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KU's Project WRITE helps struggling learners improve writing skills

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Parent helping student with homework.

LAWRENCE — A new body of research from the University of Kansas has found that a new program is highly effective at helping teachers use technology to improve the writing skills of students, especially those with disabilities, as well as save educators time and give them new tools to assess learners’ progress.

Researchers in KU’s Center for Research on Learning, Life Span Institute and School of Education & Human Sciences received a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs in 2014 to boost writing skills for middle school students with disabilities. Among the tools developed by the program was Project WRITE, which helps teachers formatively assess which students might need additional support and provides research-backed interventions to monitor progress and improve writing skills aligned with effective technology tools such as word prediction. The researchers have published a series of journal articles showing data that proves the progress monitoring tool is highly effective.

The research team gathered five years of data from teachers and schools using Project WRITE, which includes a progress monitoring system and a professional learning website. Teachers used WRITE to derive information on student progress every two weeks among middle school learners. The data showed marked improvement in multiple areas of writing, especially for students with intellectual and learning disabilities. The progress monitoring tool saved teachers hours of manually assessing writing samples. Teachers can give students a three-minute writing assignment, quickly have the samples analyzed, identify which students need further assistance and recommend specific strategies to help in a number of specific areas of writing skill.

“This system is capable of making recommendations to a teacher on what kind of support a given student might need and provides recommendations that teachers can consider to improve a specific skill,” said Amber Rowland, associate research professor in KU’s Center for Research on Learning and courtesy associate professor of special education. “Teachers love how the tool auto-scores writing samples and produces graphs and trendlines which can be used in one-on-one conversations about writing with students. Being a good writer is more than just spelling or grammar. Our tool serves as a springboard for teachers and students to discuss individual strengths, barriers to learning and the interventions needed to become a stronger writer.”

In one article, authors detailed how Project WRITE can support six traits of writing: ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency and conventions. It also details how it provides tools to address each specific trait, where such supports can be located and how they can be used. Another article outlines the tool’s effectiveness in addressing writing challenges such as idea generation, planning, handwriting and/or spelling, grammar and mechanics, writing genres, motivation, writing strategies and revising.

While Project WRITE and its progress monitoring tool have shown to be especially effective for teachers supporting Individualized Education Plans for students with disabilities, they are also timely, working in both virtual and in-person settings.

“After the pandemic, when students have been learning in a variety of settings, we’ve found that being able to learn and assess virtually has its advantages,” said Sean Smith, professor of special education, the project’s principal investigator and one of the co-authors. “But we’ve also found the tool is effective for in-person learning and has the benefit of maximizing time for teachers and students, which has previously been an element of concern in teaching writing.”

Writing instruction has been challenging for a wide variety of teachers for many years, and its instruction was widely neglected during the No Child Left Behind era, researchers said. Its instruction has received new emphasis in the New Common Core Standards, and a large body of research shows the benefits of writing skills for student development, including college and career readiness. The recent research publications also highlight how it can be effectively used across subject areas.

“We’ve found writing is integral to all subject areas, but not all teachers are comfortable teaching writing,” Rowland said. “Especially for learners who struggle, it helps teachers assess their progress and provide tools for improvement. Asking students to tell what they know is something all teachers do, and our tool can help them do so through improved writing.”

Project WRITE is available to schools across the country. To use the tool, contact Sean Smith by email. The research team will continue to evaluate its effectiveness and assist teachers and schools in its implementation. Journal articles on its effectiveness have been published in the journals Inclusion, Journal of Special Education Technology and Intervention in School and Clinic and another is forthcoming in Teaching Exceptional Children. Rowland and Smith co-wrote the articles with Bruce Frey and Naheed Abdulrahim of KU and Alisa Lowrey with the University of Southern Mississippi.

“We’re trying to help educators use the best possible technology for learning,” Smith said. “You might think, a year into the pandemic, that technology isn’t an issue, but we know from teachers that they are looking for specific technologies and strategies they can use to really benefit their students, especially those who struggle, and Project WRITE is proving it can do that in a number of settings.”

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