This post is a response to a request for tips on teaching essay writing with special-needs students.

Susan writes:

Another thing Grace really enjoys is writing. She is learning to write a paragraph and desires to learn to write an essay. Any suggestions for that? I so appreciate your help. I feel as if I have been walking in the dark with these girls.

As a reminder, this summer Susan's daughter Grace was described this way:

Grace, age 16 has a total achievement score of 50 from the Wechsler Individual Achievement test. On the Stanford Binet she received a full scale IQ of 42. She received a diagnosis of moderate mental retardation For full background on both of Susan's girls, scroll back to the thread started by Quiet heart, entitled Simply Classical.

For a complete writing program based on the classical progymnasmata, consider Classical Composition available through Memoria Press, with DVD's,, as soon as your daughter reaches the 4th- or 5th -grade level of study.

We recognize that a successful composition is the successful application of the Trivium. In a successful composition the grammar is correct, the ideas are logical and clear, and the expression is engaging and pleasing. Such application marks a classically educated individual....[G]ood compositions must be driven by both the intellect and the imagination. The Progymnasmata begins to develop logical and rhetorical structures in the mind. Good writing, as well as good speaking, is logically correct and it is a pleasure to encounter. Our minds and imaginations are uplifted by a well-communicated encounter with truth.

If Grace wants to explore beginning essay writing, she can simply expand on her writing of a paragraph! When she learns to organize and elaborate on her thoughts in writing, this will likely help her speaking too. In the early days of my children's writing, we adapted the standard 5-paragraph format. See below:

In a basic expository paragraph, she writes an introductory or topic sentence. She offers two or three supporting points. She closes with a concluding sentence.

Before she ever begins writing a paragraph, she will likely benefit from a blank outline on paper or on the board:

I. A Topic Sentence
__________________________________________________ _________
II. Point 1 Sentence
__________________________________________________ _________
III. Point 2 Sentence
__________________________________________________ _________
IV. Point 3 Sentence
__________________________________________________ _________
V. Conclusion (with a little extra, so as not to merely repeat the topic sentence)
__________________________________________________ _________

A student can create individual sentences in order on the outline, or she can begin with a simple topic & her three points. [In other words, if she has already chosen her topic, she can formalize the topic sentence and conclusion after determining her three points.] When all 5 (or so) sentences are grammatically correct and punctuated accurately, have her place them in a paragraph with her best cursive. (I cannot seem to indent here, but of course she will need to indent all of her paragraphs.)

My favorite colors are the cool colors. I enjoy blue because it is the color of the sky and calms me. Green cheers me on gloomy days. Shades of purple make me feel creative. In contrast, red, orange, and yellow make me feel too energetic and hectic. A quick look in my closet will show anyone that cool, soothing colors are my favorite!

The Essay

Topic Sentence becomes an entire introductory paragraph
Point 1 becomes the first paragraph of the Body
Point 2 becomes the second paragraph of the Body
Point 3 becomes the third paragraph of the Body
Concluding Sentence becomes the concluding paragraph

All is expanded. Each paragraph will have its own topic sentence with supporting sentences and conclusion. New outline (create lines for each sentence within the outline):

I. Introductory Paragraph

A. Topic Sentence
B. Point 1
C. Point 2
D. Point 3
E. Conclusion

II. Point 1

A. Introduce the point as a topic sentence
B. Support for point 1
C. More Support for point 1
D. (opt more support for point 1)
E. Concluding sentence

III. Point 2

A. Introduce the point as a topic sentence
B. Support for point 2
C. More support for point 2
D. (opt more support for point 2)
E. Concluding sentence

IV. Point 3

A. Introduce the point as a topic sentence
B. Support for point 3
C. More support for point 3
D. (opt more support for point 3)
E. Concluding sentence

V. Conclusion

A. Topic sentence
B. Reiteration or summary in 1-2 sentences
C. Mention of alternatives
D. Concluding sentence

See a sample of a simple yet nicely organized essay below.

My Favorite Colors

My favorite colors are the cool colors. Blue is my favorite color. Green is my next favorite. I like purple too. I prefer the cool colors for many reasons.

My favorite color has always been blue. Even when I was very young, I chose blue playdough and blue crayons. I enjoy blue, because it is the color of the sky and calms me. If I could have my room painted any color, it would be blue.

Green is my next favorite color. I love to walk in the woods. I like the green grass in our backyard. The color green cheers me on gloomy days, just like nature does.

Ever since I became a teenager, I have enjoyed purple. Shades of purple make me feel creative. I like all shades of purple. I would like a soft lavender throw pillow on my bed.

My favorite colors have always been the cool colors. In contrast, red, orange and yellow make me feel too energetic and hectic. A quick look in my closet will show anyone that cool, calming colors are the colors for me!

A Note
Other methods may be superior. Readers here may wish to contribute additional suggestions or methods. This method helped my own special-needs children in the early stages of their writing. For them, ideas were easy to generate, but organization proved difficult. The clear, repeated outline assisted the organization of their thoughts. Additional topics for this simple format include favorite movies, board games, friends, outings, or subjects in school. In this way, you can teach the format with ideas that are familiar and accessible.

After this basic format is mastered, the special-needs child can be assisted to create essays in a more classical manner to analyze poetry or novels. Exposition and refutation of opposing arguments can be added within an argumentative essay on political or philosophical ideas. With progymnasmata exercises in Classical Composition, and strategies available through, a child can become an even stronger writer.

Quick tips for teaching writing with the special-needs child:

Explain that Writing is a Process with Several Steps

With the rigid or easily frustrated child, be sure to explain ahead of time that the writing will not be complete the first time but is just a draft. This draft will receive editing for grammar, content, and style. If needed, create a visual timeline. Example: Day One - topic sentence and 3 points. Days Two & Three - writing, editing, and rewriting each sentence. Day Four - concluding sentence. Day Five - recopying the entire paragraph in beautiful handwriting for a writing notebook, possibly with an illustration.

Explain that Every Sentence Must Support the Topic

Create a silly paragraph before writing or before editing. Have the student identify non-supporting sentences. She can raise her hand if the paragraph is read orally or cross out the sentences if written on paper or on the board.

My Favorite Colors

My favorite colors are the cool colors. Blue is my favorite color. Elephants are noisy at the zoo. Green is another favorite color. We had oatmeal for breakfast....

Explain that Formal Language is Expected

If your children are like mine, they will need to be told that overly casual, conversational, or empty language cannot be deemed a point or a conclusion. For example, "And that's all I have to say!" is not a concluding sentence.


Simply Classical: A Beautiful Education for Any Child
Cheryl Swope, M.Ed., with Foreword by Dr. Gene Edward Veith