Special Education Series Part One: Structure and Style™ and Language-Based Learning Disabilities

Jun 02, 2017 | Posted by the IEW Blog Team


by Linda Mikottis and Jean Nichols

If you are a classroom teacher, chances are you have a number of students in your classroom with a language-based learning disability. Whether your students have been formally identified for special education services or not, you want practical writing strategies for struggling students that have proven results. While we at the Institute for Excellence in Writing are confident that our Structure and Style process is the easiest way to teach writing that works for all students, we often hear from teachers with specific questions about how they can help their students with language-based learning disabilities.

In Part One of this series, we will look at the importance of a multi-sensory approach in language development and how IEW’s Structure and Style key word outline method incorporates listening, speaking, reading, and writing into each lesson.


A Multi-Sensory Approach

The individual lessons within our methodology are inherently multisensory in their approach and brim with language development potential. Beginning with Units 1 and 2, children are read a short paragraph and asked to identify the key words that “unlock” the meaning of each sentence. Re-reading the sentences one at a time, the child must stop and consider each word, choose what he thinks are the three most important, and write them on paper. What happens during this process? The child listens as the passage is read. He reads each sentence out loud, one at a time. He thinks about each word, deciding which are most important, and writes them down sequentially. Scaffolding the process for the student, the teacher models each step. Listening, speaking, reading, and writing are all reinforced in this one lesson.

This key word process helps children with language learning difficulties learn and understand vocabulary. As a word is discussed in context within a passage, it becomes part of the child’s working memory, ready to retrieve when the child writes the outline and then the paragraph. Each key word is reinforced three times within one writing assignment: while discussing the content, while constructing the outline, and while writing the paragraph. Vocabulary moves from working memory to short-term memory and eventually to long-term memory with these repeated multi-sensory exposures. This is powerful. If the process is applied to a social studies or science text, the child will be internalizing the information and the vocabulary needed to understand content across the curriculum.

Similarly, the key word process improves reading comprehension. Some students read so quickly that the words zip through their brains, and they can’t remember what they have read. Others read so laboriously that comprehension is lost as they focus on each sound and syllable. Given permission to stop and think, both types of readers need only focus on one sentence at a time. In choosing key words, the fast reader must slow down in order to consider the words and determine those he believes are most important. The struggling reader relaxes, focusing on one sentence at a time to choose the key words before writing them down. Both students improve comprehension as the information moves from working to short-term memory. Over time this task alone engages the student’s brain to think “key-wordly” to find meaning from text and improve comprehension in this multi-sensory approach.

Syntax, the formation of sentences by putting words in the correct grammatical order, can be equally challenging. This is especially true for children whose first language is not English. The key word process addresses this critical skill. By choosing the key words that will unlock the meaning of the sentence and writing them in order on paper, the child has a better chance of creating a sentence that is syntactically correct.


The Key Word Outline: A Practical Pre-Writing Strategy

Modern, creative prewriting strategies such as thought bubbles, graphic organizers, clustering, and freewriting are popular and appealing, but make organizing their thoughts before they write a real challenge for students with learning disabilities. The key word outline procedure demystifies this pre-writing process. Guided by the teacher, the student develops an outline that is written in the correct order from left to right. Over time, responsibility is gradually released to the student using an “I do. We do. You do.” approach. The teacher models explicitly how to create a key word outline (I do). The teacher and students practice the skill by creating the outline together (We do) until students are able to create an outline independently (You do). This straightforward linear approach facilitates the re-creation of complete sentences and ultimately a cohesive paragraph in the student’s own words.

Once the outline is complete, the important telling-back phase begins. This phase is essential for students who have difficulty with language because this is where listening, speaking, reading, and writing unite. As the student retells from the outline, her brain begins to process the words while her ears hear them, enhancing her ability to create a complete, grammatically correct sentence. If the student struggles, the teacher intervenes by modeling complete sentences or coaches the student to revise the outline and choose better key words. As students move from unit to unit during the course of a year, the method for choosing key words differs, but the process remains consistent: the teacher models the process for the students and creates many outlines with the students until they are able to work independently.

Using all four language domains—listening, speaking, reading, and writing—strengthens and solidifies the skills students need for the key word outline and the telling-back phase. The key word outline process helps special needs students build vocabulary and improve their reading comprehension and equips them to create complete sentences and cohesive paragraphs.

In Part Two of our series, we will discuss how IEW’s stylistic techniques are an effective way to teach grammar skills and introduce the checklist as a practical solution to make writing assignment expectations clear for special needs students. We will also describe how to use the checklist to teach revision and build accountability and independence.

We invite you to listen to IEW’s Arts of Language podcast three-part series on “Special Education: Struggles and Suggestions.”

Structure and Style is a trademark of the Institute for Excellence in Writing, L.L.C.


Works cited.

Killian, Shaun. "The I Do WE Do YOU Do Model Explained." The Australian Society for Evidence
Based Teaching
, 28 August 2015. http://www.evidencebasedteaching.org.au/the-i-do-we-do-you-do-model-explained/. Accessed 01 June 2017.


Linda Mikottis, BS SP ED, EL ED, and Accomplished IEW Instructor, is probably the least likely writing teacher you will ever meet. Never having learned to write well in school, she was convinced one was either born with the gift of writing or not. After discovering the Institute for Excellence in Writing methodology in 1996, Linda finally learned to write at the age of 34. No longer intimidated by writing, she was determined that others would not grow up as she did. Many of her successful students have been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, learning disabilities, dyslexia, ADD, and ADHD. Linda now empowers children by empowering teachers through the hope IEW has to offer.

Jean Nichols brings 34 years of classroom experience to IEW, having taught grades 1–6 in New York, Virginia, and in California, where she taught sixth-grade language arts in the Rocklin Unified School District. Named Rocklin’s “Elementary Teacher of the Year” in 2001, Jean was also included in the 2004 and 2005 editions of Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers.

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