Misunderstood Minds
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Nathan V. Lauren Sarah Lee Adam Nathan S.



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 Writing  WRITINGBasics | Difficulties | Responses


Where Do I Begin?
> Home and School Collaboration
> Parents and Teachers Communicating
> Talking with Children about their Strengths and Weaknesses

What Can I Do?
> Suggestions - simple things you can do to help
> Strategies - targeting strengths and weaknesses

Where Do I Begin?

Home and School Collaboration

Living with or teaching a child who has difficulty writing can be frustrating and confusing for everyone involved, often complicating the conversation between parents and teachers about what to do. Respect for each other and open communication can reduce tension and enable parents and teachers to benefit from each other's expertise and knowledge of the child from different perspectives. Working together, parents, teachers, and the children themselves can inform one another how to best address the child's needs.

Parents and Teachers Communicating about Writing

When you suspect a writing problem, schedule a parent-teacher meeting to share information about the child. The following "talking points" can help structure the discussion.

Share observations of the child's writing profile and discuss where the breakdown is occurring. What are the worries or concerns? Does the child have difficulty with a writing subskill, such as letter formation, mechanics, or generating ideas? Do difficulties in graphomotor ability, attention, memory, language, or higher-order cognition seem to affect the child's writing? Does the child have similar problems when writing at home and at school?

Identify and discuss the child's strengths and interests. How can they be used to enhance his or her writing skills and motivation to complete written assignments? Can a child's curiosity about World War II or in cycling be used in a research report? Can parents capitalize on a child's love of photography by encouraging her to write brief descriptions of photographs that she or others have taken?

Discuss possible strategies. What have you both tried that has been successful and not so successful? Are there other ideas that might work?

Acknowledge emotional reactions to the situation. Discuss how children who experience frustration or failure may become so fearful that they give up on writing because they feel they cannot produce anything acceptable. Some children may then turn their energy to acting out or withdrawing from writing tasks. Share strategies to help the child cope.

Discuss appropriate next steps. Establish a plan for ongoing discussion and problem solving. Should specialists be consulted? How can you best advocate for the child?

When a problem with writing has been specified:
  • Learn more about the process of writing from other experts, reference books, and Web sites. See Resources.
  • Seek assistance from colleagues and experienced parents, including professional organizations and support groups.
  • Request that the school's special education teacher or learning specialist observe the child and then consult with you on strategies to use both in the classroom and at home.
  • Investigate the availability of professional help from pediatricians and related service specialists such as occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists.

Talking with Children about Their Strengths and Weaknesses

Moments of frustration as well as pride are common for children with writing problems and for the adults who work with them. Some children may give up and see themselves as failures. Others may exhibit behavior complications that relate to their difficulties with writing.

Dr. Mel Levine suggests using a process called demystification, which, through open discussion with supportive adults, helps children learn to clarify and specify their differences and understand that, like everyone else, they have strengths and weaknesses. This process creates a shared sense of optimism that the child and adult are working toward a common goal, and that learning problems can be successfully managed. The following suggestions can help as parents, teachers, and learning specialists work together to demystify children's difficulties with writing.

Eliminate any stigma. Empathy can reduce children's discouragement and anxiety about their writing difficulties. Emphasize that no one is to blame, and that you know that they often need to work harder than others to write successfully. Explain that everyone has differences in the way they learn. Reassure children that you will help them find ways that work for them. Share an anecdote about how you handled a learning problem or an embarrassing mistake.

Discuss strengths and interests. Help children find their strengths. Use concrete examples, but avoid false praise. You might say to a child who seems to effortlessly learn a new software program, "You're a real computer whiz. Could you write a short guide telling me how to use the program?" Identify books, videos, Web sites, or places in the community that can help children build on their strengths and interests.

Discuss areas of weakness. Use plain language to explain what aspect of a writing skill is difficult for the child. Use concrete examples, such as, "You may have difficulty starting a writing assignment because you have many wonderful ideas and can't decide which ones to use."

Emphasize optimism. Help children realize that they can improve -- they can work on their weaknesses and make their strengths stronger. Point out future possibilities for success given their current strengths. Help children build a sense of control over their writing by encouraging them to be accountable for their own progress. A child who has difficulty generating ideas from scratch may learn to use a brainstorming strategy. Have the child monitor her progress in becoming a better brainstormer by keeping track of her many good ideas.

Identify an ally. Help children locate a mentor -- a favorite teacher, an adolescent, or a neighbor -- who will work with and support them. Explain to children that they can help themselves by sharing with others how they learn best. Older children can explain the strategies that work for them, while younger ones may need adult support. Encourage children to be active partners with their allies.

Protect from humiliation. Help children strengthen self-esteem and maintain pride by protecting them from public humiliation related to their differences in learning. Always avoid criticizing children in public and protect them from embarrassment in front of siblings and classmates. For example, if a child has graphomotor problems that affect handwriting, do not share drafts of his work with others.

What Can I do?

Suggestions and Strategies

You may use the following suggestions and strategies to help children who are experiencing problems with writing. Many of those listed are accommodations -- they work around a child's differences by offering alternate approaches at home and school. Postponing cursive writing instruction is one example of a suggestion that might work. Strategies -- more research-based methods -- are designed to specifically strengthen a weakness. From the suggestions and strategies described below, select those that you and the child think might work best.

General Suggestions

Create a safe environment for writing. Balance feedback between what is good about the writing and what needs improvement. Always highlight whatever is positive in a child's writing. Avoid comparing one child's writing with another's.

Make your expectations explicit. When presenting an assignment or giving directions, clarify your expectations. Tell children the process you want them to use to write a report, and model that process for them.

Evaluate content and mechanics separately. Help the child to see that she may have good ideas and still need to work on a particular writing subskill. Always correct any grammatical or other speech errors in private, and in a respectful way.

Encourage a variety of writing activities. Keeping a daily journal can be motivating and can provide needed practice. Consider other fun writing assignments such as writing to pen pals. Parents may ask their child to compose songs and/or record family trips.

Use free writing. Set a time each day and have children write about anything that interests them. Stress that no one else will read what they write, nor will the writing be evaluated.

Allow enough time for each assignment. Help children estimate how long a given task will take to complete. Consider giving them additional time to complete a written assignment or test rather than have something due at the end of the class period. For example, let children turn in the assignment at the beginning of the next day. Let children write less when a deadline cannot be extended.

Provide time for revision and proofreading. Emphasize that writing is a process. Encourage children to become comfortable revising drafts. Explain to children that it is easier to proofread what they have written several days after writing it rather than immediately.

Use cooperative writing projects. Provide opportunities for children to work in groups as they work on writing assignments. Designate a different role for each group member, such as brainstormer, researcher, proofreader, and illustrator.

Specific Strategies

Strategies for
> Graphomotor
> Attention
> Language
> Memory
> Higher-Order Cognition
> Production

Strategy Tips: Decide which strategies to try by observing the child and identifying the ways in which he or she learns best.
  • It may take several attempts to see positive results from one strategy. Don't give up too soon.
  • If the first few strategies you try do not improve the child's skills, try others.
  • Most of these strategies can be adapted for use with different age groups.


Help the child find the right writing instrument. Make sure the child feels a sense of control with the pen or pencil. Try aids such as pencil grips. Suggest using pencils -- they provide more friction on the paper than pens, do not smear easily, and can be erased.

Allow the child to print. If a child is having difficulty writing, consider postponing cursive writing or give him the choice of cursive or print.

Provide technology. Make tools available that facilitate writing, such as computers. Teach touch-typing. Allow children to record their ideas on audiotape and then transcribe them. Or, take dictation of a child's story and have the child review and revise the written product.

Check that the child has the optimum setup for writing. Is her chair and desk a good fit in terms of height, stability, and slant? (A child may find a slanted work surface, such as a desk easel, helpful for writing and drawing.) Is she more stable with the paper taped to the desk or held by a magnetic paper holder rather than having to hold it with her free arm? Is she more comfortable writing on the floor while lying on the carpet, or at waist level sitting upright at a desk, or at an upright surface like the chalkboard?

Provide a model. For children who press down too hard on their paper, have them draw a line exerting appropriate pressure while you observe. Whenever children are writing, have them compare the lines in their writing with the model line and adjust pencil pressure as necessary.

Have the child practice forming letters. Have children trace letters. Gradually reduce the complete letter shape to dots so that the child can practice making the letters by connecting the dots, then eventually move to making the letter alone.

Make note taking more manageable. Give children partially completed outlines and handouts to decrease the amount of information they need to copy or the amount of text on which they need to take notes.


Prepare work plans for written assignments. Show children how to create their own work plans before beginning an assignment. Allow them to make a sketch, a brief summary, or an outline to use as a blueprint.

Emphasize key information. Allow children to copy information from the chalkboard or overhead in separate stages. Make sure all information to be copied is written clearly. Highlight important information by underlining it or by using a different color.

Teach children to preview. Help them get started on assignments by encouraging them to think ahead of time about the completed assignment and what it will look like or what they will do in the assignment. Have children make a list of materials they will need to write their book report or have them outline what information they will include in their story or report. Ask them to consider what they will need to describe in the beginning and middle of a story so their ending will make sense.

Use the PLAN strategy to help organize writing and free the child to brainstorm ideas.
  • Preview the assignment -- think about things such as the purpose and audience.
  • List the main topics you plan to write about, along with details for each.
  • Assign an order for the topics.
  • Note ideas in complete sentences.
Teach children to self-monitor. During a writing task, teach them how to stop and evaluate how well they are doing. For example, tell them, "Every ten minutes you will need to stop and check to see if you are getting your point across." Teach children to ask themselves questions such as, "How is it going?" and "Do I need to make changes?"

Help children maintain their mental energy for writing. Allow them to take frequent breaks while writing. Suggest that they get up and walk around during these breaks.

Help children stay focused. Allow them to choose the best place for them to do writing assignments. Let them listen to music if it helps their concentration.

Help children get started. Assist the child by making sure he has the right writing tools available and has an organized workspace. If needed, provide a jump-start to help him begin, such as the first sentence of a paragraph.

Teach children editing. Streamline the editing process by having children skip every other line when writing a draft to leave space for making edits. Teach children how to use editing symbols, so that instead of having to rewrite everything, they can use notation to indicate what needs to change.

Ask children to write about topics of interest. Invite children to write about things that they know a lot about. Make high-interest magazines available, and ask children to write about what they have read in them.


Encourage children to read their writing aloud while editing it. Teach children how to listen for where sentences begin and end so that they may apply proper punctuation and capitalization, and also listen for grammatical errors.

Have children practice the sequencing of ideas. They might write ideas or sentences on strips of paper and then order the strips before writing.

Use prompts and reminders. You might give children the words to use when writing.

Provide opportunities for children to practice speaking. Encourage children to express ideas and elaborate on them in everyday speech. Build in opportunities for oral reports and discussions on topics that interest them.

Practice elaboration. Use visual stimuli to trigger speech. Ask children to describe, explain, or elaborate on photographs, illustrations, and pictures. Frame questions that are designed to elicit responses requiring more than one-word answers -- for example, rather than ask a child if she liked a television program (answer could be yes or no), ask her to describe what she liked best and least about the program.


Automatize the rules of spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Use explicit instruction to promote automatic recall of rules. Build practice into lessons. Review skills and knowledge routinely to help children do things more automatically.

Break writing assignments into steps or stages. Make brainstorming the first stage, drafting ideas the second stage, revision the third stage, and correcting spelling and grammar the last stage before the final draft. Spread out the stages over time.

Generate ideas apart from writing. Allow children to record their ideas on a planning sheet or into a tape recorder that they read or listen to later when they are ready to write.

Give children a writing template. Provide them with templates that structure the organization of the text to be written. The template might be a diagram of what the lead paragraph could contain, or an outline for the child to follow.

Teach mnemonic strategies. A strategy for editing an essay might be to review Capitalization-Organization-Punctuation-Spelling, a technique Dr. Donald D. Deshler terms COPS. Have children write COPS on the upper left-hand corner of their papers as a reminder. To track progress, have them record each time they find a particular error. Graph their results.

Reduce the emphasis on certain subskills. Place priority on children's getting their ideas down on paper, without worrying about spelling or punctuation.

Higher-Order Cognition

Use graphic organizers -- such as a web -- to organize ideas. Encourage children to map out what they want to say before they begin writing. Have them number their ideas in order of presentation. Suggest that children diagram or draw their ideas before starting to write.

Encourage children to use brainstorming before starting an assignment. Start the brainstorming process with something of interest to the child. Allow the child to brainstorm in any way he prefers -- for example, if the child has difficulty with writing, let him brainstorm orally.

Use sentence starters to trigger thoughts. Ask children to finish a sentence, such as "Jack runs... ." Probe by asking them questions about the sentence starter, such as, "What kind of person was Jack?" and "Where was Jack running?"

Reduce the number of start-up tasks required for a written assignment. Rather than expect a child to locate and organize all of the reference materials for a large homework project and begin writing on the same night, gather the materials for her. Parents can make the work more manageable by helping the child set up a neat workspace for homework.


Because writing problems can affect a child's organization and performance in multiple subjects, the following strategies are designed to help children improve their organization skills, work habits, and overall production.

Use assignment books. Teach children to use assignment books and "To Do" lists to keep track of their short- and long-term assignments, tests, and quizzes. Use peers to help monitor other children's assignment books. Schools should have "homework hotline" on voicemail or homework posted on a Web site to assist students before they are able to record independently.

Provide models of assignments and criteria for success. Give children a clear sense of how a final product might look by showing examples and sharing exemplary products (e.g., essays or drawings). For instance, make work from last year available, and draw the children's attention to specific qualities of the work (e.g., "Notice that a good paper has a clear topic sentence."). Do not, however, compare children's work with that of peers or siblings.

Build in planning time. Give children five minutes of planning time before beginning an assignment. Provide guidance in effective planning when necessary.

Use stepwise approaches. Require children to break down tasks into parts and write down the steps or stages. Compile steps of frequent tasks into a notebook for easy reference during work assignments. For long-term assignments, assign a due date for each step of the assignment.

Teach proven strategies. Provide children with specific age-appropriate strategies to use in checking work. For example, use Dr. Donald D. Deshler's COPS (Capitalization-Organization-Punctuation-Spelling) for proofing written work. Children can create a reminder card to keep on their desk or in their assignment book for quick reference to the strategy.

Stress the importance of organization. Have children preview an assignment and collect the materials they will need before starting it. Guide children in keeping their materials and notebooks organized and easily accessible. In middle and high school, conduct intermittent "notebook checks," and grade organization and completion. At the beginning of school and a week before each check, give a list of requirements. Emphasize the positive impact that organization and preplanning will have on the completed project or assignment. By grading organization, you will emphasize its value in the learning process.

Let children wait to turn in work. The day before an assignment is due, have children review their work and read it to a parent. This will give the children enough perspective to catch errors or add more details and produce better results in the end.

Encourage self-evaluation. Set a standard of work quality or criteria for success, and allow students to assess the quality of their work before turning it in. If the final grade matches the student's appraisal, give extra points for accurate self-assessment. A common method for self-assessment and grading the same assignment is a rubric, which lists expectations. For more information about rubrics, visit www.rubrics.com.

Set goals and record progress. Have children set a short-term goal, such as completing all homework for the week. Record the daily progress toward the goal so the children can observe their progress. Graphic recording, such as plotting their own line graphs, may be particularly reinforcing for some children. Reward improvement at home.

Practice estimating. Children may benefit from estimating answers to math problems and science experiments. Stress the real-life benefits of estimating and understanding what the correct answer might look like.

Eliminate incentives for frenetic pacing. Remove any positive reinforcement for finishing first. State the amount of time a task should take. This will slow down children who work too quickly and will speed up children who work too slowly.

Provide consistent feedback. Create a feedback system so children understand which behaviors, actions, or work products are acceptable and which are not. Use specifics to praise good work, and recognize when children use strategies effectively. For example, "I like the way you elaborated in this description," or, "Asking to take a break really seemed to help you come back and focus."

Try a mentor. Some children may benefit from a mentor who will work with them to analyze their academic progress, brainstorm alternative strategies, and provide recognition of progress. The mentor must be seen as credible, and may be an individual from within the school or from outside the school.

WRITINGBasics | Difficulties | Responses

Dr. Rick Lavoie UP CLOSE:

Dr. Rick Lavoie explains the importance of helping kids understand.

Demystification, I think, may be the most important movement in this field in the last ten years, and that is explaining to the child what the problem is. If you have a child with diabetes, one of the first things you do is explain to the child, "This is what diabetes is, these are the foods you can eat, this is what's happening to your body when you don't eat the proper food," and explain line and verse.

Yet when a child has a learning problem, we try to protect the child from it. I've had parents say to me, "He doesn't know he has a learning problem." Indeed he does. And sometimes the child takes great comfort in the diagnosis, in knowing "I'm not the only person that has it, I'm not stupid like the kids tell me in the school bus, I'm not lazy like the teacher tells me every day."
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