Supporting Students with Written Expression Difficulties

Dr. Carla LeHouillier
Wishing Star Associate

Do you know a child or student who seems to have difficulties expressing their ideas in writing? These written expression problems may come about for a number of reasons. For some kids, they struggle with using the fine motor skills required for printing or handwriting, making the task of getting their ideas down in written form very challenging. This can be particularly frustrating for students when they have a lot of great ideas and thoughts but their hands cannot keep up with their brains! For other kids, particularly those in the early grades, they may not have enough practice with knowing how to form their letters or what direction similar shaped letters should be facing (e.g., b vs. d). When children or youth get bogged down with trying to remember correct letter formation, or spelling of individual words, it can make the process of writing very arduous. To compensate for this, many students will use simpler vocabulary that they already know how to spell or will write in a very short and concise manner, in order to finish the task quickly. As a parent or teacher, there are a number of strategies for aiding students with writing difficulties both at home and at school.

For younger students who need additional handwriting practice or practice with letter formation, providing cues to help them remember the orientation can be very helpful. For example, you could give the child a visual cue of a bed made of the letters b, e, and d, with the b as the headboard and the d as the footboard. When the student says the word “bed” and either looks at or imagines the picture, s/he will recall that the first letter has the /b/ sound and the last letter has the /d/ sound. The website www.handwritingforkids.com also has great activities for practicing printing exercises.

For students who are having difficulties thinking about what to write, or organizing their stories or essays, use report and story developers to show the child how to organize their thoughts, select a topic, find reference material, and sequence what they are about to write. If you notice that your child or student is feeling challenged by having to consider spelling, capitalization, and punctuation all at once, teach them to use drafts to compose their assignments, where they first write out all their ideas without worrying about any punctuation or spelling. Then they can go through the writing focusing only on spelling, then only on capitalization, etc. Working sequentially can help some students identify these errors while only focusing on one thing at a time.

For older students who are thinking much faster than they are able to move their hands, teaching them keyboarding skills can be essential, as the computer does not require as many fine-motor skills. Writing with a computer has many advantages:

  • The computer stresses recognition memory that is less draining than relying on retrieval memory in writing. Spell checks, symbols on keys and computer icons all help to reduce the recall burden.

  • The computer recalls the letters so motor memory is not relied on.

  • Children find it fun to produce a visually pleasing school project. With the reduced burden of memory and motor output, children can now spend more time to be creative, insightful and take time to organize their thoughts.

The use of computers for final exams is also an allowance that is now available to any student who needs it by the BC Ministry of Education, not just those students who have been identified as having specific learning disabilities.

These are just a few of the possible examples of ways to support both children and youth who are experiencing writing difficulties. There are plenty more – be creative in your approach! Parents can encourage writing activities as equally important as reading. Family journals, trips, events, and letters should be encouraged with special incentives, or urge your child or adolescent to write about a special interest. And remember – good communication with your child’s teacher(s) is key to best supporting their written expression difficulties both at home and at school.

This blog posting is not a form of psychological counselling, advice, therapy, or assessment and should not be used as such by any individual. This blog posting is provided only as an article intended to encourage thought and discourse. For specific psychology related services, please contact an appropriate healthcare provider.