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Culturally Responsive Writing Instruction for Secondary Students With Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, by Calli Lewis Chiu, PhD, Kelly M. Carrero, PhD, Mandy E. Lusk, PhD (May 18, 2017) Beyond Behavior, SAGE

Author: Calli Lewis Chiu, PhD, Kelly M. Carrero, PhD, Mandy E. Lusk, PhD

Research Article |


Research suggests that teachers often do not adequately prepare students with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD) to utilize organizational structures and basic writing skills that are necessary to produce cohesive essays. Among the challenges of effectively teaching writing to secondary students with EBD is how to deliver culturally responsive instruction to students who come from a variety of different backgrounds.This article presents specific strategies for infusing culturally responsive practices into scaffolded instruction for teaching written expression to youth with EBD.Keywords culturally responsive instruction, writing instruction, emotional and behavioral disorders

Ms. Bullock is a novice special education teacher who recently began teaching English Language Arts to secondary students with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD). After examining her students’ individualized education programs and assessing their academic skill levels, she quickly realizes that all of her students struggle in the area of written expression. In addition to recognizing her students’ struggles in writing, she also knows there are cultural differences between herself and her students. Ms. Bullock is a young, White, middle-class special educator from a suburban area in the south who recently moved to a metropolitan area in the Midwest. On the contrary, Ms. Bullock’s students are predominantly African American males, who are living in low-income, single-parent homes in the urban area. Ms. Bullock wants to deliver culturally responsive writing instruction practices for her secondary students with challenging behaviors.

Many teachers face obstacles similar to Ms. Bullock. Among the challenges in effectively teaching writing to secondary students with EBD is how to deliver culturally responsive instruction (CRI) to students who come from a variety of different backgrounds. In this article, we provide strategies for infusing culturally responsive and scaffolded written expression instruction and fostering student self-evaluation of writing.

Characteristics of Children and Youth With EBD

Children and youth with EBD display higher rates of physical and verbal aggression, noncompliance, and conduct issues in educational settings when compared with same-aged peers. Moreover, challenging behaviors often intensify when academic work is required (Landrum, 2011). Although writing may be a therapeutic outlet for students with EBD (Mooney, Ryan, Uhing, Reid, & Epstein, 2005), it is sometimes given minimal attention in classrooms. Writing is particularly difficult for students who struggle with organization, are unable to remain focused for long periods of time, and lack prerequisite skills necessary in academic core subjects. Research suggests that teachers often do not adequately prepare students with EBD to utilize organizational structures and basic writing skills that are necessary to produce cohesive essays (Harris, Graham, Mason, & Friedlander, 2008). Metacognitive and self-regulation strategies can be beneficial in helping improve the writing skills of secondary students with EBD (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2014).

Social Validity of Teaching Writing Instruction to Youth With EBD

Youth with EBD are known for having poorer postschool outcomes than other classifications of students with disabilities. Unfortunately, when students with EBD graduate from high school, they may have involvement in the criminal justice system and/or struggle to maintain employment. Basic literacy skills are disproportionately deficient for people who are incarcerated (Greenberg, Dunleavy, & Kutner, 2007), and academic achievement is considered by many to be a deterrent to initial incarceration (Katsiyannis, Ryan, Zhang, & Spann, 2008).

Writing is used for multiple purposes, including learning, expressing oneself, and persuading others. Basic writing skills are often necessary for securing employment and/or negotiating adult-oriented life interactions (e.g., applying for assistance, securing housing). Proficient writing skills are especially powerful for situations when individuals with EBD need to express their point of view and recruit support from others to see things their way. For example, learning the steps of persuasive writing assists writers in understanding how to craft an argument with supporting details, as well as how to state possible counterarguments and have rebuttals drafted to refute opposing views. Written expression can serve as one vehicle for self-determination as youth with EBD enter into adulthood.


Classrooms in the United States are becoming increasingly culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD). Utley, Obiakor, and Bakken (2011) explained that CLD learners with exceptionalities can be characterized diverse in numerous ways, including race, socioeconomic status, gender, language, religion/spirituality, intellectual ability levels, sexual orientation, and age. Ms. Bullock and countless other teachers struggle to find resources for writing instruction that are both culturally responsive and targeted to meet the needs of secondary students with EBD. CRI is an approach to teaching which incorporates the cultural experiences of students to facilitate rich learning and deep conceptual connections between new content or skills and prior life experiences of students (Aceves & Orosco, 2014; Gay, 2000; Ladson-Billings, 1994). Six CRI themes have been identified in the current literature base: (a) instructional engagement; (b) culture, language, and racial identity; (c) multicultural awareness; (d) high expectations; (e) critical thinking; and (f) social justice (Aceves & Orosco, 2014).

Benefits of CRI for Students With EBD

There are numerous benefits to CRI as well as many parallels between CRI and accepted practices for teaching students with EBD (cf. Aceves & Orosco, 2014; Landrum & Tankersley, 2013). Empirical evidence supporting CRI suggests that students who receive CRI make gains in academic performance and achievement (Hughes et al., 2004; Rodriguez, Jones, Pang, & Park, 2004; Shumate, Campbell-Whatley, & Lo, 2012). CRI will likely benefit youth with EBD as it has been shown to reduce off-task behaviors (Shumate et al., 2012) and improve attitudes toward writing among CLD secondary students (Estrada & Warren, 2014).

In the context of CRI, curriculum and instruction must be experienced by the student in such a way as to increase instructional engagement. That can be done by connecting course content to the students’ cultural and/or home experiences. Students can be introduced to different types of writing (e.g., procedural, expository, narrative, persuasive) by using the research-based practice of providing opportunities to respond (Partin, Robertson, Maggin, Oliver, & Wehby, 2009). For example, teachers can lead discussions where students are asked to consider relatives or neighbors who speak in a specific format and for what purposes (e.g., an uncle who uses procedural language when teaching how to change the oil in the family vehicle). In addition to making connections through classroom discussions, teachers using CRI provide students with opportunities to apply and practice what they are learning (e.g., a student identifies how he or she might use procedural language to teach his or her parents how to use video calling features on a mobile phone).

In classrooms using CRI, everyone within the classroom community is exploring their identity within the context of race, culture, and language. More specifically, teachers and students consciously consider how their identity affects their intercultural communication with others, as well as their acquisition and processing of new information. In addition to raising a critical consciousness within each individual, teachers using CRI are cognizant in providing their students multiple opportunities to examine and/or experience cultural perspectives that may be different from their own, thereby promoting multicultural awareness. Teachers of youth with EBD often explicitly teach perspective taking and empathy when working on social skills and conflict resolution, including considering how the student’s behaviors may affect other people (Salmon, 2015; Winner, 2007). Perspective taking, empathy, and awareness of self and other are hallmarks of CRI.

CRI requires teachers to maintain and explicitly state high learning expectations for all students (Ladson-Billings, 1990). Maintaining high learning expectations may not always feel like the most appropriate battle, but explicitly stating expectations should be common practice. Within the CRI framework, it is believed that students can be motivated to engage in the content and activities presented because they not only learn skills, but they also learn how their new skills can further issues, topics, and goals that are directed by the student. When teaching writing for different purposes, teachers implementing CRI encourage students to consider how using particular writing styles will assist the student in attaining desired outcomes. Relating the writing activity to meaningful topics chosen by students with EBD and allowing them to write about self-selected topics allow for choice making and preferred activity use for students. Providing choice and utilizing preferred activities are effective strategies when working with youth with EBD (Landrum & Tankersley, 2013).

Teachers using CRI are committed to having students think critically and with an understanding of social justice (Aceves & Orosco, 2014). Social justice encompasses principles of inclusion and equity (Bell, 2016).Its goal is to eliminate injustices that occur when differences are categorized and ranked in a manner that unequally distributes cultural, social, and economic power (Adams, 2014). Teachers of youth with EBD are given many opportunities to discuss social justice and the difficulties surrounding issues where justice is not adequately served. Moreover, youth with EBD will often present multiple opportunities for the teacher to lead them through rich discussions about social justice that can be tied to events occurring daily in the students’ lives. Specifically, teachers weave learning experiences and discussions throughout the course content that allows students to understand cultural capital and identify systematic or structural inequalities that may prohibit students from achieving their desired outcomes.

Teachers can use accepted practices for youth with EBD, like task analysis, to break down and facilitate critical thinking of highly charged social issues and topics. Any English Language Arts teacher, political activist, or social change agent can espouse the power held in written language. Effective written language can be used to access social and political capital, something all youth, but particularly marginalized youth who often feel the “world is against them,” can benefit from learning how to do. A list of resources for implementing CRI is presented in Table 1, and a list of strategy do’s and don’ts is displayed in Table 2.

Table 1. Suggested Resources for Implementing Culturally Responsive Writing Instruction.

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Table 2. Culturally Responsive Writing Instruction Strategy Do’s and Don’ts.

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Scaffolded Instruction

Instructional scaffolding provides students with support as they learn new tasks and concepts (Larkin, 2001). Over time, as students demonstrate mastery of new skills, the support is slowly reduced or withdrawn.One model of instructional scaffolding, often referred to as the “I do–We do–You do” model, is widely recognized as a successful model for transitioning away from teacher-centered instruction toward learner-centered instruction (Archer & Hughes, 2010). In this model, students are provided numerous opportunities to work together and to become active participants in their own learning while receiving the support they need to be successful. The I do–We do–You do model of instruction encompasses a tenet of CRI, which holds that students from diverse backgrounds benefit from opportunities to learn in group scenarios (Ladson-Billings, 1990; Wickstrom et al., 2010). In this model of instruction, new skills or tasks are first demonstrated and modeled for students using a large, shared visual display (e.g., chalkboard, dry erase board, projector). As the teacher demonstrates the skill, he or she “thinks aloud,” allowing students to hear all thought processes regarding how the skill is completed (i.e., I do). The students are encouraged to ask questions and work together while learning how to complete the skill, which again allows them to benefit from working as a group. Next, the teacher and students complete the skill together (i.e., We do). The students either help the teacher complete the task being demonstrated, or begin work on a group task with teacher assistance. Again, the students are encouraged to seek clarification regarding any part of the task completion that remains unclear. Last, the students work independently and receive help from the teacher as needed (i.e., You do).


Ms. Bullock knows that using self-evaluation charts or checklists is a research-based strategy that can greatly improve student performance, but she has never tried using them herself. She does a quick Internet search and is excited to find a variety of self-evaluation templates that can be modified in numerous ways to meet the needs of her students. Ms. Bullock downloads the forms and individualizes them to reflect her students’ interests and needs.

Culturally responsive classrooms prioritize student contributions in teaching and learning processes (Aceves & Orosco, 2014). Self-management and self-assessment practices are considered to be effective for students with challenging behaviors (Mooney et al., 2005; Zirpoli, 2016). When using these instructional practices, students become active participants in monitoring their own learning and skill production. Students are taught to observe, record, and evaluate their own academic and/or social-emotional behavior. When students learn to manage their own behavior, they often grow increasingly interested in changing their behavior as they become aware of their actions. A self-management tool that has been used to reverse academic deficits among students with challenging behaviors is self-evaluation.

In self-evaluation, students make evaluative judgments of their performance against previously established goals to determine whether their performance meets the goals (Zirpoli, 2016). Self-evaluation checklists should be based on input from the students, individualized for each student, and easy to use. First, the teacher and students should work together to establish the goals toward which the students will work. Next, students are taught to rate themselves on progress they have made toward the goals. Self-evaluation checklists typically include one or more goals and a rating scale (e.g., 2 = excellent, 1 = acceptable, 0 = no attempt was made). A sample self-evaluation checklist is shown in Figure 1.


Figure 1. Sample self-evaluation checklist.

When implementing self-evaluation checklists, teachers provide the students with numerous opportunities to practice using the checklists. Upon implementing the checklists, teachers compare the ratings the students gave to themselves with their own student-targeted ratings to determine the level of agreement and provide specific feedback. In the beginning stages of implementing self-evaluation procedures, teachers may provide students with reinforcement for simply providing an accurate evaluation of their performance. As students become more proficient using the self-evaluation checklists, teachers transition to providing reinforcement when students meet their goals with high ratings. Over time, teacher involvement is gradually withdrawn in the process because the goal is for the students to become independent.

Connecting CRI, Scaffolded Instruction, and Self-Evaluation to the Writing Process

The writing process consists of prewriting, drafting, revising and editing, and publishing. Students will undoubtedly demonstrate a wide variety of skill levels, but regardless of skill level, all students can make progress through the process to produce a written composition. When teaching the writing process, the culturally responsive teacher will work to infuse elements of CRI and scaffolded instruction. Teachers should explicitly teach students self-evaluation tools to assist students in monitoring their writing behaviors and in reflecting on the quality of their written work.


Before students begin writing, they must determine their subject matter. At this stage in the process, teachers have considerable opportunity to implement two significant principles of culturally responsive writing instruction, namely, that, first, students need to be the decision makers regarding the subject matter about which they will write, and, second, students need opportunities to connect academic instruction to their lives (Wickstrom et al., 2010). Teachers must continually strive to create open, nonjudgmental environments for students to share their life experiences, especially when developing prewriting ideas. Rather than assigning all students the same, teacher-generated writing prompt, teachers and students can work together to develop unique topics that are relevant to the students. Teachers can incorporate speeches, short stories, chapter books, poems, or other literary works written by authors from backgrounds similar to those of the students as tools to help generate ideas for writing topics. Another way to motivate students to write is to incorporate social media that is relevant to the students. Platforms such as Twitter and blogs contain infinite sources of ideas for subject matter that can be highly appealing to students.

A tragic incident of gun violence has shaken the city where Ms. Bullock and her students live. There has been continuous news coverage, and social media platforms are abuzz with people expressing outrage, fear, and anger. Ms. Bullock’s students have also been talking about the incident, and she knows she can use this time to help the students express themselves through writing. Because emotions surrounding the incident are running high, she determines that she can use this time to teach persuasive writing. Ms. Bullock follows her students’ leads regarding the conversations they want to have about the incident. She then helps them formulate topics about which they will write. Some choose to write about the importance of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, while others focus on the punishment they feel the shooter should receive. Ms. Bullock knows she needs to model the prewriting process for the students before they begin their own prewriting, so she decides to write about the role of education in preventing violence. Using an overhead projector so the students can see her work, she writes her prompt, draws a web, and begins filling it in, articulating all of her thought processes along the way. She is pleased to find that when she asks the students for additional ideas, many of them are highly engaged and contribute ideas to the web.

To model the process, teachers can choose their own topics and discuss them with the students. Doing so may help the students develop an understanding of their teachers’ lives and interests (e.g., music, travel, community, hobbies). Teachers can allow students to openly discuss their ideas. When unfamiliar with a concept, teachers can seek clarification by asking the students follow-up questions. The resulting discussion is a positive way to learn more about students’ cultures. Likewise, teachers can use the prewriting phase to provide the students with the freedom to say and write whatever they want to about the predetermined topic. Teachers can even permit organic, “off-topic” writing at this phase.

Teachers can allow the students to use multiple mediums for developing their ideas. For example, if a student prefers to draw pictures or cut out pictures at this phase, the teacher can allow it and ask for follow-up writing at a later stage. Another strategy is to organize the students into groups related to their topics. For example, there might be three students in a classroom who have chosen to write about their neighborhood.After grouping the students, they can help each other with ideas for the prewriting process.

After the students have generated topics, prewriting begins. In prewriting, students organize their thoughts using a graphic organizer such as a web. First, the teacher models how to complete the web, verbalizing thought processes along the way and checking to ensure the students understand the process. After modeling how to begin filling in the web, the teacher elicits help from the students to complete the remaining empty sections of the web. After completing the web with help from the students, the teacher assists the students as they complete their own graphic organizer independently. Students with significantly limited skills may be given the option to use pictures instead of words to complete their webs, while students with strong writing skills can be presented with a variety of graphic organizers and can select the one they feel most comfortable using. The culturally responsive teacher will maintain high expectations for all students while recognizing that expectations may vary from student to student.

Self-evaluation procedures can be built in to prewriting instruction. Students can be taught to rate their productivity during the prewriting phase, and teachers can explicitly state that students are expected to self-evaluate their prewriting skills. At this stage in the writing process, students can complete self-evaluation checklists to evaluate goals such as “Did I write my topic in the center of the web?” or “Did I write or draw at least five things I want to write about the topic?” The prewriting stage may feel unstructured, and students with EBD may exhibit off-task behaviors. Therefore, goals on the self-evaluation checklists may also address specific on-task behaviors during the process.


After planning their ideas during the prewriting stage, students produce a rough draft. Before the students begin writing independently, the teacher models this stage. The teacher demonstrates how to use the information from the graphic organizer developed in the prewriting stage to formulate complete sentences and paragraphs. Thought processes are used to generate sentences and paragraphs from the ideas, which began as pictures, words, or short phrases in the graphic organizer. Students who struggle with writing benefit from explicit instruction regarding how to make the transition from ideas to sentences and then to complete paragraphs. After modeling how to write several sentences based upon ideas in the graphic organizer, the teacher asks the students for assistance in drafting the remainder of the paper from the concepts remaining in the graphic organizer.

After writing the paper with help from the students, the teacher assists students as they write their own papers independently. A student’s sense of identity can influence his or her learning (Wickstrom et al., 2010).Therefore, to ensure cultural responsiveness at this stage in the writing process, teachers should encourage the students to write in a language that is conversational or comfortable to the student. It is important to validate the writer at this stage to allow for a continuous flow of written ideas. It is critical to teach students how to “code switch” (i.e., using different vernacular when communicating with different communicative partners), and teachers might facilitate productivity by not criticizing students who use verbiage that the teacher considers slang or nonstandard English at this stage of the writing process.

The word choices used by the students reflect their culture, and teachers can choose to embrace rather than disapprove of their students’ experiences (Ladson-Billings, 1995). Instead, teachers can take the time to explicitly teach code switching. For example, if a student is writing a persuasive letter to a school administrator, teachers can accept the initial draft while also presenting a lesson on professional versus informal language in relation to a target audience. To encourage maximum participation during this stage, teachers can emphasize that technical errors (e.g., spelling, punctuation) will not result in a loss of points.Decreasing pressure to complete an error-free writing sample may lessen students’ anxieties toward writing and result in more student productivity and less anxiety-based student challenging behavior. In addition, if students are expected to write their rough drafts as homework, teachers can problem-solve circumstances in which students do not have access to computers and/or printers to generate their drafts.

Again, self-evaluation can be effectively incorporated into the drafting stage. A self-evaluation checklist for this stage may prompt the students to rate themselves on whether they used all of the ideas from their graphic organizer and whether they generated complete sentences from the pictures, words, and phrases from their graphic organizers. The students’ self-evaluation checklists can be individualized to meet each student’s unique needs at each stage of the writing process. For example, it may be beneficial for students with strong writing skills to have a goal of producing multiple paragraphs from their graphic organizer, while many other students with limited writing skills can have simpler goals such as generating three to five complete sentences. In addition, it may be beneficial to teach students how to check their papers for the major elements of the category of writing they are producing. For example, if writing a persuasive essay, students can formally check to see whether they have the necessary elements (i.e., statement of their position on the topic, reasons supporting their position, etc.) .

Editing and Revising

Once the students’ drafts are complete, students edit and revise their work. In the editing phase, students can be encouraged to use critical thinking and adopt the perspective of multiple potential readers. Teachers can ask students to consider their intended audiences and whether their cultural frames will allow for the audience to hear the messages that the students are hoping to communicate in their work (i.e., use of multicultural awareness). At this stage, teachers may want to plan to provide time for students to ask questions about one another’s paper. This can create an opportunity for students to learn about their peers’ cultures. Students from diverse backgrounds often benefit from instruction that involves peer-to-peer interaction (Wickstrom et al., 2010). Peer editing is inherently culturally responsive because peers provide feedback to one another rather than the teacher being the provider of necessary edits and revisions.

A peer-assisted learning strategy (PALS) can be implemented in which participants use a mnemonic and scripted responses to provide feedback to one another on their writing. Cramer and Mason (2014) have utilized the LEAF strategy. LEAF is a mnemonic that stands for Listen as the author reads, Explain what you like best, Ask evaluation questions, and Finalize your comments.

The revising and editing strategy begins as teachers ask students about their experiences receiving feedback, including how it makes them feel. In guided discussions about feedback, the teacher helps students understand that, for this activity, the feedback they give their partner needs to be specific, useful, and applicable. The students practice this step by examining examples and nonexamples. Next, the LEAF mnemonic is introduced. The mnemonic can be presented in such a way that it is easily viewed by all students. The students then complete a contract committing to participate in this peer editing activity appropriately. Upon completion of the contracts, the teacher selects a student to role play with. First, the teacher reads his or her paper to the student and asks the student to provide feedback. The teacher can verbalize appropriate responses if the student was to give upsetting feedback. Students who viewed the role play should be encouraged to ask questions and give feedback. Next, the teacher and student switch roles, and the student reads his or her paper to the teacher. The teacher then gives the student feedback. Once all of the students understand the process, partners are assigned and the groups begin the peer editing process.

For self-evaluation at this stage, students can evaluate themselves regarding how carefully they followed the LEAF mnemonic. They can also self-evaluate regarding the feedback they gave to their partners. In addition, students can audio record themselves reading their papers to self-evaluate their writing to assist them in determining necessary edits and revisions.

Final Draft and Publishing

After students have revised and edited their initial drafts, they write the final draft. Using the rough draft that has suggestions for edits and revisions marked on it, the teacher verbalizes thought processes used to incorporate the suggested edits and revisions into a final draft. This concept is modeled for the first few sentences of a final draft, and then the teacher asks the students for help with the remainder of the draft.When students are ready, they begin using the edits and revisions their partners wrote on their papers to produce their final drafts. To promote cultural responsiveness at this stage, teachers can encourage students to present their final drafts to the class in various ways such as reading an excerpt aloud, bringing in a symbol from the writing, or creating a presentation (Wickstrom et al., 2010). Students can be encouraged to share their work with people who the students consider to be in positions of power and may be able to provide the students with access to cultural and social capital. Any response from these individuals can be incredibly reinforcing for the students and their ability to meet desired outcomes through writing. In addition, students’ final drafts can be displayed in the classroom and in other locations around the school.

Self-evaluation at this stage may involve the students rating themselves on items, including “Did I write slowly to make sure I used my best handwriting?” and “Did I make all of the edits that were written on my rough draft?” It is critical that all self-evaluation tools are individualized for each student. If the students have individual education plan goals related to writing, it may be appropriate to include the goals on the self-evaluation checklists.


Ms. Bullock is not alone in having difficulty locating culturally responsive writing strategies for students with EBD. Utilizing CRI and scaffolded instruction can mitigate frustration experienced by secondary students with EBD and academic deficits, particularly in the area of written expression. Equipping youth with EBD with the ability to self-evaluate their writing can promote the development of writing efficacy, self-advocacy, and many other components of self-determination that are necessary for postschool success (Wehmeyer, Abery, Mithaug, & Stancliffe, 2003).

Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


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DMU Timestamp: July 03, 2019 02:46

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