Don’t “Write Off Writing” Instruction : Creative Ideas for Teaching Composition to Your Struggling Learner

By Faith Berens, M.Ed
HSLDA Special Needs Consultant

“I am frustrated with trying to teach my child to write properly! His spelling is atrocious, and he does not use punctuation or capitalize consistently. Maybe he is just lazy? His writing is also short and poorly organized, and I don’t even want to talk about grammar! We do copy work and have tried so many workbooks on grammar, usage, and mechanics, but they are not helping. Should I just forget about writing instruction and focus on the other basics? Please help!”
—Frustrated homeschooling parent

Many parents, particularly those who do not enjoy writing or who feel it is not a personal area of strength, get overwhelmed when it comes to teaching their children to write, particularly when one of them is a struggling student. Parents sometimes mistake their child’s difficulties for lack of motivation, laziness, and other character or behavior issues. It’s also easy to become discouraged when “traditional” curricula and materials (what worked with the other kids) isn’t working with this particular child. Struggling students often feel anxious and unsure when it comes to writing. They frequently have trouble generalizing or applying language exercises and grammar drills to their own writing. Writing for real and meaningful reasons can be the way to go. This includes journaling and keeping a learning log when linked to areas of special interest or excitement, as well as writing for authentic purposes.
To get started, I encourage you to invest in a few solid resources on teaching writing such as the How To series by Teacher Created Materials, the How To Write book by Teaching & Learning Company, and the books Teaching Your Child to Write by Cheri Fuller, or Dean Rea’s The Write Stuff Adventure: Exploring the Art of Writing. These resources offer not only information about the writing process, but many creative strategies, ideas, and practical application of writing lessons.

Writing Is A Complex Task
Writing is truly the most sophisticated and complex achievement of the language system. In the process of language development, the “art” of learning to write is typically the last to be learned. Through the process of writing, we integrate previous learning and experiences in speaking, listening, and reading. Oftentimes, we adults who may or may not be strong writers ourselves take for granted all the underlying, integrated processes, and skills involved in learning to write. Writing is an active process, and competent writing requires many prerequisite skills including adequate oral language, planning and organizational strategies, the ability to read, spelling skills, legible handwriting or skill with keyboarding, as well as knowledge of rules of written usage. One must be able to keep an idea or picture while formulating it into words and sentences that are complete and grammatically correct. The writer must have sufficient visual and motor memory skills in order to integrate complex eye-hand coordination, be skilled in planning and forming the correct symbol or form for each letter and word, and be able to manipulate the writing instrument. So, many students with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, language processing problems, and other special challenges, struggle with composition.
Some of the key ingredients of writing are: oral language skills, handwriting (visual motor integration), spelling and written expression.

Where to Begin When a Child Has Writing Difficulty:
Many students with learning disabilities, language processing difficulties, cognitive delays, and attention problems often lack, or are weak in, many of the above-mentioned critical writing-related skills and thus have a very challenging time communicating through writing.
1. Oftentimes, supplemental therapies and interventions are needed, such as occupational therapy for fine motor (visual motor dysfunction/dysgraphia) and/or speech and language therapy for articulation, expressive, and receptive language processing difficulties, all of which have tremendous impact upon a child’s ability to proficiently write.
2. Parents can obtain appropriate accommodations and modifications such as assistive technology so that the student feels less fatigued and frustrated while on the path to becoming a proficient writer.
3. Set realistic, attainable objectives for your child’s writing development based on his needs and goals.

Plan to Utilize Helpful Adaptive Equipment, Software Tools, and Appropriate Accommodations:
Some programs are helpful for children with fine motor difficulties, handicapping conditions, and those who have superior oral language abilities but struggle with written expression and spelling. There are computer spell checkers, but you may also be interested in utilizing a Franklin Spelling Tutor from Franklin Learning Resources, which is an electronic speller. Children need to learn keyboarding skills, and there are also many wonderful word processing programs to use. One program many parents have found helpful is Keyboard Classroom.

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