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Why some kids have trouble writing their ideas

By Andrew M.I. Lee, JD

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Some kids have a hard time putting their thoughts “on paper.” They struggle to come up with ideas, organize thoughts, or figure out how to start or finish a piece of writing. Teachers often call these written expression skills

When kids have trouble with written expression, it doesn’t mean they’re not smart, or that they’re not interested in writing. Many kids who struggle are trying as hard as they can. They may just need more practice and better support.

When young kids have trouble with writing, it could be their age. Not all kids develop writing skills at the same pace. And the differences can be even greater for kids who are young for their grade.

Sometimes kids struggle because they haven’t been taught important writing skills in school. This includes harder skills like how to organize a research paper. Or the basics, like when to use a comma or period.

Some kids have learning and thinking differences that cause trouble with writing. One is called written expression disorder. It refers to difficulty organizing and expressing thoughts in writing. Or they may have trouble with mechanical writing skills like handwriting. Kids who struggle with focus can also have trouble writing.

Reading challenges like dyslexia can cause trouble with writing , too. That’s because reading and writing are language skills that work together. Learn about signs that kids struggle with reading

Dive deeper

Types of written expression skills

Expressing ideas in writing is one of the hardest things kids do in school. It’s a complex task that requires a bunch of skills. These include:

  • Using proper sentence structure

  • Writing in different genres (persuasive essays, narratives, etc.) and about different topics

  • Planning, editing, and revising writing

  • Reflecting on the process of writing

  • Understanding what’s read and using that information when writing

  • Understanding and using relevant vocabulary

If kids have trouble with any of these skills, the result can be poor writing. Learn more about these skills .

At the most basic level, kids need to have good handwriting and typing skills so what they write can be read. Learn about trouble with handwriting

Signs of written expression disorder

Writing trouble can show up in lots of ways. Kids who have a hard time with expressing ideas in writing may:

  • Make excuses, complain about, and avoid writing assignments

  • Be able to tell a story or share ideas out loud, but struggle to do so in writing 

  • Write or type very slowly, or sit for long periods of time without writing

  • Finish a writing task quickly without giving it much thought

Here are some things you might see in kids’ writing (including short-answer questions on tests) when they struggle to express their ideas: 

  • Words that are misused or that have the wrong meaning

  • Words that are repeated over and over

  • Poor spelling

  • Grammar errors, like missing verbs or incorrect noun-verb agreement

  • Words and sentences that don’t make sense

  • Essays or papers that lack organization

  • Written work that seems incomplete or half-done

  • Important facts or details glossed over or missing

  • Messy handwriting or typing with lots of mistakes

Learn more about written expression disorder .

An important factor to take into account is age. For example, a second grader might use the same adjective over and over, and that’s OK. But if it’s still happening in late grade school, then it can be a concern. Explore writing skills kids are expected to have at different ages .

Next steps

No matter what’s causing the trouble with written expression, there are ways to help. Families and educators can work together to understand what’s happening. An important step is to take notes on what you’re seeing and look for patterns. Then share your notes and talk about strategies to try.

Parents and caregivers: Try these conversation starters to help you talk with your child’s teacher about writing challenges.

Educators: Learn about strategies to teach kids self-regulation in writing .

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