Amy Sexton, Kaplan University Writing Center Tutor
The writing center serves all university students, including those with learning disabilities. According to the Learning Disabilities Act of 1968, a learning disability is “a disorder in one of more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using spoken and written language” (as cited in Neff, 2008). As this definition indicates, students with learning disabilities are likely to need academic support in writing. While writing center tutors normally strive to work collaboratively with student writers and place most of the responsibility for drafting, revising, and editing on students, this approach may need to be altered when working with writers with learning disabilities. Additionally, tutors may need to look for creative and innovative ways to further assist these writers.
In “Learning Disabilities and the Writing Center”, Julie Neff (2008), Director of the Writing, Learning, and Teaching Center at the University of Puget Sound, details various adjustments that tutors may need to make in their tutoring styles, practices, and expectations to accommodate students with learning disabilities. These adaptations include techniques aimed at helping students utilize areas of strength in order to compensate for weaknesses and assisting them in retrieving information and knowledge that they may not realize they possess (Neff, 2008).
Neff suggests that while students with learning disabilities will have a wide range of needs, one commonality is that the writing center may need to provide more specific help, such as modeling, demonstrating writing concepts, assisting in information recall, and correcting mechanics while also aiming to help the student writer learn to be more dependent and rely on his or her own self-cues. For example, Neff notes that many student writers with learning disabilities may not benefit as much as other writers from freewriting because, often, these students have no way of knowing what they do not know. While many students may be able to make meaning through freewriting, students with learning disabilities may require focused conversation that aims to unlock the knowledge that these students do have. Similarly, Neff suggests that students with learning disabilities may lack the ability to focus on both generating ideas and producing text, so writing tutors may need to record the students’ thoughts and ideas so that students can concentrate on just generating ideas.
Further, Neff mentions that student writers with learning disabilities may also need extensive modeling and guidance when it comes to organizing their writing, as they may not be able to discern between important information and supporting details. Neff suggests that writing tutors ask leading questions that help the writer to see how all the information works together. Likewise, tasks that writing tutors typically expect students to be able to accomplish independently, like proofreading and editing, may need to be approached in a different way when working with students with learning disabilities. These students may not be able to apply grammatical rules and principles to their own writing, so they may need tutors to point out issues or read the work out loud (Neff, 2008).
Neff also suggests that students with learning disabilities may need additional direction in tasks such as planning time for research and writing. She advocates tutors creating study sheets that break larger tasks into smaller accomplishments and actively modeling how to use this type of aid for students.
Tutors who assist students with learning disabilities may also need to search for creative ways to help their tutees process information. For example, designer Christian Boer recently incorporated various design principles to create a font intended to make reading and composing easier for learners with dyslexia (Hohenadel, 2014). By utilizing heavier lines, slants, and other details, this new font makes letters that are commonly confused, such as “b” and “d” more distinct so that readers with dyslexia can distinguish them more easily (Hohenadel, 2014). This font, which Boer named Dyslexie, is available for free download, and learners with dyslexia can install it for use in typing, printing, as well as reading web documents (Hohenadel, 2014).
By understanding the specific kinds of help that students with learning disabilities may need and tweaking their tutoring strategies accordingly, while also being aware of new innovations that may help these students, writing tutors can help all students with learning disabilities, “reach their full potential” (Neff, 2008, p.248).
Hohenadel, K. (2014). A typeface designed to help dyslexics read. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_eye/2014/11/10/christian_boer_s_dyslexie_is_a_typeface_for_dyslexics.html?wpsrc=sh_all_mob_em_top
Neff, J. (2008). Learning disabilities and the writing center. In C. Murphy & S. Sherwood (Eds.). The St. Martin’s sourcebook for writing tutors. (pp. 237-250). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.