Improving learning disabled students' skills at composing essays: self-instructional strategy training.
Special education (Case studies)
Teaching (Research)
Composition (Language arts) (Study and teaching)
Simulated environment (Teaching method) (Usage)
Learning disabled (Testing)
Graham, Steve
Harris, Karen R.
Pub Date:
Name: Exceptional Children Publisher: Council for Exceptional Children Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Family and marriage Copyright: COPYRIGHT 1989 Council for Exceptional Children ISSN: 0014-4029
Date: Nov, 1989 Source Volume: v56 Source Issue: n3

Accession Number:
Full Text:
Improving Learning Disabled Students' Skills at Composing Essays: Self-Instructional Strategy Training

ABSTRACT: This study was conducted to determine if self-instructional strategy training would

improve learning disabled students' writing. Students were taught a strategy designed to

facilitate the generation, framing, and planning of argumentative essays. Training effects were

investigated using a multiple-baseline across-subjects design, with multiple probes in baseline.

Strategy instruction had a positive effect on students' writing performance and self-efficacy.

Effects were maintained over time and transferred to a new setting and teacher. Evidence for

generalization to a second genre, story writing, was also obtained. The students and their special

education teacher recommended the use of the strategy with other students. * Learning disabled students have been characterized as having severe and persistent writing problems (Graham & MacArthur, 1987). Graham and Harris (1989) noted that these students have considerable difficulty executing and monitoring many of the basic cognitive processes central to effective writing. Of particular interest are learning disabled students' difficulties in generating, framing, and planning text.

In terms of generating content, students with learning disabilities produce written texts that are inordinately short (cf. Deno, Marston, & Mirkin, 1982; Nodine, Barenbaum, & Newcomer, 1985). Though it is tempting to attribute their content-generation problems to a lack of knowledge about the topics they are assigned, recent evidence suggests that learning disabled students' problems are, in part, due to difficulties in expressing the knowledge they have. Graham (1989) found that simply encouraging students with learning disabilities to "write more" doubled to tripled their output. MacArthur and Graham (1987) reported that these students may possess more knowledge than is reflected in their written products; learning disabled students' dictated compositions were three to four times longer than handwritten or word-processed papers. Englert and her colleagues (Englert & Raphael, 1988; Englert, Raphael, & Anderson, 1986; Thomas, Englert, & Gregg, 1987) have further argued that students with learning disabilities have content-generation problems because they are not particularly successful in employing strategies for self-directed memory search.

In addition to their having difficulties in generating text, the content generated by students with learning disabilities often falls short of adequately meeting the purpose, conventions, and features of the genre under consideration (Graham & Harris, 1989). To meet the demands inherent in a particular writing task, good writers commonly develop an ongoing frame for their text by using their knowledge of genre patterns or other discourse schema to decide what information to include in their papers and to regulate what will go where (Englert & Raphael, 1988; Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1986). Students with learning disabilities appear to be somewhat successful in using knowledge of genre patterns to develop and frame text, as evidenced by their ability to generate compositions that contain at least some of the elements common to the type of writing they are assigned (cf. Graham, 1989; Graham & Harris, in press; Nodine et al., 1985; Thomas et al., 1987). However, their knowledge is either incomplete or they are not able to gain conscious access to all the structural knowledge they do possess. Examinations of learning disabled students' compositions reveal that they frequently fail to include critical elements such as how a story ends (Graham & Harris, in press; Nodine et al., 1985) or the premise and conclusion of their essays (Graham, 1989). Furthermore, a considerable amount of irrelevant or nonfunctional information is often generated (Graham, 1989). Thus, use of genre-specific knowledge to retrieve and organize relevant information appears to be limited.

Whereas little is known about how students with learning disabilities plan their compositions, it does not appear that much planning is done in advance of writing. MacArthur and Graham (1987) found that students with learning disabilities averaged less than 1 minute of time between the examiner's instructions to "plan their papers in advance of writing" and the physical start of writing, typing, or dictation. Similar results have been reported with normal students (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1986). In addition, Thomas et al. (1987) reported that the students with learning disabilities in their study approached writing by converting the assigned writing task into a question-answering task, telling whatever came to mind and then terminating their responses or answering in short choppy phrases. A student using a planning strategy of this nature will direct little attention to the needs of the reader, the constraints imposed by the topic, or the whole-text organization of the written composition.

In the present study, students with learning disabilities were taught a strategy designed to facilitate the generation, framing, and planning of text; these are areas demonstrated by previous research to be critical to effective writing (see Hayes & Flower, 1986) and also to be areas of difficulty for students with learning disabilities. Specifically, students were taught a strategy including a series of self-directed prompts that required them to (a) consider their audience and reasons for writing, (b) develop a plan for what they intended to say using knowledge-of-discourse schemas or frames to generate and organize writing notes, (c) evaluate possible content by considering its impact on the reader, and (d) continue the process of content generation and planning during the actual act of writing. Students were taught to use the strategy when writing argumentative essays.

The strategy was taught using the self-instructional strategy training procedures recommended by Graham and Harris (Graham & Harris, 1987, 1989; Graham, Harris & Sawyer, 1987; Harris & Graham, 1985, 1988). Self-instructional strategy training involves interactive learning between teacher and students; the teacher initially provides strong external support to students, with ultimate responsibility for recruiting, applying, and monitoring the strategy gradually being transferred to the student. Explicit explanations regarding the rationale and the potential benefits of the strategy are discussed, and procedures for promoting maintenance and generalization are embedded throughout training. Students also learn self-statements designed to support and regulate the smooth execution of the strategy. To date, self-instructional strategy training has been successfully used to teach students strategies for writing stories (Graham & Harris, in press; Harris & Graham, 1985), revising essays (Graham & MacArthur, 1988), and mathematical problem solving (Case & Harris, 1988).

Following recommendations made by Harris (1985), multiple methods were used to evaluate the impact of the strategy and the corresponding training procedures. First, changes in writing performance were measured by analyzing students' essays in terms of functional and nonfunctional elements, number of words written, cohesiveness, and overall quality. Second, students' judgments of their ability to write and revise a "good essay," a measure of self-efficacy, were investigated before and after training. Third, generalization to both a new setting and a different writing genre (story production), as well as maintenance of effects over time, was appraised. Fourth, validation of instructional manipulations and confirmation of mediating responses (i.e., treatment validity) were obtained by collecting evidence of students' use of the strategy. Fifth, the social validity of the strategy and training procedures was assessed.



Subjects were three sixth-grade learning disabled (LD) students (Elaine, Morgane, and Arthur) receiving resource room services in a suburban elementary school in the northeastern United States. These students were selected on the basis of the following stepwise criteria: identification as LD by the school district, IQ scores between 85 and 115 on an individually administered intelligence test (Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children-Revised [WISC-R], or Slosson Intelligence Test), achievement at least 2 years below age-grade level in one or more academic areas, absence of any other handicapping condition, and interviews with teachers indicating that significant composition problems were evident.

In addition, the Vocabulary and Thematic Maturity subtests from the Test of Written Language (TOWL) were administered to each student. The standard scores for these subtests have a mean of 10 and a standard deviation of 3 (Hammill & Larsen, 1983).

The first student, Elaine, was 12 years and 3 months of age at the start of the study and had previously been retained in the fifth grade. Her full-scale score on the WISC-R was 101; and her math, writing, and knowledge achievement scores on the Woodcock-Johnson Psychoeducational Battery (WJ) were at least 3 years below her age level. Elaine's standard scores on the Vocabulary and Thematic Maturity subtests of the TOWL were 9 and 8 respectively.

Morgane, the second student, was 12 years and 3 months of age and had been retained in the first grade. Her score on the Slosson Intelligence Test was 89, and her reading achievement score on the WJ was 2 years below her age level. Morgane's standard scores on the Vocabulary and Thematic Maturity subtest of the TOWL were 9 and 6, respectively. The third student, Arthur, was 12 years and 7 months of age and had been retained in the third grade. His full-scale score on the WISC-R was 99, and his reading and math achievement scores on the WJ were 2 years below his age level. His standard scores on the Vocabulary and Thematic Maturity subtests of the TOWL were 9 and 6, respectively.

General Procedures

A graduate student majoring in special education served as the instructor. Before the study began, the instructor received extensive training and practice implementing the experimental procedures. A notebook with detailed lesson plans containing a step-by-step description of the instructional procedures was provided, and the instructor was told to check each step of the daily lesson plan as it was completed. The instructor was also directed to keep a daily log recording (a) student and teacher comments and (b) any pertinent observations on the learning and use of the strategy. The instructor was introduced to each student as a special writing teacher and met with each in a quiet room at the student's school.

Before the study began, 19 essay topics were generated; and the students' resource room teacher was asked to evaluate each topic in terms of its appropriateness. On the basis of the teachers' evaluations, two topics were dropped. An example of the essay topics is: "Do you think children should be allowed to have their own pets?" The essay topics were randomly ordered and preassigned for each of the planned essay probes.

Similarly, seven black-and-white pictures were selected and evaluated. Pictures were selected so that they would be of interest to elementary-age children and fairly easy to write about. None of the selected pictures was evaluated negatively by the resource room teacher. An example of the pictures is: a boy walking across a field. Pictures were randomly ordered and preassigned for each of the story writing probes.

On days in which the student's assignment was to write either an essay or a story in response to a preassigned topic or picture, the following instruction was given: "Look carefully at (the sentence on this card/this picture) and make up a good (essay/story) to go with it." For essay writing probes, the examiner read the topic sentence to the student. In addition, at the start of each writing session, the student was given two pieces of paper and two pencils. The examiner did not provide assistance or feedback to the student on the quality of the essay or story. However, if the student was clearly off task, the examiner prompted her or him to keep working.

The essays and stories produced by each student were shared with a classmate assigned by the student's teacher. This provided a real audience and purpose for writing.

Instructional Procedures

Training emphasized the student's role as an active collaborator and incorporated principles of interactional scaffolding and Socratic dialogue (Graham et al., 1987; Meichenbaum, 1977). Strategies were explicitly and overtly modeled in context; the goal and significance of the strategies were also made clear. Training was criterion based, and a student did not progress to the next level of training until the previous skills had been mastered. Total number of training sessions required for Elaine, Morgane, and Arthur were seven, five, and eight, respectively; each session was approximately 40 minutes long. The instructional steps and generalization and maintenance components were as follows:

Pretraining. Pretraining focused on defining and generating the components of a good essay. This process was facilitated by the use of a small chart which provided a mnemonic (TREE) for four prompts: Note Topic sentence, note Reasons, Examine reasons (Will my reader buy this?), and note Ending. The mnemonic and its prompts correspond to the general framework for arguments, which consists of premise, reasons and data to support premise, and conclusion. After discussing the meaning of each of the prompts, the student practiced until the mnemonic and the meaning of each of the steps could be recited from memory. The student also assisted the instructor in generating a premise, reasons, and a conclusion for a particular topic.

Review of Current Performance Level. The student and instructor first discussed the student's baseline performance on writing essays. This included an examination of the inclusion of the basic components as well as the quality of each component. The instructor and student then discussed the goal of training (to write better essays), why this is important, and how the inclusion of the basic components could improve an essay. Each student was also asked to write and sign a goal indicating her or his commitment to learning a strategy for writing better essays.

Description of the Composition Strategy. A small chart was used to introduce and discuss a three-step strategy for writing good essays. The three steps were: 1) Think, who will read this, and why am I writing this? 2) Plan what to say using TREE (note Topic sentence, note Reasons, Examine reasons, note Ending). 3) Write and say more. The strategy required the writers to consider their reasons for writing the composition, evaluate writing content by considering the potential reader(s) of their text, generate notes for their compositions that corresponded to the basic components of a good essay, and continue the generation of content and planning during the actual writing of the text. The instructor described why and how each step of the strategy was used in planning and writing an essay.

Modeling the Strategy. The three-step strategy chart was placed in front of the student and the instructor modeled the use of the strategy by writing an essay while "thinking out loud." The instructor modeled four additional types of self-instruction during the development and writing of the essay: problem definition, planning, self-evaluation, and self-reinforcement. Following modeling, the instructor and student discussed the importance of what we say to ourselves while we work. Students then generated and recorded on a small chart their own examples of the four types of self-instruction.

Mastery of Strategy Steps. Students were required to practice the three-step strategy and TREE until memorized. The student was allowed to paraphrase as long as meaning remained intact. Additionally, students practiced the self-instructions previously generated and recorded.

Controlled Practice. The instructor and student conjointly composed an essay using the three-step strategy and self-instructional statements. The strategy chart, as well as the student-generated self-instruction list, were available as prompts. Although the instructor directed and monitored the process, she did not write the essay.

Independent Performance. The student independently composed two or three essays using the three-step strategy and self-instructional statements. Positive and corrective feedback was provided as needed and transition to covert self-instruction was encouraged. The strategy chart and self-statements were initially available as prompts, if necessary, but then faded. Independent practice was continued until the student demonstrated proficiency in the use of the strategy.

Generalization and Maintenance Components. Following mastery of the strategy, the student and instructor discussed how the three-step procedures might be adapted (e.g., eliminate TREE as a prompting device) for use on other writing assignments. In addition, other procedures for promoting generalization and maintenance were incorporated throughout training: Students were asked to share what they were learning with their teachers; the resource room teacher was asked to initial all instructional materials and compositions; students were directed to be prepared to use what they were learning in other settings and discussed opportunities for, and instances of, generalization with their instructor; and each student kept a writing folder with copies of all training materials and compositions written.

Data Collection

Before the experiment began, the instructor received training in administering writing probes, the social validation questionnaires, and the self-efficacy measure. Practice was also provided in scoring prewriting time, number of words, and self-efficacy. Essay elements and coherence, as well as story grammar scores, were independently calculated by a trained examiner. Subjective quality ratings of essays and stories were obtained at the conclusion of the study.

Essay Elements. All essays were divided into the following minimal parsable units: premise, reasons, conclusions, elaborations, and non-functional (see Scardamelia, Bereiter, & Goelman, 1982). Premise, reasons, conclusions, and elaborations were classified as functional text; that is, they directly supported the development of the argument. Premise represented the writer's statement of belief. To be scored as a premise, the writer's stated belief had to be clear without having to reference the original essay prompt. Reasons were explanations as to why the writer believed a particular premise. Conclusion was defined as a closing statement (e.g., a statement that brings everything together). In addition, text could be scored as an elaboration on a premise, reasons (e.g., an example), or a conclusion. Finally, nonfunctional text was any unit that was repeated but had no discernible rhetorical purpose, or any unit that was unrelated to the argument under consideration.

Coherence. Based on the scoring procedures developed by Scardamalia et al. (1982), all essays received a score for the longest number of functional essay elements that were included in one of the following coherent ordering of units: 1) premise followed by reasons with elaborations following the initial statement to which they were related (e.g., premise, elaboration on premise, reason 1, reason 2, elaboration on reason 2, etc.) or 2) premise followed by reasons with elaborations in parallel with the initial statements to which they were related (e.g., reason 1, reason 2, elaboration on reason 1, elaboration on reason 2, etc.). Any departure from these patterns was treated as a break in the coherent string. Contrary to the scoring procedures for essay elements, a premise that could not stand alone (simply stating "No" or "Yes" to the essay question) was counted as a functional unit.

Number of Words Written. All essays and stories were scored in terms of number of words written. Total number of words included all written words, regardless of spelling, that represented a spoken word.

Prewriting Time. Prewriting time was determined for all essays (except for generalization probes). This was the amount of time between the end of the instructor's directions to write and the actual start of writing by the student.

Story Grammar Elements. A scale for assessing the schematic structure of stories developed by Graham and Harris (in press) was used to score all stories. The scale assessed the inclusion and quality of eight story grammar elements identified by Stein and Glenn (1979): main character, locale, time, starter event, goal, action, ending, and reaction. For each element, a score of 0 was assigned if the element was not present, and a score of 1 was assigned if the element was included. Highly developed elements received a score of 2. For the story element goal, a third point was awarded if two or more goals were present. Similarly, for the story element, action, a third or fourth point was assigned if the actions or events happened in a logical manner or if there was more than one well-defined episode. By totaling the scores for the individual elements, a total story grammar element score was calculated (19 possible points).

Quality ratings. Essays and stories were scored separately using a holistic rating scale following procedures recommended by Graham (1982). Prior to scoring, all identifying information was removed (e.g., name, condition, etc.), spelling and punctuation errors were corrected, and the composition was typed.

For both essays and stories, two undergraduate students who were unfamiliar with the students, design, or purpose of the study independently scored the compositions. They were told to read each paper attentively but not laboriously to obtain a general impression of quality. Papers were scored on a 1- to 8-point scale, with 1 representing the lowest quality of writing and 8 representing the highest quality. Examiners were provided with a representative sample of a low-, medium-, and high-scoring essay and story to use as guides or anchor points. For each paper, the scores of the two examiners were averaged.

Self-Efficacy. A scale for assessing students' self-efficacy concerning their ability to write an essay was administered before and following training. According to Schunk (1985), self-efficacy refers to personal judgment regarding one's performance capabilities in a specific situation. The scale used in this study was developed in accordance with guidelines described by Bandura and Schunk (1981) and Schunk (1983). The scale ranged from 10 to 100 in 10-unit intervals from "not sure" (10), to "maybe" (40), to "pretty sure" (70), to "real sure" (100). Students were familiarized with the different numerical values on the scale by judging their certainty of successfully jumping progressively longer distances. Five questions were used as stimulus items. The questions measured the students' perceived ability to write an essay that had a "good" beginning, that gave three reasons to support the premise, and had a "good" ending. In addition, students were questioned concerning their perceived ability to locate errors in their writing and revise their essays so that they were "better." The scale was administered by reading each question aloud; the student was advised to be honest, and then privately circled an efficacy value on the 10- to 100-point scale.

Strategy Usage. Because the use of the three-step strategy required that the student generate notes in response to the second step, it was possible to obtain evidence on strategy usage by examining the papers students wrote on during their writing probes.

Social Validation. At the conclusion of the study, the resource room teacher and the three students were interviewed separately by the instructor to obtain information on perceived effectiveness of the intervention, recommendations, and other feedback. In addition, the resource room teacher was queried regarding evidence of strategy generalization.

Experimental Design

The effects of strategy training on essay writing skills were assessed through the use of a multiple-baseline across-subjects design, with multiple probes in baseline. The following conditions were included:

Baseline. During baseline, pretreatment response rates on essay writing behaviors were established. Throughout baseline, general procedures were in effect.

Training. Training was initiated for the first student, Elaine, after a stable baseline was established in terms of total number of essay elements. Training was continued until the student was able to write essays that contained all the basic parts and demonstrated independent mastery of the strategy. Training was not initiated for the second student, Morgane, until the first student's posttreatment essay performance reached a criterion level of at least one and a half times the mean number of elements produced during baseline. Identical procedures were followed when introducing and terminating treatment with the third student, Arthur.

Posttreatment Essay Probes. Three to four posttreatment essay probes were administered during the first 2 weeks immediately following the termination of treatment. General procedures were in effect.

Maintenance Probes. For the first student, Elaine, three maintenance writing probes were collected. These occurred at 6, 11, and 12 weeks following the termination of training. For the second student, Morgane, one follow-up maintenance probe was collected 3 weeks following training. General procedures were in effect. No follow-up probes were administered to the third student, Arthur, because the end of the school year precluded the collection of these probes.

Setting Generalization Probes. Before training and during the posttreatment phase, a generalization writing essay probe was collected from each student by the resource room teacher. Procedures for collecting these probes were identical to baseline conditions.

Task Generalization Probes. To determine if the strategy training procedures resulted in transfer to a different genre, multiple story writing probes were collected during baseline and following the administration of posttreatment essay probes. General procedures were in effect for all generalization story probes.

For two students, Elaine and Morgane, an additional instructional session was initiated following their first and second task generalization probes, respectively. The instructional session was initiated when it became clear that these two students did not demonstrate adequate transfer from essay writing to story writing. During the instructional session, each student received practice in using the mnemonic SPACE (note: setting, purpose, action, conclusion, and emotion) during the second step of the strategy (Plan).


Reliability of Measures

At the conclusion of the study, 25% of the essays were randomly selected for rescoring. All identifying information was removed and an examiner unfamiliar with the purpose and design of the study was trained to score the essays. To determine interrater reliability, Pearson product-moment reliability coefficients were calculated between the scores assigned by the instructors and independent examiner. Interrater reliabilities were as follows: total number of elements (.89), premise (.77), reasons (.79), conclusion (1.00), elaborations (.83), nonfunctional (.97), coherence (.83), and number of words (.99).

Similarly, 29% of stories were randomly selected for rescoring at the end of the study. Identifying information was removed, and stories were scored by the examiner who scored the reliability essays. Interrater reliabilities for story grammar elements and number of words were .81 and 1.00, respectively. The Pearson product-moment correlation coefficients between the quality-rating scores assigned by the two undergraduate students were .77 for essays and .83 for stories.


Elements. Figure 1 presents the total number of functional elements (premise, reasons, conclusions, and elaborations) for each essay written by each student during all phases of the study. All three students evidenced low levels of performance throughout baseline. Elaine, Morgane, and Arthur's mean baseline response rates in terms of total number of functional elements were 2.3, 3.5, and 3.8, respectively. Following training, Elaine's mean performance on the posttreatment essay probes was 7.0, clearly exceeding the previously established baseline level. Average performance for Elaine on the maintenance probes (5.7) continued to be considerably higher than baseline scores.

The second student's (Morgane's) mean performance on the posttreatment essay probes was 6.25, and she had a score of 7.0 on the maintenance essay administered 3 weeks following training. The third student, Arthur, evidenced the largest gains following training; his mean performance on the posttreatment essays was 8.7. Posttreatment performance of the LD students in terms of number of functional elements is equivalent to or exceeds that of normal students as reported by Scardamalia et al. (1982). Thus, stable baselines were established, and the sequential application of the instructional procedures resulted in substantial increases in average number of functional essay elements; these gains were maintained over time for at least two of the three students.

For all three students, treatment effects in terms of total number of functional essay elements generalized from the training setting to the students' resource room. Before training, the number of functional elements written by Elaine, Morgane, and Arthur when composing in the resource room was 3, 3, and 4, respectively. Following training, all students at least doubled their production of functional essay elements on the generalization essays administered in the resource room. Elaine, Morgane, and Arthur's scores on this essay were 7, 6, and 8, respectively.

It is also important to examine the distribution of specific essay elements before and after treatment. During baseline, 45% of all elements were classified as nonfunctional, i.e., material unrelated to the writer's argument or the repetition of textual material. Following training, the proportion of nonfunctional elements dropped to 15%. In contrast, training resulted in increases for three of the four functional elements. During baseline, 29% of all elements were reasons, and premise and conclusions each accounted for only 3% of the elements. For essays written after training, 41% of elements were reasons, and premise and conclusions accounted for 11% and 12% of all elements, respectively. No changes were noted in the proportion of elaborations; 20% of essay elements prior to and following training were elaborations.

The impact of training can also be gauged by examining the proportion of essays written before and after training that contained all the basic components of an essay: premise, reasons, and conclusion. Before treatment only 7% of essays contained all of these elements, whereas following training 82% met this requirement.

Coherence. The mean coherence scores for Elaine, Morgane, and Arthur on the baseline essays were 2.7, 4.0, and 3.2, respectively. For two of the students, coherence scores on the posttreatment essays increased substantially; Elaine's average score was 4.7 and Arthur's was 7.0. Furthermore, Elaine's average coherence score on the maintenance probes (6.0) exceeded both her baseline and posttreatment performance. Nonetheless, Morgane did not evidence a sizable increase (over baseline levels) in terms of average posttreatment coherence scores (4.5). She received a score of 7.0, however, on the one maintenance probe she completed. Finally, all three of the students' generalization essays evidenced higher coherence scores following training. Before training, Elaine, Morgane, and Arthur's coherence scores on essays written in the resource room were 1, 3, and 4, respectively. On the essay written in the resource room following training, Elaine's coherence score increased to 7, Morgane's to 6, and Arthur's to 8.

Number of Words. The effects of training on the mean length of essays were not consistent across subjects. For Elaine, the mean length of baseline essays was 40.3. Her posttreatment essays, however, averaged 80 words in length, whereas her maintenance essays averaged 93.7 words. Similarly, Arthur's baseline essays averaged 71.6 words, and his posttreatment essays increased to an average of 88.8 words. In contrast, Morgane averaged 52 words on her baseline probes, but her posttreatment performance dropped to 46 words per essay; she wrote only 43 words on her maintenance probe. All three students evidenced an identical pattern on the generalization essay probes collected in the resource room. It should be noted that number of words written was not a target of training.

Prewriting Time. All students averaged less than 12 s of prewriting time on their baseline probes. Following training, average prewriting time increased for all three students. Elaine and Morgane's average prewriting times on posttreatment essays were approximately 8 and 9 min, respectively; both spent approximately 6 min on their maintenance probes. Arthur had approximately 8 min of prewriting time on his first posttreatment essay, but prewriting time on his final two essays was only 5 and 10 s, respectively.

Quality Ratings. The mean holistic quality ratings for Elaine, Morgane, and Arthur's baseline essays were 2.3, 2.5, and 3.3, respectively. Following the completion of training, mean quality ratings for the posttreatment essays rose to 6.2 for Elaine, 4.0 for Morgane, and 6.0 for Arthur. Improvement in essay quality was maintained over time; Elaine averaged a mean quality score of 5.5 on the maintenance probes, and Morgane received a score of 5.0 on the maintenance probe she completed. Furthermore, in all cases, the generalization probe taken after training received a quality rating 3 to 4 1/2 points higher than that received by the probe taken during baseline.

Generalization to Stories

Story Grammar Elements. Figure 2 presents the students' scores on the story grammar scale for each generalization story written during baseline and after the administration of posttreatment essays. Elaine, Morgane, and Arthur's mean performance scores on baseline stories in terms of the story grammar scale were 7.0, 4.0, and 7.3, respectively. With the exception of Arthur's first baseline story, all subjects' baseline stories were missing three or more of the basic story grammar elements identified by Stein and Glenn (1979).

Following the completion of training and the posttreatment essays, two students improved in their performance on the story grammar scale. Morgane's average score (based on the first two stories) increased to 9.5, whereas Arthur's mean score rose to 12.0. Though Arthur's posttraining stories contained either all or all but one of the basic story grammar elements, this was not the case for Morgane. Her stories consistently lacked three elements: starter event, ending, and reaction.

Elaine's first story following the completion of training and the posttreatment essays evidenced a decline in overall performance (story grammar score of 5). In addition, four basic elements were notably missing from her story; and it appeared that she attempted, at least in part, to use the mnemonic TREE as an aid in generating story content. Consequently, an additional instructional session was initiated with both Elaine and Morgane; each student received practice using a mnemonic (SPACE) for generating content related to common story elements.

Following this session, Elaine's stories improved dramatically; her average story grammar score was 13.0, and her stories contained all the common elements. Although Morgane's performance dropped slightly (8.0), her story contained all but one of the basic parts.

Number of Words. Elaine, Morgane, and Arthur's mean length of baseline stories was 40, 61.5, and 97.7 words, respectively. Following the completion of training and the posttreatment essays, all students' stories increased in length; Elaine's first story was 59 words long, and Morgane's (based on her first two stories) and Arthur's stories increased to 92.5 and 118 words, respectively. Following the additional instructional session, Elaine evidenced a dramatic increase in story length ([M.sub.x] = 151). Morgane, however, produced a story (36 words) that was shorter than the other stories that she wrote.

Quality Ratings. Elaine, Morgane, and Arthur's mean quality ratings for baseline stories were 1.0, 1.3, and 4.0 respectively. Following the completion of training and posttreatment essays, Arthur's stories evidenced a modest increase to 5.5 in story quality. Elaine's first story, in contrast, did not improve, and Morgane's stories improved only slightly to 1.8. Following the additional instructional session, the quality of Elaine's stories ([M.sub.x] = 5.3) were judged to be much improved, whereas Morgane's story quality increased only slightly to 2.0.

Strategy Usage

Following training, Elaine and Morgane used the mnemonic TREE to help generate notes on all essay probes, including posttreatment, maintenance, and generalization. In contrast, Arthur made notes only for the first posttreatment essay following training. When asked why he had stopped making notes in advance of writing, he replied "I don't need to make a planning sheet because I have the steps in my head."

Although his prewriting time was much shorter when the mnemonic was not written out in advance of writing, measures of content and quality were only slightly affected. Two students, Elaine and Morgane, were taught to use SPACE in the second step of the strategy. Both used the mnemonic each time they were directed to write a story following instruction.


During baseline, Elaine, Morgane, and Arthur's scores on the self-efficacy measure were 64, 52, and 88, respectively. Following training, Elaine evidenced a small, insignificant 4-point increase on the self-efficacy measure, whereas Morgane and Arthur's scores increased by 18 and 12 points, respectively.

Social Validity Interviews

All three students indicated that they believed the strategy helped them to write better. Comments suggested that the strategy made the task of writing essays easier and provided a helpful device for organizing content. Similarly, all thought that the strategy should be taught to their friends because it would improve their writing. The only negative comments made were that the training procedures were "boring sometimes" (one student) and having to make notes and write the essay was too much (one student).

The resource room teacher reported that she felt that the instructional procedures had a positive impact on the writing of all three students and that she would recommend the use of the strategy with other LD students. She further indicated that two students now had a better understanding that "writing is a process" and were asking about using the strategy with specific classroom assignments.


In the present study, LD students were taught a strategy for planning and writing essays. On the essay probes administered during the 2 weeks immediately following training, all three students participating in the study evidenced substantial gains over baseline levels in several distinct areas of writing performance.

First, training resulted in a positive change in the number of functional elements students included in their essays. Essays written after training contained, on the average, approximately two to three times as many functional elements as those produced during baseline. Second, and equally important, changes occurred in terms of the types of essay elements students included in their compositions.

Following training, the proportion of nonfunctional essay elements in students' papers dropped considerably, and the proportion of elements classified as premise, reason, and conclusion increased. The magnitude of change in the construction of students' essays can be gauged by the finding that four out of every five of the papers written after training contained all the basic parts of an essay; less than 10% of baseline essays met this same criteria. Third, essays written following training were judged to be qualitatively superior to those written during baseline.

Gains in two other areas of writing performance were also demonstrated by Elaine and Arthur. These students' posttreatment essays were, on the average, longer than the papers they composed during baseline. Similarly, these same two students evidenced a substantial increase, following training, in the average length of the longest number of functional essay elements that were coherently ordered. Thus, training in the use of the target strategy allowed these students not only to produce more content (both words and functional elements) but also to arrange the generated content in a meaningful and coherent manner.

In addition to improved essay writing performance, Morgane and Arthur demonstrated a concomitant change in self-efficacy following training. They became more confident in their ability to write and revise a "good essay." Equally notable was the relatively high score among all students on this self-efficacy measure during the pretest ([M.sub.x] = 68). The students clearly overestimated their composition abilities. This finding adds to a growing body of literature that indicates that learning disabled students have difficulty accurately assessing or predicting their performance capabilities (Brown, Bransford, Ferrara, & Campione, 1983; Graham & Harris, in press; Harris, Graham & Freeman, 1988).

Self-instructional strategy training has been recommended as a particularly promising means for achieving maintenance and generalization (Harris, 1982). Maintenance data was collected for Elaine and Morgane. Both students were able to maintain the gains they had demonstrated immediately following training; there was little difference between their maintenance and posttreatment essays in terms of total number of functional elements and overall quality. Furthermore, their maintenance probes generally had longer coherent strings of functional elements than their posttreatment essays, and one of the students generated more content when writing the maintenance essays.

Two methods were used to assess generalization. First, generalization across settings and teachers was assessed by having the students' special education teacher administer in the resource room an essay probe during baseline and immediately following training. For all three students, the generalization essay written after training was superior to the baseline probe in terms of overall quality, total number of functional elements, and coherence. Elaine and Arthur also evidenced an increase in the amount of content that they generated.

Generalization across tasks involved having students write stories both before and following the completion of treatment. Though students briefly discussed during the course of treatment how the strategy might be used with other writing assignments, direct instruction in adapting the strategy for this purpose was not provided. Thus, students' performance on the story probes provided a procedure for assessing generalization to a different writing genre, narrative stories. Evidence on the transfer effects of training to story writing were mixed. Consequently, Elaine and Morgane received one training session where they were taught a mnemonic for helping them generate content for each of the elements of a story and received practice in using the mnemonic in concert with the other basic steps of the strategy. Following this one training session, both students' stories contained all or all but one of the basic story elements. This training session also had a powerful effect on the length and quality of Elaine's stories.

Thus, although limited generalization across writing tasks occurred, a single, brief generalization training session was successful. Such results in terms of generalization across tasks, which is more difficult to establish than generalization across settings, are encouraging. However, additional modifications and some instruction may be necessary if students are to realize the potential effects of this strategy across different types of writing tasks. For example, the basic steps of having students consider their purpose and audience, generate notes in advance of writing, and continue content generation and planning during text production can be used with a variety of classroom writing tasks. Teachers may find the procedure to be more effective, however, if they provide students with aids or procedures that will help them generate content relevant to the genre under consideration, as was done with the TREE and SPACE aids in the present experiment.

Treatment validity was assessed by examining any planning notes written by students during the process of writing. Evidence of strategy usage provides additional confirmation that the instructional manipulations were, in fact, responsible for changes in students' writing behavior. Following training, Elaine and Morgane demonstrated evidence of strategy usage on every essay they wrote. Arthur used the essay mnemonic to generate notes just once following training, but indicated that the strategy had been internalized and, as a result, it was not necessary to make notes in advance of writing. His decision not to overtly use the strategy did not have much of an effect on the content or quality of writing. It should also be noted that when students overtly used the strategy there was a corresponding increase in the amount of time they spent planning before actually writing their paper. Finally, evidence of social validity was established, as each of the students and their special education teacher indicated that use of the strategy improved writing performance and that the strategy should be taught to other students.

The present study adds to a growing body of literature supporting the use of self-instructional strategy training procedures as an effective means for improving LD students' writing performance and other academic skills (cf. Graham & Harris, 1989; Graham et al., 1987; Case & Harris, 1988). Future research needs to document the contributions of specific components of self-instructional strategy training and to continue to address issues related to maintenance and generalization (Harris, Wong, & Keogh, 1985). [Figures 1 to 2 Omitted]

STEVE GRAHAM and KAREN R. HARRIS are Associate Professors, Department of Special Education, University of Maryland, College Park.
Gale Copyright:
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.