ENGLISH FOR ALL: THE IMPORTANCE OF PEDAGOGICAL STRATEGIES FOR STUDENTS WITH LEARNING DISABILITIES IN THE WRITING CENTER

Hailey Hughes
Marshall University
hughes260@marshall.edu

At the beginning of the spring semester this year, I tutored a student diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. He brought in a research paper on the process and dangers of fracking. He needed help with grammar and developing cohesive structure. During the appointment, I began to notice that he became easily overwhelmed with the volume of his research and the content of the essay. As I pointed out some grammatical errors in the piece with him, it became apparent that he was aware of the conventions, but the lack of organization caused him to make these mistakes.  The client’s research was amazing. It was clear to me that he did not lack knowledge that basic writers lack as a result of inexperience; instead, his sensory issues prevented him from expressing himself the way he wanted.

An issue that has arisen and been addressed is that basic writing and LD writing appear synonymously in the composition field, in regard to pedagogical strategies and definition. In fact, Kimber Barber-Fendley and Chris Hamel, in their article, “A New Visibility: An Argument for Assistive Writing for Students with Learning Disabilities” assert that there is not currently a way to distinguish between the traits of a basic writer and an LD writer (507). This is significant because there are important differences between them, but currently there is not a way to distinguish writing differences between basic writing and LD writing. Basic writers and LD writers tend to make the same types of mistakes with grammar conventions, like spelling, and this is why distinguishing between the two is so difficult. According to Penny Lace, in “Key Concepts in Learning Disabilities,” students with learning disabilities have specific difficulties with language comprehension and retention, so it’s not surprising that students tend to struggle in composition courses as they encounter new concepts, like the application of literary devices in analyses or structuring a composition piece appropriately. 

Currently, there are increasingly positive articles about LD writers. In fact, Christine M. Hamel, in her article, “Learning Disabilities in the Writing Center: Challenging Our Perspectives?” discusses the concept of “a thought change experiment,” where we, as writing center tutors and future instructors, change our way of thinking about students with learning disabilities. Hamel expresses the need to embrace writing composed by someone with LD as another way of expressing one’s self, even if it’s not reflective of the traditional linear model (2). Hamel extends a call to action to tutors that it might trickle up to professors and experts in the composition field. This change requires a shift in pedagogy. Another article that signals a shift in perceptions of people with all disabilities, which could also be impactful for those with learning disabilities as it is welcomed into the field of disability studies, “Where We Are: Disability and Accessibility—Moving Beyond Disability 2.0 in Composition Studies” by Tara Wood. In the article, Wood explains that a disability is just like any other ethnic or gender difference a student may have, but is not considered an issue that impedes the learning process, that needs to be corrected. (Wood et. al. 148). This exemplifies what a shift perspective scholars have made, whereas before they viewed disabilities in general as something that needs fixing, that impedes knowledge, now it is just an inherent part of a human being. These articles reflect how experts in the composition field are starting to adjust their perceptions and becoming more open to adjusting their pedagogy for all students.

One should expand upon Hamel’s “thought-change” experiment as a precursor to any hands-on applications in the writing center. The reasoning behind this is that tutors need to change their frame of mind before they can effectively implement different pedagogical strategies. Hamel expands on her thought change experiment by imploring that we expand our ways of learning outside the traditional linear model text, that if we don’t do this then we are isolating those with LD, and losing significant contributions to society (Hamel 3). This “thought change experiment” can then by applied to the writing center, the author explains, saying that the way a writing center functions as a “collaboration” with the client, allows for different kinds of learning to take place. These kinds of collaborations can “re-able” a student with LD (Hamel 4). This is the first step: to be open to all the possibilities of learning and adjust our pedagogy so that students with LD can express themselves properly.

Once an instructor or tutor has gone through this “thought change,” there are some hands-on applications that can be employed to help students with LD in the classroom. In fact, according to Brenda Brueggemann et. al., in their article, “Becoming Visible: Lessons in Disability,” oral transcription and expression seems to be a fair theoretical approach for those who struggle with writing. This also seems to be a typical accommodation for students at the post-secondary level. One strategy with clients with a language processing difficulty in the writing center is type for them, while they dictate what they want to convey. In Learning Re-Abled: The Learning Disability Controversy and Composition Studies, Patricia A. Dunn also expresses the need for “more explicit or multisensory instruction” for students with learning disabilities. (64). Color coding writing assignments also seems to be useful for adapting assignments for students with LD because you are reinforcing them more than one way and is an example of using multisensory assignments, especially if you pair it with something tangible, like colored notecards. Dunn expands on these methods of multi-sensory approaches by discussing techniques that elementary school teachers have used to help their students learn to read and spell, because there is even less scholarship available about teaching methods at the collegiate level for LD students, and because their condition still needs to be validated (Dunn 76). These strategies can be adapted to a tutoring session with some creativity. For example, teaching transitional phrases or points by color-coding them can reinforce an important element in any composition piece. Kathleen D. De Mars, in her article, “The Brain within Its Groove: Language and Struggling Students,” suggests adaptive technology to help those with disabilities achieve independence with literacy and writing. 

When I was tutoring the student with Asperger’s, I decided that before I even started to help him with the content of his paper, we needed to outline the argument and progression of his paper to form a cohesive structure. It may seem too simplistic and instinctual to suggest an outline to clients with a learning disability, because that should be the first step for any writer. However, outlines are extremely effective for clients with Asperger’s or ADHD, because it allows the content to be organized in a basic way that is not distracting by being visually chaotic.  One of the strategies that I insist upon is the color-coding technique. In fact, with this client’s research, we highlighted the important aspects in his research with different colors depending on the parts of the outline. Just by employing these strategies, he became less stressed and we were able to work through his paper.

As tutors, it is our responsibility to allow clients the opportunity to express themselves properly. As people passionate about English, we value the human experience, so it is important to let our practice reflect all aspects of the human experience, even those that do not seem typical or normal. We must encourage students of all abilities by encouraging them to express themselves in all sorts of mediums. Only then can we have a complete portrait of the human experience. 

Works Cited

Barber-Fendley, Kimber, and Chris Hamel. "A New Visibility: An Argument for Alternative Assistance Writing Programs for Students with Learning Disabilities." College Composition and Communication 55.3 (2004): 507. Marshall University Summon. Web. 11 Oct. 2014.

Brueggermann, Brenda J., Linda Feldmeier-White, Patricia A. Dunn, Barbara A. Heifferman, and Johnson Cheu. "Becoming Visible: Lessons in Disability." College Composition and Communication 52.3 (2001): 381. Marshall University Summon. Web. 11 Oct. 2014.

De Mars, Kathleen D. "The Brain Within Its Grove: Language and Struggling Students." National Council of Teachers of English Journals 100.2 (2010): 31-35. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

Dunn, Patricia A. Learning Re-Abled: The Learning Disability Controversy and Composition Studies. Fort Collins, Colorado: The WAC Clearing House, 2011. Print. 

Hamel, Christine M. "Learning Disabilities in the Writing Center: Changing Our Perspective?" The Writing Lab Newsletter Apr. 2002: 1-6. Print.

Lacey, Penny. “Learning.” SAGE Key Concepts Series: Key Concepts in Learning Disabilities. Eds. Pat Talbot, Geoff Astonbury, and Tom Mason. 138-143. London: Sage UK, 2010. Print. 

Wood, Tara, Jay Dolmage, Margret Price, and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson. "Moving Beyond Disability 2.0 in Composition Studies." Composition Studies: Freshman English News 42.2 (2014): 147-150. Web. 1 Nov. 2014.