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Getting the word out: CMU students teach students with developmental disabilities how to write

First Author Writing Curriculum first-of-its-kind to provide systematic instruction, measure progress

Contact: Curt Smith

​​​​​​​Central Michigan University speech-language pathology professor Janet Sturm, creator of the First Author Software and First Author Writing Measures, is putting her stamp on the world with the development of the new First Author Writing Curriculum. It provides educators with a foundation from which to teach students with complex instructional needs, including autism, how to write — in an authentic learning environment with accommodations — and then measure their writing progress.

Once a week for eight months, Sturm and speech-language pathology graduate students from The Herbert H. & Grace A. Dow College of Health Professions travel to the Clare-Gladwin Regional Education School District in Clare, where they spend 90 minutes teaching students with moderate intellectual disabilities, ages six through twelve, how to express themselves through writing using the new First Author Writing Curriculum.​


"The First Author Writing Curriculum is the first-of-its-kind and has the potential to change how students with disabilities participate in writing instruction not only locally, but also around the world," said Melissa Kleiman, Clare-Gladwin RESD program teacher for students with moderate cognitive impairments. "Students in my class have had the opportunity to learn from CMU students about the writing process and how to be a better communicator."

Kleiman said the curriculum allows all students to participate in writing at their ability level and fosters feelings of pride and self-worth in writing.

"It enables students who may face challenges with written communication to feel included in a shared writing experience," Kleiman said. "It's incredible to watch them gain confidence and independence with writing. I hope that other teachers will be inspired when they see the magic happening in my classroom and explore the curriculum for their own classrooms."

The First Author Writing Curriculum consists of three main components:

  • Mini-Lessons that focus on a target concept for the day and during which goals and purposes are discussed and students are engaged in collaborative learning as a group;
  • Writing Time during which every student gets to self-select one topic and create a writing product, through pictures, scribbles, letters, words or sentences that can be shared with others; and,
  • Author's Chair sharing time when students take turns at the front of the class to share their writing with their classmates, learn about speaking to a group and receive feedback on their work. They always finish their sharing session with, "Any questions or comments?" Peers learn effective speaking and listening skills as they interact with the student in the Author's Chair.

Learning how to write is important because written expression is a major form of communication, both in school and in society at large, but students with significant disabilities are not getting adequate instruction in how to express themselves in writing. Additionally, learning the power of communication through speaking and writing — and having the ability to spell — offers numerous social, educational and vocational opportunities.

In addition, the new College and Career Readiness Standards have a strong focus on writing, and most special education teachers are concerned that traditional methods of writing instruction aren't preparing students for the new writing requirements.

"Critical foundations for literacy learning are established by having students write every day in authentic and meaningful writing tasks," Sturm said.

Students in Kleiman's classroom present with a range of cognitive, language, motor and sensory needs, that impact language and literacy learning.

"Some of my students may write sentences and others may pick a picture and make some letter formations or lines," Kleiman said. "The First Author Curriculum allows them to branch out and express their likes, dislikes and opinions, and instills a sense of responsibility for their own writing — more than I can give in a typical classroom setting."

Sturm and colleagues developed First Author Writing Measures, an additional resource for teachers that is located in the software and curriculum, after discovering that there were no existing measures in the field sensitive enough to demonstrate the gains made by students with developmental disabilities who were using the program and making progress.

"The First Author Writing Measures are a group of writing quantity and quality tools that allow us to see the refined, sometimes small, changes that students with developmental disabilities make with their writing," Sturm said. "The developmental writing scale is a 14-point scale that ranges from scribbling up to cohesive and coherent paragraph-level writing that a typically developing second grader might be able to produce."

Kleiman said that since having the CMU students use the First Author Writing Curriculum in her classroom, she has seen her students impacted in a positive way.

"Some of my students who were only writing letters and lines are now writing sentences," Kleiman said. "They also have shown improvement socially by taking turns, praising others for their work, being proud of themselves and their classmates. Their confidence levels have grown and they are truly excited about writing."

R​elated content

Don Johnston Incorporated develops accessible reading and writing technologies to support K through 12 and postsecondary students with cognitive, physical and learning disabilities. Since 1980, the company has partnered with experts to improve access to learning and increase reading and writing independence, including the following technologies created by Janet Sturm:

  • First Author, a writing software tool that helps teach students, ages 5 through 21, with complex instructional needs write independently on self-selected and curriculum-tied topics and guides teachers through the process of assessing students' writings and tracking their progress.
  • First Author Writing Curriculum, a comprehensive set of tools for educators to use in teaching students with complex instructional needs how to write through Mini-Lessons, Writing Time and sharing from the Author's Chair.
  • First Author Writing Measures, located in the software and the curriculum, gives teachers a comprehensive group of measurement tools to assess and monitor small increments in students' writing development from scribbling to paragraph writing. 

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