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Providing a voice for children with disabilities

CMU professor’s writing curriculum targets students with complex needs

Contact: ​Jeff Johnston

Imagine not being able to express what's on your mind because you were never taught to write. That's a reality for countless students with disabilities nationwide.

Janet Sturm is on a mission to change that.

The Central Michigan University Communication Disorders professor created the First Author Writing Curriculum to help children who have intellectual, physical and sensory disabilities learn to write.

"Children with significant disabilities are not provided with writing instruction, and it's partly because of the attitudes and beliefs that these children aren't capable," Sturm said. "Now more than ever, the voices of these students need to be heard."

Sturm's curriculum — in use nationwide in more than 500 classrooms — provides specialized lessons and tools that help instructors teach writing, measure progress, and meet national and state-level academic standards.


"Teachers tell me that prior to First Author, they had no writing curriculum for their students" Sturm said. "Typical instruction consisted of copying and tracing letters of the alphabet. First Author is all about everybody finding a voice, as well as communicating and sharing with others."

Sturm's curriculum — based on best practices in general and special education — is adaptable to students of all ages and abilities.

Two papers show writing by children using First Author

"For some students, it's just learning to touch a pencil to a page and knowing that authors leave marks on a page. Other students are writing their words in sentences," Sturm said. "For students with severe limitations, it's about us attempting to read their cues and find out what they are communicating and to continue to expose them to things to see if we can get some type of intentional response."

John Siracuse, a principal in New York City's largest district serving students with special needs, says his teachers are successfully using the program with pre-K through age 21 students on the autism spectrum.

"Students on the autism spectrum are nonconventional learners. It's oftentimes difficult to engage them," he said. "These students have difficulty with focusing, remaining on task, and they are very fixated on certain things — especially things they like. This program is very structured, and the fact that it targets writing about things that they enjoy is an added incentive. They learn to love writing without even knowing they're writing."

Students with complex needs also often have significant behavioral challenges, Sturm said.

"The first classroom that I brought writing into was one where the students were prone to violence," she said. "But, as we built a respectful learning community, the behavioral challenges plummeted, and they had their best moments of the day or in the week during writing time."

Celebrating children as authors

Each day, teachers using the curriculum give a mini-lesson to introduce concepts about writing, speaking and listening. This is followed by writing time. The students select the topic, which is often inspired by magazine cutouts and photos.

"This provides the students with the first opportunity to engage in authentic writing and to become writers and authors," Sturm said.

At the end of the week, the students each sit down in the "author's chair" to share their favorite piece of writing or even a picture. It builds student motivation and becomes a place of celebration, according to Sturm.

A student sits in the author's chair to share his writing

Some students who have never interacted with the class begin to shine when the spotlight turns to their writing. After students share their writing, the rest of class erupts into applause and hands raise with questions, comments and compliments. Some schools even host "Meet the Author" parties, inviting parents in to watch the students share their writing.

Sturm said her biggest challenge is changing attitudes and perceptions of the capabilities of students with disabilities.

"If these individuals do not become literate, they are at risk for not having a means to communicate or having only limited ways to communicate through pictographic symbols that are chosen by somebody else," she said. "If I can help more students around the world become literate, they can use their newfound voices throughout their lives."

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