2015 Youth Achievement Award

Tackling Writing Problems

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By Miriam Cherkes-Julkowski, Ph.D

Writing can be particularly challenging for children with learning disabilities. Those who have difficulties with reading and language, spelling, memory, attention, organization, sequencing, and fine motor coordination often struggle with both handwriting and written expression. As kids move up in school, the situation is further complicated by the need to acquire, prioritize, and organize information in a meaningful way. Helping children master these important skills requires understanding their specific problems and addressing them with strategies that have proved to be successful.

Early Skills

Children in elementary school are encouraged to write the way they speak. The focus is on writing legibly and invented spelling is acceptable, as long as the word is recognizable. But these tasks can be challenging for children with LD who often need explicit instruction in letter formation, which is rarely taught in today’s classroom.

For students struggling to form letters and words correctly on the page, first make sure they are using pens or pencils that are comfortable for them. Consult with an occupational or physical therapist who can teach your child how to grip the pencil properly and sit with good posture, both of which can make the act of writing easier.

Letter and word-spacing problems can be caused by fine-motor or space-perception difficulties. Many young children benefit from writing and pasting individual words onto a page.

Children with reading disabilities (dyslexia) also tend to have problems with spelling. The child who has difficulties in phonological processing (discriminating among the sound components of language) is likely to have problems with both reading and spelling.

Multisensory structured language (MSL) programs help children learn the sounds of letters and how they are blended into syllables and words through instruction in listening, speaking, and writing. An MSL program addressing reading and writing together needs to be taught by a trained professional. Children who struggle with reading and writing also benefit from explicit instruction in spelling, since not knowing how to spell is a major roadblock to writing.

Finally, children who have persistent difficulties with telling stories (oral narrative) should be prompted with questions to extend their thinking (“Why?” “What happened next?”). Persistent difficulty with an oral narrative suggests the need for a speech-language evaluation.

Process Writing

By the time kids get to middle school they may have good ideas, but getting them down on paper can be challenging. It requires not only remembering and putting their ideas in order, but also managing handwriting, spelling, punctuation, vocabulary, and grammar. To make writing easier, the tasks can be handled one at a time.

The first challenge is coming up with ideas or thoughts and getting them down on paper, with no regard for spelling, punctuation, or organization. Children who have difficulty forming letters find the task easier if they use a computer or dictate their thoughts to someone acting as a scribe. Those who have trouble thinking and writing at the same time can brainstorm ideas on a tape recorder before beginning to write on paper.

The next step is to organize the ideas, grouping the ones that belong together, and omitting any that don’t fit. Going back over the material to fill in any missing points should follow.

Finally, the material must be edited for clarity, adding introductory and transitional phrases where needed. The last step is to check spelling and punctuation, which computer software can do. Computers, however, aren’t perfect, so a final read is still required to ensure that the paper reflects the writer’s intent. The process may be easier if done over the course of several days.

Putting It All Together

As children go through school the writing demands become greater. By the time they’re in high school they’re expected to read and comprehend varied and difficult texts and to integrate a great deal of information into long, complex papers.

Students write best when they’re engaged in the topic. Topic selection may have to be negotiated with the classroom teacher.

Virtually all aspects of writing including the development of ideas and organization as well as spelling have been facilitated greatly by Assistive Technology. But it’s still wise to work closely with the teacher throughout these phases to get feedback as the paper is being developed.

While students should be encouraged to develop their writing skills, some with learning difficulties find that oral or graphic presentations are a viable alternative to a lengthy written report.

As Dr. Mel Levine observes in Keeping a Head in School, despite the difficulty involved, writing can be a great way for students with learning problems to explore their personal ideas. “If you have good ideas, “ he notes, “writing is worth the struggle.”

IEP Modifications

Depending on your child’s needs, the following modifications may be helpful:

1.     Shorter writing assignments

2.     Acceptance of imperfect spelling or punctuation that can be corrected later

3.     Use of word processing

4.     Extra time for class writing or homework assignments

5.     No classmate review of papers to avoid embarrassment

6.     Access to a computer for tests

7.     Alternative presentation formats (oral or graphic)