George Lucas Educational Foundation
Special Education

Guiding Students in Special Education to Generate Ideas for Writing

When students are stuck, breaking the brainstorming stage down into separate steps can help them get started writing.

March 5, 2024
James Steinberg / The iSpot

Most students don’t have too much trouble following the traditional steps of the writing process: brainstorm, outline, and draft, then revise and edit. Some students, though, get stuck in the brainstorming phase. As a special educator, I have encountered the “stuck” student many times. When we treat brainstorming as an opportunity for skill building, students can feel more confident developing ideas for writing.

Standard brainstorming strategies 

Writing requires many skills to work together at the same time: idea generation, hand strength and stamina, letter formation, spelling, sentence composition, grammar, editing, proofreading, and so forth. If any of those skills is weak, it makes writing significantly harder. Many students who struggle with writing have not had sufficient practice building each foundational skill to a point where they readily access it when performing more complex skills in the classroom. In other cases, a student’s disability may impair some aspect of their learning, be it fine motor or cognitive. They learn to master skills when instruction and practice is broken into small pieces.

Many of my interactions with students looked something like this: 

Teacher: In Charlotte’s Web, a major theme is friendship. You are going to write a paragraph that shows how the characters were good friends and helped each other.

Student: (Sitting, not working.)

Teacher: Sally, can I help you get started?

Student: I don’t have any ideas.

Teacher: Let’s brainstorm together using your graphic organizer.

Student: No!

Teacher: OK. Try on your own, and I’ll check back with you in a couple of minutes.

Student: No ideas! No ideas! (Runs out of the classroom.)

If student behavior is viewed as some type of communication, this example shows that a learner is likely communicating that they don’t have a skill required or are not able to access this skill at this time.

Brainstorming as skill building

By breaking a skill into small parts and allowing your students to practice those parts until they become automatic and effortless, an instructor can decrease a student’s frustration level and remove a significant barrier to their thinking. It’s the same in any skilled performance—basketball players practice shooting and passing, cellists repeat musical scales, and chefs practice different styles of chopping. Skill-building exercises can help students become more confident and competent at any skill, including writing. 

Rather than push students to use a graphic organizer or other standard brainstorming tool to help them generate their ideas, I began to use a skill-building process that has students first name things related to a topic and then generate a list of ways those things demonstrate the topic: 

Teacher: Sally, in this story our characters are Charlotte, Fern, Wilbur, and Mr. Zuckerman. Tell me ways that they helped each other.

Student: Uh, I don’t know.

Teacher: I’ll start. In one chapter, Charlotte spun words in her web to help Wilbur. Now you try. How else did they help each other?

Student: Uh, Fern saves Wilbur from her father.

Teacher: Exactly. Now, tell me ways that Templeton helped someone.

Student: Templeton found words in the newspaper for Charlotte to spin in her web.

Teacher: Great! What about Wilbur? 

Student: Wilbur watched over Charlotte’s egg sac.

Teacher: Yes! You’ve got so many good ideas for writing. 

Students who first generate ideas about a topic—access what they know about it—more easily write their outlines and drafts for the bigger-picture assignment. For Sally, brainstorming was too overwhelming as an initial step, so we started off by naming examples. I gave Sally a topic—name ways characters in Charlotte’s Web helped one another—she named examples of things (characters), and we generated a list of ways those characters helped one another.

Implementing Brainstorming as Skill Building

This “naming” strategy is easy to implement with individual students or in groups. These are steps to get you started. 

Step 1. Introduce the student to the exercise.

Teacher: You’re going to be writing down ideas. 

For this step, you will need a sheet of paper, small whiteboard, or blank document on your computer. If your student hates writing by hand or is a slow typist, do the writing for them or use dictation. Remember, we’re trying to remove barriers to generating ideas, such as slow handwriting and hesitation around spelling.

Step 2. Select a topic for practice.  

Teacher: Name things that can get ruined (phone, cake, backpack, etc.).

You or your student will write a list of items that can get ruined. If a student struggles to generate these examples, take turns: You go first, then prompt them to go. If that doesn’t work, start off by identifying and writing down a few items around the room that can get ruined. 

Step 3. Revisit the list to describe each item.  

Teacher: Now we are going to write some ways that each item on your list can get ruined.

Next to each item, you or the student will record a few ways it can get ruined. As an example, for a bike, the student might list the following: It could get a flat tire, the chain could fall off. Again, if your student has trouble at this point, state an idea and see if they can come up with the next one.

Step 4. Use the descriptions to write a paragraph. 

Teacher: Pick one of these items to write about.

With the items and examples in place, the student can start to write a basic paragraph about a prompt like “Write about a time when something you cared about got ruined and how you felt about it.” If the student gets stuck at this point, encourage them to use a simple structure: Introduce the topic, give examples of ways that items can get ruined, and describe a time when something like this happened to you. At first, focus on the quality of your students’ ideas and descriptions, and not their handwriting, sentence construction, or vocabulary. The goal here is to spark an interest in writing. You can push for perfect prose later.

Step 5. Continue daily practice with new topics. 

Students who struggle to brainstorm need daily practice with this exercise. Each day, provide a new topic and ask them to work in pairs or small groups to generate ideas and descriptions. Your topics should be relevant to your students’ daily lives (there are pre-made lists of such prompts available online). As your class adjusts, you can add a timer and make idea generation a class-wide game (“You have two minutes to come up with ideas of what can make someone happy”). This is a powerful intervention to help all students get started with their writing.

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Filed Under

  • Special Education
  • Literacy
  • English Language Arts
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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