Teaching Expressive Writing to Students with Learning Disabilities: A Meta-Analysis

NICHCY’s Structured Abstract 13 describes the following:

Title | Teaching Expressive Writing to Students with Learning Disabilities: A Meta-Analysis

Authors | Gersten, R., & Baker, S.

Source Elementary School Journal, 97(5), 475-500.

Year Published | 2001

Presents results of a meta-analysis of 13 studies published during the period 1963-1997 concerning writing interventions for students with learning disabilities. All examined studies included at least 1 overall measure of student writing quality. Results show that the reviewed interventions consistently produced strong effects on the quality of students’ writing as well as students’ sense of efficacy and understanding of the writing process. Most interventions adhered to the framework of the 3 basic steps of planning, writing, and revising. Findings suggest that teaching the conventions of writing genres and extensive teacher or peer feedback concerning writing quality should be part of any comprehensive instructional program.

Over the past 25 years, the body of research on writing has grown from studies of mechanics and grammar to ones that explore the characteristics of good writers as well as the types of writing interventions that can help to improve the content and quality of students’ expressive writing. This research has shown that skilled writers spend time planning, monitoring, evaluating, revising, and managing the writing process. Teaching students the very skills and strategies used by skilled writers, then, has been the sensible next step and main focus of many expressive writing interventions. This meta-analysis summarizes the research conducted on interventions in expressive writing for students with Learning Disabilities (LD). For this meta-analysis, expressive writing is defined as “writing for the purpose of displaying knowledge or supporting self-expression.”

Research Questions

  1. Are expressive writing interventions effective for students with LD?
  2. Do writing interventions increase students’ understanding of the writing process and the purpose of text structure in writing?
  3. Do expressive writing interventions have an effect on student attitudes about writing and levels of self-efficacy?

Research Design

  • Number of Studies Included | 13
  • Number of Subjects | N/A
  • Years Spanned | 1983-1997

Research Subjects
At least 66% of participants in each of the studies were students with learning disabilities.

Age/Grade of Subjects
Students ranged from grades 1-8.

Specified Disability
Learning Disabilities (LD)

Students took part in interventions to help them improve their expressive writing skills and develop a better understanding of the writing process.

Duration of Intervention
Interventions lasted at least 45 minutes and occurred across at least 3 days of instruction.


  • The average effects size* across all writing interventions in this meta-analysis was strong (ES =0.81).
  • Almost half of the studies used metacognitive surveys to assess students’ increase in understanding of the writing process and the purpose of text structure in writing (ES = 0.64). These surveys showed that the interventions moderately increased students’ understandings about writing.
  • The effects of the interventions on student attitudes and levels of self-efficacy were also positive (0.40 and 0.61, respectively).

Combined Effects Size

  • The average effect size on the writing measure was 0.81 (a strong effect).
  • The weighted and unweighted effect sizes were 0.81 and 0.99, respectively, suggesting that the studies with large sample sizes resulted in somewhat smaller effects.
  • Positive effect sizes were found in each of the 13 studies, ranging in magnitude from 0.30 to 1.73.

Expressive writing interventions have a significant positive effect on the quality of student writing. The most effective instructional practices share the following elements:

  • They explicitly teach students the critical steps in the writing process. This includes teacher modeling* of the steps.
  • The structure or organization typically used in different kinds of writing, from persuasive writing to narrative, is also explicitly taught and modeled.
  • Writing is broken down into the phases of planning, writing, and revision. Each phase is explicitly taught, modeled by the teacher, and practiced by the students.
  • Guided feedback is provided by teachers or peers.

Gersten and Baker suggest several trends for the future of writing instruction and research:

  1. Developing instructional interventions that combine the organizational and mechanical aspects of writing with the social and creative aspects of it.
  2. Designing interventions to teach students to generalize or transfer writing strategies from one situation to another and to select the appropriate strategy from their repertoire for each writing task.


* Terms Defined

Effect Size (ES or d) | A statistical calculation, often represented as ES or d, that measures the impact of an intervention. An effect size below d = 0.20 suggests that a treatment did not have a significant effect. An effect size of d = 0.20 is considered small or low; an effect size of d = 0.50 is considered moderate; an effect size of d = 0.80 or above is large.

Meta-Analysis | A widely-used research method in which (1) a systematic and reproducible search strategy is used to find as many studies as possible that address a given topic; (2) clear criterion are presented for inclusion/exclusion of individual studies into a larger analysis; and (3) results of included studies are statistically combined to determine an overall effect (effect size) of one variable on another.

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