Saturday, October 31st, 1998
© 1998 Richard Wanderman
Learning how to write is not an easy process and takes a lot of practice, for anyone. For a person with a learning disability this learning process can be harder still and may take even more practice. The challenge is coming up with ways to motivate a person with a learning disability to practice writing enough so that they learn from their own writing experience.
Simple is better. It’s useful to have a decent spelling checker and speech capabilities. Beyond that it’s a personal choice. But, if you don’t use features and they get in the way, you don’t need them.
Knowing how to keyboard with your eyes on the screen is good. It’s helpful for anyone wanting to write faster and with more flow. It’s especially useful for people with language problems because the spelling decisions are relegated to kinesthetic patterns. Once you get good enough your spelling can improve dramatically from the difference in encoding methods.
Word prediction and speech to text software (dictation) are also useful as a staring point but make the writing process slower and more awkward. Continued use of them past bootstrapping (getting started) might possibly support a misconception about the user’s ability to ever learn to spell and use good syntax. People with language learning disabilities can learn how to spell through hard work and lots of practice.
A simple way to do this is to change the context that writing takes place in by taking some of the writing experience out of the formal, academic context and making it less formal and more personal. One way to make it more personal is to harness the speaking and conversational skills a person with a learning disability already has. Writing letters, e-mail, and participating in on- and off-line chats are all forms of conversational writing that make the thinking and writing process more personally meaningful and less formal which in turn allows more practice.
Chatting is a great way to get anyone to write more. It’s conversational, purposive, and informal. Plus, it’s inexpensive or free.
Local Chat with NetChat or other local chat software
NetChat is software that allows you to chat on an AppleTalk or Ethernet network. Put the software on each machine and run it. Two or more people can chat with each other in real time or everyone can join the chat.
E-mail is highly addictive and is one of the oldest and still most useful reasons to connect your computer to an online service or the Internet. E-mail is fast, easy, informal, and fun, and yet, you can use it to exchange important information.
Eliza is a simple program for doing conversational writing on your own computer. The script that current versions of Eliza use was written over 20 years ago by Joseph Weizenbaum at MIT as an early demonstration of natural language processing on computers. The script mimics Rogerian therapy (Carl Rogers reflective therapy) and is pretty crude. However, Eliza allows a user to get more writing and reading practice. The prerequisite for using Eliza is being able to spell the key words that trigger the script correctly and have good enough syntax for it to parse your sentences in a way that’s meaningful. Eliza is not for early writers; it’s for writers who can put a sentence together but need more practice writing quickly and simply. Eliza or programs like it have been written for almost every personal computer operating system from the Apple II to Windows.
Shared Keyboard Conversation
Double up on a computer with a friend and stop talking. No talking allowed. Use the keyboard and any word processing software to have a conversation on the screen. Make a few basic rules before you start: No talking, don’t worry about mistakes and fixing them, don’t write more than a few lines at a time, etc. It’s a great way to make clear the power of using voice as a generator for writing.
Shared Keyboard Conversation with AlphaSmart Keyboards
Try the same exercise as above except with AlphaSmart keyboards. Change the rules to reflect the AlphaSmart’s smaller screen: only type 1 line of text or slightly more at a time. AlphaSmart web site
Round-Robin Story Writing (and reading)
On a computer or an AlphaSmart, have students start a story (anything they like). Give them anything from two to five minutes to work on it (depending on their writing and keyboarding abilities). Then, tell them to stop in mid-sentence and move one computer to the right (or left), read the story on that machine and continue it. Repeat this until the students are one short of a complete circuit. Then, have them finish the story in front of them. Have them return to their starting machine and read the entire story (to themselves). If appropriate, have a random student read the story on his/her machine aloud. Or, have each student read aloud. Warning: reading aloud is hard for some students; don’t make this a requirement.
Encourage students to keep a journal which you will never look at. Give them some guidelines like: there ought to be an entry for every day, even if it’s just: “I didn’t do anything today except watch TV and I watched (whatever).” Keeping a journal is a good way to get a bit of personal writing done every day that you actually keep for yourself. It’s also a good way to do some thinking about hard questions without sharing with others.
Short Q & A
Create a document with interesting questions in it. Give digital copies of the document to students and encourage them to respond to any or all of the questions. Alternatively, upload the questions to AlphaSmart keyboards and encourage the students to write about them. A great way to come up with interesting questions is to use The Book of Questions (many forms…). The Book of Questions, Gregory Stock, Workman Publishing, New York, NY. ISBN: 0-89480-320-4.
Local Newsgroup/Question of the Day
Dedicate a computer to this task. Use current events, The Book of Questions, or any relevant topic. Start a word processor and write a meaningful question for students to consider. Leave it up on the screen and encourage students to sit and respond to the question. In other words, instead of discussing this orally, allow them to use the keyboard to anonymously (or signed) respond to the question. Any length response is appropriate, from a short phrase to an essay.
It’s amazing how few people actually write letters. These same people crab about not getting any mail. Well, of course they don’t get any, they don’t send any!
Have your students write a letter to the President of the United States. This letter will actually be addressed and sent. Have them choose a topic of interest and write about it in very simple terms. Show them a simple letter format like block format:
Friday, October 16, 1998
William J. Clinton
Executive Office of the President
1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear President Clinton,
I’d like to know more about your work program for college students. I think it’s a good idea and I’m thinking of trying it.
123 Main St.
Anytown, CA 12345
Show them how to address an envelope and send the letters. They’ll get a form response within a few weeks from the White House.
You can also organize a pen pal relationship with another classroom. America Online has numerous resources for finding other schools. Or, you can call across town and use a nearby school.
Have your students write a letter to one of their relatives, updating them on what’s happening with their immediate family.
Have your students make a simple genealogy on paper or on a computer. Geneaology is a structured way to record ideas, might involve writing letters to family members and doing research on the interernet. Structured writing is writing.
Another simple way to use available tools to get started with writing is to avoid writing long-winded paragraphs and simply make lists of ideas or short phrases that represent ideas. This way you use paper or the computer as memory and can record ideas without worrying about syntax or form.
* Make a list of everything you know about a topic
* Find categories in the list
* Group the items in the list into logical categories
* Add new categories if needed
* Move the categories into a logical order
This is a great way to start a formal piece of writing, or, it stands alone as a great brainstorming exercise.
Many serious writing tools have outliners built into them. Most people who use these tools avoid the outliners. This is a pattern learned before outlining was electronic and forgiving. Outliners are excellent tools for making and categorizing lists.
Brainstorming and Semantic Networks
Some students find the linearity of lists and outlines hard to see and use. Use paper and pencil or a program like Inspiration to generate ideas and connections between ideas. Inspiration allows you to move back and forth between graphical and outline views of the same information.
Other Ideas to Generate More Writing
* Make whatever you are writing or your students are writing meaningful.
* Take the emphasis off of skills, put it on content.
* Write every day
* Make writing incidental; write all the time, not just when you have a formal paper due.
* Make writing fun: choose writing tasks that are enjoyable.
* Experiment to find appropriate tools.
* Accept messes. Thinking and writing is a messy process and even when you’re good at it the messes never go away.
Writers need reference materials. Roommates are good only so far. Mothers are also good but you can’t take them to college (well, some can, but not many). Here are two good references:
Write Right!, Jan Venolia, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA. ISBN: 0-8985-063-9
Write Right is the best writer’s desk reference that I’ve found. It’s clear, humorous, to the point, and a joy to use for a potentially hard and cumbersome chore (editing and fixing up writing). It’s spiral bound for easier use. Excellent.