As teachers and parents, it can be frustrating to watch a child attempt a writing assignment. The entire process can be overwhelming. He or she may shut down from the start or write very little before stopping. If writing wasn’t difficult for us when we were in school, it’s easy to say, “Just write more. It’s not that hard.” I beg to differ. Many students feel lost when it comes to the writing process due to the fact that it requires the use and coordination of many skills simultaneously.
1) Organization: Beyond the need to organize the actual writing materials (e.g., pencils, prewriting forms), writing requires students to organize their ideas from general to more specific and to provide several details about a single topic in a logical and properly sequenced manner. For many students, especially those with language deficits, this can be very challenging.
2) Word retrieval and vocabulary: Written tasks require students to use appropriate words to fit the context of their writing. For students in the older grades, many assignments are content-area specific. These areas require a very specialized vocabulary set that students must access and use appropriately to communicate their meaning. In addition, writing requires students to select the best words to convey the appropriate mood or intended effect.
3) Writing and/or keyboarding fluency: Handwriting is the most fundamental skill required to become adept at written expression. If a student cannot engage in the physical act of writing, he or she cannot even begin to think about higher-level writing skills. The physical act of writing encompasses fine motor control, coordination and motor planning. In addition, handwriting fluency and automaticity are critical. If a student struggles with the physical process, it takes away from the ability to focus on content and organization.
4) Spelling: Think of spelling as you do basic math facts. If you know your basic facts, you can then focus on higher-order skills, such as multistep problem solving. The same is true with writing. If you automatically know how to spell many words, you don’t have to spend your mental energy on remembering these rules. Instead, you can focus on higher- level writing skills.
5) Language skills: Writing is an extension of oral communication and is based in language ability, which includes grammar, semantics and sentence structure. Pragmatics, which is social language, can also impact a child’s writing ability. Writers must understand the concept of audience and how word choice and sentence structure must be appropriate for the intended audience. For example, when writing a research paper for English class, it is not appropriate to use slang words; however, when communicating via text message, slang is not only appropriate but expected.
6) Time management and attention: Many young writers have difficulty gauging the time it may take to complete a writing task. These students might spend too little or too much time on certain parts of the writing process. Similarly, some students have so much difficulty maintaining focus that by the time they get a sentence written down, they’ve forgotten the content. As a result, they either have very poor organization (because their ideas jump around and are poorly connected) or they re-read what they have written several times, which slows the entire process.
7) Working memory: Students with deficits in working memory have difficulty coordinating the many different prerequisite skills required for written tasks. These students may write very slowly because they have difficulty applying the rules of written language, spelling words correctly, and organizing ideas effectively at the same time.
A student who has difficulty in any of these areas is likely to have problems or be resistant to engaging in the writing process. Writing instruction must first focus on the foundational skills. For example, students in the Lower School are supported in their fine motor development with explicit handwriting instruction beginning in kindergarten. Eventually, instruction shifts to memory and fluency so that when students begin to engage in the writing process, the physical act of writing is not a roadblock.
Second, good writers employ the use of strategies to overcome deficits in these areas and successfully master the writing process (Graham & Harris, 2005). It is critical that instruction be explicit, systematic and incorporate strategies appropriate to the individual learner’s unique learning style and needs. Instruction should also capitalize on student strengths to bypass disabilities while developing abilities in the child’s weaker areas. For example, if a student has strong ideas for writing but is weak in mechanics, the child can dictate stories to the teacher or use speech to text. However, the teacher will consistently support the students in developing his or her knowledge of writing mechanics.
Writing is not something that students can avoid; learning to write is a process. It takes years for each of us to develop to be a “good writer.” From first grade on, students write almost everyday (Graham et al., 2005). They are asked to do this more than any other skill except for reading. After third grade, writing is the most common mode by which students demonstrate their knowledge. Further, writing is one skill that has been linked to future academic success (Graham & Harris, 2005). Therefore, it is critical that the foundational skills that promote writing are taught and reinforced. Writing can become an amazing outlet for creativity, humor and general knowledge. Becoming aware of the areas in which writing performance can be impacted is the first step to help students reach success.
Graham, S. & Harris, K. R. (2005). Writing Better: Effective Strategies for Teaching Students with Learning Difficulties. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.