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Teaching Punctuation for Writing Success

Child, Kid, Play, Tranquil, Study, Color, Write, LearnLast week  I wrote a blog post entitled: “Teaching Metalinguistic Vocabulary for Reading Success” in which I described the importance of explicitly teaching students basic metalinguistic vocabulary terms as elementary building blocks needed for reading success (HERE).  This week I wanted to write a brief blog post regarding terminology related to one particular, often ignored aspect of writing, punctuation.

Punctuation brings written words to life. As we have seen from countless of grammar memes, an error in punctuation results in conveying a completely different meaning.

In my experience administering the Test of Written Language – 4 (TOWL – 4) as well as analyzing informal writing samples I frequently see an almost complete absence of any and all punctuation marks in the presented writing samples.  These are not the samples of 2nd, 3rd, or even 4th graders that I am referring to. Sadly, I’m referring to written samples of students in middle school and even high school, which frequently lack basic punctuation and capitalization.

This explicit instruction of punctuation terminology does significantly improve my students understanding of sentence formation. Even my students with mild to moderate intellectual disabilities significantly benefit from understanding how to use periods, commas and question marks in sentences.

I even created a basic handout to facilitate my students comprehension of usage of punctuation marks (FREE HERE) in sentences.

Similarly to my metalinguistic vocabulary handout, I ask my older elementary aged students with average IQ, to look up online and write down rules of usage for each of the provided terms (e.g., colon, hyphen, etc,.), under therapist supervision.

This in turns becomes a critical thinking and an executive functions activity. Students need sift through quite a bit of information to find a website which provides the clearest answers regarding the usage of specific punctuation marks. Here, it’s important for students to locate kid friendly websites which will provide them with simple but accurate descriptions of punctuation marks usage.  One example of such website is Enchanted Learning which also provides free worksheets related to practicing punctuation usage.

In contrast to the above, I use structured worksheets and punctuation related workbooks for younger elementary age students (e.g., 1st – 5th grades) as well as older students with intellectual impairments (click on each grade number above to see the workbooks).

I find that even after several sessions of explicitly teaching punctuation usage to my students, their written sentences significantly improve in clarity and cohesion.

One of the best parts about this seemingly simple activity, is that due to the sheer volume of provided punctuation mark vocabulary (20 items in total), a creative clinician/parent can stretch this activity into multiple therapy sessions. This is because careful rule identification for each punctuation mark will in turn involve a number of related vocabulary definition tasks.  Furthermore, correct usage of each punctuation mark in a sentence for internalization purposes (rather mere memorization) will also take-up a significant period of time.

How about you? Do you explicitly work on teaching punctuation?

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Teaching Metalinguistic Vocabulary for Reading Success

In my therapy sessions I spend a significant amount of time improving literacy skills (reading, spelling, and writing) of language impaired students.  In my work with these students I emphasize goals with a focus on phonics, phonological awareness, encoding (spelling) etc. However, what I have frequently observed in my sessions are significant gaps in the students’ foundational knowledge pertaining to the basics of sound production and letter recognition.  Basic examples of these foundational deficiencies involve students not being able to fluently name the letters of the alphabet, understand the difference between vowels and consonants, or fluently engage in sound/letter correspondence tasks (e.g., name a letter and then quickly and accurately identify which sound it makes).  Consequently, a significant portion of my sessions involves explicit instruction of the above concepts.

This got me thinking regarding my students’ vocabulary knowledge in general.  We, SLPs, spend a significant amount of time on explicit and systematic vocabulary instruction with our students because as compared to typically developing peers, they have immature and limited vocabulary knowledge. But do we teach our students the abstract vocabulary necessary for reading success? Do we explicitly teach them definitions of a letter, a word, a sentence? etc.

A number of my colleagues are skeptical. “Our students already have poor comprehension”, they tell me, “Why should we tax their memory with abstract words of little meaning to them?”  And I agree with them of course, but up to a point.

I agree that our students have working memory and processing speed deficits as a result of which they have a much harder time learning and recalling new words.

However, I believe that not teaching them meanings of select words pertaining to language is a huge disservice to them. Here is why. To be a successful communicator, speaker, reader, and writer, individuals need to possess adequate metalinguistic skills.

In simple terms “metalinguistics” refers to the individual’s ability to actively think about, talk about, and manipulate language. Reading, writing, and spelling require active level awareness and thought about language. Students with poor metalinguistic skills have difficulty learning to read, write, and spell.  They lack awareness that spoken words are made up of individual units of sound, which can be manipulated. They lack awareness that letters form words, words form phrases and sentences, and sentences form paragraphs. They may not understand that letters make sounds or that a word may consist of more letters than sounds (e.g., /ship/). The bottom line is that students with decreased metalinguistic skills cannot effectively use language to talk about concepts like sounds, letters, or words unless they are explicitly taught those abilities.

So I do! Furthermore, I can tell you that explicit instruction of metalinguistic vocabulary does significantly improve my students understanding of the tasks involved in obtaining literacy competence. Even my students with mild to moderate intellectual disabilities significantly benefit from understanding the meanings of: letters, words, sentences, etc.

I even created a basic abstract vocabulary handout to facilitate my students comprehension of these words (FREE HERE). While by no means exhaustive, it is a decent starting point for teaching my students the vocabulary needed to improve their metalinguistic skills.

For older elementary aged students with average IQ, I only provide the words I want them to define, and then ask them to look up their meanings online via the usage of PC or an iPad. This turns of vocabulary activity into a critical thinking and an executive functions task.

Students need to figure out the appropriate search string needed to in order to locate the answer as well as which definition comes the closest to clearly and effectively defining the presented word. One of the things I really like about Google online dictionary, is that it provides multiple definitions of the same words along with word origins. As a result, it teaches students to carefully review and reflect upon their selected definition in order to determine its appropriateness.

A word of caution as though regarding using Kiddle, Google-powered search engine for children. While it’s great for locating child friendly images, it is not appropriate for locating abstract definition of words. To illustrate, when you type in the string search into Google, “what is the definition of a letter?” You will get several responses which will appropriately match  some meanings of your query.  However the same string search in Kiddle, will merely yield helpful tips on writing a letter as well as images of envelopes with stamps affixed to them.

In contrast to the above, I use a more structured vocabulary defining activities for younger elementary age students as well as students with intellectual impairments. I provide simple definitions of abstract words, attach images and examples to each definition as well as create cloze activities and several choices of answers in order to ensure my students’ comprehension of these words.

I find that this and other metalinguistic activities significantly improve my students comprehension of abstract words such as ‘communication’, ‘language’, as well as ‘literacy’. They cease being mere buzzwords, frequently heard yet consistently not understood.  To my students these words begin to come to life, brim with meaning, and inspire numerous ‘aha’ moments.

Now that you’ve had a glimpse of my therapy sessions I’d love to have a glimpse of yours. What metalinguistic goals related to literacy are you targeting with your students? Comment below to let me know.

 

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Test Review: Test of Written Language-4 (TOWL-4)

Test of Written Language-4 (TOWL-4)Today due to popular demand I am reviewing The Test of Written Language-4 or TOWL-4. TOWL-4 assesses the basic writing readiness skills of students 9:00-17:11 years of age. The tests consist of two forms – A and B, (which contain different subtest content).

According to the manual, the entire test takes approximately  60-90 minutes to administer and examines 7 skill areas. Only the “Story Composition” subtest is officially timed (the student is given 15 minutes to write it and 5 minutes previous to that, to draft it). However, in my experience, each subtest administration, even with students presenting with mild-moderately impaired writing abilities, takes approximately 10 minutes to complete with average results (can you see where I am going with this yet?) 

For detailed information regarding the TOWL-4 development and standardization, validity and reliability, please see HERE. However, please note that the psychometric properties of this test are weak.

Below are my impressions (to date) of using this assessment with students between 11-14 years of age with (known) mild-moderate writing impairments.

Subtests:

1. Vocabulary – The student is asked to write a sentence that incorporates a stimulus word.  The student is not allowed to change the word in any way, such as write ‘running’ instead of run’. If this occurs, an automatic loss of points takes place. The ceiling is reached when the student makes 3 errors in a row.  While some of the subtest vocabulary words are perfectly appropriate for younger children (~9), the majority are too simplistic to assess the written vocabulary of middle and high schoolers. These words may work well to test the knowledge of younger children but they do not take into the account the challenging academic standards set forth for older students. As a result, students 11+ years of age may pass this subtest with flying colors but still present with a fair amount of difficulty using sophisticated vocabulary words in written compositions.

2/3.   Spelling and Punctuation (subtests 2 and 3). These two subtests are administered jointly but scored separately. Here, the student is asked to write sentences dictated by the examiner using appropriate rules for spelling and punctuation and capitalization. Ceiling for each subtest is reached separately. It  occurs when the student makes 3 errors in a row in each of the subtests.   In other words, if a student uses correct punctuation but incorrect spelling, his/her ceiling on the ‘Spelling’ subtest will be reached sooner then on the ‘Punctuation’ subtest and vise versa. Similar to the ‘Vocabulary‘ subtest I feel that the sentences the students are asked to write are far too simplistic to showcase their “true” grade level abilities.

The requirements of these subtests are also not too stringent.  The spelling words are simple and the punctuation requirements are very basic: a question mark here, an exclamation mark there, with a few commas in between. But I was particularly disappointed with the ‘Spelling‘ subtestHere’s why. I have a 6th-grade client on my caseload with significant well-documented spelling difficulties. When this subtest was administered to him he scored within the average range (Scaled Score of 8 and Percentile Rank of 25).  However, an administration of Spelling Performance Evaluation for Language and Literacy – SPELL-2yielded 3 assessment pages of spelling errors, as well as 7 pages of recommendations on how to remediate those errors.  Had he received this assessment as part of an independent evaluation from a different examiner, nothing more would have been done regarding his spelling difficulties since the TOWL-4 revealed an average spelling performance due to its focus on overly simplistic vocabulary.

4. Logical Sentences – The student is asked to edit an illogical sentence so that it makes better sense. Ceiling is reached when the student makes 3 errors in a row. Again I’m not too thrilled with this subtest. Rather than truly attempting to ascertain the student’s grammatical and syntactic knowledge at sentence level a large portion of this subtest deals with easily recognizable semantic incongruities.

5. Sentence Combining – The student integrates the meaning of several short sentences into one grammatically correct written sentence. Ceiling is reached when the student makes 3 errors in a row.  The first few items contain only two sentences which can be combined by adding the conjunction “and”. The remaining items are a bit more difficult due to the a. addition of more sentences and b. increase in the complexity of language needed to efficiently combine them. This is a nice subtest to administer to students who present with difficulty effectively and efficiently expressing their written thoughts on paper. It is particularly useful with students who write down  a lot of extraneous information in their compositions/essays and frequently overuse run-on sentences. 

6. Contextual Conventions – The student is asked to write a story in response to a stimulus picture. S/he earn points for satisfying specific requirements relative to combined orthographic (E.g.: punctuation, spelling) and grammatical conventions (E.g.: sentence construction, noun-verb agreement).  The student’s written composition needs to contain more than 40 words in order for the effective analysis to take place.

The scoring criteria ranges from no credit or a score of 0 ( based on 3 or more mistakes), to partial credit, a score of 1 (based on 1-2 mistakes) to full a credit – a score of 3 (no mistakes). There are 21 scoring parameters which are highly useful for younger elementary-aged students who may exhibit significant difficulties in the domain of writing. However,  older middle school and high-school aged students as well as elementary aged students with moderate writing difficulties may attain average scoring on this subtest but still present with significant difficulties in this area as compared to typically developing grade level peers. As a result, in addition to this assessment, it is recommended that a functional assessment of grade-level writing also be performed in order to accurately identify the student’s writing needs.

7. Story Composition – The student’s story is evaluated relative to the quality of its composition (E.g.: vocabulary, plot, development of characters, etc.). The examiner first provides the student with an example of a good story by reading one written by another student.  Then, the examiner provides the student with an appropriate picture card and tell them that they need to take time to plan their story and make an outline on the (also provided) scratch paper.  The student has 5 minutes to plan before writing the actual story.  After the 5 minutes, elapses they 15 minutes to write the story.  It is important to note that story composition is the very first subtest administered to the student. Once they complete it they are ready to move on to the Vocabulary subtest. There are 11 scoring parameters that are significantly more useful for me to use with younger students as well as significantly impaired students vs. older students or students with mild-moderate writing difficulties. Again if your aim is to get an accurate picture of the older students writing abilities I definitely recommend the usage of clinical writing assessment rubrics based on the student’s grade level in order to have an accurate picture of their abilities.

OVERALL IMPRESSIONS:

Strengths:

  • A thorough assessment of basic writing areas for highly impaired students with writing deficits
  • Flexible subtest administration (can be done on multiple occasions with students who fatigue easily)

Limitations:

  • Untimed testing administration (with the exception of story composition subtests) is NOT functional with students who present with significant processing difficulties. One 12-year-old student actually took ~40 minutes to complete each subtest.
  • Primarily  useful for students with severe deficits in the area of written expression
  • Lack of computer scoring
  • Lack of remediation suggestions based on subtest deficits
  • Weak psychometric properties

Overall, TOWL-4 can be a useful testing measure for ruling out weaknesses in the student’s basic writing abilities, with respect to simple vocabulary, sentence construction, writing mechanics, punctuation, etc.  If I identify previously unidentified gaps in basic writing skills I can then readily intervene, where needed, if needed. However, it is important to understand that the TOWL-4 is only a starting point for most of our students with complex literacy needs whose writing abilities are above severe level of functioning. Most students with mild-moderate writing difficulties will pass this test with flying colors but still present with significant writing needs. As a result I highly recommend a functional grade-level writing assessment as a supplement to the above-standardized testing.

References: 

Hammill, D. D., & Larson, S. C. (2009). Test of Written Language—Fourth Edition. (TOWL-4). Austin, TX: PRO-ED.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are the personal impressions of the author. This author is not affiliated with PRO-ED in any way and was NOT provided by them with any complimentary products or compensation for the review of this product.