For many students, the prospect of writing a report can be overwhelming: collecting information, extracting relevant facts, analyzing them, and organizing the material into original nonfiction. For teachers as well, the process may be fraught with frustration. How can they help students manage the research and writing process? And especially, how can they help their students with learning disabilities, for whom the writing process is even more intimidating?
EDC researchers in the Center for Family, School and Community, long involved in middle grades literacy issues, have received funding from the U.S. Department of Education to conduct a three-year research study of the innovative software tool for writing called Draft:Builder™. Developed at EDC and published by Don Johnston, Inc., Draft:Builder has been field-tested, adapted, and fine-tuned over several years and will now be tested in a number of New Jersey schools.
“The study will allow us to understand the contexts and factors that lead to success for students with learning disabilities,” says Bob Follansbee, one of the software developers and the EDC project director.
Draft:Builder uses a split-screen format to lead students through a number of steps. They can simultaneously work with and see multiple dimensions of the report-making process. With simple maneuvers, they can develop an outline, visually map it, take and keep track of notes, and then convert it all into text for a draft. Before using the software, many students had never used a step-by-step process to construct a draft. Many had never used an outline or associated notes with an organizational scheme; they moved from research directly to writing a draft. As one teacher noted, “losing all those papers and having so many different things in so many different places really interferes with students’ learning.” Prior to using Draft:Builder, she said, many students “gave little thought to what they said first, second or third. It was just whatever they thought of first.” Once they became familiar with the software, she said, “they could concentrate on the actual process of structuring their research and thinking about what they want to say … the software became an automatic kind of way to keep organized.”
Draft:Builder has evolved from several earlier EDC projects. In 1997, the federal Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) funded EDC to develop software to help middle grades students both with and without learning disabilities to take notes, outline, and create drafts for reports. This work produced a prototype to Draft:Builder. From 1999-2002, EDC tested the software in grades 6-8 social studies classes. Students with learning disabilities improved from the fall to spring in their ability to produce a research report, achieving at equal levels with peers without disabilities, according to project research. The results were most dramatic among the sixth graders, the youngest in the group. Building on those findings, the new phase of the project will study the next iteration of the software, Draft:Builder, with even younger students with learning disabilities—fourth, fifth, and sixth grade social studies classes.
This age group is at a critical juncture, notes Follansbee. As students start grade four, they are beginning to make a shift from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” in the content areas. They are beginning to learn how to collect information from multiple sources, sort through it, and generate original expository writing. Some students falter as this complex transition unfolds. Sixty-eight percent of fourth graders have not mastered the mechanics of reading or read only at a basic level. Seventy-six percent of fourth grade students scored below the proficient level in writing. The patterns are similar among students with disabilities.
Draft:Builder zeros in on those key analysis skills, says Follansbee. “The software integrates the process of research and writing,” he says. “If we start with younger kids who are just learning organizational skills, the software may be even more effective.”
The project, which will study and work with New Jersey schools in urban, rural and suburban settings, will train teachers to use the software and to be able to teach it to students. Workshops, ongoing technical assistance, and access to online information and resources will be provided. FSC’s work over the past several years has identified a number of effective strategies in this area, for example, to help teachers integrate software into their own repertoire and ways to apply the software-based tasks to multiple subject areas.
The teacher training “encourages them to teach writing well,” says Follansbee. “We know that even if we put the best piece of software in the world in a classroom where writing has been drudgery, we’re not going to accomplish much.”
However, Follansbee adds, “We don’t pretend to have a ‘writing curriculum.’ The software is a way to support a variety of approaches to writing. We’re promoting writing practices that are well-established in research—supporting them where they do exist and hopefully introducing them to some extent where they don’t.”
Originally published on September 1, 2003