7 Steps to Teaching Writing Skills to Students with Disabilities

Writing skill

7 Steps to Teaching Writing Skills to Students with Disabilities

Written expression is a huge part of life inside and outside the classroom. When students with disabilities learn to write, type, and/or select appropriate communicative responses, it opens the door to greater opportunities to reach their learning goals, communicate their preferences, and establish rapport with the people around them.

Today’s post shares 7 important steps to consider when designing programs for teaching written expression to students with disabilities. These are excerpted and adapted from the excellent guidebook More Language Arts, Math, and Science for Students with Severe Disabilities, edited by Diane M. Browder and Fred Spooner.

Make Writing Meaningful

Focusing on the mechanics of writing will often prevent a student from understanding and accomplishing the purpose of writing. Think beyond the traditional ways students have learned to write, and focus on making writing meaningful.

  • Ask what’s important and potentially reinforcing to students, and use the answers as engaging topics for written narratives. Try presenting pictures of characters from a book and asking the student, “Whom would you like to write about?” Let the student select their three most preferred characters to focus on during writing instruction.
  • Teach students to request desired objects by exchanging pre-written words for preferred items. For example, you might instruct a student to get a cookie by handing the written word cookie to a partner. Once the student masters this, he or she can be taught to combine the written words big and cookie to communicate a desire for a larger cookie. This is a powerful way to give students direct control over their environment as they learn the functional use of written words. As a bonus, it allows students to use pre-written words without having to learn more complex fine motor and cognitive skills first.
  • Deliver reinforcement right away. When your student displays any type of writing or prewriting behavior—holding a crayon, scribbling, pressing keys on a computer, drawing on a SMART Board—follow it up with immediate praise and reinforcement. This will hopefully increase the frequency of their writing behavior and improve the fine motor skills they need for handwriting or keyboarding.

Main takeaways

  • Students need sufficient foundational skills and knowledge (in spelling, typing, content-specific knowledge) and may be taught some of this knowledge in the course of writing . This means that educators in early grades should work on building basic skills in hand-writing, spelling, and typing, and that educators in later grades spend some time focusing on sentence-building skills and incorporate content learning into writing assignments.
  • Students benefit from a writing environment where they write and edit frequently using word processing software on long pieces of writing that generate student interest. Although students in early grades may by predominantly writing by hand, as they move on to late elementary school and middle school they should transition to typing, which enables more rapid editing. Although work on basic transcription and sentence-building skills is vital, educators also need to assign longer pieces of work as students progress.
  • Students benefit from clear writing purposes and from having well-defined goals for improvement. This suggests that educators choose writing assignments that have larger purposes beyond simply being submitted for a grade—student writing that is published, displayed, or otherwise shared can improve student motivation. It also suggests that educators carefully structure the revision process. For instance, revision goals like “come up with two more reasons in favor of your argument and one reason in favor of an opposing argument” help students meaningfully revise their papers.
  • Students benefit from instruction on models of good and bad writing, and through explicit strategies in the writing process: for example, pre-writing techniques, ways of organizing the material, making their reasoning explicit. Educators must correct misperceptions of what writing that focus on the product of writing (instead of the process). And they must be explicit about the strategies that good writers use to ultimately create solid writing.
  • Students benefit from guidance in genre-specific practices (for instance, diagrams that help students “fill out” both sides of an argument, character sheets that help students flesh out the characters in their narratives, etc.). Educators can’t assume that skill in one genre of writing will necessarily transfer to others; students have to be taught about the expectations and norms of the writing community.
  • Students benefit from collaborating with each other: editing, receiving feedback, and editing again, or even working in groups to co-write material. Providing feedback to others seems to provide as much or more benefit to writing skill as editing one’s own paper. Educators should focus on teaching students how to edit judiciously and provide feedback in a supportive way.​

Writing is a complex skill involving the interaction of lots of different kinds of knowledge (e.g., “genre knowledge”, “subject matter knowledge”, “writing process knowledge”). This complexity makes it challenging to study.

There is also an increasing recognition of the discipline- and genre-specific nature of writing. It’s not about teaching a single, relatively discrete skill — “writing” — but about teaching ways writing in science , ways of writing in history , ways of writing in literature. Writing in any genre is not a fully transferable skill—it requires contextual knowledge (about the purpose and the audience of the work), content knowledge (about the subject of the work), and writing process knowledge.

How to teach writing in EFL and ESL classrooms

Levels of writing

Levels of writing (how to teach writing)

Learners should be trained to develop different language subskills. The knowledge that they should develop ranges from handwriting skills and mechanics to the ability to produce coherent writing. Other types of knowledge include vocabulary, grammar, and paragraph structure. The use of cohesive devices (e.g. however, nevertheless, but, etc.) is also of paramount importance for good writers. figure 1: Levels of writing (how to teach writing)

Writing activities

The writing task in the classroom can be also seen either as a learning tool (i.e. writing for learning) or as representing one of the main syllabus components (i.e. writing for writing) ( Harmer, 2004) .

Writing for learning

Writing for writing

Product writing

The product writing approach refers to a writing procedure with an end product in mind. In this approach, the students are encouraged to mimic a model text. Analysis of the model text focuses on the linguistic features (e.g. prepositions, tense, adverbs…). Attention is paid to the accuracy of the students’ productions and the teacher is concerned with where the students end not how they get there.

This approach is criticized for not paying attention to the processes involved in writing. The writing process involves far more than just producing an accurate piece of writing. Hence the development of a new approach that caters to the pitfalls of the product approach.

Process writing

“…process writing in the classroom may be construed as a program of instruction which provides the students with a series of planned learning experiences to help them understand the nature of writing at every point.”
Anthony Sewo, 2002, p.315



There might be some kind of response to the students’ drafts either from other peers or from the teacher. This can be in the form of a quick oral or written initial reaction to the draft.


Revising is not merely checking for language errors. It is rather a look at the overall content and organization of ideas. Using the feedback from their peers or from the teacher, the learners check whether their writing communicates meaning effectively to the intended audience. For example, some ideas may be discarded while others may be improved. The structure of paragraphs might also be affected during revision and the overall organization may be refined to convey coherent content.


“…many good writers employ a recursive, non-linear approach – writing of a draft may be interrupted by more planning, and revision may lead to reformulation, with a great deal of recycling to earlier stages.”

Krashen, 1984, p. 17. Cited in Anthony Sewo, 2002, p.315.

Genre writing

Recent studies on the genres of writing have revived interest in some features of the product approach. Genre writing is similar to the product approach in the sense that it also considers writing from a linguistic standpoint. Nevertheless, there is a major difference between the genre and product approaches. The genre approach, unlike the product approach, focuses on the social context in which writing is produced. As mentioned above, texts can be classified into different genres and are normally written for different social purposes. Consequently, each genre (e.g. email, formal letters, storytelling, etc.) has its own common conventional features and the teachers’ role is to raise the students’ awareness of these features and help them learn how to produce texts with the same features.

The conventional features of genres include things like layout, diction, style, organization, and content. If these are not analyzed and practiced by the students themselves in different examples, they will not be able to communicate their intents appropriately and their productions will undoubtedly break the expectations of the reader. Consequently, knowing how to teach writing presupposes that teachers should also focus on their students’ awareness and analysis of different genres to help them avoid producing texts that will likely cause a negative reaction.

Texts are socially constructed and follow social conventions that the students have to respect. It helps to understand the rationale behind the form of discourse by examining not only its language but also its social context and purpose. Wedding invitations, for example, share so many characteristics that when we see an example of them, it is immediately apparent from its layout and its language.

Practically, the genre approach draws on Vygotsky’s social constructivism which considers language as a consequence of human interaction. The procedure is based on three major stages: awareness-raising, appropriation, and autonomy. During the lesson, scaffolding is provided. That is, the teacher provides support for learners as they progress in their linguistic competence and become independent.