Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Misunderstood Minds
Stories from the Documentary:
Nathan V. Lauren Sarah Lee Adam Nathan S.
Introduction

Attention
Reading
Writing
Mathematics

Resources

about the project
order videos
your comments
credits
site map
 Writing  WRITINGBasics | Difficulties | Responses

Basics of Writing

From the early formation of letters to crafting an essay, writing involves perhaps more subskills than any other academic task. To write well requires combining multiple physical and mental processes in one concerted effort to convey information and ideas. We must, for instance, be able to move a pen, or depress a key, precisely and fluidly to render letters, remember rules of grammar and syntax, place our thoughts in an order that makes sense, and think ahead to what we want to write next.

Try ItTry it yourself. Experience a graphomotor difficulty.


This combination of tasks makes writing the highest form and most complex use of language. And as children progress through school, they are asked to do more with this skill than with any other except reading. Writing requirements increase across the curriculum -- from homework assignments and classwork to journals, note taking, quizzes, tests, and papers. Even standardized tests are moving toward fewer multiple-choice questions and more answers in the form of short paragraphs and essays.

Try ItTry it yourself. Experience an essay assignment.

Most of us write with relative ease when we jot notes to friends and loved ones. The more complex or important a writing task is, however, the more likely it is that the ease and fluidity we experience with simpler writing tasks will disappear. Writing an important letter or a company report, we may question our word choice and tone, and anxiously check and recheck to make sure what we've written makes sense.

It is probably no accident that many adults choose jobs that limit the amount of writing they have to do. Children, on the other hand, have no such luxury. They write nearly every day they are in school, from first grade on. And the accuracy, speed, and sophistication with which they write deeply impacts what they ultimately achieve scholastically. Because writing is so integral to a child's success or failure in school, identifying writing problems early is essential.

The Developing Writer

Learning to write, like learning to read or to play a musical instrument, is generally a sequential process. Children progress as writers from one phase to the next, with one set of skills building on the skills acquired earlier. Writing, however, combines many skills, and relies on development in many areas not specific to writing. A child's fine motor control and vocabulary, for example, must improve in order for her writing to progress normally. Teachers follow the development of their students relative to established developmental milestones for each age and grade.

Stages of Writing

In his book Developmental Variation and Learning Disorders, Dr. Mel Levine identifies six stages of writing development. Below is a list of those stages and some skills that characterize them.

Imitation (preschool to first grade)

In this phase children:
  • pretend to write
  • become aware that letters can be arranged to form words
  • begin to organize letters and shapes in a line
  • begin to print letters and numbers
  • have relatively crude motor skills

Graphic Presentation (first and second grades)

In this phase children:
  • become adept at printing letters
  • are preoccupied with the visual appearance of their writing
  • become self-conscious if their penmanship is less attractive than their classmates'
  • become better at sequential ordering of letters and numbers
  • use invented spellings of words liberally
Try ItTry it yourself. Experience a graphomotor difficulty.


Progressive Incorporation (late second to fourth grade)

In this phase children:
  • gradually incorporate standards of capitalization, punctuation, syntax, and grammar
  • seldom plan what they are going to write before they write it
  • use writing to relate experiences rather than to solve problems or develop ideas
  • begin writing in cursive
  • begin revising their work

Automatization (fourth to seventh grade)

In this phase children:
  • must apply rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation automatically
  • begin to regularly review their own work
  • begin to write at a level equivalent to their own speech
  • learn to write in stages by incorporating outlines and multiple drafts
  • begin to assess the effectiveness of their own writing

Elaboration (seventh to ninth grade)

In this phase children:
  • become increasingly adept at using writing to express a viewpoint
  • begin to use writing for thinking, problem solving, and remembering
  • learn to synthesize ideas from a variety of sources
  • begin to write at a level that exceeds their own speech
  • use transitions like "finally" and "for example" extensively
Try ItTry it yourself. Experience an essay assignment.

Personalization-Diversification (ninth grade and beyond)

In this phase children:
  • learn to use writing styles appropriate to their subjects
  • become more creative with their writing
  • learn to use sentences of varying length and complexity
  • write with increasingly sophisticated vocabulary
  • develop individual writing styles

Neurodevelopmental Functions

Writing skills develop hand in hand with neurodevelopmental functions. Five key functions -- graphomotor, attention, language, memory, and higher-order cognition -- are outlined below.

Graphomotor

Graphomotor function refers to the ability to use muscles in the fingers and hands to form letters easily and legibly and to maintain a comfortable grip on a writing instrument. This function plays an important role in maneuvering a pen or pencil and allowing the fingers to keep pace with the flow of ideas.

Attention

Attention plays an important role in all stages of writing. This task often demands considerable mental energy and focus over long periods of time. Writers must not only preview what they want to convey as they put their ideas on paper, but also continually self-monitor to stay on track.

Language

Language is an essential ingredient of writing. The ability to recognize letter sounds, comprehend words and their meanings, understand word order and grammar to construct sentences, and describe or explain ideas all contribute to a child's ability to write clearly.

Memory

Memory ability has a significant impact on writing. The rate at which children generate ideas must coincide with their retrieval of necessary vocabulary, spelling, and prior knowledge. When organizing essays, writers must be able to think about a topic, draw upon facts and concepts, and sequence ideas and facts in the right order.

Higher-Order Cognition

In the upper grades, writing relies on higher-order cognitive functions. Assignments often require students to generate original and creative ideas while integrating spelling, grammar, and punctuation rules. By early adolescence, many written assignments demand critical thinking skills and conceptual ability such as evaluating opposing arguments and drawing conclusions.

WRITINGBasics | Difficulties | Responses


Computer UP CLOSE:
Assistive Technology


How technology can help accommodate kids' differences

Learning disabilities, by definition, limit a person's potential to learn. In school, these problems can stand like roadblocks in the way of a child's ability to understand information and ideas, and to master skills that otherwise would be well within his or her grasp. A child who cannot copy a homework assignment quickly enough may leave class with only partial instructions and a great deal of frustration and anxiety. Another child may struggle endlessly to put just a few thoughts on paper, no matter how clearly he has conceived those and many other great ideas in his mind.

While children with writing disabilities may always struggle with these barriers, they can find ways around them. Computers are providing some of these avenues. Word processing technology has had probably the greatest influence on kids with learning disabilities, especially those who struggle with writing. Word processors allow kids who physically struggle to print words on paper to type their work and to make frequent changes or major revisions with far less effort. They also allow kids who normally have problems with legibility or spelling to produce neat, spell-checked copies of their work.

Many kids, however, struggle in ways that cannot be helped by word processors alone. A child whose spelling is so poor as to be unrecognizable will benefit little from a standard spell-check tool. Another child might find it nearly impossible to understand words she reads, while she grasps most everything she hears. Fortunately, there are computer tools that can help in some cases like these.

word prediction software - helps kids who struggle with spelling by providing a list of words to choose from based on the first few letters they type

voice recognition systems - translate speech into written text, allowing a child to say what she wants to write

speech synthesis software - translates written text into speech, allowing a child to listen to textual information instead of reading it

planning and organizing software - provides a clear structure in which to organize thoughts and ideas prior to writing

(Find more information on assistive technologies in Resources.)

While these technologies can provide learning-disabled students with a more efficient way of communicating their ideas, they all have limitations. The most obvious of these shortcomings is that the technologies alone seem to have little or no positive effect on children's long-term skill level. This means, for instance, that using word-prediction software alone will not help a student become a better speller when he's not using the program. But accommodations like this in conjunction with other strategies can improve skills.
produced by
WGBH

© 2002 WGBH
Educational Foundation
All rights reserved