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Effective Strategies for Teaching Writing to Struggling Readers

Alisha Adkins has a Masters in Education, 10 years of experience as in the secondary classroom, and has worked as an educational consultant.

Simplifying Writing

Students Who Struggle in Reading Will Also Struggle with Writing

It generally follows that students who struggle as readers also struggle with writing. "Students with good reading comprehension skills are likely to also be good writers, and those with poor reading skills are likewise poor writers" (Whirry, 2004).

Therefore, when you have students who have been identified as poor readers, it is important to provide them with interventions for writing as well as reading. With the proper support, these students can produce good writing.

What Are the Characteristics of a Struggling Writer?

A struggling writer...

  • Has difficulty getting started
  • Often is not sure of expectations
  • Has difficulty generating and organizing ideas
  • Lacks the vocabulary to adequately express many of his or her ideas
  • Has little understanding of text structure or how it affects meaning
  • Experiences frustration
  • Tries to avoid written assignments

What is Good Writing?


"Good Writing"

Frequently, when teachers are asked what characteristics they look for in their students' writing, their answers include coherence, proper spelling, good grammar, nice "flow," sequencing, organization, and sense of voice.

However, according to research by Ruth Culham, a leading authority on writing instruction, there are six assessable traits we can use to measure the quality and effectiveness of writing. Those traits are ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions.

6 Traits + 1

Presentation is often considered the +1 trait.

Presentation is often considered the +1 trait.

Breaking Down the 6 Traits of Writing

The six traits of writing can be summed up in this way:

  • Ideas are the heart of the message that makes up the meaning of the piece.
  • Organization is the internal structure of the writing that frames the ideas in a logical pattern.
  • Voice is the tone of the piece -- this is the personal stamp that a writer brings while keeping in mind his or her purpose and audience.
  • Word choice are the words chosen to convey meaning -- it's important to use the right word in the right place.
  • Sentence Fluency is an auditory trait. It focuses on how words and phrases sound and flow throughout the text.
  • Conventions is the mechanical correctness of the piece, including grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

Please note that conventions are only one of six traits teachers should assess according to this model. Often, conventions become the primary focus when teachers grade student writing, in part because they are more easily assessed than other traits.

The 6 Traits as Layers of a Cake

You have to begin with a strong foundation.

You have to begin with a strong foundation.

Benefits of the 6 Traits Model

The benefits of assessing writing based on the 6 trait writing model include:

  • Consistency. By consistently using these six traits as a guidelines, students can develop a shared understanding of what good writing is and an understanding of what is expected of them when they write.
  • Specificity. While holistic approaches are general and do little to promote improvement, the specificity of the 6 traits model provides meaningful and constructive feedback that helps students understand what they are doing well and what they need to improve.

The Writing Process Meets the 6 Traits

Steps of the Writing Process

Steps of the Writing Process

Traits to Assess During Each Stage of the Writing Process

Traits to Assess During Each Stage of the Writing Process


From Good to Better

What can you do to strengthen student performance in each trait?

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  • Ideas: Supply graphic organizers to help students brainstorm.
  • Conventions: Provide ongoing opportunities for students to practice conventions, including grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
  • Organization: Supply graphic organizers to help students organize their ideas and plan the structure of their writing
  • Word choice: Use vocabulary routines. Provide many opportunities to build and practice vocabulary.
  • Voice: The more developed a student’s writing is, the more of his or her voice the reader will be able to hear. Provide opportunities to practice developing writing, including adding details.
  • Sentence Fluency: Provide many opportunities for students to hear writing read aloud, and point out how words and phrases sound and flow throughout the text. Give students opportunities to practice writing of various styles. Provide feedback on the sound and flow of their writing. Utilize fluency strategies such as Repeated Readings, Partner Reading, Choral Reading, and Reader’s Theater.

Steps to Effective Writing

In order to produce effective writing that utilizes the 6 traits, students should:

  • Follow the steps of the Writing Process
  • Utilize Scaffolding

teachers should:

  • Use the Gradual Release method to teach
  • Differentiate instruction based on students’ needs

Guiding Students to Success


Applying the Writing Process

The writing process (shown in diagrams above) are the steps all writers must go through to produce a finished written work. Can students successfully apply the writing process on their own?

No, they typically cannot. Moreover, they definitely can't if they are struggling students who are in need of ELA interventions. "Struggling readers need systematic writing instruction that is highly structured, coached, and monitored" (Troia & Graham, 2002). But that's okay. They don't have to apply it on their own; we can enable our students to successfully apply the writing process with scaffolding!

One Step at a Time

Research Supports Use of the Gradual Release Model

Research Supports Use of the Gradual Release Model

If You Structure It, They Can Write It: Using Scaffolding

Writing scaffolds are research-supported temporary tools or strategies that teachers can use to assist students in moving to higher levels of comprehension and performance. Scaffolding writing helps struggling readers recognize key features necessary to structure the content and organization of their writing so they can meet the demands of academic writing. Scaffolding can include sentence starters, prewriting aides such as graphic organizers, and templates for various assignments and forms of writing.

A simple way to begin using scaffolding is by providing your students with sentence starters. Writing clearly requires writers to think clearly. Thus, it is important for students to write in complete thoughts. Since many struggling writers have difficulty getting started, sentence stems help students clarify their thoughts and provide a starting point for those that don’t know where to begin.

Scaffolding follows the research-based Gradual Release Model.

The Gradual Release Model

The Gradual Release model is composed of three stages:

I DO: Model

  • Teacher provides direct explanation, instruction, and skill modeling.

WE DO: Practice

  • Teacher-directed practice.

YOU DO: Apply

  • Students apply the skill and move toward independence.

Applied to writing instruction, the gradual release model's steps are comprised of:

1. modeling using scaffolding to create effective writing. Just as we model other academic tasks we want our students to perform, we need to model suitable structures for effective writing. By modeling proper writing structure, teachers help students learn how to structure their own writing.

2. Using scaffolding in whole or small group to conduct guided practice (this is excellent with a Promethean board!).

3. Giving students many opportunities to write independently using scaffolded activities.


Differentiation of Instruction

Finally, remember to differentiate to meet the needs of your students. After all, "every student can learn, just not on the same day, or the same way."(George Evans).

Differentiated instruction is considering what students know and then…

  • adapting teaching methods
  • using leveled materials
  • adjusting the amount and pacing of instruction to meet each student’s needs.

Resources for Teaching Writing

© 2013 Alisha Adkins


Joyette Helen Fabien from Dominica on September 23, 2014:

Great hub! A lot of useful ideas and suggestions for the struggling teacher. I like the use of the various researched models.

Eric Pelka from State College, Pennsylvania on March 24, 2014:

A tool I think teachers and students have gotten away from is the journal. A place to write without worrying about the conventions and structures. It's a method of developing ideas in order to get passed the initial hurdle of comprehension. Teaching structure and process is helpful but often times with struggling students starting is by far the hardest aspect. The journal also allows for development of vocabulary, phrasing and style. Awesome Hub, my friend!

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