The Do’s and Don’ts of Writing

Last year, I had a request to make up a Do’s and Don’t s of Writing poster – and I thought this was a fabulous idea! So, I am happy to present the “Do’s and Don’ts of Writing: Supporting all individuals to be better writers.”

And now, because it wouldn’t be me without a whole lot of words to follow, I get to expand on each of these points!

Writing is how we express ourselves. For anyone with complex communication needs, it is the ultimate goal. Being able to write means that you can say anything you want.

Unfortunately, the history of special education tells us that we haven’t done a great job with teaching writing. Katims (2000) referred to much of our writing instruction as “reductionist interventions” because we have frequently reduced our instruction to focus on just one of the skills of writing – which frequently has been a focus on handwriting. Writing is a very complex series of tasks and if we don’t teach all of the skills involved, then students won’t learn all of those skills.

And – once we have students who are developing as writers – we need to accept that writing is, indeed, about self-expression. We might not always like what students write – but we have to respect that it is their human right to express themselves.

This point once again refers back to our history of reductionist interventions. Writing consists of a complex series of skills and every individual needs to learn to do all of these skills to become an independent writer. Writing isn’t about just one skill – our history in special education has proven that focusing on just one of these areas, such as spelling, doesn’t lead to good outcomes. We need to ensure that every individual gets an opportunity to experience all the parts of writing to continue to develop.

Many of the students that I work with have difficulty generating ideas and language to use in writing. I believe this is because writing involves juggling so many skills – and they can struggle with all or any of them. Over years I’ve seen a lot of education staff deal with this difficulty by generating ideas and language for the individual – but this isn’t a strategy that helps in the long term. One of my favourite things to say in a discussion of writing is “when you introduce a scaffold or support – consider whether it will be available to them in supermarket when they need to send a text message”. If the scaffold or support isn’t going to be available to them in a range of environments, then we either don’t use it, or we have a plan to use it for the short term and remove it.

An adult generating the language and ideas for a student is never an appropriate scaffold or support. Students learn nothing when we do it for them. So we need to look at scaffolds or supports that will help them learn to do this skill. We’ve had great success in using comprehensive AAC systems for both students with and without complex communication needs. If a student is writing about a topic they can use the comprehensive AAC system to support their ideas and language generation. For example, if they are writing about sports day at school and can’t think of ideas, they can navigate to the sports page in a comprehensive AAC system and see a range of options which they can independently choose from. This allows them to have a scaffold that doesn’t push them in a specific direction as an adult partner unintentionally might. And a comprehensive AAC system can be available in the supermarket 🙂

When I worked supporting included students in mainstream settings, I frequently observed writing interactions that went like this:

  • Adult: “OK – write the word safe. S……a……f……e…….”
  • Student writes: sav
  • Adult: “No, not v. Rub that out. Now write f……”
  • Student rubs the whole word out
  • Adult: “OK. Start again. You’re writing safe. S-a-f-e”.
  • Student writes: suf
  • Adult: “No, not u. You need to write an a.”
  • etc

In each of these interactions, the adult involved had the best of intentions – but unfortunately the constant interruptions and corrections send a strong message of “can’t” to the student. Additionally, studies into teaching writing show that an insistence on being correct in the first draft means that students are less likely to develop and flourish as writers – they won’t take risks and they don’t get enough practice to move to the next level.

So, we should never interrupt a student while they are writing. You can have a discussion with them before writing and a discussion after writing – but during writing we need to sit back and let them have a go.

As I wrote the do’s and don’ts list, I wrote a bit, thought, wrote some more, removed a bit, rephrased it, and reordered it. When I’d finished, I went through it again – two or three more times. I used a spell checker to see if I had missed any errors and I asked my friend, Mary-Louise, to read it and give me feedback – but I didn’t start serious editing until I’d had an opportunity to write to a point where I was ready to edit . If anyone had interrupted me with suggestions, ideas or corrections it would have just annoyed me – and many students feel the same!

OK – with this one, I pretty much repeated myself. This was deliberate though. Please, please, don’t do the interrupting thing! Keep your discussions to writing conferences before the student writes (if needed) and after they have written.

Spelling supports is another area where you need to consider “will it be available in the supermarket?”. If a student needs assistance in spelling words, think carefully about the strategies that you can use that will lead to long term outcomes.

Telling a student to “write down every sound you can hear” teaches them a skill that they can use anywhere – and the more they do it, the better they get at it. You also want to make sure that you do a good, solid working with words block where you teach them skills in this area.

Similarly, a student finding the word independently on a word wall and then writing it, is a routine that helps them learn sight words which leads to increased independence. It also teaches them some skills that they can use with word prediction, which is probably also available to them as they send a text in the supermarket.

However, an adult spelling words for a student doesn’t teach them anything – except that we can do it and they can’t. Additionally, it is a scaffold that isn’t available to them at other times. So, please don’t do this!!!!

As I mentioned earlier, there is a history in special education of focusing on handwriting in writing instruction. I have been working in special education for 30 years and for the whole of that time we have had alternative writing tools available that students could use instead of handwriting – however I have come across a lot of students where the team wants them to achieve a certain level of proficiency with handwriting before other writing tools are used. I agree that handwriting is a commonly used writing tool, but it isn’t the only one available – and in the current time it is being used less and less.

I want you to seriously consider what a student at school in 2021 will write when they finish school. I asked a number of groups of school staff this question during 2020 and the answers were usually “text messages, emails, social media”. It is extremely difficult to do any of those tasks with handwriting – so why would you focus on teaching a student to handwrite in the writing block when it is a tool they might use rarely? Keyboarding is actually the most important skill for them to learn; keyboarding will allow them to do all of those writing tasks and more.

Additionally, I want you to think about learning a new set of skills. How easy is it to learn something that is very physically difficult for you? And if your teacher could make it easier in some way, wouldn’t that make it easier to learn the skills? For many students, handwriting adds to the difficulty of learning writing, where a physically easier writing tool, such as a keyboard, can make it easier and give them an opportunity to focus on some of the other skills such as language, spelling and ideas.

Independence in writing is key. A student needs to be able to generate their own ideas, use their own words, have their own attempts at spelling – AND they need to be able to use their writing tool independently. Part of our job is to find a physically easy writing tool that gives them access to the whole alphabet and that they can use independently to select letters. They can select letters by pointing, press keys or use partner assisted scanning – but whatever access method they use that independence is important.

This one is pretty self-evident! It’s ok if the student uses different pencils for different tasks, just as we do through the day.

As I said earlier, a student needs to learn to independently generate ideas and language. We have used strategies to avoid this which haven’t worked – and copying and tracing fall into this category. Even for a simple writing task, such as writing your name, copying and tracing don’t encourage a student to think and to develop the skills they need to write independently. I write a blog post back in 2014 that explains this at length – “Balanced literacy instruction: Writing for real reasons“.

The other reason that many teams focus on copying and tracing is because they believe this will help the student to get better at handwriting. Which brings us back to the discussion about a focus on handwriting above….

The best way to get better at writing is to write.

Writing in a positive environment where we value every student as a writer, and help them to move to the next stage in their writing development, is what we want to see. I work with a lot of schools every year, and at least a few times every year I go into a classroom where I am given a list of what a student can’t do in writing – rather than focusing on what they can do. We need to make sure that we provide a positive environment where we believe that every student can!

Happy writing – and I hope you enjoy the challenge of supporting each and every student to be a better writer as much as I do.

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Comments (8)

  1. Reply

    As usual you have created something that we can take and run giddily off to schools with. Thank you for doing all the thinking. Makes the implementing so much easier:)

    • jane


      Oh Toby – the thought of you running giddily makes me smile! Thanks so much for the feedback – means a lot from a writing guru like yourself 🙂

  2. Rosemary Crossley


    Terrific Jane!

    We’re Dinosaur mad! (Not often relevant in the supermarket, but does encourage sentence construction.)
    We’ve been using Touch Chat with Word Power, often on an iPad Pro to make access easier. The 20-location version of TC with WP includes a dinosaur page which allows the students to include their fave dino(s), perfectly spelt, which is a great ego boost. The most common prompt is ‘What happened next?’, followed by ‘Where?’, ‘When?’, ‘Why?’ as necessary. There’s a choice of alphabets in QWERTY or ABC order with big ‘keys’ and word prediction. And dino sticker books to quickly illustrate the printout (in large font) to take home.
    As access skills improve tablet size is reduced, or the number of icons increased.

    • jane


      That’s great Rosie! Dinosaurs are very popular indeed 🙂 With the writing, the research suggests doing a more open cue than a question. For example, if a student write “I like dinosaurs” and we say “tell me more” they might then write “I like the big ones”. But if we use questions like “why” and “where” then we immediately shift their writing and it becomes less theirs – hope that makes sense. Try using “tell me more” instead to get more of their authentic voice.

  3. Andrew Stokes


    Fantastic Jane. Thanks for the clarifications and reminders of what to focus on and what to avoid.

  4. Elizabeth


    I’m having trouble not suggesting ideas and language for the student to choose from when they have inadequate AAC system to do it on their own. Do you have any suggestions on how to do that? I’m a support staff and I am actively advocating for better AAC system for the student, but in the meantime, how do we promote independence in writing when we haven’t found an adequate system to meet the student’s physical needs yet? Is it important to always use this framework, or just when the student is working at their individual level? I want my student to have independence to share their ideas, I just don’t know how to make it work when we are doing something complex like a research project and the student is not able to spell their whole name yet because it is too physically tiring with the current system. Also, thanks for sharing this document. I hope it gets implemented everywhere. I hate seeing our other students waste so much time tracing letters when they could be creative writing.

    • jane


      HI Elizabeth, it is definitely very tricky when you don’t have access to a comprehensive AAC system – and even harder when you don’t have an appropriate writing tool. When you don’t have those tools, my best suggestion would be to offer the student some open ended options verbally. You could use the 5 wh questions – do you want to write about who did it? Do you want to write about where they went? Do you want to write about what they did? Do you want to write about when they did it? Do you want to write about why? It’s very tricky for you!

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