Power-Assisted Writing for Science: Developing Expository Writing in a Multimedia Environment

Caryl Hitchcock and Kavita Rao

University of Hawaii

Kalani, an 11-year-old sixth grader, is one of the 26 students in Grades 5 to 8 who attend Hibiscus Elementary, a small rural school. Twelve percent of the students at the school have identified disabilities and 92% are culturally or linguistically diverse. Although intelligent, curious, and generous, Kalani has struggled throughout primary school with difficulties in reading, writing, attention, and completing assignments. To assist Kalani and his peers, Ms. Dana, his teacher, sought to identify interventions that worked and were determined to be effective by research. She searched for empirically validated strategies, specifically in the area of expository writing, an area in which many of her students expressed frustration. She decided to implement the Power Assisted Writing for Science (PAWS) process, which combines several evidence-based practices found to have strong effects (Graham et al., 2012; Paschler et al., 2007). It appeared that PAWS, with its use of multimedia technology and strategies for self-regulation and monitoring, could increase all students’ achievement while specifically supporting her low-performing students.

Teachers like Ms. Dana can plan for and implement PAWS within their science instruction, developing student independence and furthering students’ ability to demonstrate their knowledge and, thus, enhance their meaningful participation in the science instruction. The PAWS process incorporates attributes of frameworks such as self-regulated strategy development (SRSD) (Harris, Graham, Mason, & Friedlander, 2008), multimedia technology, and universal design for learning (UDL) principles.

Writing Challenges for Students with Disabilities

To understand the need for and the power of PAWS, it is helpful to consider writing and the challenges often associated with the writing process for students with disabilities and their struggling peers. Proficiency in writing and abilities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are highly valued 21st-century skills in K–12, college, and the workplace (Next Generation Science Standards, 2013). However, The Nation’s Report Card National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2007) recently indicated that three out of four students demonstrated only partial mastery of the writing skills needed for their grade level and that eighth graders eligible for free or reduced lunch scored lower than their peers in higher socioeconomic status categories. In 2010, only 24% of high school graduates who completed the ACT were college-ready in all four subjects tested (i.e., English, math, reading, science; ACT, 2010, p. 8). Lower proficiency in writing and STEM content areas is further magnified for students who are culturally, linguistically, and socioeconomically diverse (National Science Foundation, 2013).

The Common Core State Standards (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, 2010) emphasize science literacy within the English Language Arts Standards; the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) also address issues for students who need additional supports for learning. The Diversity and Equity group involved in drafting the NGSS have noted that all students need to have opportunities to engage in classroom discourse around science and move away from simply memorizing facts (NGSS, 2013). To encourage this, teachers should use evidence-based practices to differentiate their instruction and provide access to the science curriculum to all students, particularly those with disabilities.

Although the need persists, classroom teachers often report that they are not skilled in teaching science or writing to students who are receiving special education services, or to English language learners (Lee, Maerten-Rivera, Buxton, Penfield, & Secada, 2009). Instead, they clamor for proven interventions, looking to the special educator, the paraprofessional, or professionals beyond the general education classroom—often deciding that the science classroom is not the appropriate setting. We developed PAWS to provide both general and special education teachers with materials and a process to meet the needs of students with disabilities as well as their struggling peers. PAWS was inspired by TeenACE Writing (Dowrick & Yuen, 2006), a successful writing program for middle and high school students who are culturally and linguistically diverse. TeenACE Writing provides students with supports to generate narrative writing utilizing a technology-based environment that combines pictures, text, and audio; PAWS extends these core components with a focus on having students generate expository text about science concepts. PAWS also integrates writing strategies within a design framework that maximizes efficiency and effectiveness for all learners. 

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Strategy and Framework Considerations for Struggling Writers

Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD)

SRSD for writing, separate from PAWS, is an empirically validated model that provides support for students before, during, and after the writing process (Harris, Graham, Mason, & Friedlander, 2008). PAWS integrates the stages of the SRSD model by encouraging students to: (a) develop background knowledge through research and note-taking on a cognitive map, (b) discuss their ideas with a peer, (c) model the process by following a step-by-step guide, (d) remember the steps of the writing process by using a mnemonic strategy, (e) support the writing and editing process through peer collaboration and technology, and (f) provide opportunities for independent performance and discussion of future writing goals (Tracy, Reid, & Graham, 2009). Steps in the PAWS process include additional empirically validated strategies with strong effects, namely mnemonics (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 1998), goal-setting (Ferretti, Lewis, & Andrews-Weckerly, 2009), peer collaboration (Saenz, Fuchs, & Fuchs, 2005), and deep questioning (Rosenshine, Meister, & Chapman, 1996). 

Multimedia Theory and Practice

Multimedia learning theory suggests that optimal learning occurs when visual materials are presented simultaneously with verbal (narrative) materials with the potential to enhance memory (Clark & Mayer, 2003). Using multimedia tools and multiple means of representation, students demonstrate their knowledge and express their ideas through a combination of visuals, text, and audio. The PAWS process applies multimedia through the use of presentation software (e.g., PowerPoint) to read aloud and record the sentences students write. This additional step allows for a mode of presentation while also supporting an editing process where the student considers the previous draft and edits as needed. 

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

The instructional methods foundational to PAWS further align with the UDL framework and each of its three principles: multiple means of representation, multiple means of engagement, and multiple means of expression (National Center on Universal Design for Learning, 2013). The three key UDL principles are subdivided into nine more specific guidelines; the PAWS process includes connections to each of these nine guidelines, offering students options for perception, comprehension, goal-setting, choice, autonomy, and self-regulation. The UDL Checklist for PAWS (see Resources, Table 1) illustrates how the PAWS process aligns to the three principles and the nine related guidelines of UDL. UDL-based instructional methods such as PAWS provide increased access to content and curriculum for diverse students by proactively integrating learning supports. 

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The PAWS Process

The PAWS process includes a step-by-step protocol designed to engage students in learning and to support them in developing and expressing their knowledge about scientific concepts and processes. The step-by-step protocol provides a structured format for writing, editing, revising, and publishing their work. Throughout the PAWS process, students evaluate their own writing skills and discuss their writing goals with the teacher. This process incorporates several metacognitive strategies (i.e., cognitive organizers, peer collaboration, goal setting, SRSD), giving students the opportunity to set their own goals and to map and assess their progress with guidance from the teacher.

PAWS can be used to help students write about a variety of science concepts. It can help students generate expository, descriptive, and argumentative genres of text related to science, including (a) descriptions of experiments, (b) reports on factual topics, and (c) idea or opinion pieces. PAWS’ components are flexible and can be scaled to provide supports or scaffolds during the process; for example, when students begin with PAWS, teachers provide selected resources (e.g., photos) to get students started. Once students complete additional PAWS reports, scaffolds, if not needed, can be removed (e.g., students can be expected to find their own photos). 

The implementation of PAWS is a teacher-modeled process that follows a series of steps. To support students in self-regulating and self-monitoring during the PAWS writing process, we developed the POWER 8 mnemonic. The POWER 8 mnemonic combines the categories of the 6+1 Traits of Writing (Culham, 2003) with Harris et al.’s (2008) POWER acronym (pick a topic, organize, write a draft, evaluate, revise):

        (1) Pick a topic or idea,

        (2) Picture organizer,

        (3) Outline,

        (4) Organization,

        (5) Write words,

        (6) Write sentences,

        (7) Evaluate/edit, and

        (8) Revise/publish.

PAWS, therefore, is the writing process and POWER 8 the tools used during the process (see Resources, Table 2, POWER 8 Rubric; and Power 8 CBM Assessment). The POWER 8 CBM Assessment is a curriculum-based measure that allows students and teachers to measure progress frequently.  For each writing assignment, students and teachers rate and graph student work on each of the eight traits of writing.  The assessment form includes a tally sheet to summarize both student self-evaluation and teacher review of the project. Recording on a simple graph the scores from evaluating each writing project enables progress monitoring (see Step 5). 

Step 1: Prepare the Instructional Material

Before you introduce your students to PAWS, gather a set of pictures to visually represent the paragraph topics. For each picture, write a topic heading that can also serve as a writing prompt. We typically use between 9 and 12 pictures with middle school students (see Resources, Picture Set Sample), but the number can be changed according to the goal of the assignment. Images can be downloaded from the Internet or can be photos that you have scanned or taken with a digital camera. If you get images from web sites or books, we recommend adding references at the end of the sample report in order to model ethical use of materials.

Using presentation software (e.g., Microsoft PowerPoint, Apple’s Keynote, OpenOffice Impress), create a template for students to use; see Resources for a sample template in PowerPoint and the Teacher Guide for specific instructions. The POWER 8 template you create for your students is simply a master PowerPoint file in which you place all the pictures you have selected, one picture per slide, with a paragraph header or sentence starter on each slide to support students in understanding how their products should look. These types of scaffolds can be student-specific, generic, or deleted, depending upon the needs of your class. Once students have completed the PAWS process, they can be given more choice and autonomy in finding, selecting, or even taking their own pictures to support the text they are writing. 

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Step 2: Students Research and Organize

Students follow a set of instructions to begin writing their drafts (see Resources, Student Guide). Each student or student team receives a printed set of pictures in a plastic zip bag. The 9 to 12 separate pictures are accompanied with headings (e.g., introduction, background, hypothesis, experimental design) related to the topic being studied. Students sort the pictures into a logical sequence. Provide directions on how they should research their topic or, if relevant, how to conduct the experiment to help them generate the writing related to the topic. The amount of instruction and modeling you provide students when they are researching the topic should be appropriate for their level of experience and practice. We recommend modeling for students how they can use their textbooks, library, and Internet resources by providing keywords for searches or a list of web links to research that supports their topic. Of course, students may later exchange the pictures for others they find or generate on their own. 

Another tool to support student mastery of the process is the POWER 8 Planner (see Resources). The POWER 8 Planner contains three columns: picture organizer, cognitive map (a visual web), and draft writing lines. First, students paste or tape the pictures into the picture organizer in sequence and then begin their research on each picture/heading. Students use the cognitive map in the second column to record notes about information they find while they are doing their background research or conducting an experiment. Teachers can specify how much information is expected at this stage (e.g., three to seven bullets or ideas per picture/heading). Finally, once the background research is complete, students begin to draft their paragraphs for each topic or heading with pencil on the lines in the third column. If you have ready access to technology in your classroom, students could use digital graphic organizer software such as Inspiration free web-based tools software (for a list see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_concept-_and_mind-mapping_software) for this process. When we do this project in schools with limited computing resources, we use paper and pencil and ask the students to glue their pictures onto the Power 8 Planner (see below), noting that they can change the sequence later.  

When we first introduce PAWS, we have students work in pairs; for later reports, students work individually. This is also a component of PAWS that can be scaffolded, with students provided with peer support for as long as they need and for students who prefer working independently to be given that option once they master the process.

Ms. Dana gave all her students, including Kalani and his partner, the POWER 8 Quick Start Guide with steps and illustrations to follow (see Resources, Figure 1). Kalani, like many of his peers, enjoyed sequencing the pictures that Ms. Dana provided on his planner and collaborated with his partner to decide where the pictures would go. Ms. Dana noticed that he was engaged in the activity and had something to say about each picture, although he seemed reluctant to write sentences. For the second report, Ms. Dana rotated partners to help students continue to learn the process and realized that although Kalani was engaged while sequencing the pictures and contributed his ideas orally, he relied on his partner to do most of the planning and all of the writing. For the third report, Ms. Dana asked Kalani to work on all parts of the PAWS process independently.

Step 3: Students Draft and Edit

After students organize the information they have found, they begin drafting their paragraphs on the POWER 8 Planner using the information on their cognitive map. Students should be encouraged to use their own words; model for them how to properly cite or reference sources to avoid plagiarism. Drafting the paragraphs may take a typical class period. Once they are satisfied with their first draft, they can begin typing their paragraphs into the template on the computer. Presentation software allows the user to organize slides by dragging and dropping them to change the sequence. Encourage students to consider what they are writing and sequence their photos as they organize their thoughts. This is also a good time for students to review what they have written and make any changes or corrections in words, sentences, or transitions.

Step 4: Students Record and Listen

After writing their drafts, students use the audio recording function built into the presentation software to record their voices reading the sentences on each slide. As an editing strategy, they listen to the recording correcting errors in grammar, spelling, and word usage. If the computer (i.e., Mac) has a text-to-speech function students can also use this to identify errors. When students read aloud as well as listen to the audio of their writing, they often identify errors they can correct on their own.

By the time Kalani created his third science presentation, he was familiar with the PAWS process and he eagerly sequenced the pictures and created the cognitive map by himself. Ms. Dana and Mr. Joel worked with Kalani to develop sentences based on his cognitive map. After discussing his ideas with Mr. Joel, Kalani eagerly went to one of the classroom computers to type his sentences into the PAWS PowerPoint template (see Resources, Student Work Sample). Using the audio recording feature within PowerPoint, Kalani read the sentences aloud. As he played back his slideshow, he was able to identify some errors in his grammar and spelling. He also worked to improve his organization and supporting ideas. By the end of the week, Kalani had generated a logical and informative science report in PowerPoint.

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Step 5: Evaluate and Monitor Progress

Students use the POWER 8 Rubric to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 5 for each PAWS report they write, recording the ratings on the POWER 8 CBM Assessment. We suggest also graphing their progress using the POWER 8 Graphing Tool (see Resources) or using the graphs on the CBM Assessment form. Students and teacher discuss the ratings they assign, using the rubric as a basis for dialogue about progress and individual goal setting for future assignments. Together with the teacher, students identify skills to target for their next report, such as improving organization, adding more sentences, and using more technical vocabulary or transitions. Encourage students to ask and answer questions (e.g., how, why, why not, compare x and y) for deeper understanding that results in more than surface revisions (Rosenshine, Meister, & Chapman, 1996). 

Wow, Kalani thought, I’ve never completed a science report by myself. Yet, with the help of PAWS, Kalani submitted his third report and received a letter grade of B for his efforts. During a teacher-student conference, Kalani, Ms. Dana, and Mr. Joel reviewed his POWER 8 graph and rubric (see Resources, Figure 2). Motivated by his recent success, Kalani said he would like to improve his sentences and create better transitions between the slides in his next project, which would focus on tide pool ecosystems. He asked if he could draw some pictures and take digital photos of the tide pool near his house. By the time Kalani sat down at the computer to work on his tide pool report, he had gained more confidence and independence with the writing process. Breaking down the task of writing a science report into steps and evaluating his work helped him to maintain focus, complete the assignment, and set higher goals. PAWs also had made it easier for Ms. Dana to identify where students were having difficulty with an assignment, improved her students’ organizational skills, provided a framework in which students could focus on the writing process, and improved their writing overall. Ms. Dana was particularly impressed with how Kalani and his peers improved their organization, transitions, and completeness in their writing, in the process becoming more independent writers.


Struggling writers need to enhance their ability to demonstrate their knowledge, especially in science; increasingly, science reports are a regular indicator of student understanding and progress. Yet, students are often asked to demonstrate knowledge through writing without additional writing supports or strategies to further enhance the writing process. PAWS combines effective strategies with multimedia technology to assist struggling students as well as their typically developing peers; using curriculum-based measurement ensures that both teacher and student are aware of areas of challenge and progress. Using the PAWS process teachers can empower their students, fostering independent writers who seek to improve the quality and quantity of their writing.

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About the Authors

Caryl Hitchcock, Assistant Professor, Center on Disability Studies; and Kavita Rao, Assistant Professor, Department of Special EducationCollege of EducationUniversity of Hawaii at Manoa.

The PAWS program is based on materials developed under a grant from the US Department of Education (H327A110005) C. H. Hitchcock PI. Funding agencies’ endorsement of the ideas expressed in this article should not be inferred. The authors thank Professor Peter W. Dowrick, Dr. Chuan Chang, Dr. JoAnn Yuen, Ms. Cheryl Corbiell, Ms. Yoko Kitami, and the teachers and students of Aka'ula School for their support.

Address correspondence concerning this article to Caryl Hitchcock, Center on Disability Studies, University of Hawaii at Manoa, 1410 Lower Campus Road 171F, Honolulu, HI 96822-2313 (e-mail: chh@hawaii.edu).

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Supplemental resources

UDL Checklist (Table 1)

POWER 8 Rubric (Table 2)

Quick Start Guide (Figure 1)

Kalani's POWER 8 Rubric (Figure 2)

POWER 8 CBM Assessment

POWER 8 Picture Set Sample

POWER 8 Planner

POWER 8 Graphing Tool

Teacher Guide

Student Guide

Student Work Sample - One

Student Work Sample - Two