Word Processing for Learning Disabled Students

For the last three years I have worked as a Learning Specialist at a public school in San Francisco. Students with whom I work have been diagnosed with some type of learning disability that is adversely impacting their progress in the general curriculum. While these are generally happy and healthy kids in all other aspects, their academic life is a struggle. Assignments that require writing can often be a particularly torturous experience. Most students in a classroom will complete a writing assignment following the directions for the specific length requirements, within the allotted amount of time set aside for the assignment. But many of my students will not have enough time to finish even a third of what is expected of them in the same amount of time.

While much specialized technology exists for students with disabilities, these resources are often expensive and therefore very hard to come by. But what does almost every classroom have at least one of? A computer. It may not be hooked up to the Internet, it may not have a disc drive or speakers, but it is likely that it has a simple word processing program, the usefulness of which should not be underestimated.

Just this past school year, five of my fifth-grade students transitioned from struggling to write single paragraphs to being able to write multiple paragraph essays and stories on a weekly basis. Was this accomplished because of their highly talented teachers? Perhaps, but I think several other factors contributed to their significant improvements in writing. First, we required all of the students to write on a consistent and routine basis. Each Monday we assigned a new writing prompt. We then dedicated Mondays and Tuesdays to composing a first draft in response to the prompt, followed by editing and publishing on Wednesdays and Thursdays. The assignments were due on Friday mornings. This routine established very clear expectations of how and when work was to be completed.

Now expectations are great, provided that they are realistic expectations. And this is where the computer and simple word processing becomes a necessary component for a learning disabled student to effectively meet such high writing demands each week. Below is a list of five benefits that I have observed in teaching word processing to students with learning disabilities.

1) Basic Word Processing Skills: Each week I ask my students to find their file on the computer, open up a new Word document, and save the file with a recognizable name. Also those with a home computer can save their work on a disk and take it home to finish. We teach students to print their own documents in multiple copies, for both editing and to turn in. We expand upon those basic skills throughout the year. Even if we teach only one new “trick†each week, the students are significantly improving upon their skills over the course of the year. But they are never overwhelmed by what is being taught. Basic word processing skills, so critical for success in school, are not difficult to teach or for students to learn.

2) Organization: I can’t tell you how many times I have witnessed a student spending hours working on an assignment that is lost the next day, before ever submitting it for credit. Having a draft on the computer eliminates this problem. If one copy gets lost, he or she just prints out another. Once a student has learned basic word processing skills, he or she can get a new copy independently without using teaching time.

3) Quantity: Word processing allows students with disabilities to increase the quantity of their writing. This increased production is partly due to reduced physical demands in manual writing. We also increase productivity by eliminating the requirement of typing. In order to spend more time focused on quality, I often have students dictate what they have written, while I type. Through dictation the students are working on reading, as well as listening aloud to the flow and coherence of their own writing.

4) Quality: Because a word processing program offers editing capabilities it increases quality. With a first draft in the computer, the student can now address improvements. Here’s a fact: If the learning-disabled student does not have to worry about completely rewriting an assignment, he or she will be much more willing to make changes. It is also useful to establish this as a rule for writing assignments. I simply tell my students that a first draft is never good enough, not for me and not for them. It is in the editing process that we teach mini writing lessons. I focus on one writing technique a week and build from there. Students can start by replacing worn-out adjectives with more sophisticated words. Once the students are asking, “Should I change good to fantastic?†you know it’s time to move on to the next concept. In this simple mini-lesson format students learn about adjective use, past tense verbs, capitalization, referencing, use of quotation marks and other more advanced punctuation, and paragraph structure; all in the context of their own writing.

5) Developing competency as a writer: When students successfully complete a writing assignment every week for the length of the school year, their confidence builds. Word processing allows students to create pieces of writing that are of a quality and quantity comparable to that of their peers. Soon their attitude and self-esteem in regard to writing improves, and a student who used to hate writing is ready and willing to express him/herself in writing.

There’s another advantage, beyond the learning benefits for the student. Having students complete written work on the computer is a great way to maintain a record of student progress to share at Parent Conferences and I.E.P. meetings. Student work can be printed out at the end of the year to make a writing portfolio for each student. The overall amount of writing produced and the improvement demonstrated from the beginning to the end of the year amazes students and parents alike.

Email:Inga Townsend