WMU News

Writing program targets special needs, general ed students

February 9, 1999

KALAMAZOO -- Both students with special needs and their general education counterparts are getting some help with their writing through a joint project being undertaken by Western Michigan University and the Kalamazoo Public Schools.

Called the Writing Lab Outreach Project, the initiative is backed by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs, which has awarded $142,235 to fund the project's first year. Subsequent grants of just under $150,000 will fund the second and third years of the three-year effort.

The project targets students with special needs in the first through third grades and uses computers to help them learn and practice writing. But one of its beauties is that those students do that right alongside their general education peers. In the end, organizers say, both groups come out ahead.

"All children can benefit," says Dr. Nickola W. Nelson, professor of speech pathology and audiology and project co-director. "Rather than teach them in separate ways, we bring the children with disabilities into the regular classroom and have everyone learn to the greatest potential."

For now, the project is focused on Milwood Elementary schoolchildren. In the coming years, it is expected to expand to Washington, Oakwood and Martin Luther King-Westwood elementary schools.

In addition, a summer institute June 18-July 1 will bring together interested teachers and clinicians for a two-week training and planning session on computer-supported writing instruction. Educators from Ohio, Indiana and across Michigan will learn about the program and how to implement it at their schools.

The first work produced by Milwood students has already been published. Story titles in classroom anthologies range from "Godzilla" and "Monsters" to "My Imaginary Dog," "Year 2000," "The Bear and Turkey and Wolf" and "Helping Other People."

"Their stories are so much fun," says Nelson. "What's really neat is you get kids who think they can't write, but they not only find out that they can, they discover they have good stories to share. They learn to think of themselves as authors."

The project is an outgrowth of an earlier one undertaken by Nelson; Dr. Christine Bahr, formerly an associate professor in the Department of Special Education and now at Indiana State University; and Adelia VanMeter, clinical coordinator for the WMU Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology. VanMeter also serves as coordinator for the new project.

The earlier project investigated the use of computing technology to help students with learning difficulties overcome writing problems. It, too, was developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education and used the help of speech-language pathology graduate students.

The current project builds on the earlier one's evaluation of computer-based word processing software as a tool to address specific writing problems and makes it available to students at large.

"This was an opportunity to work with regular education teachers to make something that would be sustainable in the real world," says Bahr. "I think computers have some very special potential for leveling the playing field. We wanted teachers to be able to take advantage of that technology not just for students with special needs, but all students."

Children are ushered through a four-step writing process: planning, drafting, editing and publishing. Afterward, the young writers read their stories for other children, who may then make comments or ask questions.

"We're pretty fresh into this project," Nelson says. "But historically we've seen how students can learn to write longer stories that make more sense. Thoughts are better connected and they learn to see themselves as readers and writers. So this is very empowering for them."

Nelson also hopes the project will have an impact on test scores, including the Michigan Education Assessment Program test. The MEAP test and education in general has shifted to a greater emphasis on writing, Nelson says.

"All across the country, teachers have recognized that children have to write more," Nelson says. "Our project fits into a real national movement."

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 616 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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