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The Writing Process Through the Eyes of Children with Special Needs (Part 3)

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Photo by Francisco Osorio via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

There is a process to writing that doesn’t come easily to everyone. For students with special needs, the constant struggle to observe rubrics, understand expectations, and develop formulas for writing an essay can be a really tough ordeal. This is the third in a four part series following my steps toward teaching writing to students with special needs in this technologically advancing world.

In part one, I detailed how to use gallery walks in the classroom to develop pre-writing strategies with my students. In part two, I tell how to do in depth readings – working with teams to read for meaning. In this post, I will discuss using outlines to write a rough draft and the different programs we use in my classroom to draft the student’s essays.

In high school, students have a higher expectation than ever before when it comes to earning credits. This is a critical problem for special education students, who graduate as a much lower rate nationally than the general student population. Thus, with students who have an IEP, it is important that we provide them with specific rubrics so they have the clearest understanding of what it is that teachers expect of them.

An example rubric my students would receive before they begin writing
An example rubric my students would receive before they begin writing

Coming up with the perfect thesis can seem daunting. A clearly defined position is an important starting point for developing arguments in an essay. To simplify this process in my classes, I usually give them two options for their thesis – for or against a specific idea. The above rubric is an example of what my students might get before they begin writing.

During the group readings, I coach my students to define their position and begin to make predictions about the arguments for or against their position that they will see. In my previous article, I discuss how I often ask my students to highlight or pinpoint specific evidence that they feel strongly about in the text(s).


I often task my students with coming up with a plan for their writing that involves writing a title last. They are usually so excited about writing a title, that they often get sidetracked. Instead, I begin by asking my students to think about their audience. We discuss who will be reading the essay – Will it be another student? Will it be another teacher? Will it be their parent? All of these questions are important for the student to determine how their write to a specific point of view. Since writing to a specific audience requires thinking in terms of that recipient, we have done activities all year that teach students to look at things from different perspectives.

For example, one assignment had students writing a letter to their best friend about a particularly juicy event that happened to them recently. Then, I had them write a second letter about the same topic to a grandparent who they haven’t seen in awhile. We review the ideas in the letters and how they are (probably) very different. We discuss why they are different and plan our future writing in class based on this idea of choosing a specific audience.

Now that my students have defined an audience, the next step is to utilize an outline to prepare my students for their draft. Since evidence is vital to supporting an argument, I have my students first decide the topic of each individual paragraph, so they can hone in on the specific evidence they want to use that supports their thesis.

In a recent assignment, we worked on a Great Gatsby unit. The students read the novel, and watched the Leonardo Di Caprio version of the film. We then identified the big ideas together as a class – parties, money, social class, alcohol, fate. Students chose specific ideas to relate to each paragraph of their essay. The students really liked this book because it gave them a viewpoint of the 1920s and the students were really excited to see the ‘20’s’ coming back and see what was different 100 years later. I asked several of them to include this idea into their essays.

To support my students with their IEP accommodations, I put the main details on the board. Some students feel more confident with choosing their own evidence, and some require support to boost their confidence in their writing of their own ideas. With respect to this, I put several key ideas on the board to identify specific paragraphs and include 3-4 quotes from each passage on the board with who said it so they can quote it easily.

Each student then takes the pre-filled outline out and uses this, along with the quotes they have found to write a rough draft out on a Google Classroom document I have attached for them to access during their designated writing time. Students can access this anytime, as it’s connected through Google – through their specific designated student account.

I also have access to each of their documents. I can then go ahead and make comments on their essay through the comment bar of the Google Doc. Stay tuned for part 4 when I discuss the revision, editing and publishing phase of student work.

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