Difficulty with Writing (Strategies for Parents)
Is writing a huge struggle for your child? Here’s the complete guide for parents about difficulty with writing and how you can help.
You’ve noticed your child dislikes writing. Or maybe your child’s teacher has told you that your child has difficulty with writing in class.
Maybe you’ve walked the halls at your child’s school and noticed a difference between your child’s writing and his classmates.
Or at homework time. your child refuses to write. It is a long labor-intensive process.
This was what writing was like for my child, too. She was in second grade writing on a kindergarten level.
It would be a battle to get started on writing assignments and often it would end with tears of frustration.
The good news is my daughter is now writing on grade level. Despite her initial difficulty with writing, she can write an 8 sentence paragraph now.
You can learn to help your child who struggles with writing, too. This is a step-by-step approach to help your child with difficulty with writing.
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Why is Writing So Hard?
Writing is the most demanding language-based skill. Your child has to simultaneously:
- print letters
- choose words to use
- spell the words
- formulate ideas
- write in a logical order
- have correct grammar and writing mechanics (like punctuation)
That is a lot.
Your child’s brain can only do so many tasks at once.
Add in the distractions in a classroom setting or your home environment, and it’s really surprising that writing isn’t a challenge for all children.
Helping Your Child with Writing Difficulties
When your child has difficulty with writing, it’s important to figure out the cause. Since it’s such a complex process, challenges with any one of these skills can really make writing difficult for children:
- generating ideas
- remembering what to write
- writing mechanics
- learning disability
So before you assume your child is unmotivated or has a learning disability, work through these different skills.
It will show you if your child just needs more practice with a few individual skills or if there is a real concern for learning disabilities.
Handwriting (or Penmanship) Challenges
Handwriting, or penmanship, is important, and it’s not just to make your child’s writing more legible.
When working on forming letters, use larger size letter tracing worksheets. It’s more effective in the long term for your child to trace a large size letter a few times correctly, than small letters dozens of times incorrectly.
Once your child has learned to form the letter effortlessly, then you can use smaller size paper.
Use correct size paper
Kindergarten students need to write on paper that has at least 1″ lines. Most kindergarteners do not have the fine motor skills to write in smaller spaces – it’s just not developmentally appropriate.
By the time children are in 3rd to 5th grade, they will have developed the hand control to write on smaller lines (like 1/4″),
- PreKindergarten- Kindergarten Lined Paper
- Kindergarten – First Grade Writing Paper
- First – Second Grade Lined Writing Paper
Brief 2-5 minute practice is all you need and most days. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t do it daily.
- salt or sand in a tray
- fingerpaint or shaving cream (this works on the bath or shower wall, too!)
- Road Letters Mats
When handwriting is automatic, your child can devote their mental energy to the other tasks of writing.
Your child needs to be able to fluently spell words in order to write. If your child’s school does not explicitly, systematically, and cumulatively teach common spelling patterns, this will likely be a challenge for your child.
At my daughter’s former school, she was instructed to “guess and go” with spelling. But with no systematic program to teach her the sounds, she had very little letter-sound knowledge in order to make a guess.
So help your child have a good foundation in spelling so they can put their energy into writing ideas.
Connect Spelling to Phonics
Reading and spelling are closely related skills.
- Related: Teach Your Child to Read
While phonics is the ability to decode words into sounds, spelling is the ability to encode sounds into words.
If your child is struggling with spelling, these three workbooks can be really helpful:
- My Book Of Rhyming Words (short vowels)
- My Book of Writing Words: Learning about Consonants and Vowels
- My Book of Rhyming Words: Long Vowels
Your child likely won’t have mastered the spelling patterns by just doing the workbooks. So after he or she has done a few pages, try this:
- Give your child a whiteboard or piece of paper.
- Say the word. For example, say “flat.”
- Ask your child to say the word aloud and count the sounds: f-l-a-t.
- Your child can draw four lines and write one sound on each line.
- From doing this with all the words on the page you’ll have a good idea if your child has really learned this pattern.
Spelling High-Frequency Words
High-frequency words are the words used most commonly in English. Some teachers and parents use the term sight words for what are really high-frequency words.
(Sight words are any word you can read effortlessly. If you can read catastrophe, that’s a sight word for you!)
- Related: How to Teach Sight Words
High-frequency words are the commonly used words like:
The Dolch Word list has 220 high-frequency words that make up over 50% of English text. So if you can help your child learn to spell those words, your child will have a huge advantage for spelling.
Check out the Dolch Word Read and Spell Printable Packs to help your child spell those high-frequency words.
Ice Cream Printable Writing Pack
Putting Ideas into Words
Have you ever been writing and you can’t remember the word you want to use?
It’s on the tip of your tongue, but you just can’t come up with it?
That’s how many children feel. They have a lot fewer years of exposure to that vocabulary so it’s harder for them to pull words out of their memory.
There are three strategies you can use to help your struggling writer put their ideas into words:
Use a Word Bank
Use worksheets that have a word bank. You can also write out a list of potentially useful words on a topic for your child.
You can simply Google “word list” and your topic and find vocabulary that could be helpful for your child to use.
Draw a Picture First
A lot of times teachers will use drawing the picture as the incentive. But it can be really helpful to draw the picture first.
This process helps your child retrieve more words from their memory.
So you can experiment. See if your child can write more easily when they draw first.
Look at Google Images or in a Book
Make sure to supervise and preview content on the internet, but searching Google images can be helpful. Pictures can help your child come up with ideas.
Last week we searched, “pictures of milkshakes for kids” when my daughter was generating ideas about milkshakes.
My daughter was able to look at the pictures and know she wanted to write about her favorite flavor, using a straw, and adding whip cream and sprinkles.
Remembering What to Write
A lot children struggle to write because they just cannot remember what they want to write. Even after they have generated ideas with an adult, it’s just a lot to keep in short-term memory.
In high school English class, you probably were required to use an outline. That’s because pre-writing helps organize writing and reduces the need to remember.
Make a mind map or outline
As shown above, you can draw a mindmap for your child. It’s simply one circle that represents the main idea.
Then there are related or supporting ideas shown by the connected circles.
You can have your child fill in some keywords in a mind map.
You can also write a simple outline with the numbers 1 – 5 and have your child write the keywords for those 5 sentences.
Make a story map
A story map is simply an outline for fiction. Try this with your child:
- Grab three post-it notes
- Write the words “beginning” on one post-it note.
- Repeat with “middle” and “end” on the other notes.
- Your child can draw a picture or write words to plan the story.
Writing Learning Disabilities
If your child persists to struggle at home and at school after these strategies, it’s time to consider a writing learning disability.
Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability. Since writing is based on language, too, dyslexia can appear in trouble with writing.
Two main ways that dyslexia can affect writing are:
- Formulating the words for ideas
- Difficulty with spelling
Dysgraphia is a writing learning disability. It is characterized by poor handwriting, difficulty expressing ideas in writing, spacing issues, and hand fatigue.
Dysgraphia is underdiagnosed. Many educators (myself included!) did not have training in dysgraphia and are unaware of it.
When you suspect a learning disability
Bring up these concerns with your child’s pediatrician, and your child’s teacher and school administrator.
In the United States, you have a right to a free evaluation from your child’s local public school. Place your request for an evaluation in writing (email is fine) and the school district has 60 school days to complete the evaluation.
We had some issues with the public school and didn’t want to waste time. So we ended up going to a private neuropsychologist for a learning disability evaluation for my daughter.
Even after her dyslexia and dysgraphia diagnoses, she was able to make significant progress with her writing. So don’t be afraid of the diagnosis!
Helping a Child who Struggles with Writing
These are the steps to take if when your child struggles with writing:
- Handwriting: Make sure that forming the letters easy and automatic for your child.
- Spelling: Teach your child common sound-spelling patterns and practice spelling high-frequency words.
- Ideas: Help your child put ideas into words with a word bank, word list, or by looking at photos.
- Organizing and Remembering: Help your child recall what they want to write with a mind map or outline.
- Consider a Learning Disability: After you have helped your child with these skills, speak to your child’s doctor.
Difficulty with Writing can Improve!
Just 8 months ago it was a real battle to get my daughter to write. We went through this exact process.
Just spending 5-30 minutes a day, she is now writing on grade-level.
You can see real progress with your child, too.