Nothing is more frustrating than thinking you have taught a child to do something, only to watch the skills fall apart when they try it independently. I see this with writing instruction quite often. Students that could plug away and create a paragraph in class one day seem to forget everything when they tackle their music history homework the next night.
Often, we teach children to follow a process for writing, like: brainstorm, draft, revise, publish. We might even give them checklists or writing graphic organizers to do all the steps without skipping anything. But if what we have taught is “follow the list,” they may be lost if the list isn’t there. As an online writing tutor, the best solution I have found for that problem is an approach called self-regulated strategy development.
What is SRSD?
Self-Regulated Strategy Development, or SRSD, is an approach to writing instruction that was developed by Karen Harris and Steve Graham way back in the 90s. Originally, it was used with students with learning disabilities, and with struggling students. These days, many teachers are using these approaches with their whole classes, with impressive results.
Here is why I like it: I often teach students writing in individual tutoring sessions. I rely on them to tell me what they are working on in class, or what their teacher has said about writing expectations. If I layer on another graphic organizer, and it doesn’t match what the teacher wants, the student can end up more confused than before. The same can happen when different teachers, or different grade levels, use different graphic organizers.
Instead of handing them a tool and reminding them to use it, SRSD involves teaching the students why the tool is useful, describing how it works, modeling the process, supporting students as they practice until, finally, they move on to independent use of the strategies. In other words, over time, students need less help from me, and write better on their own.
Using a systematic approach to writing tutoring, like SRSD, helps students in a few ways.
- Motivation – with a coaching approach, we aim to build student’s self-efficacy, their belief in their own capability.
- Skill – Kids who aren’t skilled writers have trouble recognizing (and imitating!) good writing. They don’t know what to look for, or how to do it themselves, until they get some expereince and practice.
- Independence – One probelm with a graphic organizer is that if it has 3 spaces for important details, but the topic has 4 important details, the student has to decide. Do I squeeze the 4th idea on the side? Do I leave out one important detail? Do I smush them both into one box and hope I remember they don’t go together? With SRSD, students internalize a flexible approach to planning. At first, they may follow the steps very closely, but with practice they can learn to vary their plan to make the writing better.
How do we use it?
The cool thing about SRSD is it doesn’t require specialized materials or a specific workbook. We can use SRSD techniques to produce writing for any class. While it might vary from teacher to teacher, here’s my approach.
- Show them the process of putting together a paragraph using the SRSD tool you choose. I usually start with [TBEAR] for middle and high school, and [TREE] for younger students. I ask for their input, but I give as many prompts and suggestions as I need to to keep this process quick. I need students to see how quickly we can get from the dreaded blank page to something.
- Over the course of our meetings, we usually divide the time between writing and reading. First we read and talk about some mildly challenging, interesting reading. Some students come to me specifically because they have difficult schoolwork, so sometimes we reread or discuss their assigned reading.
- As we read, we use a few different comprehension strategies for making sense of the text. These vary by student and change over time, but one key step is asking students to predict what they think will happen in what they are about to read, or what a certain section will be about. Student-generated questions are also a very useful tool for developing an understanding of difficult reading.
- After we have read the text and I have modeled some ways to take notes (highlighting, notes in the margin, post-it notes, etc.), we practice writing about the reading, using the tool we have been practicing.
- Over a series of sessions, the student needs fewer and fewer reminders and reminders from me. They begin to talk themselves through the process of using the tool. That’s the “self-regulated” part and it can make the differnece between a child staring at a blank page helplessly and the same child finding a starting point and beginning to plan their writing.
- At a certain point, students don’t really need me to be there while they write their paragraphs. At that exciting point in their writing development, sometimes we change our schedule from weekly meetings to less frequent check-ins. Some students come back to see me again when they face a new writing challenge, like college application essays or college level classes. Others ask to meet when they have a first draft to show me, and I can give them feedback that they implement on their own. SRSD fosters independence because it includes steps to take when stuck. It’s pretty cool to see students take on the role of their own writing coach!
Does it take a long time?
That depends. Sorry.
I have taught a class of 3rd graders with dyslexia and other learning disabilities to use SRSD. They completed their first independent paragraph after maybe 2 or 3 hours of class time, over a week or so.
When I introduce SRSD strategies to some middle and high school writers, they take to them much more quickly. By the end of our first or second session, I provide the SRSD strategy and remind them of the steps, and they generate a whole paragraph on their own.
Other students, especially those who have complex learning needs – multiple learning disabilities, speech and language deficits, ADHD, autism, etc. – may need more practice with a higher level of support. And SRSD is an approach that allows flexible planning! It’s not a curriculum to follow page by page, so if we’re ready to try a new tool after 2 lessons, we do! If the student needs extra practice to gain confidence, it’s as simple as choosing a new article or short story together, and working through the read-discuss-plan-write sequence a few more times, until the student is taking the lead.
Who can help?
Our local school has made SRSD their common approach to writing through the elementary grades. As a result, my son has been learning to write using specific details from his reading and a consistent paragraph structure since first grade. As he grows, the class’s approach to writing grows, too. But they started with a foundation of the basics, and they have common background to build on.
I highly recommend training in the SRSD approach for any teachers, K-12, who are in any way responsible for their students’ writing development. While there are lots of comprehensive profesxional development options available, these tools are simple to understand and teachers and students can get better at them together! No need to wait.
If you are a parent seeking a writing tutor near you who can help your child develop their writing with SRSD, it can be challenging to know where to look. Although a tutor may not advertise that self-regulated strategy development is what they use, you can look for some key points in their description:
- scaffolding/gradual release of responsibility/independence/self-efficacy – a good writing tutor understands that when they succeed, they are out of a job! The goal of writing tutoring is to help students master the writing skills that they will use to succeed on their own.
- evidence-based – there has been a lot of discussion of the Science of Reading in recent years, much of it spurred by Emily Hanford’s reporting [link] about the state of literacy instruction around the United States. While the Science of Writing isn’t as widely mentioned, it exists. An experienced tutor gathers data from observing their own students, but they should also teach in a way that aligns with what we know from research. Ask them for some links and recommendations if you want to learn more about how they approach writing.
If tutoring is not in the budget right now, or if you need help on tonight’s assignment, you can help your child learn this, too! If you can follow a recipe, or build Ikea furniture, or follow driving directions, you can talk your kids through this process. Remember, it’s all about helping them to help themselves. You will model that naturally as you read a step, puzzle over it, and then figure it out together!
There are many free examples and tools online if you hunt around, but many of them are explained only briefly, and some are not clear enough for non-teachers. That’s why I put together my online course, the Academic Writing Lifeline for Parents. This course is designed to help you get your child past the confusion and fear of a writing assignment, and into a step-by-step process that will show them the light at the end of the writing tunnel.
To get you started as you help your child with writing at home, grab my free Revision and Editing checklists to walk you and your child through improving their writing one step at a time.