Writing is one of the most difficult and complex tasks for kids to learn. For kids with certain learning and thinking differences, it can be even more of a challenge.
Written expression requires many skills. Knowing what these are can help you understand why your child may be struggling. Writing skills operate at three levels: word, sentence, and paragraph/whole text. By pinpointing trouble spots, you can get your child the right help to improve writing.
Here are six essential skills needed for written expression, and what might help struggling writers.
Skill #1: Reading Comprehension
One of the most basic skills for writing is reading comprehension—the ability to read and understand text. In order to write, kids first need to be able to sound out unfamiliar words and instantly recognize many other words. Then they need to understand the meaning of strings of words, in sentences and in paragraphs.
Having a good vocabulary will help with understanding. But new vocabulary words are mostly learned through reading.
Without these skills, it’s difficult for kids to even start writing. They will likely struggle with spelling and with creating text that’s meaningful. And they’ll have trouble revising and editing their work. Those tasks require re-reading closely to catch and fix mistakes or weak spots.
What might help: Assistive technology can help kids work around reading challenges. For instance, if they struggle with decoding words, text-to-speech can read aloud the words they’ve written. Some text-to-speech tools read aloud words as they type them, which can be very helpful when editing.
Skill #2: Transcription
Transcription is the physical act of producing words. This skill covers handwriting, keyboarding and spelling.
Kids can struggle with transcription in many ways. Some have messy or illegible handwriting, even after being taught. Others write very slowly by hand. Still others may be able to write legibly or type quickly and accurately enough, but they may not be able to spell many words without help.
Using a keyboard can often help speed up transcription. But for some kids, the very act of typing is a struggle and gets in the way of writing.
What might help: Multisensory instruction can sometimes improve handwriting. (Explore multisensory techniques you can try at home to improve handwriting.) So can tools like pencil grips. Assistive technology like a keyboard may help kids work around handwriting issues. And for kids who struggle to type or spell, technologies like dictation (speech-to-text) and word prediction can make transcription easier. Spell-check is also a common tool for kids with learning differences.
Skill #3: Sentence Construction
To write, kids have to know how to construct sentences that make sense. But some kids with learning and thinking differences have a hard time understanding and using correct sentence structure.
They may not understand the placement of verbs or how verb tenses work. They may also use sentences that are too simple or incomplete. Or they may string a lot of ideas together into long run-on sentences.
Using correct punctuation can be a challenge. That includes the use of commas, apostrophes or punctuation marks that end sentences. Knowing when to use capital letters can also be difficult.
What might help: One way to help kids who struggle with this skill is by giving them very basic, practical knowledge. This includes things like the difference between a statement and a question, and the difference between a subject and a verb.
Kids will need a lot of practice using this knowledge to write sentences. They might work on splitting and combining sentences, for instance, and using sentence connectors like and or but.
Skill #4: Genre and Content Knowledge
Genre knowledge means knowing how different types of writing need to be structured and what to include to help a reader understand the message. For example, if the assignment is to write a story, kids need to know what goes into the genre of narrative writing. It must include setting (who, where, when) and plot (what and why.)
Another example of a genre is a persuasive essay. When kids write a persuasive essay, they have to know what goes into that genre. The essay should include a position statement, reasons, facts to support reasons, and a conclusion that summarizes main reasons.
Content knowledge means knowing something about the subject of her writing. If kids are asked to write a letter to a politician about pollution, they need to understand what pollution is. They’ll also need to know how it affects people, animals and the environment. And they may need to know what causes pollution.
What might help: Many kids pick up genre knowledge simply by being exposed to it in school through reading. Other kids may need more explicit instruction. They need to be taught about the differences between biography and memoir, for instance, or fiction versus nonfiction.
One way to do that is to find good examples of each genre. Then, compare and contrast them with non-examples or weak examples. Another way is to come up with a list of common elements that all the good examples share.
Some kids with learning and thinking differences may have holes in their general knowledge. This can hurt their writing. One good strategy is to help kids build background knowledge of the world.
Kids can gain background knowledge through reading, or through field trips and family outings. Talk about what kids are learning before, during and after the outing. Experiences like a summer camp, where a child is exposed to many types of people and activities, can also provide background knowledge.
Skill #5: Planning, Revising and Editing
There’s a process to writing. Kids need to know how to plan, revise and edit their work in order to express themselves well in writing. Researchers have found that good writers plan what to write in their heads or through brief notes before they write a first draft. That requires strong executive skills, like working memory and attention.
To write, kids have to juggle many ideas. Then they need to decide how to organize those ideas into paragraphs and an overall structure. This requires them to pull the right knowledge from their memory, like genre and content knowledge.
Kids also need to go back through what they’ve written to fix errors and make improvements so the message is clear. That requires understanding why and how to make changes to the text to make it better.
What might help: Kids can learn specific strategies about the writing process. For instance, the “hamburger” strategy helps kids plan a paragraph. A paragraph needs a topic sentence (top bun), main idea (patty), supporting details (condiments), and a conclusion (bottom bun).
A “spider map” encourages kids to think of a topic with supporting details. A “T table” helps them brainstorm reasons for and against a certain issue. And a timeline can help kids map out a sequence of events for a story.
You can find many of these strategies in graphic organizers. These tools help kids visualize how to plan their papers. They also help kids generate content in an organized way. (Download free graphic organizers to help with writing.)
Checklists can help kids focus on certain things to look for when they’re revising and editing. These include:
Content (the quality and accuracy of ideas)
Organization (how information is structured to create a good flow from beginning to end)
Language (the variety and precision of vocabulary and sentences)
Appearance (spelling, capitalization, punctuation)
Skill #6: Self-Regulation
The ability to self-regulate plays a big role in writing. When kids set goals about how many words the term paper must be, then check the word count as they write, that’s self-regulation. If they get to the end of a sentence, realize it makes no sense and decide to rewrite it, that’s self-regulation.
Frustration can lead kids to give up on writing. But when they remind themselves that they’re making progress and can do it, that’s also self-regulation. Experienced writers do this naturally.
How kids view themselves as writers can have an impact on their ability to self-regulate. Do they value writing? Do they feel competent about writing? How motivated are they to write?
Self-regulation is hard for some kids with learning and thinking differences. That’s especially true of kids with ADHD or executive functioning issues. Weak self-regulation skills can affect many of the other writing skills.
What might help: Kids can be taught strategies for self-regulated writing. For instance, you can teach kids to check each sentence of a paragraph once they’ve finished the paragraph. It also helps to encourage kids to take breaks after writing a certain number of words.
Kids can also be taught to use positive self-talk to help with motivation. For example, while writing they could say to themselves, “It’s OK that this is hard because I know my effort will pay off.” The key to all these strategies is repetition and practice.