If your children struggle to write, you need a two-pronged approach. You need to strengthen their areas of weakness, that is, to remediate.
You also need to work around their specific areas of weakness so they can get their words out and improve their other communications skills. That means you accommodate their area of weakness. Later in this series, we’ll look at a few way to accommodate disabilities so they can learn to think and write clearly, in spite of them.
But today, let’s look at overcoming writing difficulties in three areas: handwriting, composing sentences, and constructing paragraphs and essays.
If writing causes your child pain or is hard to read, here are some ways to help:
- Handwriting without Tears teaches printing. They now also have an edition for teens and adults.
- For teaching cursive, try Loops and Other Groups by Mary Benbow, or Cursive Writing, a curriculum by Diana Hanbury King. She has separate editions for left-handed and right-handed students.
- Apps for iPads and other tablets such as Letter School and iWriteWords teach correct users to form letters correctly, which can relieve wrist and hand pain. New apps are released daily, so search the app store for handwriting teaching tools. Other apps such as those from Dexteria can help improve fine-motor coordination.
- Visit a pediatric occupational therapist for help and suggestions. Some children and teens may struggle enough that an occupational therapist can justify to your insurance company the purchase of an iPad as an assistive communication device and therapy tool.
Constructing good sentences begins with understanding the grammar. Teach grammar and give your kids an edge, and you’ll also fight gobbledy-gook and bureaucratese.
Here is some specialized help:
- William Van Cleave’s Writing Matters. I know nothing else that breaks down the process of constructing sentences and paragraphs so well. William has written many other great products, including the Grammar Concept cards and Words at Work games I’ve sold at conferences, and many other useful study tools.
- William’s mentor, Diana Hanbury King, has written several smaller useful workbooks, all published by EPS Books, now a division of SchoolSpecialty.com. To learn more about her workbooks, teacher’s guide, and sample pages, look at the program overview, or take a look at the first two books of the series (A and 1), book 2, and book 3.
Composing Paragraphs and Essays
Along with the excellent books by William Van Cleave and Diana Hanbury King, there are many good writing curricula, including Institute for Excellence in Writing and Frode Jensen’s Format Writing. (Don’t get the first edition of Jensen’s; it has no examples.)
The best tip I learned from William Van Cleave and also from the teachers at the Landmark School is to break down the writing process. Not every project needs to be completed.
If writing a five-paragraph essay seems to your child like climbing Mt. Everest, don’t tackle a whole mountain. Focus on a few skills. Spend a week or two or so just learning how to outline. Let them choose the topic, however zany or boring to you. If you have a child who obsesses about reptiles, vacuum cleaners, or a favorite team, let them outline on different aspects of that obsession. Perhaps another week or two you focus on just writing topic sentences for each paragraph.
The Landmark School in Massachusetts serves students with learning disabilities. I once had the privilege of hearing three of their staff give a workshop on how to teach writing at the Learning Disabilities Association Conference in Chicago.
They published a helpful article on Process Writing. Their book, From Talking to Writing, by Terrill M. Jennings and Charles W. Haynes, helps “students at any grade level find topics, retrieve words, formulate sentences, and sequence their ideas” with companion workbooks. Read more here.
Narrative flow or discourse is not always taught. Does your child know the following concepts?
- The first time you mention an object or event, you use the indefinite article: “a” or “an.” The rest of the story, you use the definite article, “the”: “I saw a dog. The dog was brown,” rather than “I saw the dog. A dog was brown.”
- Repetitive structure is dull. An essay of only SVO sentences is boring. Your reader is getting sleepy. Your eyes glaze over. This sentence is an example.
- In her Writing Skills series, Diana Hanbury King gives a sentence and has students rewrite it many ways.
Thankfully, there are many tools that can help remediate our children’s difficulty with writing. Please share your favorites in the comments below.