Robin Danzak, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Emerson College, in Boston, Massachusetts. She explores multilingual language, literacy, and the relationships among writing, culture, and identity of bilingual adolescents and adults. Through collaborative, qualitative/mixed methods, her research engages participants in authentic text composition to promote language and literacy skills, self-expression, and participation.
Writing consists of multiple language levels (MLL) that require integrated strengths in translation (coherence) and transcription (cohesion) for meaningful text production (Crossley & McNamara, 2016). However, ability at one level, whether word, sentence, or text, does not predict ability at any other language level because of individual variability (Berninger, 2009). As such, students will present with diverse strengths and difficulties with translation and transcription depending on a variety of ever-present wildcards, such as task, topic, motivation, audience, working memory, etc. (Wilson et al., 2017). A reality is that the writing task also may obstruct a student’s access to their repertoire of discourse and linguistic choices, differentially impacting the generation of a more coherent and cohesive text. The result is that, often, the focus of writing problems becomes the gaps within and between levels of language (Tolchinsky, 2016) rather than discovering strengths, which may not be readily visible in a student’s academic writing. The presentation’s intent is to reframe the gap perspective by focusing on strengths that middle school students with persisting learning disabilities (LD) employ in orchestrating language at the subword (spelling), word (vocabulary complexity), syntactic, and text levels for the purpose of composing an academic text.
Using case illustrations throughout, presenters will describe the MLL as critical components of coherence (the global level) and cohesion (the local level), as these aspects continuously intermingle in producing written texts. A total of 19 students (mean age, 12.8 years) with LD, who met rigorous research criteria and had persistent writing problems despite ongoing intervention, participated. They each produced a written text in response to a prompt about how astronauts wrote while exploring outer space. All texts were analyzed at the global (textual) and local (syntactic, word, and subword) levels. Global analysis focused on clause package complexity (Katzenberger, 2004). The local level analyses included syntactic dependencies (Davidi & Berman, 2014), elaborated noun phrases, less frequent words, and spelling accuracy (Bahr et al., 2020). A combination of quantitative and qualitative measures (Dockrell et al., 2018) was applied to yield MLL patterns for the individual students. Results indicated four patterns: High Global-High Local; High Global-Low Local; Low Global-High Local; and Low Global-Low Local. Spelling appeared to be independent relative to its association with other MLLs. Discussion of these patterns will reveal student-specific strengths that can be developed in classroom instruction for incorporating multiple purposes and multiple audiences into diverse academic writing activities (Dockrell et al., 2018). The fundamental instructional goal is to reframe the focus from gaps to leveraging students’ MLL strengths.