impairment.Â Â Â The Journal of Educational Research.Â , 95, 1. p.37(12). Retrieved January 14, 2010, from General OneFile via Gale:http://find.galegroup.com/gps/infomark.do?&contentSet=IAC-Documents&type=retrieve&tabID=T002&prodId=IPS&docId=A95631212&source=gale&userGroupName=va_s_054_0602&version=1.0
After the students were given these materials, De La Paz (2001) observed that "the students' approach to writing became more advanced and the quality, length, and structure of their compositions improved" (p. 12). Most notable was a student named Sherry, whose organizational plans jumped from a 0 to a 4.3 (on a scale of 0-7).
Similar to De La Paz, Reid and Lienemann (2006) conducted a study on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) students using the Self-Regulated Strategy Development approach (p. 1). Because the technique enforces self-regulation and goal setting, the strategy works well on ADHD and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) students who struggle in these areas. Having a thinking sheet or organizational plan allows students to write a more successful paper. However, the POW + WWW, What = 2, How = 2, story writing strategy was used for planning. Although this is still planning, the POW+WWW is used more for story writing versus prompt writing.
The acronyms used in the POW+WWW strategy signify the writing process and important information that needs to be included when writing a story. The POW acronym (pick my ideas, organize my notes, and write and say more) helps the student stay on task, reminding them what do next in the writing process. The WWW, what = 2 and how = 2, remind the student all the important information that needs to be included in a story, including: who, what, where, when, why, and how. This helps students stay focused on the characters and the story line.
In the study conducted by Reid and Lienemann, the researchers did something unlike De La Paz, Guzel-Ozman, and other researchers later mentioned. Instead of teaching and just providing the students with the think sheets and written process, they quizzed the students on the different steps of the writing process. This enhanced their knowledge and also provided the researchers with measurable feedback on student comprehension. Once again, the results were outstanding. Not only did the planning section advance by being more organized and filled with more supporting details, but "all students more than doubled the length of stories in independent performance" (Reid & Lienemann, 2006, p. 10). Length and quality are an indication of how much the student was organized and how much he actually internalized the planning from learning the process.
The Cognitive Strategy Instruction in Writing
Another approach to the writing process is the Cognitive Strategy Instruction in Writing. "Skilled writing requires the use of a wide array of cognitive processes in a more holistic manner" (Guzel-Ozman, 2006, p. 1). However, this strategy is not as widely used and less effective considering its approach to writing is slightly different. It differs because in this strategy, there is more of an emphasis on teachers to use interactive dialogue. Although students may connect with the teacher through dialogue, they have no visual organization plan.
Because the main point of the Cognitive Strategy Instruction in Writing (CSIW) is not self-regulation, the approach works best when modified by mixing it with the Self-regulation Strategy Development approach. In Guzel-Ozmen's study, Guzel-Ozmen used the Modified CSIW on self-contained classes. This is a mix of the CSIW and SRSD approaches to writing. On phase three of the modified version, the students were provided with their think sheets to organize thoughts and details and then they received self-editing checklists to edit and revise their texts (2006). The results with the Modified CSIW version included extensive planning, organizing, and length.
The Four Square Method
At Louisa County High School, the four-square method is a fast and easy way for teachers to get the students to improve their writing skills and get organized to write prompts. As this method is a form of the Self-Regulated Strategy Development approach, students are shown a visual way to plan their ideas and details. Based on Lauren McNutt's observations, students are given a prompt at the beginning of the semester and the prompt is then graded based on a Standards of Learning (SOL) score sheet. This strategy is directed more towards the ninth to eleventh graders in preparation of the English SOL writing test. Throughout the rest of the semester, students practice writing everyday, using daily writing drills. The four-square method is also taught to the students. The idea of doing the daily writing and four-square method is to help the students get used to giving supporting details and to teach them to get organized in time for the SOL.
The four-square method is used because it contains the elements necessary to prepare a student for the SOL writing test (see Figure2). According to an SOL preparation lesson plan, the goals are to develop a focus for writing, organize and elaborate ideas, present the information in a logical manner, and revise the writing (Index of /testing, 2010, p. 1). In an interview with Mrs. Rogers, a collaborative, eleventh grade English teacher, she explained that the four-square method really helps with visual students because they go into the SOL with an organizational plan that they can make themselves (Personal communication, January 14, 2010). She also added that not every teacher uses the four-square method because some teachers feel as if a more step-by-step versus a visual process helps the students write more complete paragraphs. However, teachers did a lot of training on the four square method at the beginning of the year because the school has had so much success with it in the past, but some teachers still use other methods.
There are three different writing methods used by teachers at LCHS. The four-square, the spool, and the hand all represent the basic elements that are needed to learn to write a prompt and also pass the SOL. Ms. Fletcher, a tenth grade English teacher at Louisa, uses the hand method. To use this, students trace their hand on a piece of paper. Starting at the thumb, they label each finger the intro, paragraphs one, two, and three, and then, end with the conclusion on the pinky. Ms. Fletcher likes the hand method because, she claims, "they cannot cutoff a students hand when they go into the SOL" (Personal Communication, March 17, 2010). Once again, having a visual method allows the students to better plan and organize their thoughts and can easily be made, which is vital when it comes to the SOL. However, other methods are not as popular and less visual, hurting the students when it comes to the SOL.
The spool method, used by the ninth grade English teachers, is another method that is not as popular. When commenting on the spool method, Ms. Fletcher called it the "thumb sucking" strategy because it lays out all the steps for writing the five paragraph essay and when the students go to take the SOL, they realize they do not get a spool sheet and do not remember all the steps (Personal Communication, March 17. 2010). Because it is less visual, students have more trouble writing essays on their own, versus the other two methods which can be made by the students by using a blank sheet of paper.
However, the SOL time frame hinders the teacher's abilities to expand on writing. A teacher only gets a certain amount of weeks to teach the students not just how to respond to a prompt, but also prepare them for the reading SOL. The limited time is stressful and causes the students to only learn the minimum. Mrs. Rogers claimed that the four-square method had enough direction and organization to get the students to pass, but not necessarily pass advanced. On February 17, 2010, Mrs. Rogers said, "this is basic, but right now, we only care if you pass," about the four-square method. The stress on the kids passing is pressured more than advanced writing skills. Mrs. Estep, the other teacher in Mrs. Rogers' collaborative class, told her class that "Mr. Straley [the principle] is always knocking at my door asking, 'are they going to pass?'" However, this method for the bare minimum writing skills still provides acceptable results.
In a year long collaborative class at Louisa County High School, writing improvement is not only easy to see in the actual prompts, but also on old, released SOL writing test. At the beginning of August, Student A from the collaborative class scored a 47 on the written test and Student B scored an 80. After six months, another released written test was taken and the results indicated that the students understanding of writing improved greatly. Student A's grade improved to a 70, going up 23 points. Student B's grade advanced to an 87, going up 7 points. The writing test scores are only a small portion of proof that the students comprehension of writing was advancing because of the students ability to understand the writing process.
Upon studying eleventh grade English collaborative classes in 2009-2010, Lauren McNutt also noticed a significant difference in students writing when using the four square method. When grading the writing prompts in the collaborative class, Rogers and Estep use an SOL score sheet for expository and persuasive writing that include three sections: composing, written expression, and usage/mechanics. Student A and B showed significant improvement on their essays throughout the year. In December, Student A scored an 8 (on a scale to 12) on an essay, due to a lack of organization. Next to the "pre-writing evident" check box, the teacher put a question mark because the student did not use the four square approach nor any other organizational plan. The essay was only three paragraphs and lacked details. Over a month later, Student A earned 11 out of 12 points, only receiving the comment "Excellent!" on the score sheet. Along with the essay, Student A included and extended and very detailed four square. The difference from the beginning of the year to the end of year was shown in the planning. By learning the four square method, Student A was able to clearly organize his thoughts and details, enabling him to write structured paragraphs and, overall, a well written essay.
Another student in Mrs. Rogers and Mrs. Estep collaborative class showed significant improvements in their essays because of the four square method. In December, Student B scored a 9 on an essay. In the comments section, the teacher added that Student B should "expand the details and explanation" in the essay. Not surprisingly, Student B did not turn in any organizational plan. Two months later, Student B wrote a prompt and scored 11 points out of 12 on it. Student B scored 3 points out of 4 on the composing part and was "beautifully written with "excellent details." This time, Student B turned in a planning sheet with the final essay. If the composing part of the score sheet was good (containing central idea, organization, and unity), then so was the overall essay. By using the four square template (see figure2 below), student A and Student B were able to upper the quality of their essays.
Figure2. Four square template
Note: Write On. (n.d.). Retrieved March 22, 2010, from http://jc-schools.net/write/
A Topic of Interest
Even with useful organizational strategies, giving a topic of interest to write about stimulates the writers mind and proves much more effective. In an interview with Jayne Sharpe, the reading specialist for Louisa County Public Schools, she remarked that the best way for a student to learn (for reading and writing) is for the student to "find something they are interested in" (Personal Communication, January 26, 2010). Not coincidently, during Lauren McNutt's research she noticed that all the prompts and daily writings were personal. Portrayed in Mrs. Rogers' and Mrs. Estep's collaborative class, every daily writing drill relates to the students personal interest. From "what did you do over the snow break" to "should parents spank their kids," the daily writing topics all pertained to the student. Mrs. Rogers, one of the collaborative teachers, said, "If they cannot relate to the topic, then it makes a huge difference" (Personal Communication, January 14, 2010). Also, all of the prompts written in the class, from "what careers are you interested in" to "what is something that you regret," help the student write and expand on their topics. "All of the prompts we use are taken from past SOLs" explained Mrs. Rogers (Personal Communication, January 14, 2010). For an example, one of the 2009 SOL writing prompts was "Think of an important decision that you or someone you know will be making in the near future" (VDOE, 2010, p. 1). Having a topic of interest will help the students know define the purpose and know the audience, helping students improve the quality of their essays.
Using different writing strategies may help improve a students' writing, but putting the writing methods into use earlier is more effective. Having self-containment classes, tutoring, and retention really hold the student back, especially in the older age groups. In an interview with Mrs. Rogers, she commented that when she collapsed her self-containment class and put those students into a higher level class, their self-esteem rose. Because the students are labeled as self-contained or slow, they deal with outside of the classroom bullying, causing them to not try inside the classroom. Zilolkowska (2007) commented that "it is not surprising that children in special education tend to stay there" (p. 2). By intervening early, students would be able to pick up on the reading and writing skills, possibly getting away from being put into the slower groups. On January 14, 2010 eleventh grade English teacher Mrs. Rogers commented that even at Louisa County High School, the teachers are pushing for the kids to learn the four square method earlier so by the time they get to tenth and eleventh grade, they could move on to more in depth writing.
With early intervention, writing strategies can effectively help students improve their writing skills. Self-Regulated Strategy Development approach is a promising method to higher writing scores and writing comprehension for students of all levels. At Louisa County High School, the best method for organizing and advancing writing skills is the four square method. This visual method allows the students to be prepared for the SOL and has proven to be a solid organizational plan for expository and persuasive essays. Having an organizational plan to guide the students enhances writing scores and is the solution to a higher quality paper.