Trouble Expressing Ideas in Writing: What You Need to Know

By Andrew M.I. Lee, JD
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At a Glance

  • Kids who have trouble expressing ideas in writing may be frustrated by or avoid writing assignments.

  • Even kids who tell great stories out loud may have a hard time getting ideas “on paper.”

  • Struggling with writing doesn’t mean a child isn’t smart.

When it’s time for your child to do a writing assignment, how does it go?

Does the work get done without much fuss? Or does your child procrastinate, complain, or refuse to do it altogether? If it’s the latter, you might be wondering what this behavior is all about.

Expressing ideas in writing is one of the hardest things kids do in school. Some kids are naturally good at it and like writing. Others aren’t, and they may drag their feet.

There are also kids who just can’t seem to do it well, even if they want to. They might struggle to come up with ideas, organize thoughts, or figure out where to start a piece of writing or how to finish it.

You might hear teachers refer to these skills as written expression. Learn more about trouble with written expression, and how you can help.

Writing Difficulties You May Be Seeing

Writing trouble can show up in lots of ways. Kids who are having a hard time with it may:

  • Make excuses and avoid writing assignments

  • Complain about not being able to think of what to write, or not knowing where to start

  • Write or type very slowly

  • Sit for long periods of time at a desk without writing

  • Finish a writing task quickly without giving it much thought

Sometimes, kids may seem to know a lot more than what they manage to get on paper. For instance, your child might tell entertaining stories out loud—but struggle to tell the same story in writing.

Writing well isn’t easy. It’s a complex task, and kids have to master several skills. They need to be able to:

  • Use proper sentence structure

  • Write in different genres and about different topics

  • Plan, edit, and revise their writing

  • Reflect on the process of writing

  • Understand what they read to use the information in their writing

  • Understand and use vocabulary that’s relevant

And, at the most basic level, kids need to have good handwriting and typing skills so what they write can be read.

If your child has difficulty with any of these skills, the result can be poor writing. Here are some of the things you might see in your child’s writing, including short-answer questions on tests:

  • Words that are misused or that have the wrong meaning

  • Words that are repeated over and over

  • Messy handwriting or typing with lots of mistakes

  • Bad spelling and 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

There’s one very important factor to take into account when you see some of these difficulties: your child’s 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.

One of the best ways to understand how kids are doing is to compare their writing to what’s expected at their grade level. Learn about writing skills kids are expected to have at different ages.

What Can Cause Trouble With Written Expression

When kids have trouble with writing, it doesn’t mean that they’re not smart or that they’re lazy. It also doesn’t mean they’re not interested in writing. A lot of kids who struggle are trying as hard as they can. They just need more and better support to improve.

When young kids are “behind” in their writing skills, look at how old they are. Not all kids develop writing skills at the same rate. Some may take longer than others, 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. Many kids learn best when teachers fully explain and show them how to write. This includes more difficult skills, like how to organize a research paper. But it also means showing kids the basics, like when to use a comma or a period.

Some kids have specific challenges that can cause trouble with writing. For example, you may have heard of written expression disorder. This term refers to a difficulty with organizing and expressing thoughts in writing.

Another common learning challenge is dyslexia, which involves reading. You might be surprised that trouble with reading can cause difficulties with writing. But reading and writing are language skills that work together.

There are other challenges that can impact writing, too. Some cause difficulty with mechanical writing skills, like handwriting, typing, and spelling. Others affect focus and attention.

No matter what’s behind your child’s trouble with writing, there are things you and the school can do to help.

What Can Help With Written Expression

No matter what’s causing your child’s writing difficulties, there are ways to help. An important step is to take notes on what you’re seeing. If there’s a pattern that goes on for a while, talk to your child’s teacher or pediatrician. They can be great sources of information and advice.

Even if you’re not sure what’s going on, you can still work on building skills at home.

There are many ways to help your child with writing. That includes lots of practice with help and encouragement.

You can also find help for your child at school. Talk to the teacher about strategies that help in the classroom, and how you can use them at home. Ask about technology that could help, too, like speech-to-text.

Struggling with writing can make kids feel like they’re not smart. This can take a toll on their self-esteem. And it can be especially frustrating for kids who want to write but have trouble with it.

Celebrate progress as your child works on writing skills. Remind your child that everyone has difficulty with something—and that all people have strengths, too. Discover your child’s strengths and do a fun activity to celebrate them.

If you’re concerned about written expression disorder or dyslexia, see next steps. One option is to have a free school evaluation, which can help you better understand your child’s challenges and strengths.

Key Takeaways

  • Expressing ideas in writing is one of the hardest things kids do in school.

  • Some kids need extra help and support to improve writing skills.

  • One way to help is to give your child lots of practice and opportunities to write.

About the Author

About the Author

Andrew M.I. Lee, JD 

is an editor and former attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education, and parenting issues.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Gary A. Troia, PhD 

is an expert in phonological processing, writing instruction, and professional development in literacy.

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