Using Comic Books to Support Writing

Super heroes are all around us. In the movies, on TV, on T-shirts, on lunch boxes, and of course in comic books.  While you may think of the stereotypical comic book character from the Simpsons, these visual narratives can offer young readers a new approach to learning. On this episode of the Mind Matters Show, Dr. Craig Pohlman talks to Dr. Pat O’Conner about how comic books can be used to support writing. (Check out part 1 on comic books and reading instruction here)

The first thing comics offer is a hook. If your young student struggles with getting motivated to write, the popularity of super heroes and drawings might spark their interest. Rather than trying to get through paragraphs or pages of plain text, try shifting the format. Creating a super hero storyboard of panels with narration and dialogue can be more fun and intriguing, while still providing writing practice and expression.

Another way to use comics is as templates. A parent or teacher can scan pages of comics and blank out the prewritten speech bubbles. The exercise would be to have to the student fill in the missing text based on the visual context. For example, what would this character be saying in this panel? Why would they be reacting like this? This scaffolding approach can be a fun different way to get students involved in the writing process.

Comics can offer an alternative approach to writing with visual storytelling potential as well as a fun and educational writing exercise. So why not give it a try?

 This post was originally published on Southeast Psych’s blog

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(Re)Defining Dyslexia

1310845577_cc84a596dfIn a recent New York Times op-ed, Defining My Dyslexia, physician and author Blake Charlton explores some of the emerging research and trends related to dyslexia while also sharing his own story about his struggles growing up a dyslexic. At the heart of his piece is the growing understanding that along with the challenges associated with dyslexia, are a collection of cognitive strengths that are too often under appreciated. He writes,

Last month, at the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation Conference on Dyslexia and Talent, I watched several neurobiologists present evidence that the dyslexic brain, which processes information in a unique way, may impart particular strengths. Studies using cognitive testing and functional M.R.I.’s have demonstrated exceptional three-dimensional and spatial reasoning among dyslexic individuals, which may account for the many successful dyslexic engineers. Similar studies have shown increased creativity and big-picture thinking (or “gist-detection”) in dyslexics, which correlates with the surprising number of dyslexic entrepreneurs, novelists and filmmakers.

The conference’s organizers made a strong case that the successes of the attending dyslexic luminaries — who ranged from a Pulitzer-winning poet to a MacArthur grant-winning paleontologist to an entrepreneur who pays a dozen times my student loans in taxes every year — had been achieved “not despite, but because of dyslexia.”

It is a powerful message for everyone, especially students struggling to understand their dyslexia within the context of a world that sees their differences as deficits. He goes on to illuminate this point,

Today’s educational environment exacerbates dyslexic weaknesses. Schools misidentify poor spelling and slow reading as a lack of intelligence; typically diagnose the condition only after students have fallen behind; and too often fail to provide dyslexic students with the audio and video materials that would help them learn. Until these disadvantages are removed, “disability” most accurately describes what young dyslexics confront.

This heartbreaking reality further demonstrates what many of us already know: we must design educational spaces and experiences not to just accomodate, ahem, all kinds of minds but to intentionally leverage the mosaic of strengths that such diversity brings to the table. There’s a considerable difference between tolerating diversity and embracing it. Perhaps a good place to start is in how we define and diagnose such “disabilities” as dyslexia. To this point, Charlton concludes,

A more precise definition of dyslexia would clearly identify the disabilities that go along with it, while recognizing the associated abilities as well. If the dyslexic community could popularize such a definition, then newly diagnosed dyslexics would realize that they, like everyone else, will face their futures with a range of strengths and weaknesses.

We could not agree more.

Photo Credit: The Nikon Guru via Compfight cc

Summer Blog Series Post #7: The Role of Graphomotor Function in Handwriting

In last week’s post, we discussed the demands of revising written work.  Today, we’re going to focus on a different aspect of writing: handwriting.

Many people, adults and children alike, struggle with penmanship.  The ability to use computers to convey ideas can help minimize the need for handwriting and relieve handwriting-challenged individuals from the frustration of writing in some cases.  But even with the Digital Age in full swing, students – especially those in elementary and middle school – use this skill all day, every day, in their classrooms. 

Writing ideas or taking notes on paper requires us to form letters quickly and easily.  And in order to share their written material with others, students must also write legibly.  Some students find it easier to print than to use cursive writing. Printing requires that only 26 letter formations be remembered, while in cursive writing, every word is different. For other students, cursive is preferable because of the flow of movement when forming cursive letters.

As students progress through school, the demands increase – more details to track, greater language complexity, and growing vocabulary requirements. If students don’t learn to form letters with ease, they may need to focus so intently on their handwriting that they may find it difficult to produce the written work required.

Neurodevelopmental factors:

The process of writing places demands on a student’s memory (e.g., recalling the desired letters), spatial ordering (e.g., making a mental picture of each letter), and graphomotor function (e.g., having a comfortable grip and sending signals to the proper finger muscles to form letters).  In this post, we’ll focus on graphomotor function

Graphomotor function involves the coordination and control of the muscles at the end of our fingers. Some muscles are used to make a pencil move up and down, others to make the pencil move left and right, others to move it in a circular motion, etc. Since writing letters requires a combination of these movements, different muscles are used to form different letters. Some students have trouble getting their muscles to move in the correct way.  If one or more of these aspects are not functioning well for a student, he or she may write slowly and/or form letters and/or numbers that are difficult to read. 

Here are some possible signs that a student is succeeding with the graphomotor demands of writing:

The student …

  • writes letters smoothly, at an appropriate pace, and with consistent formation using a normal tripod grasp 
  • uses appropriate spacing between letters and words
  • forms letters without noticeable difficulty
  • writes without close visual monitoring
  • maintains appropriate posture when writing
  • applies adequate pressure to the pencil during letter formation

Here are some possible signs that a student is struggling with the graphomotor demands of writing:

The student …

  • hesitates while writing or labors over individual letters, making writing a slow, laborious process
  • leaves as much space between letters as between words
  • makes frequent cross outs or erasures
  • shows a strong preference for printing over cursive writing
  • uses an alternative (e.g., fist-like) grip or uses wrists and elbows rather than small muscles and joints
  • keeps eyes close to the page while writing
  • is reluctant to write despite having good language skills
  • uses excessive pressure on the pencil, causing the hand to become tired or cramped

Strategies to help students struggling with graphomotor function:

  • Have students practice tracing shapes and letters. Gradually reduce the complete shape or letter to dots, so that the student can practice making the shapes or letters by connecting the dots. 
  • Encourage students who have difficulty simultaneously recalling letter formation, spelling, and their ideas to do writing in stages (rather than try to do these all at once). Graphic organizers are a great tool for this.
  • Introduce fun creative writing activities in which students can practice correct letter formation, for example: writing to a pen pal, creating an advertisement for a new toy or other product, designing a contest entry form, writing to request a famous athlete’s autograph, etc. 
  • When assigning a handwritten project, give students a choice of printing or using cursive writing. Many adults naturally use a combination of manuscript and cursive writing. 
  • Be aware that some students with graphomotor difficulties may also have difficulty learning to type on a keyboard. Guide these students through computer mastery gradually and without undue pressure. As a student is acquiring keyboarding skills, have him/her continue to practice handwriting. 

Related links:

Learn more about our summer series

  1. More information and strategies about handwriting
  2. Related research on graphomotor function
  3. Writing section of the All Kinds of Minds Parent Toolkit
  4. Newsweek article: Good penmanship is more than just a quaint skill. A new study shows that it’s a key part of learning.

Summer Blog Series Post #6: The Role of Higher Order Cognition in Revising Written Work

Adding content and new ideas to a story, essay, or report can be difficult, but it is also very important. Students may stop at the end of a sentence, reread what they have written, and decide there is a better word to express what they want to say. They may find places where they need to add more description or rearrange sentences. (We did some revising while writing this blog post!)

Revising can happen at any time during the writing process. Some students spontaneously revise while they are writing. In school, students are often asked to reflect on what they’ve written after they finish their first draft – a task that can be challenging for many students. These students often focus on fixing punctuation and spelling rather than enhancing the content. 

To revise, students must first detect that there is something to change and then know how to change it.  Considerations include audience, grammar rules, appropriate levels of detail, and clarity of expression, just to name a few.  Revising written work is a multifaceted challenge, in terms of both academic skills and neurodevelopmental functions.

Neurodevelopmental factors:

This skill of revising – adding content and new ideas to a story or report changing a word, being more descriptive, re-ordering sentences, or inserting a new paragraph – requires students’ language and higher order cognition to be working well.  In this post, we’ll focus on the higher order cognition demands – specifically, creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving.

Students need to be creative and brainstorm new ideas when revising their writing. They also need to think critically about what information they need to cut and what they need to add – what will make the information most effective for the reader. Writing can be interpreted as a problem-solving task: The topic or assignment is the “problem,” and students need to “solve” the problem by producing a written piece that addresses the topic or assignment. Revising is a critical step in ensuring the quality of the end product, or the effectiveness of the “solution.” 

Here are some possible signs that a student is succeeding with the higher order cognition demands of writing:

The student …

  • comes up with original, engaging ideas to share through their writing
  • is able to evaluate written material for problem areas such as clarity, relevance to the topic at hand, level of detail, logical sequence, etc.
  • includes highly imaginative ideas in their stories
  • chooses words that are appropriate for the targeted reader
  • is capable of identifying problems with a writing passage and taking appropriate steps to resolve problems

Here are some possible signs that a student is struggling with the higher order cognition demands of writing:

The student …

  • has trouble choosing a topic to write about or using imagination to generate an engaging story or report
  • asks many questions about what to do to enhance their writing, e.g. which passages need revisions, how to address problems with the written work, etc.
  • generates better written work when allowed to collaborate with a peer or conference with a teacher
  • does not logically think through potential ways of resolving a problem, instead pursuing the first thing that comes to mind

Strategies to help students struggling with revising written work:

  • Have students break the revising process into steps, beginning with going through and marking the places where they need to add or change information. Students can use different colored pencils, pens, or stickers to mark where they need to make changes. For example, green could be where they need to think of some new words, yellow for where they should add more details, blue where they need to move a sentence, etc.
  • When having students work together as peer editors, first model the process and types of question they should ask. Provide students with a list of questions that they can ask the writer and example sentence starters for providing feedback. For example, “I really liked it when you said…”
  • Employ the C-D-O revising strategy (Compare, Diagnose, Operate):
    COMPARE: Read a sentence.
    DIAGNOSE: Does this sound right? Am I getting away from the main idea?  Will other people understand and believe the main idea?  Do I like it as is?  After “diagnosing,” the student should ask himself, “Why was this the diagnosis for that sentence?”
    OPERATE: Do I need to leave this sentence out? Do I need to include more information? Do I need to reword it? Should I leave it the same?
    Go to the next sentence and repeat the strategy.

We’d love to hear what strategies or activities you’ve used to help students who are struggling with revising their writing.  Leave a comment below with your ideas!

Related links:

Learn more about our summer series

  1. More information and strategies around the revision process
  2. More information and strategies on writing in general
  3. Related research on higher order cognition
  4. Writing section of the All Kinds of Minds Parent Toolkit
  5. Writing games for kids on Scholastic.com (click on the “Writing Games” tab to the left)