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JOURNAL OF APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS 2014, 47, 204208 NUMBER 1 (SPRING)

IMPROVING COVER-LETTER WRITING SKILLS OF INDIVIDUALS


WITH INTELLECTUAL DISABILITIES
ROBERT PENNINGTON AND MONICA DELANO
UNIVERSITY OF LOUISVILLE

AND

RENEE SCOTT
JEFFERSON COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS

We evaluated a multicomponent intervention for improving the cover-letter writing skills of


individuals with intellectual disabilities. An intervention that included modeling, self-monitoring,
prompting, and feedback increased correct performance for all participants. In addition, the skill was
demonstrated across audiences.
Key words: autism, employment, intellectual disabilities, prompting, writing instruction

Individuals with intellectual disabilities (ID) & Sherman, 1980; Kelly, Wildman, & Berler,
have fewer opportunities to access and maintain 1980).
competitive employment. Data indicate that only One employment-related behavior that has
21% of persons with ID are employed following received less attention for individuals with ID is
high school, and 71% of those are employed in writing a cover letter. Although researchers have
noncompetitive segregated vocational programs evaluated interventions for teaching basic writing
(Wehman, 2011). Researchers have suggested that skills to these individuals, including spelling
an instructional focus on transition skills before (Stromer, Mackay, Howell, McVay, & Flusser,
graduation may result in increased opportunities 1996; Stromer, Mackay, McVay, & Fowler, 1998),
for competitive employment (Shogren & Plotner, sentence writing (Yamamoto & Miya, 1999), and
2012; Test et al., 2009). Employment-seeking adjective use (Rousseau, Krantz, Poulson, Kitson,
skills (e.g., interview, application development) & McClannahan, 1994), few researchers have
may be important to address because they can lead focused on more complex written responses.
to additional opportunities for employment- Collins, Branson, Hall, and Rankin (2001)
related behavior. Researchers have previously evaluated a prompting procedure for teaching
evaluated the effects of intervention on various high school participants with ID to write letters to
employment-seeking behaviors including choice their peers. Although increases in letter writing
making (Reid, Green, & Parsons, 2003), applica- performance were observed, the effects were
tion completion (Clark, Boyd, & Macrae, 1975), inconsistent.
and interviewing skills (Hall, Sheldon-Wildgen, Because cover letters may serve as the first
contact between an employer and potential
employees, improvement of this skill may
facilitate additional employment opportunities
Address correspondence to Robert Pennington, Depart- for individuals with ID. In the current study, we
ment of Special Education, University of Louisville, Louisville,
Kentucky 40292 (e-mail: robert.pennington@louisville.edu). assessed the effects of modeling, self-monitoring,
doi: 10.1002/jaba.96 prompting, and feedback on cover-letter writing

204
WRITING SKILLS 205

skills of individuals with mild and moderate thank you and a relevant addressee behavior (e.
ID. g., for your time, for considering me). The
final two components were scored as an occur-
rence if they included the word sincerely
METHOD
followed by the participants first and last
Participants and Settings name. Data were reported and graphed as
Three men with intellectual disabilities who number of unprompted components included
attended a transition program, were actively during daily probes that occurred before in-
seeking employment, and could benefit from struction. Two observers collected data from
improvement in their writing skills participated. participants cover-letter samples. Interobserver
Davis was 19 years old, had been diagnosed with agreement for the occurrence of letter compo-
Down syndrome, and had a reported full-scale IQ nents was assessed across all conditions, using the
score of 63. Tom was 20 years old, had been point-by-point method. The number of agree-
diagnosed with ASD, and had a reported IQ score ments was then divided by the number of
of 52. Colin was 20 years old, had been diagnosed agreements and disagreements and the result was
with Down syndrome, and had an IQ score of 42. converted to a percentage. Agreement was 100%.
All participants previously demonstrated skills in A second observer collected treatment integrity
copying to text, basic transcription, and writing data on the teachers implementation of the
multiple simple sentences about a single topic. instructional package for 33% of baseline and
Sessions were conducted at a small table in a 56% of intervention sessions. During baseline
classroom. and daily probe sessions, data were collected on
six teacher responses: (a) gaining participants
Response Measurement attention, (b) delivering a vocal directive, (c)
Data were collected on the occurrence of six telling the participant that he may ask for
handwritten cover-letter components. Handwrit- assistance in spelling, (d) telling the participant
ing was selected in lieu of typing because the to report when he was finished, (e) terminating
participants had previously produced legible the trial correctly, and (f ) delivering praise.
handwriting and because a computer was not During intervention sessions, data were collected
readily available in their classroom. Cover-letter on 26 responses. For each letter component, the
components included (a) salutation, (b) state- teacher was scored on whether she (a) reviewed
ment of the job of interest, (c) statement of the the component, (b) followed the least-to-most
applicants job-related skill, (d) statement of prompting sequence, (c) prompted the use of the
gratitude for considering the application, (e) a checklist, and (d) delivered praise for prompted
cover letter closing, and (f ) a signature. An and unprompted correct responses. In addition,
occurrence of the first component was scored if the observer scored teacher prompts to read the
the letter contained a formal term of address (e.g., corrected letter and to graph daily performance.
Mr., Dear) and the name or position of the Treatment integrity in baseline and intervention
addressee. The second component was scored if it sessions was 100% and 99%, respectively.
contained an expression of interest (e.g., I want
to, I am interested in) and the name of the Design and Procedure
position. The third component required a A concurrent multiple probe design across
description of a skill or characteristic directly participants was used to evaluate the effects of a
related to the job for which the participant was writing intervention package on the participants
applying (e.g., I have worked at, I am good use of letter components. In addition, probes
at). The fourth component required the words were conducted before and after training to assess
206 ROBERT PENNINGTON et al.

stimulus generalization to an untrained potential reviewed each letter component by stating its
employer. name and definition and pointing to its location
Daily probes. During baseline and interven- in the model. Next, the teacher asked the
tion conditions, individuals wrote letters to the participant whether he had included the compo-
same potential employer. We conducted daily nent in his cover letter. Contingent on an
probes during baseline and before instruction incorrect answer, the teacher vocally prompted
during intervention sessions, with the exception the correct response. If the participant included
of the first day of intervention. At the beginning the component, the teacher provided descriptive
of each session, the teacher (a) presented a three- praise (e.g., Good job, that is a salutation) and
ring spiral notebook, (b) explained the purpose directed the participant to mark a box adjacent to
and general content of a cover letter, (c) the name of the component on the checklist. If
reminded the participant of the job for which the participant did not include the component,
he was applying, (d) told the participant that he the teacher initiated a three-step prompting
could ask the teacher for help spelling a word, procedure. First, she asked the participant to
and (e) told the participant to indicate when he add the missing component. If he did not
was finished by saying, I am finished. Next, the respond within 15 s, the teacher provided a bank
teacher instructed the participant to begin. If the of three written responses presented vertically on
participant did not write a word within 2 min or the page of a notebook from which the
stopped writing for more than 60 s during the participant could select one to use as a model.
trial, the teacher asked, Are you finished or do Finally, if 15 s elapsed with no response, the
you want to keep writing? If the participant said teacher pointed to one of the responses and
that he wanted to keep writing, the teacher directed the participant to copy it. All of the
provided another 60-s response interval. If 3 min participants had a history of compliance with
from the onset of the trial or 2 min during the copying tasks. These steps were completed for all
trial elapsed without writing, the teacher six cover-letter components. The teacher deliv-
discontinued the trial. At the completion of ered praise for independent and prompted correct
the trial, the teacher provided praise for on task responses. Following revisions, the teacher deliv-
behavior. ered praise for writing the letter, asked the
Intervention sessions. During these sessions, a participant to read the letter aloud, and prompted
participants previously written cover letter was him to graph the number of cover-letter parts
used for training purposes. For the first interven- used during his daily probe by using a pencil to
tion session, the teacher presented each partic- shade the corresponding number of boxes on a
ipants letter from the last baseline session. teacher-made bar graph template. (All partic-
During subsequent sessions, the teacher pre- ipants had prior experience with graphs.)
sented each participants letter from the preceding
probe session. Generalization and Maintenance
Intervention sessions involved four teaching Before and immediately after instruction, we
components: (a) the presentation of a model, (b) conducted generalization probes using procedures
self-monitoring, (c) response prompts during identical to those used during daily probes, with
editing, and (d) graphing. During each session, the exception that we asked the participant to
the teacher presented the participants previously produce a cover letter for a different job that
completed cover letter, a model cover letter (see required different qualifications than the one used
Supporting Information for an example), and during training. We also assessed maintenance by
checklist (see Supporting Information for an conducting daily probes at approximately 2 and
example) of each component. The teacher 4 weeks after instruction. Participants were not
WRITING SKILLS 207

required to graph performance during these In addition, all participants used five or more
probes. components in cover letters to an untrained
employer. Interestingly, although it was not selec-
ted as a dependent variable, Colin also showed
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
improvement in his use of writing conventions.
Figure 1 shows baseline, training, and general- Prior to intervention, Colin used only end punc-
ization probe data. (Example cover letters from tuation after the last word in an entire written
baseline and training conditions are available as piece. After intervention, he placed a period after
Supporting Information.) Prior to intervention, each sentence in his cover letter.
all three participants included few target compo- These findings add to the limited research on
nents in their cover letters. During intervention, teaching writing skills to participants with ID.
all three participants included all six components The current instructional package resulted in
in their cover letters and used five or more more consistent and sustained performance than
components at 2 and 4 weeks after intervention. in previous investigations that involved the use of
prompting to teach writing skills (Collins et al.,
2001). In addition, these results provide further
support for the use of writing instruction in the
context of valuable transition skills that may
increase participants access to employment and
thus provide potentially greater freedom to access
reinforcement.
There are a number of limitations that deserve
comment. First, we required handwritten letters
for convenience. However, it would have been
more appropriate to require typed letters, which is
commonplace for employment cover letters.
Second, our criterion for correct letter writing
permitted incorrect spelling, incorrect punctua-
tion, and limited legibility. Therefore, future
research could improve on this line of work by
targeting more socially valid response products
and systematically assessing their socially accept-
ability for procuring employment. Third, our
intervention included multiple components (i.e.,
modeling, self-monitoring, prompting, feedback).
Therefore, it is not clear which components were
responsible for improvements in performance.
Future investigations should involve component
analyses of the procedures in the current
instructional package. Fourth, writing a cover
letter is only a small part of the task analysis
required to obtain employment, and thus it may
Figure 1. Number of cover-letter components used by have less utility than a training package that
participants during baseline, intervention, maintenance, and addresses multiple skills that are required for ob-
generalization probes. taining employment. Therefore, future research
208 ROBERT PENNINGTON et al.

could add to this analysis by teaching a to individuals with developmental and hearing dis-
comprehensive set of these skills. abilities: Transfer of stimulus control to writing tasks.
Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 29, 2542. doi:
10.1901/jaba.1996.29-25
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