Access to the Writing Process

Teaching at the high school level is extremely challenging. But what I like best about teaching is my students. They sometimes use too much profanity in the classroom, talk out of turn, yell at each other, and hate (and love) each other. Some tell me my lessons are “wack,” others don’t or won’t talk, and some listen attentively. Many are excessively late and/or have poor attendance. All of them have reading skills far below their age and grade levels.

However, all of my students are intellectually capable of learning. They may have been academically deprived of developmentally appropriate instruction during their early schooling. Most students are classified as learning disabled and receive related services, such as speech and language counseling. The majority of the students are males from the Dominican Republic. Students may have spent much of their early development negotiating between two languages. Very often the students rely on learning English at school. They develop oral fluency in Spanish and English but do not learn to read or write well enough in English to be in a general education classroom where high stakes testing is a requirement.

In addition to cultural and linguistic differences that have contributed to severe academic delays, there are students, as developing adolescents between the ages of 15-18, who face social and emotional issues from the stigma of being in a self-contained special education class.

About Me

While deciding whether I wanted to become a full-time teacher in the public school system, I worked as a school aid. During that time I had opportunities to observe best practices of expert teachers. I was particularly inspired by the work of a special education teacher who used picture books to improve the literacy skills of her middle school students. In 2001, at the age of 43, married with three children, I began my journey towards becoming a certified special education teacher by enrolling in a master’s program at Bank Street College of Education in New York City.

As a parent and an educator, I had already read hundreds of picture books. Reading and sharing all those well-crafted stories and illustrations inspired me to write my thesis about the use of picture books for struggling readers.

I became a special education teacher in the spring of 2004. I was hired to work at a K-8 public school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. While working in grades seven and eight, I “pushed in” to classrooms, “pulled out” of classrooms, or co-taught with general education teachers in all subject areas. While teaching in middle school, I shared books with students that were written by such authors as Nikki Grimes and Walter Dean Myers.

I also had professional development opportunities during my middle school teaching years that included Schools Attuned and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. Eventually, I returned to Bank Street College for an advanced master’s degree in special education leadership. After wrestling with the idea of working with older adolescents, I accepted the offer to join the staff at Brown High School.

At the age of 53, I am still a special education teacher at Brown High School. My professional development opportunities have included being a participant in the Teachers College Inclusive Classrooms Project (TCICP). My participation in this project has provided me with new tools in the face of budget cuts and limited resources. I now have access to user-friendly internet technology that will enrich cultural relevant pedagogy. I have also had the opportunity to work with some of the best teachers in New York City. Through TCICP, I now have the opportunity to share the work of my students.

Access to Print Text

English language learners may have excellent conversational English skills that can be used as an anchor for the development of academic literacy skills. Informal assessment of my students revealed that reading comprehension was inhibited by English language vocabulary and/or poor word recognition of words that they used in conversation on a regular basis. Students also struggled with homophones, words with multiple meanings, figurative language, and inferences.

My students needed me to provide meaningful instruction that provided them with opportunities for self-expression. How was I going to motivate students in an environment that had essentially excluded students from the learning process?

Improving Students’ Literacy Skills

Reading is a complex process with its roots in the acquisition of language. Children come to reading in many ways at different times and poor reading and writing skills affect academic performance across the disciplines. Many of today’s reading programs provide intervention for struggling readers at the primary level but more needs to be done for older students who have progressed through the grades without developing sufficient skills. As Harvey (1998) explains, “One of the biggest myths is that we learn to read in the primary grades, and then suddenly read to learn in the intermediate grades. Reading is not so simple a process; we develop strategies to improve reading proficiently well into adulthood” (p. 71).

I have used poetry, art, well-crafted texts, and film as models to encourage my students to improve their literacy skills. Also, reading aloud texts that students struggled with facilitated discussions around topics familiar and relevant to teens. For example, I often use Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes, which reveals the home and school lives of 18 students at a Bronx high school. I decided to use mentor texts, such as Grimes’ book, to teach comprehension strategies and give writing assignments that provided opportunities to connect their own lives to characters in the text. We read daily, discussed characters’ stories, and then they began to listen to and to write their own stories.

The Limits of Textbooks

As children reach the upper-elementary grades, literacy demands are significantly increased and textbooks become the primary instructional tool for content area teaching and learning (Katims & Harmon, 2000). In content areas such as math and science, the gap between text and student is widened because of highly specialized technical language. The downside of textbook-driven learning, according to Vacca and Vacca (2002), is that students dismiss the power of text to inform and to transform their lives (p. 39). In Textbooks and the Students Who Can’t Read Them: A Guide to Teaching Content, Ciborowski (1992) stresses students who are considered low achieving readers, at risk, or learning disabled do not benefit from a textbook centered approach to learning.

Content area textbooks often contain helpful features such as colorful photographs, maps, graphs, and tables. In addition to visual appeal, some texts are written in small chunks. Although some textbooks provide useful features like those listed above, as Vacca and Vacca (2002) point out, textbook authors cast a wide net in an effort to be comprehensive. As a result, they often make erroneous assumptions about what students already know in relation to the content under development. Rather than building a rich context and background for understanding concepts, textbooks err on the side of providing the minimum essentials and moving on to another subject.

Alternatives to Textbooks

Content-specific material is often written at a reading level that causes frustration for struggling readers. For this reason, young adult literature (or “trade” books), electronic texts, newspapers, magazines and other types of print are increasingly being added as curriculum resources. Trade books rich in narrative and informational content, allow learners to interact with people places, and ideas (Vacca & Vacca, 2002). Learning with trade books involves exposure to many different genres, all of which are potential sources of information for the active learner. A nonfiction or fiction trade book has the potential to be a magnifying glass that enlarges and enhances their reader’s personal interaction with a subject. When teachers use textbooks and trade books in tandem, they help learners think critically about content. Additionally, reader involvement in a story, identification with characters, the potential to examine a topic in depth all contribute to extending students’ reading experiences.

Picture books are also useful in conveying both stories and content and can be used to supplement learning with textbooks. Various types of picture books can be integrated into the curriculum, for older readers as schema builders, direct instruction, discussion, and as a springboard for independent reading and writing in the content areas. Although there are picture books with simplified text, there are also picture books that have challenging texts, developmentally appropriate themes and visual clues to support learning.

The International Reading Association/National Council of Teachers of English standards support the incorporation of picture books into content area curriculum:

  • Standard 1: Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • Standard 3: Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • Standard 6: Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and non-print texts.
  • Standard 11: Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.

High-quality fiction and informational picture books have universal themes that can be enjoyed by students of all ages (Giorgis, 1999). Picture books with mature themes are particularly suitable for independent reading by adolescents who need support building conceptual knowledge. The short format of picture books supports students who have difficulty attending to lengthy text. Wordless picture books rely solely on illustrations to tell a story and provide opportunities for creative expression. Wordless picture books can also provide ideas and topics that can be used for the development of creative writing. Through discussion and critical examination of the illustrations, students can write sentences that effectively complement the pictures. Teachers can incorporate instructional strategies into students writing such as the use of dialogue, setting development, character descriptions, sequencing of events, and story development.

Nonfiction picture books and graphic novels are also suitable for the content area curriculum. Nonfiction picture or informational books provide factual information which can be related to concepts and some provide text structures often found in textbooks such as, prefaces, table of contents, glossaries and bibliographies. Some nonfiction picture books also include diagrams, drawings, charts, and photographs that may stimulate curiosity for research and writing projects. Picture books with informational text related to content area learning are useful for struggling readers because, in addition to visual appeal, the text is less dense.

Biographies that use a picture storybook format use high-quality artistic illustrations to provide the reader with a descriptive look at a particular event or theme in the story. Biographies that are written in a chapter book format may use authentic photographs to support the text. Harvey (1998) supports the incorporation of biographies into content area studies: If writing a biography is a curriculum requirement, integrating a biography project with a content area makes sense. For example, in a unit on sixteenth-century world exploration, students can choose from among explorers, royalty, noblemen, peasants, sea captains, and the like as their subject. A middle school physical science unit might lend itself to investigating physicists, their lives, times, and contributions. Young biographers will write more convincingly after having studied a specific content area.


Ciborowski, J. (1992). Textbooks and the students who can’t read them: A guide to teaching content. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.

Giorgis, C.  (1999). The power of reading picture books aloud to secondary students. The Clearing House, 73(1), 51-53.

Grimes, N. (2003). Bronx Masquerade. New York: Penguin Group USA.

Harvey, S. (1998). Nonfiction matters: Reading, writing, and research in grades 3-8. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Katims, D.S., & Harmon, J.M. (2000). Strategic instruction in middle school social studies: Enhancing academic literacy outcomes for at-risk students.  Intervention in School and Clinic, 35(5), 280-89.

Vacca, R. & Vacca J. (2002). Content area reading: Literacy and learning across the curriculum (7th ed.).  Boston, MA: Pearson.

Building Classroom Community

Based on my own teaching and learning experiences within public schools, I believe that successful collaboration will occur when special education and general education teachers do not see themselves as competitors but players on the same team. When this shift in thinking occurs, educators can create professional learning communities that understand and include the needs of diverse learners.

Team and Community Building

Community building is important not only among teachers but also among students. Culturally and linguistically diverse learners in high school special education programs may have academic skills below the age and grade level of their general education peers. The motivation of culturally and linguistically diverse learners in full-time special education classrooms can be increased when teachers know their students well enough to create and adapt lesson plans that promote healthy social, emotional, and cognitive development. Much of this work needs to be centered in supportive classroom communities.
Here are some sample lessons for community building.

Demystification and Culturally Responsive Teaching

Demystification of adolescents’ strengths and weaknesses will enhance student confidence in his or her ability to become a successful learner. In addition, the incorporation of culturally relevant pedagogy into the social studies and language arts curriculum will increase the comprehension of struggling readers when teachers scaffold instruction that supports learning with a variety of texts.

In Educational Care (2002)by Dr. Mel Levine, there is a section on demystification and the learning process. Levine states:
We cannot emphasize enough the importance of children understanding themselves. When they are unable to perceive the causal relationship between their specific weakness and the problems they are experiencing when they attend school, they tend to fantasize about themselves. Unfortunately, their fantasies are most often far worse than the realities. They may believe they are retarded, crazy, or just born to lose. Such attributions promote fatalistic feelings and a strong belief that effort does no good in school. In addition, when children feel pervasively defective, they are likely to suffer a serious loss of motivation.

Demystification is essentially a process that allows children to acquire more knowledge about their personal circumstances and can take place at any age. Through open discussions with adults who are working with the different forms of demystification can take place. If an assessment has been done a child needs to know about the findings.

Demystification can take place with small groups of children or in a one-to-one format with a clinician or teacher.

The process of one-to-one demystification should, according to Levine (2002), consists of five steps:

  1. Introduction: The child learns the importance of understanding herself. The child should be reassured that all people have parts of their minds that need to be worked on.
  2. Discussion of strengths: The child needs to be told about her area of competency. False praise should be avoided because children generally detect it.
  3. Discussion of weaknesses: The child should be told about her area of dysfunction in simple/plain language.
  4. Introduction of optimism: The child should be helped to see that improvement is possible. Weaknesses can be worked on and strengths can be enhanced. The child needs to clearly understand that they are not to blame for the problem. In order to increase motivation and personal efficacy, each child should be helped to see real possibilities in the future for her kind of mind.
  5. Alliance formation: The person leading the demystification process should assure the child the s/he wants to be helpful in the future. The child should believe that adults have genuine respect for them and for what they can become.

The strategies proposed by Atwell (1998) and Levine can effectively be used for adolescents who struggle with reading in a whole group, small group or one-to-one setting for grades 3 through 8. The target age group would be ages 9-14. It is extremely important to equip students within this age group with practical reading strategies to increase self-confidence prior to reaching high school when reading becomes increasingly more difficult.

Culturally Responsive Curriculum

Culture is generally defined as the customs, beliefs, and achievements of a group of people that are passed down from generation to generation. Culture is also considered to be an improvement of the mind or body through education. Honoring diversity, says Guild (2007), does not imply a lack of clear beliefs and strong values. The challenge she states is the identification of uniform standards but not standardization. Educators are asked to consider the following questions: What outcomes should be expected for all students? What experiences should every student have? What curriculum should be uniform? How can educators work toward a common standard while honoring diversity.

Culturally responsive teaching is an inclusive pedagogy that speaks to students in need of a cultural bridge between home and school. Educational researchers as early as the 1970s attributed the underachievement of students of color to the cultural deprivation of teachers and not the inabilities of students (Gay, 2000). Culturally and linguistically diverse learners in high school special education programs have academic skills that are significantly below the age and grade level of their general education peers. However, the motivation of culturally and linguistically diverse learners in full-time special education classrooms can be increased when teachers know their students well enough to create and adapt lesson plans to their student populations.

Ladson-Billings (1995) believes that culturally relevant pedagogy rests on the following three criteria: “1) students must experience academic success; 2) students must develop and/or maintain cultural competence; and 3) students must develop a critical consciousness through which they challenge the status quo of the current social order” (p. 160).

Essentially, culturally responsive teaching refers to a wide range of instructional strategies that are used for “improving the performance of underachieving students of color” (p. 8). In Seven Ways to a Culturally Responsive Pedagogy, Jackson (1994) presents standard strategies identified by attendees at multicultural workshops that are considered to be the most effective:

  1. Build trust
  2. Become culturally literate
  3. Build a repertoire of instructional strategies
  4. Use effective questioning techniques
  5. Provide effective feedback
  6. Analyze instructional materials
  7. Establish positive home-school relations.
A culturally responsive curriculum means that a student’s sense of self should improve. In A Framework for Culturally Responsive Teaching, Wlodkowski and Ginsberg (1995) address the issue of motivation. These researchers name four motivational conditions that the teacher and students continuously create or enhance:
  1. Establishing inclusion – creating a learning atmosphere in which students and teachers feel respected by and connected to one another
  2. Developing attitude – creating a favorable disposition toward the learning experience through personal relevance and choice
  3. Enhancing meaning – creating challenging, thoughtful learning experiences that include perspectives and values
  4. Engendering competence – creating an understanding that students are effective in learning something that they value (p. 19).

Finally, culturally responsive teaching is empowering. As Gay (2002) writes:

Empowerment translates into academic competence, personal confidence, courage, and the will to act. In other words students have to believe they can succeed in learning tasks and be willing to pursue success relentlessly until mastery is obtained. Teachers must show students that they expect them to succeed and commit themselves to making success happen. These can be high-risk endeavors. Culturally responsive teachers are aware of the risks involved in learning and the need for students to have successes along the way to mastery. They plan accordingly and create infrastructures to support the efforts of students so that they will persevere toward high levels of academic achievement. This is done by bolstering students’ morale, providing resources and personal assistance, developing an ethos of achievement, and celebrating individual and collective accomplishments (p. 32).

Our challenge as teachers is to know how to reach these children, to teach them, to know what to do when they reveal – or cannot express – themselves to us. As Ioga (1995) explained, “No one can empower another person. People can only empower (give power to) themselves; this becomes possible when they have an internalized sense of self-confidence that generates purposeful action of their own behalf” (p. 8).

The Steps

Detailed lesson plans can be developed around the social studies and language arts curriculum to provide increased opportunities for students to become more confident in their abilities as learners. In my classroom, these lessons include and will be explored further in this inquiry:

  • Read Aloud to Inspire Writing
  • Reading Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes (2003)
  • Collecting Big Ideas
  • Collecting Seed Ideas
  • Small Moments
  • Using Film to Prompt Reading, Writing, Listening, and Speaking
  • Using Written Prompts
  • Two Word Autobiographical poem
  • Hopes and Dreams
  • Personal Essay

Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Grimes, N. (2003). Bronx Masquerade. New York: Penguin Group USA.

Guild, P.B. (2007). Diversity, learning style and culture.

Igoa, C. (1995). The Inner world of the immigrant child. Mahwan, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Jackson, F. R. (1994). Seven ways to a culturally responsive pedagogy. The Education Digest59(6), 46-9.

Keene, E. L. & Zimmerman, S. (1997).  Mosaic of thought: Teaching comprehension in a reader’s workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). But that’s just good teaching! The Case for culturally relevant pedagogy. Theory Into Practice, 34(3).

Levine, M. (2002).  A mind at a time. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Wlodkowski, R. J. and Ginsberg, M.B., (1995).  A Framework for culturally responsive teaching. Educational Leadership, 53(1), 17-21.

One Student’s Experience


Alex was born in the Dominican Republic. When he reached third grade in the Dominican Republic teachers noticed that Alex had not progressed for his age and grade level. He repeated third grade. By the time Alex and his family moved to New York City, he was 12-years-old and placed in the fifth grade at a local elementary school near his home in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in Upper Manhattan.

When I met Alex, he was in the tenth grade. During his freshman year, he had become accustomed to cutting classes and getting suspended for doing so. Alex was one of my students who had learned not to care about his behavior. He often would blurt out in the middle of classroom instruction that school workers and peers referred to him and other special education students as “stupid” or “crazy.” He also said school workers and peers told him that an IEP diploma would essentially be worthless.

“Teacher,” Alex would ask. “What’s the point coming to school every day if I’m not gonna get a real diploma? This is bull–!”

I saw Alex as a bright and capable bilingual learner. His primary conversational language was Spanish and he could also effectively communicate in an academic setting. He expressed an interest in developing a plan to increase his academic achievements. Alex exhibited listening comprehension skills at an upper middle school level. He was an active participant during class discussions about current events, history, and realistic fiction. He demonstrated conceptual knowledge when he analyzed and interpreted audio and visual materials. Alex liked to draw and expressed an interest in taking an art class.

Although Alex’s reading and written language skills were far below age and grade level, he was able to dictate stories and express himself in an articulate manner. Alex benefited from developing advanced sight word vocabulary and improving decoding strategies. Alex worked best when he was given direct instruction, graphic organizers, checklists, audio and visual guides, and outlines. Instructional tasks were provided verbally and in writing in a sequential format. He restated instructions before starting a task and worked with a partner. Although Alex benefited from small group work, he preferred to work independently or one-to-one with a teacher. At times he put his head down as a sign of refusal to do group work.

Motivating Alex to Engage in the Reading and Writing Curriculum

In order to help Alex build his text literacy skills, I had to consider who he was and what would motivate him. I set a list of goals for myself:

  1. Build trust
  2. Become culturally literate
  3. Build a repertoire of instructional strategies
  4. Use effective questioning techniques
  5. Provide effective feedback
  6. Analyze instructional materials
  7. Establish positive home-school relations
Writing With Alex

Below, you’ll find a series of slides that show the journey that Alex and I took together, displaying specific writing and reading tasks:


Who are the Struggling Readers?

Struggling readers struggle because they do not read often. They learn fewer words needed to expand their knowledge and, as a result of a standard knowledge base, these students score poorly on IQ tests. Gunning (2002) describes a problem reader as a student who is reading below intellectual or oral language development. Reading problems are defined in terms of the level of discrepancy between student performance on a test of academic ability and reading achievement. Students are placed into programs for reading disabilities after a determination has been made on how large a gap there is between ability and achievement.

Gunning (2002) points out however that the problems, with the discrepancy definition, are: a) there’s no agreement on a measure or definition of intellectual abilities; b) multiple intelligence theory suggest that there are eight confirmed intelligences; and c) fairness of tests have been questioned on the basis of cultural biases. Reliance on I.Q. scores deprive culturally and linguistically diverse and exceptional learners from low socioeconomic backgrounds opportunities to receive eligible services when they do not meet discrepancy cut-offs. It is extremely difficult to determine a wide discrepancy in the early grades.

Historically, learning disability was considered a neurological disorder. Fletcher and Navarrete (2003) remind us that identification as “learning disabled” has historically been associated with neurological and biological factors. Researchers and advocates for children considered this medical model “misguided” when students with cultural and linguistic differences were evaluated using the same testing instruments as students who were proficient in English.

Although there have been some improvements in meeting the special education needs of culturally and linguistically diverse students, there is further concern about the misidentification and overrepresentation of Latino students that are categorized as learning disabled (Klingner & Artiles, 2003). Klingner and Artiles make a reference to a U.S. Census Bureau Report of 2003 that Latinos are the fastest-growing minority in American schools.

In a paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Klinger, et al. (2003) report that even when students were tested bilingually, only the English language results were used at IEP meetings and that little or no attention was given to the classroom environment. The use of the medical model automatically points the finger at the child as having an “internal deficit” which subsequently can eliminate a much-needed classroom observation by the school psychologist. In When Should Bilingual Students Be in Special Education? Klinger and Artiles report that “some psychologists did indicate that they would like to conduct classroom observations but had insufficient time in their busy schedules. Without classroom observations, evaluation teams cannot know whether a student has had an adequate opportunity to learn in an appropriate, culturally responsive environment.”

This scenario strongly suggests that misidentification and overrepresentation of Latino students is taking place because of inadequate and/or biased assessment. Once a child whose home language is not English is categorized as learning disabled, I wonder what kind of instructional settings these students are placed in and whether they are receiving the services that meet their needs?

Academic English used for reading and writing is not the same as conversational English. Conversational English generally takes one to three years to develop whereas academic language requires five to seven years. Students are placed into special education programs after a determination has been made about how large a gap there is between ability and achievement.

Effective readers and writers become so by reading a wide range of print materials to improve their word knowledge and comprehension. One of the greatest challenges for secondary learners who have a wide discrepancy between ability and reading achievement is the availability of materials that suit their cultural interests as older adolescents. Use of multimedia and teacher created materials that are inspired by student work becomes essential. What becomes most effective is when students begin to trust and learn from each other. In a self-contained special education class, students think that they are a group of “dummies” in the “stupid class” where there is no one to rely on but the teacher. It is up to the teacher to identify and celebrate strengths so that there is a pool of resources to draw from.

Effective teachers explain and model specific strategies followed by guided student practice. This combination of modeling and guided practice gradually increases independence of student learning. Students can see teachers model reading strategies such as predicting, questioning, and making personal and global connections to the text.

Reading aloud to culturally and linguistically diverse learners with special needs is a way to engage them with texts that they would struggle reading independently. As teachers read aloud, students are exposed to sounds, structural patterns, and English language vocabulary. As audio-visual learners, exposure to various genres and literary styles are supported through personal life experiences and interaction with various media. Picture books are particularly useful for the discussion of a variety of topics. The illustrations provide opportunities to make the meaning of the story clearer and to develop and broader vocabulary.

Readiness for New York State Alternative Assessment

Students will be engaged with a variety of texts that will foster an interest in reading a variety of well-crafted stories and informational texts. The overall goal is for students to

  • interact with texts written by well-known authors,
  • increase vocabulary
  • increase fluency
  • increase comprehension
Also that:
  • Students will engage in reading activities that include mini-lessons, independent, partner, and/or group discussions. Students will read self-selected texts from a variety of genres and document their understanding of setting, plot, and character development onto a reading log.
  • Students will engage in reading activities with short shared texts that promote the development of reading strategies, partner talk, and group discussion. Pre-selected texts will include a wide range of topics that support content area reading.
  • Students will also be read to on a consistent basis in order to develop listening and speaking skills. The books chosen for read-aloud will be from picture books, short stories, poetry, chapters from novels, and non-fiction sources that include current events.
  • Students will consistently participate in language arts activities designed to improve decoding and comprehension skills. Activities will be selected from varied reading, language arts texts, and interactive language arts websites.
Handouts/Mini-Lessons for Reading Instruction

Just Right Book

Questions Readers Ask

Author’s Purpose

Sample Lessons on Reading Instruction


Fletcher, T.V. & Navarrete, L.A. (2003).  Learning disabilities or difference: A critical look at issues associated with the misidentification and placement of Hispanic students in special education programs. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 22(4), 37-46.

Gunning, T.G. (2002). Assessing and correcting reading and writing difficulties second edition. MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Klingner, J.K. & Artiles, A. J. (2003). When should bilingual students be in special education? Educational Leadership, 61(2), 66-71.

What is Peer Support?

Peer response and editing are processes through which students respond to and provide feedback on their peers’ writing. They are not meant to take the place of teacher evaluation, nor can they identify all the strengths and challenges in a piece of writing, but when incorporated into the writing process in a thoughtful way, peer response and editing can be useful learning tools for both the writer and the student providing feedback. Generally, peer response focuses on the content of the piece, while peer editing concentrates on mechanics, such as spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

Why is Peer Support Important?
As Lucy Calkins (1994) states, part of being a good writer is being able to give valuable feedback to other writers. Peer response and editing help students in the following ways:
  • It requires them to write a draft of their paper before the final deadline, emphasizing the writing process as ongoing and evolving.
  • It exposes students to their peers’ ideas.
  • It requires students to articulate what they think about a piece of writing.
  • It motivates students to ask the teacher useful questions about the assignment.

Teachers can become conditioned to being the sole evaluator of students’ work and the one students rely on for feedback. Peer response and editing, when done well, improves the writing ability of both the writers and the readers. Through the collaboration involved in the process, students also receive social and emotional support as they share problems and attempt to come up with solutions.

What Does It Look Like?
In a classroom where peer response or editing is taking place, students will be working with a partner or in a small group. The teacher circulates among the groups, providing assistance as issues arise. The pairs or groups will be spread around the room, ideally separated by enough space to maintain focus on the task at hand. Teachers need to determine what arrangement works best for the class; for example, some teachers find that students who are physically comfortable (such as sitting on the floor or stretched out in the hall just outside the classroom door) are more likely to feel comfortable sharing their ideas with their peers.

The level of peer support significantly increased when students had opportunities for self-expression. The students self-selected topics to create collages and then provided support to one another by sharing ideas and materials.

Students created a community collage to build vocabulary.

Students worked independently to create story collages about something important to them.

This is My house in the Dominican Republic by JH

JC’s American Flag 


Calkins, L.M. (1994). The art of teaching writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Whole Group Instruction

The development of reading writing and cognitive skills can be supported by teachers in a variety of ways. Whole group instruction was based on my experiences working with elementary and middle school students, along with professional development with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. I learned that grammar is most meaningful when taught on a daily basis using students’ actual writing. Students had an opportunity to watch simple sentences transform into narratives that are rich with multisensory details.

Effective Pedagogy

Tharp, Estrada, Dalton, and Yamauchi (2000) propose the Five Standards for Effective Pedagogy as critical for improving learning outcomes for all students, and especially those of diverse ethnic, cultural, linguistic, or economic backgrounds. The Five Standards are:

  • Standard I — Teachers and Students Producing TogetherFacilitate learning through joint productive activity among teachers and students.
  • Standard II — Developing Language and Literacy Across the CurriculumDevelop competence in the language and literacy of instruction across the curriculum.
  • Standard III — Making Meaning; Connecting School to Students’ LivesContextualize teaching and curriculum in the experiences and skills of students’ homes and communities.
  • Standard IV — Teaching Complex ThinkingChallenge students toward cognitive complexity.
  • Standard V — Teaching Through ConversationEngage students through dialogue, especially the Instructional Conversation.
Instructional Conversation

Thinking, and the ability to form, express, and exchange ideas are best taught through dialogue, questioning, and sharing ideas and knowledge. In the Instructional Conversation (IC), the teacher listens carefully, makes guesses about the intended meaning, and adjusts responses to assist students’ efforts–just as in graduate seminars, or between mothers and toddlers. Here the teacher relates formal, school knowledge to the student’s individual, family, and community knowledge. The IC provides opportunities for the development of the languages of instruction and subject matter. IC is a supportive and collaborative event that builds intersubjectivity and a sense of community. IC achieves individualization of instruction; is best practiced during joint productive activity; is an ideal setting for language development; and allows sensitive contextualization, and precise, stimulating cognitive challenge.

According to the Center for Research on Education, Diversity, & Excellence (2002), instructional conversation in U.S. schools is rare: “More often, teaching is through the recitation script, in which the teacher repeatedly assigns and assesses. Classrooms and schools are transformed into communities of learners through such dialogic teaching, and when teachers reduce the distance between themselves and their students by constructing lessons from a common understanding of each others’ experience and ideas and make teaching a warm, interpersonal and collaborative activity.”

Indicators of Instructional Conversation

Indicators of Instructional Conversation from the Center for Research on Education, Diversity, & Excellence:

The teacher:

  • Arranges the classroom to accommodate conversation between the teacher and a small group of students on a regular and frequent basis.
  • Has a clear academic goal that guides a conversation with students.
  • Ensures that student talk occurs at higher rates than teacher talk.
  • Guides conversation to include students’ views, judgments, and rationales using text evidence and other substantive support.
  • Ensures that all students are included in the conversation according to their preferences.
  • Listens carefully to assess the levels of students’ understanding.
  • Assists students’ learning throughout the conversation by questioning, restating, praising, encouraging, etc.
  • Guides the students to prepare a product that indicates the Instructional Conversation’s goal was achieved.
Text Selection and the Instructional Conversation

As an avid reader of young adult literature and an advocate for culturally responsive pedagogy, my book selections are not random. Understanding the importance of modeling critical reading, writing, speaking, thinking, and listening skills made my first read aloud choice an easy one. I chose to read aloud Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes. The book reveals the home and school lives of 18 students in an unnamed Bronx high school. Students made connections to characters that lived in New York City and with names like their own. Some of the key characters are Gloria Martinez, Raul Ramirez, Lupe Algarin, and Wesley “Bad Boy” Boone.


Grimes, N. (2003). Bronx Masquerade. New York: Penguin Group USA.

Gunning, T.G. (2002).  Assessing and correcting reading and writing difficulties. MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Tharp, R. G., Estrada, P., Dalton, S. S., & Yamauchi, L. A. (2000). Teaching transformed: Achieving excellence, fairness, inclusion, and harmony. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Whole Group Lessons

All Student Need Diverse Writing Instruction

Teachers should know the material well enough to help students when they don’t understand. Teachers have to listen to students well enough to know where and the student is stuck in order to be able to explain material differently for a second, third, or fourth time.

High school students learn best when they sense that a teacher is in the room because he or she wants to be there. Mutual respect can increase the motivation to teach and to learn.
Learning is a process that happens over a lifetime. Teachers demonstrate to students that learning is not always automatic.
Students feel respected when teachers and school leaders raise the bar with meaningful learning experiences. I have had general and special education students tell me that they were not aware of their own abilities to learn until someone gave them a push.
Teachers should not talk down to students. I find it helpful to be curiously engaged about the lives of each of my students in order to make meaningful connections that can be applied to academic tasks. Student motivation to learn increases when they are praised for their efforts, and for what they already know and contribute to the community.
Teachers need to help students understand concepts, Students can get by on certain tasks by using memorization techniques but the deeper meaning of concepts helps students to solve problems when faced with challenges.
Teachers need to allow for interruptions during instruction. I’ve learned from my students and from facilitators at a professional development workshop that positive acknowledgment of interruptions is a form of positive reinforcement. Interruptions have let me know that my students are able to think critically. Thinking needs to be validated and nurtured. Teachers just have to manage digressions and refocus.
Teachers need to be flexible in their thinking and instructional practices. My students have increased their learning experiences through music, film, political cartoons, specialty books, classroom discussions, and their own writing.
Purposes of Assessment

Crist, Guill, Harmes, and Lake (1998) provide some key reasons for assessment. This is from a forum that the authors gave:Learners, teachers, administrators, and employers have an interest in conducting assessments. As an integral part of instruction, assessment must be done to determine whether the goals of education are being met. An appropriately aligned assessment determines the progress and reveals how improvements can be made toward meeting those goals. Most reasons for the assessment are listed below.

At all levels of educational systems, assessment answers the following questions:

  • Are we doing what we think we’re doing?
  • How can we do it better?

For learners, assessment does the following:

  • Promotes efficient learning by focusing the student’s attention on what is important
  • Promotes retention and transfer of learning
  • Promotes self-evaluation and self-monitoring by the use of well-defined expectations and criteria
  • Motivates learning by communicating progress concerning what a student knows and is able to do
  • Shows evidence of work that can be used to get jobs, scholarships, entrance to college

For teachers, assessment does the following:

  • Provides formative and summative data about student learning and attainment, specifically competency gain
  • Provides diagnostic data to improve learning
  • Assists instructional planning by providing informed feedback
  • Helps to determine teaching effectiveness – what approaches and methods work
  • Helps to determine whether the program is achieving desired goals (program accountability)Is a tool for communicating with others

For administrators, assessment does the following:

  • Assists in allocation of resources
  • Assists in making employee decisions – hiring, professional development needs

For employers, assessment does the following:

  • Provides data about what a prospective employee knows and is able to do
  • Provides evidence of learning by employees
English Language Learners

English language learners require strategic instruction. They are generally confused by words with similar sounds and words with multiple meaning and they have the greatest benefits when they can relate words to their own life experiences.

Students learn best through direct teaching of word meanings in context and through independent practice and repetition. Students benefit from developing a high-frequency word base. These words are generally preselected and grouped by level of difficulty. Since many of the words that we use in English have Latin roots, there are increased learning opportunities for Spanish speaking students when they explore the similarities and differences between the two languages.

Classroom Practices

Here are some examples of how teachers can use brainstorming and collection of ideas to support writing instruction:

Collecting Big Ideas

The teacher charts students responses of big ideas for a classroom visual display:

My future
Everyday life
Current Events
The World

Letters to President Obama

Below, you can read about my class’ project to write letters to President Obama.

Lesson 1

Focus: Using words we know

Do Now: Use the vocabulary words below to write a five-sentence paragraph that tells about our new president.

  • president
  • election
  • vote
  • speech
  • health
  • education
  • economy
  • war
  • opponent
  • John McCain
  • Michele Obama


November 4, 2008 was election day. Everyone had to vote for a new president. I listened to many speeches. I am concerned about health care, education and war.

Student responses to the “Do Now” activity:


November 4, was election day. I was happy Obama became the new president. My family voted for Obama to become a new president. We watched many speeches.


November 4, 2008 was election day. Everyone around the states had to vote for a president. Everyone voted for Obama. He gave a speech about ending the war, health care and education.


I wish I could vote for you but I can’t cause I need one more year to vote. You still won the election. I heard from you that you are going to stop the war. Some people voted for your opponent but he almost won. I am concerned about health care.

Jon Matos:

Barack Obama is the president-elect of the United States. He won the Election on November 4, 2008. People voted for Barack Obama on the day of the election. Barack Obama gave a victory speech when he won. He talked to the people about health care. He also talked about the education of students in schools.


Barack Obama is president.

People voted in the election

His speech was about health, education, and war. He spoke better than his opponent.

Silvio’s personal word list: salud education la guerra


Tuesday was Election Day. People had to vote for a new president. I listened to many debates. I am concerned about education, the economy, health and war.


The new president is Barack Obama and I hope he does something about the war, education, and health. Obama’s opponent was McCain. A lot of people voted for Obama. I think the day before the election they both gave speeches.


People had to vote for a president on election day. The president had a speech about war. He fought to the death against his opponent John McCain.

Lesson 2

Focus: Students learn how to format a business letter. In their letter to the President, they should include the following:

  • Introduce yourself and the topic you are writing about
  • In the body of the letter, describe your purpose for writing. You may want to include facts, reasons, and examples to explain the purpose. You may want to offer a solution to solve the problem.
  • Conclude the letter and insert your signature

Student Name

Street Address, Apartment #

New York, New York 00000

November 12, 2008

President Barack Obama

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

Washington, DC 20500

Dear President-elect Obama:
Congratulations on becoming the 44th President of the United States of America. My name is _________. I am a student at one of the oldest high school buildings in New York City. I am in the ____ grade.
I am writing to you because I have two questions about issues you spoke about in your speeches and debates.
My first question is,
My second question is.
Sincerely yours,
Student Signature

Student Examples

Below are final letters that 11th and 12th-grade students in the Alternative Assessment at Brown High School prepared for President Barack Obama. The students were proud of their work and gave permission for the letters to be posted on the bulletin board outside of the principal’s office.

Full names of students and the school address were omitted to protect the privacy of the students.

President Barack Obama

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W.

Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear President Obama:

Congratulations on becoming the 44th President of the United States of America. My name is Alex. I am in the eleventh grade. I was born in the Dominican Republic and came to the United States when I was in the fifth grade. I live in Washington Heights, NYC.

I am writing to you because I would like to talk to you in person. I would like to shake your hand and talk to you about how it feels to make history around the world. I would like to be like you Mr. President. Did you like high school? What was your favorite subject? How do you feel about being the first black president? Do you feel safe?

If I were the president I would try to make the neighborhoods safe for people to live. As a student, I would like to invite you to my neighborhood in Washington Heights. Everything is getting very expensive. The prices for food are too high. The prices for rent are too high and the apartments are too small.

Sincerely yours,


President Barack Obama

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W.

Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear President Obama:

Congratulations on becoming the 44th President of the United States of America. My name is Candy and I am a student in the eleventh grade. I hope that you are a good president. I could not vote for you because I was only seventeen years old. I heard from my teacher and my friends that you gave speeches about health, education, and war. I watched the debates between you and your opponent John McCain. I liked what you said about education. We need more money for our school.

I am writing to you because I want to know what you can do for the old people in our country. My grandmother is 67 years old. How can you make sure that senior citizens get good health care? If I were the president I would make sure that senior citizens get good health care. As a student I might be able to volunteer to help old people who are homeless or sick.

I hope you do a good job.

Sincerely yours,


School Context

Brown High School (pseudonym) is a small public high school located in Manhattan. Ninety-five percent of the students at Brown High School (BHS) are Latino. The school has received recognition for closing the achievement gap. The special education students that I have worked with at BHS  are English Language Learners at the lowest end of the academic spectrum. They are in the least restrictive environment and are designated a “Special Class in a Community School.” The classifications on their IEPs are Learning Disabled, Speech and Language Impaired, or Emotionally Disturbed. Most of the students also require related services for counseling to help them develop coping skills.

The students in a Special Class at BHS do not participate in high stakes testing. Instead, they are mandated for New York State Alternative Assessment. Although the students in a Special Class are significantly below high school grade levels, they have strengths in a variety of areas that can be used to motivate them to rethink their attitude about school. Students in the Alternative Assessment Program at BHS receive an IEP diploma which is essentially a certificate of attendance. Prior to graduation, students are required to enroll in a state-run vocational training program to prepare for future employment. These students are generally discouraged when they reach high school and discover that they will not be able to attend college at the same time as their general education peers.

Most students, whether they are general education, general education with special education support services, or full-time special education, can be motivated to learn when they are reminded of their strengths instead of being hammered because of their struggles. They can become the beneficiaries of proactive instead of reactive teaching.

It is important to note that one instructional strategy does not fit all students. The initial step for creating a learning community that includes the needs of diverse learners is establishing clear expectations within the classroom. Another step for developing a community of learners is to examine and share student work for the purpose of monitoring progress. A third, but by no means final step, is culturally responsive teaching. Culturally responsive teaching is a pedagogy of inclusion that speaks to students’ needs to have a cultural bridge between home and school.

As an African-American female who grew up in New York City and attended public schools, I am an advocate for a culturally responsive curriculum and have long been a reader of such writers like Julia Alvarez and Richard Wright.

More about the author: Charlene Sinckler