How to get your students to write essays that actually make sense

If you keep reading, you’re going to learn how to help your students with language impairments who can’t write cohesive essay responses to save their lives, bless their hearts (and there’s going to be an official APA citation and explanation of results and clinical implications and all that good stuff)…but I’ll warn you it’s not your typical research summary.

If you don’t want to listen to my silly rant right now click the button on the image below and I can deliver this straight to your inbox. I won’t judge if you read it later over an adult beverage.

language therapy; written essay responses; language disorders; language research

A while back I published a blog post with some research summaries, and said I’d be updating it every so often. This week, I finally hunkered down and decided to start updating it.

I started plugging away at the dreaded summaries, which were starting to look similar to the ones we had to do in grad school that we not-so-secretly hated because writing them is about as much fun as watching paint dry.

I found myself constantly making excuses for why I couldn’t finish it. I’d pop in to my inbox to look through my emails, then start messing around on Facebook and watching videos of cute puppies. What the heck was my problem?

Then I realized it. I was bored out of my mind. The articles I was writing were putting me to sleep. And I imagine if I don’t want to read my own articles, you probably wouldn’t either.  So I decided to put it down and go a different direction.

No more boring research summaries for me.

But… we do need to be familiar with the research. And hats off to the people doing the studies who spend their time analyzing t-tests, ANOVAs, and then working through the peer-review process. It’s hard work doing research (I know because I’ve done it before my blogging days).

The thing is, few people really “feel” like reading an article after working their asses off doing therapy all day.

You know what people did on a Friday night after attending an SLP state conference I often attend? They went out for cocktails and then went to see Fifty Shades of Grey.

I’m sure there were other people who chose less scandalous options for their Friday night entertainment, but the point is that no one likes to work harder than they need to, and sometimes our brains need a break.

There may be a few who delight in digging through journals for their light reading, but the majority of us, if we’re being honest, aren’t doing this if we don’t absolutely have to.  It’s not laziness, or the inability to understand it. It’s just that we want to conserve our mental energy, because a full-time therapy schedule is exhausting.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t read the research, or that no one ever does. Far from it. It’s SO valuable, and we need it to inform our practice. I read research every week to figure out what to write on this blog.

Yet asking overworked clinicians to sift through the masses of research out there to translate in to something they can actually do in a practical situation is a tall order.

Sometimes we want someone to just tell us how it applies to what we need to do in therapy right now, but we feel bad about admitting it because it makes us feel like we’re being lazy or disrespecting the leaders in our field.

I’ve found myself reading studies and then realizing I still had tons of work to do in order to take what I’d just learned and translate it in to something feasible for a therapy session. It was going to be possible, but it was going to take time.

Time that I didn’t have. And I just wished someone would do it for me.  Wouldn’t that be nice if that could happen?

Well… today it can, and it doesn’t have to take a ton of your time, which is why we’re going to have a quickie (not that kind of quickie…get your mind out of the gutter).

I’m going to walk you through some research that’ll help you through a problem that SLPs have asked me about countless times…getting our students to write an extended written response that actually makes sense.

I’m going to just give you what you need, so you can read it quickly and get back to work. Most importantly, I’m not going to put you to sleep talking about statistically analyses (if you’re a super nerd like me and actually want to read about it, I’ll give you the full reference below).

What I am going to do is tell you what you should actually do in therapy based on the results of the study.

So if you love to hate research, this is your kind of research summary.

If you’ve got to run, I can just send this whole article straight to your inbox.

language therapy; language research; written language;

If you’re still with me, I can walk you through the study and show you what you can do to help your students’ writing (even if you only have 30-60 minutes per week to do it).

The study: Effectiveness of a test-taking strategy on achievement in essay tests for students with learning disabilities.

The authors: Therrien, Hughes, Kapelski, & Mokhtari (2009).

This study is a great reference for anyone who is working with students with language impairments that can’t seem to get it together for written language assignments. The researchers investigated at the impact of teaching a metacognitive strategy to 42 7th and 8th grade students with reading and writing disabilities.

They wanted to see if the strategy would improve essay writing skills, so they randomly assigned students to either an intervention or control condition.

The intervention was a version of Self-Regulated Strategies Developments (SRSD), which involves teaching students to complete a set of steps using a mnemonic.

The strategy included 6-steps, which students could remember with the following mnemonic: ANSWER (i.e., Analyze the action words, Notice the requirements, Set up an outline, Work in details, Engineer your answer, Review your answer) mnemonic strategy for essay completion.

The researchers taught the students to complete the steps with modeling and demonstration, scaffolded practice, and corrective feedback.

The control condition was a “business-as-usual” condition, which included essay writing practice presented with general instructions and examples of the components of a well-written essay.  Both conditions lasted for eight sessions over a two-week period during the students 42 minute study hall.

Results of a pretest-posttest comparison (measured by rubrics) showed that the students in the intervention condition also performed significantly better than the control group in their ability to carry out the steps in ANSWER, which basically just means that the intervention helped them learn and use the strategy effectively.

The rubrics showed that students in the intervention condition showed significantly higher ratings on idea, content, and organization than the control group; showing that teaching the ANSWER steps was significantly more effective than the standard classroom instruction.

So, what do these results mean for our students? This shows that it’s possible for many of the students we work with to improve their writing skills if given the right strategy. It also means that if we teach our students the right strategy, they may be able to keep up with student in the general education classrooms.

Now let’s get to the part you’ve been waiting for…what you can do in your therapy sessions. I realize that this protocol was designed for a standard class that meets every day, so I’m going to show you how to modify it for your situation (which is most likely therapy 30-60 minutes per week).

I’ll lay it out for you; plus give you a handout (the table below).

First things first. Let’s talk about what the steps in ANSWER mean. This protocol is meant to be used for answering essay questions on exams. There are many situations that students are given a written question prompt, and then asked to generate a lengthy written response. This can be disastrous for our students.

Here’s a table that outlines each of the steps in the ANSWER strategy and gives an example of how each might look give a particular test essay question.

*Step 6, Review your Work tends to be the most challenging step. Many students will think they’re finished once they get their answer written. I tell them all good writers revise their work and do it many times, and sometimes give them examples of famous writers who have talked about the editing/revision process. The kids will fight you tooth and nail to get out of this step because it’s hard and they want to be done. Whatever you do, DO NOT GIVE IN!

Next, we need to talk about how to teach our students how to use the strategy, and there are typically three phases for doing that. I’ll outline them below.

Phase 1. Modeling and demonstration.

First you’re going to want to do the modeling and demonstration phase, similar to the framework laid out by (Ukrainetz, 2007). This is where we show our students what we want them to do. Sometimes we jump right in to a task without explaining it to our students, and that can be disastrous.

We have to remember that our students with language impairments can’t always process directions or learn implicitly like others, so sometimes they need to be walked through the process.

Modeling first is often recommended for ALL learners (both child and adult), but our students are particularly dependent on it. For modeling, we would go through the process of writing an essay from start to finish using the ANSWER strategy, and model each of the 6-steps.

In other words, they need to see you do it first, and you need to explain what you’re doing while you’re doing it. You can probably do this in 1-2 therapy sessions. The only drawback is that you need to spend a couple minutes reminding the students where you left off if you break it up, but that’s not a deal-breaker.

Phase 2: Guided Practice.

Second comes scaffolded practice, sometimes referred to as guided practice.  This is where we ask the students to do the task, but we give support. “Scaffolding” is just a fancy way of saying that we’re helping students along. In this phase, our students are writing an essay, but we’re there to jump in when we need to…which for our students is a lot.

This typically will take you multiple therapy sessions; but is a powerful way to get your students to use language during a functional task. This is the phase where we give corrective feedback as well, and that is part of the scaffolding.

Phase 3: Independent Practice.

Third, if possible we want to phase out the prompting and eventually get our students to write the essay from start to finish independently, essentially working yourself out of a job.

You’re probably burying your head in your hands right now because your students are so far away from actually being able to do this. If that’s the case, don’t beat yourself up. You will probably be spending a large portion of your time in the first few phases, and that’s fine.

We just want to begin with the end in mind, so that’s why I’m mentioning this third phase.

The nice thing about this type of task is that it’s a continuous project that you can carry out over a long period of time, even up to 4-6 weeks (although that’s a suggestion, not a hard guideline).

Carrying it out over a longer time period means you’re covered from a planning standpoint for a while, and also shows your students how to stick with a big project from beginning to end.

These days that’s important because we have so much immediate gratification. If your students are at the point where they have all of the linguistic “pieces” in place during structured tasks, but can’t quite get it together to generalize, this is great framework to use.

On the other hand, if your students have a lot of work to do in the area of syntax and morphology and have difficulty putting together a sentence together even in a structured task, you might want to spend your therapy time working on those skills before moving to something like this that covers overall essay cohesion.

Here’s the reference for the study below in case you’re interested in reading further:

Therrien, W. J., Hughes, C., Kapelski, C., & Mokhtari, K. (2009). Effectiveness of a test-taking strategy on achievement in essay tests for students with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 42, 14-23. doi: 10.1177/0022219408326218

Here’s the reference for Teresa Ukrainetz’s text, which is where I got the framework for scaffolding:

Ukrainetz, T. A. (2007). Contextualized language intervention: Scaffolding prek-12 literacy achievement. Austin, TX: PRO-ED, Inc.

If you’re with me still, that likely means this summary didn’t put you to sleep 🙂

And if that’s the case, I imagine you might want to get more just like it. If that’s the case, you can join my mailing list to get this summary (and future articles/resources like this one) delivered straight to your inbox.  Click the button below to sign up.


language research; language therapy; written essay responses; language disorders


2 Responses to “How to get your students to write essays that actually make sense

  • Heather Braaten
    8 months ago

    This is very helpful. I appreciate how clear and concise this article is, and how much time it saves me. I look forward to more of your research summaries.

    • Thanks Heather! Glad I could help. Let me know if you have suggestions for other topics.

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