Location: Special Education Assistive Technology Center, Illinois State University
Leader: George R. Peterson-Karlan
The trends and findings from a descriptive analysis of 25 years of research studies examining the effectiveness of technology to support the compositional writing of students with learning and academic disabilities are presented. A corpus of 85 applied research studies of writing technology effectiveness was identified from among 249 items in the scholarly literature. The use of technologies to support each of the components of the writing process is reported in terms of the research designs used, the writing processes supported, and the historical trends in research publication. The research designs represented in the research base suggests that, overall, there is a developed program of research; however, this does not hold for the individual writing process areas (planning, transcription, editing, and revising). Among the four process areas, the largest number of studies is of technologies to support transcription with revising the next most frequent and few studies of planning/organization and editing. Comparison of the historical trends in research to trends in technology development revealed that little new research investigating basic digital writing support tools, as used by students with learning and academic disabilities, has appeared in the last 10 years despite the growth and development of technology. Across the total corpus of applied research studies, basic evidence-based practice criteria related to number of studies and number of participants was not met in the areas of planning and organization, editing, and revising technologies. Applied research studies of the effectiveness of transcription tools nearly meet the criteria for number of studies and number of participants, and nearly enough to warrant further analysis of study quality and effect sizes. Taken together these findings underscore the critical need for further research on the effectiveness of contemporary technologies to support compositional writing.Writing Problems of Students with Learning and Academic Disabilities
Students with learning and academic disabilities demonstrate an impressive array of problems in writing.
Based upon a corpus of 41 research studies, Newcomer & Barenbaum (1991) produced the seminal review of the written composing abilities of children with learning disabilities covering the decade of 1980-1990. This summary served as the impetus for much of the subsequent research in this area–research that either more fully detailed the characteristics outlined by Newcomer and Barenbaum or that attempted to remediate the problems identified by these authors through a variety of teaching and/or technological approaches. Relative to typically developing peers, students with learning disabilities have decreased skills that do not improve over time or years in school (under typical conditions of instruction). In comparison to typical peers, students with learning disabilities (a) make more mechanical errors, including spelling, punctuation, and capitalization (fourth grade through college), with spelling errors the most pronounced; (b) make more subject/predicate agreement (syntax) errors; (c) are less fluent (i.e., use fewer words, particularly those with seven letters; produce fewer sentences, and use less variety of words); and (d) do not exhibit an increase in fluency with age (maturity). Overall, in narrative writing, students with learning disabilities reflect a paucity of ideas that prevents them from embellishing their narratives and, as a result, produce qualitatively perfunctory stories that may not meet the minimal requirements for a story. Problems with cohesiveness suggest an inability to retain an overview of purpose or direction of the composition (lack a story ‘plan’), instead writing any thought that occurs — indiscriminately and often inappropriately. Data suggests that students with learning disabilities have only cursory knowledge of what a story is and do not know or remember how to expand a composition beyond this level, lacking the composing skills to identify organization problems during revision (Newcomer & Brenbaum, 1991).
Overall, in expository writing, students with learning disabilities produce compositions exhibiting mechanical errors, irrelevancies, redundancies, early termination, lack of coherence and organization. The type of text structure of the composition differentially affects the type and extent of errors. Sequencing appears to be the easiest text structure and compare/contrast the most difficult. The problems exhibited by students with learning disabilities were not only more frequent compared to typically achieving peers at grade level, but were significantly worse than underachieving students matched for reading level and IQ. Metacognitive research in this corpus focused upon expository, rather than narrative, composing and compositions. Specific analysis of the use of metacognitive knowledge and cognitive strategies while writing reveals that students with learning disabilities compared to typical peers demonstrate (a) less knowledge of steps in the writing process, including the relevance of planning; (b) less knowledge of the structures of various expository texts; (c) fewer procedures for generating, selecting, and integrating information from multiple sources; and (d) fewer strategies for organizing and presenting expository ideas, including modeled strategies.
There is a long history to the suggestion that technology can be particularly advantageous for students with learning and academic disabilities in remediating or compensating for these problems. Word processors, word prediction, spell checkers, text-to-speech, and organization tools have all been extensively discussed as helping or having potential to help students with disabilities to engage in the many levels of cognition required to produce coherent, organized, audience-aware, and conventionally accurate compositions (e.g., Forgrave, 2002; Hunt-Berg & Rankin, 1994; MacArthur, 2000, 2009a, 2009b; Montgomery & Marks, 2006; Sitko, Laine, & Sitko, 2005; Zhao, 2007). However, only recently has there been systematic examination of the existing evidence base using historical and metaanalytic synthesis techniques that might support such claims (Cochran-Smith, 1991; Goldberg, Russell & Cook, 2003; Graham & Perrin, 2007, Okolo & Bouck, 2007; PetersonKarlan & Parette, 2007b; Rogers & Graham, 2008). Based upon a comprehensive compilation and examination of the literature related to the use of technology to support writing by students with learning and academic disabilities (Peterson-Karlan 2011; Peterson-Karlan & Parette, 2007b), this paper reports on the characteristics of this literature base, trends in research over time, and implications for conclusions regarding the effectiveness of technology as related to specific components of the writing process. The overall purpose is to determine what is known from empirical research regarding technologies to support writing and whether technology to support writing is an evidence based practice.
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