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Helping Adolescents Who Struggle with Writing

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “Literacy Education and Disability Studies: Re-envisioning Struggling Students” by Kathleen Collins and Beth Ferri in Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, July/August 2016 (Vol. 60, #1, p. 7-12).
In this Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy article, Kathleen Collins (Pennsylvania State University) and Beth Ferri (Syracuse University) describe a teaching challenge faced by Collins at the beginning of her second year teaching high-school literacy. This was a basic course taken by 9th graders who were not college-bound and many of whom did not speak English at home. Collins asked students to find an article in a newspaper or magazine, discuss it with classmates, and then write an essay giving their reactions to the article.
One girl, captain of the freshman volleyball team and quite fluent in spoken English (her native language was Spanish), turned in an essay reacting to a Readers Digest article on gun control. The problem was that she had copied the first sentence of every paragraph from the article and strung them together with words and short phrases to create a piece of writing that resembled an essay. A male student, quarterback of the junior varsity football team, was also a frequent and articulate participant in class discussions, but he failed to bring in an article. Collins gave him several to look over and he chose a sports column from The Washington Post, but when he turned in his paper, it had “S.A.” at the top and nothing else.
How was Collins supposed to deal with these students? Punish the girl for plagiarism? Refer her to be tested for a learning disability? Get her E.S.L. support? Was the boy being defiant and noncompliant, or did he have some sort of learning problem that needed diagnosis and treatment? Were these students’ deficits cognitive, linguistic, or ethical? Finally, should they both be given failing grades for the assignment?
None of the above, say Collins and Ferri. Instead, a situation like this needs to be approached from a different perspective that “helps us disrupt deficit thinking, view students with disabilities as a cultural minority group marginalized by normative school structures, and shift the object of remediation from ‘defective’ students to inaccessible school structures and practices.” Making this shift, they say, “is increasingly a matter of great urgency” because when struggling students are labeled as disabled and pulled out of regular classes, they miss out on core instruction and fall further and further behind. What these two students have is a literacy problem, say the authors, and like most other students in the same boat, they really need high-quality literacy instruction and additional support. Here is what Collins and Ferri say the most effective teachers do:
• Clearly communicate that every student belongs. Having established this, the challenge is designing the learning environment so everyone can succeed. “When students identified as having difficulty with academic literacy are included and supported,” say Collins and Ferri, “it sends a message to the rest of the class that everyone is valued and that everyone is a vital member of the classroom community…. [W]hen a teacher gives up on students, it is not long afterward that the students will often give up on themselves.”
• Presume competence. It’s important to believe that all students, even those who struggle with academic writing or some other literacy skill, have something valuable to contribute and want to participate. Teachers then need to find ways to support them in expanding their beachhead of competence while addressing weaknesses. In the case of the girl who copied from Readers Digest, the teacher might see it as her attempt to scaffold herself into a new form of discourse, creating writing that was more essay-like than what she could produce on her own – but it’s also clear that she needs help in taking the next step. The boy who turned in a blank paper wasn’t defiant but stuck on this assignment and in need of help to compete the task. And indeed, Collins reports, “after being provided with the opportunity to map out his ideas visually prior to writing, and then use this map to orally explain his ideas to his peers, he was able to independently draft a coherent essay.
• See the student-task gap. “Struggle is not a characteristic of individual learners,” say Collins and Ferri; “a struggling reader or writer is one who is experiencing a mismatch between their preferred literacy mode and the one they are being asked to communicate with in school.” Teachers need to know their students well and look for ways to tweak assignments so students can bridge the gap. Collins concluded that in this case, her essay assignment was flawed: students needed a broader range of newspaper and magazine articles to choose from, and more options in how to write their essays, perhaps including the use of technology.
Implementing these steps is a major shift from the status quo in many schools and asks a lot of educators, acknowledge Collins and Ferri. It means that teachers “actively choose to reject deficit thinking and its attendant assignment of deficit, deviance, or defiance… It requires rethinking and questioning the centrality and expectation of normalcy and homogeneity in classrooms and schools. Specifically, it requires that teachers and teacher educators take up different habits of mind and consider how to support the meaningful participation of students who come to us with an array of literacies, which may or not include facility with written academic literacy.” By adopting these precepts, “literacy teachers have the opportunity to play a particularly important role in resisting educational sorting, disrupting patterns of exclusion, and shaping students’ subsequent life opportunities.”

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