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LearningWriting

Helping Children Struggling With Writing

Marcy Willard
Marcy Willard
Ph.D., NCSP
Last modified 25 Oct 2022
Published 24 Feb 2022

What Are Writing Issues In Childhood?

Writing issues in childhood are challenges with one or more areas that impact the process of putting words to paper. 

Writing issues may include a challenge with letter formation, spelling, writing words, generating content, organizing ideas, explaining information in a coherent narrative, staying on topic, and offering creative content or elements.

The basic building blocks of letter formation and writing words relate to  “symbol recognition.” People who struggle to visually see the symbols on a page have difficulties in both reading and writing. They often mistake “b” for “d” or “p” for “q.” This difficulty can be why a child can practice for hours the night before the spelling test and then forget all the words and fail the test.

Apart from spelling, which can be aided by spell check and audio dictation, writing has other complexities around formulating your ideas, organizing them, getting those into a cohesive outline, writing the content, editing, and shaping the work. With all the steps, organization and attention are important skills in writing. 

Usually, writing progresses from grade to grade with more emphasis on beginning to write essays and paragraphs as children reach 3rd to 5th grade. The expectations are changing for different ages. It can be very tough for the brightest of children to adjust to the process of writing. Support and patience from parents and caregivers are key here. 

When a child can break writing into steps and learn what tools help them, this process will come easier.

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Symptoms of Writing Issues in Children

Writing is a major part of literacy and academic life. Struggles with writing can be crippling in school. It may be that your child loves school in general but refuses to write. They may study hard but still fail written tests.

You may wonder about your child’s memory because you practice and practice the spelling words, but they just can’t remember the words. Your child may cry every time a writing task is assigned for homework. It may be that your child does fine with writing fiction, but they have difficulty writing a personal narrative or nonfiction.

Alternatively, your child may write well conceptually but has poor grammar or punctuation. It may be that your child has poor handwriting, and although there may be good content there, no one can read it for lack of legibility.

Your child may want writing tasks to look perfect, changing their words until a hole is erased through the paper. Or it might be that your child produces minimal writing, turning in partially completed papers full of errors. They may refuse to edit work.

When you try to help your child with writing, they may become very resistant, saying, “It’s fine like it is! Our teacher told us we don’t have to fix it!”

Here are some symptoms of writing issues in children

  • Hates writing
  • Has meltdowns over writing homework
  • Comes unglued over having to write a personal narrative
  • Has difficulty completing writing work in class
  • Requires lots of help to write every sentence
  • Feels lost on what to write about
  • Quickly feels frustrated; wrinkling up paper or erasing holes in it
  • Fails spelling tests
  • Sits at the table for a long time but produces very little writing
  • Gets good grades in math but falls behind in language arts

Causes of Writing Issues in Children

Many of us have the experience of looking at a word and thinking, “I know that’s the right spelling, but it just doesn’t look right.” Sometimes we might have a great idea but realize, once the idea is down on paper, that it is just not as well organized or complete as we hoped. Writing takes time, focus, attention, and organization. Rewrites and edits are subjective. It is hard to know when you are finished. While a math problem is concrete, you could work on a writing assignment ten times and still have changes and adjustments you could make. Many areas of difficulty can impact writing. 

12 causes of writing issues in children

  1. Learning Disabilities: children who struggle with reading and writing because of underlying processing challenges will have trouble here and need extra structure, support, and tutoring to improve writing 
  2. Dysgraphia: this medical term is for a writing disorder that is often called a disorder of written expression. Like other learning disorders, this means that a processing deficit is impacting a child’s skills in writing. 

Dysgraphia symptoms may include slow writing speed, poor dexterity, difficulty forming letters, challenges with working memory, or the visual storage of letters and words. Dysgraphia is diagnosed by a clinical psychologist or medical professional. Disorder of Written Expression is also a clinical term, while a school identifies a ‘learning disability in written expression.’ These terms all encompass the same challenges. 

Schools tend to evaluate writing later than reading and math. Generally, this service label is not added to a child’s IEP at school until at least the 3rd grade. Parents can get a tutor earlier. However, it is best to pursue tutoring as soon as you identify the challenge.

  1. Attention challenges: children with ADHD or just with some difficulty in attention will struggle to manage the time, the steps, and the focus needed to write. Here the challenge may be more with putting together an essay. An essay requires steps like generating ideas, planning an outline, writing on the topic, reviewing, and editing the work. Spelling and the act of writing are also impactful here unless a child is using dictation software or typing their work and applying spell check.
  2. Trouble generating ideas: Other writing issues can be related to thinking of what to write about (idea generation). It may be hard for some children to think creatively and to tackle writing without a lot of upfront support to develop their ideas. Here the challenge may be creativity and abstract thinking. Children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may struggle with creative writing or the personal narrative, while writing a factual essay may come easier.
  3. Expressive language: children who have difficulties expressing themselves orally are likely to struggle with writing. Children who have a language disorder may have this difficulty that needs treatment which will in turn help them to express themselves both orally and in writing. Children who have challenges with vocabulary knowledge and comprehension often have a language disorder.
  4. Generalized anxiety: children who feel very nervous about how they will do on a certain task (performance anxiety) or who are perfectionists tend to get stuck on writing tasks. 
  5. Handwriting: children who are struggling writers may have difficulty with the fine motor skills needed for writing. This struggle may result in a diagnosis of Developmental Coordination Disorder, a disorder of difficulty with fine or gross motor skills. Children with very poor handwriting tend to meet the criteria for this diagnosis.
  6. Narrative coherence: children who have difficulty telling stories that make sense are generally not good writers. This trait can be common for some children with ASD as their stories tend to be tangential or leave out important details. This difficulty is often caused by poor perspective-taking when thinking of the listener.
  7. Planning (Organizing): children who have problems using strategies (metacognition), initiating tasks, planning, and completing tasks may struggle with writing. Motor planning is a type of planning related to forming words and letters. A child who struggles with handwriting may have this planning challenge. 
  8.  Rigidity: children who are inflexible may struggle with open-ended writing tasks. They may insist on knowing every detail of what to write before getting started. They might refuse to do a personal narrative, saying, “I don’t know what to write about.” This challenge is again common for children with ASD.
  9.  Sequential reasoning: children with difficulties understanding how to put events in order or create a mental storyboard in their heads may have trouble writing. This cause is related to narrative coherence and may go hand in hand.
  10.  Spatial reasoning: children with poor spatial processing (low Spatial IQ) struggle to see how letters are supposed to look and have difficulty in reading and writing.  

What to Do About Writing Issues in Children

Writing skills are extremely important, and problems often require remediation. If your child is truly struggling to get words on the page, intervene early and often. Be patient, and don’t give up.

DO offer help for reading problems: Children who struggle with the symbols needed for writing will also have trouble with reading.

In that case, intervention is needed. This help may come in the form of outside tutoring that uses a model like Lindamood-Bell or Orton-Gillingham. These multi-sensory approaches help your child learn how to see and visually represent letters and words. This help may also come from the school through special education services.

DO treat attention challenges: Attention is a huge part of writing. To write, a child must have organization, have a plan on how to tackle the assignment, and have the focus to complete each step. They need the ability to self-monitor and pay attention to their work. It takes a lot of brain function to write. 

Children with these struggles can do great with a very organized plan and guidance at each step. You may need to break writing tasks into five-minute segments with a chance to bounce on the trampoline ten times between each part. You may need to guide your child in developing their outline and allow them to dictate to the computer on the first go. Ways to break writing into manageable chunks can be very important for a child who has attention difficulties.

DO work on executive functions. Writing requires kids to be good at initiating (getting started). Your child may get stuck before they even write the first word; the uncertainty of how to begin may paralyze them.

Children with poor organizational skills and planning abilities tend to struggle with writing. Your child may not pay attention long enough to complete writing tasks. In that case, a full evaluation may be needed to determine whether a disability underlies your child’s challenges.

DO address handwriting problems: A child with poor handwriting may have a fine motor issue getting in the way of their writing. If your child is in the second grade and still struggles to form letters correctly, this challenge is a red flag for fine motor problems.

Sometimes, a child is simply being sloppy or rushing through tasks, which does not necessarily indicate a fine motor problem. However, fine motor skills should be considered if your child is working long and hard, and the work is still illegible. 

Either in the school or private setting, an occupational therapist can help with handwriting. They can work on your child’s pencil grip and offer a tool that may help them comfortably hold a pencil or crayon. They can help your child learn to work with graph paper that can help with letter and word spacing. Handwriting Without Tears is a curriculum that helps children improve skills and comfort with the physical effort of writing. You can do these things with your child as well.

If your child struggles after intensive intervention, into the third grade or above, you may consider requesting a 504 plan from your school that includes a chance to type, rather than handwrite, the written tasks in school.

DO treat expressive language problems: If the issues are with expressive language, a speech therapist, either at school or in the community, may help your child learn how to use the correct words and logical sentences to express their ideas. They can work on vocabulary and comprehension skills as well.

At home, read and talk to your child. Identify new vocabulary words in the neighborhood, at the grocery store in the park. Review pictures and vocabulary in a book and ask questions. Every couple of pages, do a comprehension check to see that your child is paying attention and picking up on the details. 

DO work on narrative coherence: this term means storytelling. Expressive language problems may go hand-in-hand with narrative coherence because children who struggle to express themselves will also not be good storytellers.

Your kindergartner or first grader may have trouble telling good stories, but this concern should be addressed if your 8-10-year-old child is still struggling to tell a sensible story. Your child may need a special education teacher to help them with storytelling and writing. If significant issues with narrative coherence are present, especially when there are academic strengths, it may be necessary to consider a psychological evaluation.

To work on this skill, practice storytelling with a storyboard. Draw out the plot, identify the characters, and do an outline with the main idea, three supporting details, and a conclusion. Make this visual, and make it a concrete process that your child can follow in telling a story and in writing it.

When to Seek Help for Writing Issues in Children

Talk to your school about your child’s problems in writing. Your child scoring below the 12th percentile or approximately two grade levels behind peers may qualify your child for special education services.

However, writing is considered an emerging skill in younger children. If your child is in kindergarten or first grade, most schools will wait to test a child for special education. The school may prefer to try interventions and support within the classroom first.

If your child still struggles significantly with writing into the second or third grade, even with intervention, it is time to request an evaluation at school. It is not enough to be good at other subjects; your child needs to learn to be a good writer too. As a parent, advocate to get the right help for your child.

Professional Resources for Writing Issues in Children

  • Psychologist: to consider a full assessment and to determine diagnoses and recommendations
  • School psychologist: to assess challenges with writing within the context of overall achievement. If writing skills fall at or below the 12th percentile and/or two grade levels behind peers, the child may qualify for Special Education services.
  • Occupational therapist: to evaluate problems with handwriting or motor skills that impact performance in all written work, including letter and number formation
  • Learning specialist or tutor: to consider and provide intervention. Those who are experts in Orton Gillingham or Wilson Reading could be a good fit. LindaMood Bell is another solid curriculum around reading. A multisensory approach that works on sounds, blends, and rules of reading works well for kids with focus or learning challenges

References on Reading Comprehension

[1] Linder Ed.D., Toni & Petersen-Smith Ph.D., Ann (2008) Administration Guide for TPBA2 & TPBI2 (Play-Based Tpba, Tpbi, Tpbc)

[2] Words their way. Writing intervention program.

[3] Handwriting without tears. Handwriting intervention.

[4] Bell, N. (2013). Seeing Stars

[5] Ixl: www.ixl.com. Math and language arts practice using online skill progression by grade level, grades K-12.

[6] Lindamood Bell reading and writing intervention.

[7] Orton-Gillingham reading and writing intervention.

Books for kids 

Esham, Barbara (2014) Keep Your Eye on the Prize (Adventures of Everyday Geniuses)

Zentic, Tamara (2015). Grit & bear it activity guide: Activities to engage, encourage, and inspire perseverance

Meiners, Cheri, J. (2003). Listen and learn

Cook, Julia (2013). Thanks for the feedback, I think (Best me I can be!) 

Deak, JoAnn & Ackerley, Sarah (2010). Your fantastic elastic brain: a growth mindset for kids to stretch and shape their brains. Hamm, Mia (2006). Winners never quit!

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