Writing Essay Answers: An Overview of The Strategic Writing Approach


“I’m finding that with inclusion, my students have to write lots of essays. What can I do to help them with making their essays organized and coherent?”—Laura M., Highland Park, IL.

Additional Info:

Teaching composition is a substantial task, but plenty of research indicates that it can be done. To address this question, we turned to Professor Linda Mason, one of the people who has contributed to educators’ understanding of how to teach written expression effectively. Professor Mason, who teaches and conducts research at Pennsylvania State University, provides a quick overview of the complex processes involved in teaching students how to write essays. We’re hoping to convince her to create a HotSheet on this topic, so that we can make it available to our members.—Eds.


Written composition is difficult for many students with learning disabilities (LD) and, given the demands of the inclusive classroom for essay writing, it is even more complicated these days. Of course, we should be providing careful instruction in written expression regardless of the setting, but your question is an excellent one.

Often students with LD have one of two goals for their writing; “I will write down every thought I have” or “I will write as little as possible.” These students need explicit instruction in how to generate appropriate ideas, organize these ideas, and regulate their writing behavior to meet the specific writing task (Schmidt, Deshler, Schumaker, & Alley, 1988). The empirically validated approach called Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD; Graham & Harris, 2003) provides direction for us in this situation. It shows us how to give students necessary knowledge in using strategies for writing while also teaching them to regulate their writing performance throughout the writing process.

Strategy Instruction

Writing strategies should be taught in six recursive instructional stages. Concepts and procedures should be revisited as needed to ensure that the students can apply skills to their writing. Instruction should be criterion-based to ensure that the students have learned how to apply what has been taught. The stages noted next do not represent a series of lessons but show what the teacher and students do to achieve mastery in writing an essay.

Stage 1, Develop Pre-skills
It is important for the teacher to assess the students’ prior knowledge of the essay genre, parts, and variants. You need to establish that each student understands the purpose for writing: (a) to express ideas in a story or personal narrative, (b) to provide information, or (c) to persuade or give an opinion. You probably will want to use model or anchor essays as a way to assess students’ knowledge about genre-specific essay parts (e.g., a thesis in a persuasive essay). Students can either mark parts on a printed essay or in some other way indicate when they have found a part. 

Stage 2, Discuss the Strategy
Prior to introducing a strategy, the teacher and students should discuss what good writers do when writing an essay. The strategy is then introduced as a “trick” for improving writing. Introduce materials (e.g., mnemonic charts and graphic organizers) while you describe the strategy. You can use a sample essay to foster discussion about how to improve an essay by adding more parts. 

Stage 3, Modeling
Modeling, a foundation for teaching most strategies, is critical when teaching writing. While you write an essay, model a writer’s cognitions (“think aloud”) to demonstrate how and when to use the strategy; refer to the supporting materials (charts, organizers) while you do this. This stage of instruction is critical for illustrating the process in planning and writing a well-organized essay.

Stage 4, Memorization
Students should be provided time to memorize the strategy until they are fluent in understanding mnemonics, their meanings, and each strategy step.

Stage 5, Guided practice
The teacher scaffolds support as needed to ensure that students are successful. Guided practice begins with teacher and students collaboratively writing essays. The students provide ideas, while the teacher writes notes and the essay. Support materials are used and the number of essay parts are counted and recorded. Be sure to provide guided practice in writing essays with all essay parts. 

Stage 6, Independent performance
To demonstrate independence, students should apply strategy steps without teacher or material prompts. Support materials, for example, are gradually replaced with student-written products (i.e., students writing their own graphic organizer on blank paper). To establish generalization to the inclusive classroom, students should be given an opportunity to practice writing essays in novel settings and with different teachers.

Developing Students’ Self-Regulation

Student independence in using strategies throughout the writing process is cultivated by directly teaching them to regulate their own learning through goal-setting, self-monitoring, self-instruction, and self-reinforcement.

After the students’ pre-skill development is established, and discussion of the strategies has taken place, students should commit to learning the strategy. I recommend creating a contract establishing this commitment. In the contract, the student sets a goal to learn the strategy; you commit to doing your best in teaching the strategy. Prior to writing each essay, students set a goal to use all strategy parts.

During modeling, the teacher demonstrates how to monitor progress in using all strategy parts as well as how to record the number of parts written when the essay is complete. Students then are encouraged to monitor and record the number of parts written on each essay.

Following the teacher’s modeling (remember, the teacher talked out loud!), the students develop and record personal self-statements to be used while planning (“Relax,” “Ask for help”), while working (“Use the strategy,” “I can do this”), and to check work (“Examine!” “Perfect”). Negative self-statements should be addressed and revised collaboratively.

Teachers should reinforce students’ use of the steps in writing. As the students’ self-monitoring graphs show increases in number of parts written, let them know they are doing well. Their essays have improved, and therefore are more fun to read! Self-instructions can be used to self-reinforce a job well-written essay. Students should learn to use their self-assessments as an opportunity to praise themselves for completing the steps in the strategy correctly. Communicate to the students that, when they’ve done a good job on setting a goal, monitoring their progress, and guiding themselves through it, they should reinforce themselves for their successes.

Example Strategies

Experts recommend teaching one universal strategy, one that can then be used with multiple genres (Harris, Graham, Mason, & Friedlander, 2008). The POW (Pick an idea, Organize notes, and Write and Say More) strategy, for example, guides students to: (a) think about and brainstorm ideas prior to writing, (b) organize notes for the specific genre; and (c) write the essay from notes but be sure to include any new points or information that may develop while writing. There are plenty of validated strategies for organization. Remember, the critical ingredient to teaching essay writing is not the strategy you select but the instruction you provide!

Here are two examples of strategies with mnemonics to help students remember their parts. Students would need to memorize the mnemonics. Then, as developed above you would teach them how to use them by modeling them yourself, guiding students through using them, having them practice them independently, and having them practice employing the strategies in different settings with different teachers. All the while, you would want the students to employ the self-regulating steps.

W, W, W, What=2, How=2 for story writing

Who are the characters?
When does the story take place?
Where does the story take place?
What do the characters do or want to do?
What happens next?
How does the story end?
How do the characters feel?

TREE for persuasive and opinion essays

Topic. What do you believe?

Reasons — 3 or more. Why do you believe this?

Examine reasons. Explain why you believe this.
Ending. Wrap up it up!

Graham. S., & Harris, K. R. (2003). Students with learning disabilities and the process of writing: A meta-analysis of SRSD studies. In L. Swanson, K. R. Harris, & S. Graham (Eds.). Handbook of learning disabilities (pp. 383-402). New York: Guilford.

Harris, K. R., Graham, S., Mason, L. H., & Friedlander, B. (2008). Powerful writing strategies for all students. Baltimore: Brooks Publishing Co. Inc.

Schmidt, J. L., Deshler, D. D., Schumaker, J. B., & Alley, G. R. (1988). Effects of generalization instruction on the written language performance of adolescents with learning disabilities in the mainstream classroom. Reading, Writing, and Learning Disabilities, 4, 291-309.

To cite this article, please use the following format: Mason L. (2008, August 14). Expert connection: Writing essay answers. TeachingLD.org. Retrieved from http://TeachingLD.org/expert_connection/writingessayanswers.html.