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They Can’t Write, Let Them be Authors

It’s easy to look at a writing sample like this and draw conclusions. The letters aren’t fully formed. There are no identifiable words. There is no clear message. A conversation with the author would likely reveal a lot more. An entire story may even unfold about this “writing.” That story is heart of the message. The rest is technical…conveying the story. Many of our students with complex needs produce writings like this one well into middle and high school. These students often get labeled “not ready to write,” or get a handwriting IEP goal (sometimes never to leave handwriting/worksheet purgatory).

A childs Level 2 writing in multiple colors on a piece of paper
Yet, the heart of writing is the story—the ideas, interests, needs, or wants. Writing is how we document and communicate that story. What would happen if we didn’t let the technical barriers (i.e. handwriting) get in the way of teaching students to write expressively? You end up with something like this:

Devin, a student with physical needs, surprised everyone when he wrote about going to Six Flags with his whole class and seeing the roller coasters. This story is incredibly expressive and Devin looks around the room as his classmate’s names are read. He captured the heart of the story and conveyed it, and he didn’t even pick up a pencil. Devin is a student in one of several schools that Dr. Janet Sturm, PhD, CCC-SLP, BCS-CL, F-ASHA worked with to develop First Author Writing Curriculum. Shockingly, it’s the first comprehensive writing curriculum written specifically for students with complex needs.

With the curriculum, students are taking risks. They love expressing themselves and their interests. They even share their stories with the class. One student beamed when he told the story of going to the prom. Another wrote about playing baseball with his dad. The curriculum assumes the interests, needs, and wants are ready to be brought out. It helps educators teach writing strategies while accommodating the physical limitations of their students. Companion software was the alternate pencil that helped Devin self-select his topic, choose a picture, and write independently with a topic vocabulary word bank. Through First Author, we’re seeing that with the right instruction, students with even the most significant disabilities can learn to write. So if your students can’t write yet, let them be authors. This is no small feat, but it may be the ticket to move out of handwriting/worksheet purgatory and into expressive writing!

First Author

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Karen A. Erickson, Ph.D.​

Karen A. Erickson, Ph.D. is Director of the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill. Her focus is on understanding the best ways to assess and teach reading and writing to children with the most severe disabilities. As a special education teacher, Dr. Erickson has worked to support students with a range of disabilities in a variety of classroom settings, particularly students who do not use speech as their primary means of communication.


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