Writing Difficulties in Children

Dysgraphia is a common term used to describe individuals with writing disabilities.  This term means “difficulty with making letter forms” and the reasons for these difficulties are varied.  Students with writing challenges may struggle from visual processing difficulties, challenges with working memory, lagging executive functioning skills, or difficulties with the physical motor skills necessary for forming letters.

It is important to note that writing difficulties are common in children with ADHD and Executive Functioning challenges.

Understanding Writing Challenges

  • Misunderstood Minds has an activity that will give you the experience of having dysgraphia.  It is an important experience for any parent of a child with writing difficulties. Many parents and teachers share important insights into the best ways to help the child after experiencing these activities.
  • Understood.org has short, targeted articles related to writing difficulties, suggestions for interventions, and the many reasons students struggle with writing.
  • LDonline.org has a page dedicated to articles, resources and video presentations about writing difficulties and writing-related disabilities.

Writing Interventions and Supports

For the physical act of writing:

  • There’s an app for that! Technology can be a saving grace for children with dysgraphia.
    • ModMath is an app that helps students “show their work” without having to physically write.  It’s like having digital graph paper.  Work can then be easily emailed to a teacher as part of their homework.  This program is particularly useful because it does not give access to a calculator.
    • Dragon Speak Naturally, Siri (on iPhone), and other voice-to-text apps are very helpful for students who struggle with the physical act of writing.  Your child may have to work on the skill of “speaking” their essays, but this is a critical skill that can turn a challenge into an asset when they become a talented public speaker!
  • Structured Paper: For both math and essay writing, having highly structured paper can be helpful to students with difficulty forming letters and numbers.  Graph paper comes in many sizes depending on age and skill.  Writing paper is also available, or older students may wish to skip lines.
  • Find the Right Tool.  Many students will refuse to write because it is physically taxing.  Finding the right “grip” to put on a pencil or pen can take pressure off.  Also, a smooth-writing pen can make a difference in the amount of effort the student needs to put out.
  • Type…everything. Students who struggle with writing early on will benefit from learning to type early on.  In this day and age, it is not as necessary to develop handwriting skills as it once was.  Encourage your child to become proficient at using the computer.
  • Making Spelling Easier: Spelling is often difficult for these children because it involves doing something very difficult (writing) while also using working memory to sound out the word and connect the sounds with symbols (letters).  Here are a few ideas:
    • Make it tactile.  Use playdough to form letters for young children, or write the words with a finger in a container filled with rice or sand.  Making spelling a large motor (instead of a fine motor) activity and help with memory and ease anxiety around writing.
    • Turn words into shapes.  To help with memory, it can be useful to draw a box around the word to show the tall and short letters.  Many child may be able to remember the “shape” of the word which will help them recognize the correct spelling.
  • Note-taking: For students who struggle with writing, note-taking is especially difficult.  There are a few important strategies:
    • Ask for the teacher’s outline.  A common accommodation for students from 4th grade through college is to request a copy of the teacher’s notes as an initial outline.  During class, the student fills in the remaining details from the lecture.
    • Smart pens: Smart pens record lectures and align the recording with your notes.  That way, if you haven’t taken good notes, you can place your pen on the empty spot and hear what the teacher was saying at that time.
    • Type notes. A computer, iPad, or other device can be helpful since most people are able to type faster than they can write.  Taking notes on a computer is a different skill than writing, however, so the student will need time to learn this.
  • Use a Whiteboard. Whiteboards are a savior for many students with writing challenges.  Many schools have these, but getting one for home can make homework time easier.  Here are some reasons:
    • They are easy and smooth to write on.
    • The markers are fat and easy to grasp.
    • They erase easily when a mistake is made.
    • They are fun – especially for young children!
    • They allow you to alternate between writing and drawing, and give a large space to fully develop your ideas.
    • When your child is done, take a picture and send it to the teacher as “evidence” of their work.

For organizing thoughts and ideas:

  • Talk it Through.  Many students who struggle with writing have the ability to express themselves verbally.  Talking through the ideas before committing them to paper has a few benefits:
    • More ideas: When writing is difficult, it can actually impede the creation of ideas.  Talking takes away that block.
    • More confidence. Students who struggle with writing may simply feel awful whenever they sit down to write.  They aren’t good at the physical part of writing, so they assume they are bad at all of it.  Talking through ideas first can help them see that their ideas are solid and the act of writing is a separate task.
    • Organization: While your child talks, write down his or her big ideas.  When the talking is done, take a look at your notes together and make a plan for how to put together the essay.
  • Draw it Out.  Many students with dysgraphia are able to draw without complaint.  This may be because their primary issue is difficulty with the working memory required for writing, or because in free drawing their pencil does not need to do something specific or “right”.  Similar to above, drawing first helps with idea generation, confidence, and organization.
  • Use a Graphic Organizer.  Most students will be introduced to graphic organizers, mind maps, idea webs, and other ways to brainstorm and organize ideas in class.  These are incredibly important for students who struggle with writing. www.Whimsical.com provides mind-mapping tools for visual thinkers, and your school may have a similar software available for free!

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