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Building Confidence in Reluctant Writers

Has your child been diagnosed with dyslexia, dysgraphia, autism, or ADHD? Maybe he has an auditory or visual processing disorder. Or perhaps your child doesn’t have special needs at all, but is simply a reluctant, resistant writer.

Even a slight hiccup in a child’s ability to learn can cause daily struggle. Whatever the root cause, all you know is this: writing is a source of contention at your house, and the mere mention of it reduces your child to tears.

Rest assured it’s not just your child. Most students struggle with writing at some level, but when a child learns with difficulty, the challenges are magnified. Poor spelling, illegible handwriting, attention and processing disorders, and physical limitations interfere with the ability to communicate on paper. Typically, the result is short, disorganized writing, riddled with errors. The good news? You know your child better than anyone and care more deeply about his needs. There is much you can do to build skills and instill confidence.


Many children live in a world littered with stumbling blocks to writing. Fortunately, there are lots of strategies to help.

1.     Boundaries

Students flounder when writing activities are fuzzy and open-ended. When you ask a child to write about whatever he wants, you might as well cast him into the middle of the ocean and tell him to swim for shore! He wonders, “How long does it have to be?” or “What if I do it wrong?” Instead, give specific instructions. Children who learn with difficulty do much better when they know exactly what’s expected.

Single-paragraph compositions are excellent for kids who have trouble staying on task. Whether they’re overwhelmed by longer assignments or easily lose focus, short assignments help keep them in the zone.

2.     Graphic Organizers

Graphic organizers such as mind-maps, charts, or lists help kids prepare to write. These tools create flexibility for different learning styles and ease some of the stress and fear associated with writing. (See here for additional tips on graphic organizers.)

3.     Bite-Sized Assignments

I often say that writing is process, not a one-time event. The prospect of a writing assignment, with its many pieces, can completely shut down your poor child. That’s why every student, not just those with learning challenges, benefits from working on writing projects in small increments. Breaking the writing process into the following manageable steps helps all students, including those who are disorganized, lazy, easily overwhelmed, or prone to procrastination.

  • Brainstorming
  • Writing the rough draft
  • Self-editing and revising
  • Parent/teacher editing
  • Writing the final draft

Always start with brainstorming exercises to help your child narrow and focus on the topic. With each step, continue providing clear instructions and modeling. To further ease anxiety and stress, make use of a calendar and spread out the assignments over several days or weeks. This allows the composition to rest between drafts.

4.     Appeal to different learning styles

Each of your children may have a different learning style. Struggling learners are often right-brained: imaginative, intuitive, and bright. A multisensory approach to writing helps many students who learn with difficulty. Try a combination of the following:

  • Visual: Use graphic organizers, checklists, calendars, and specific instructions.
  • Auditory: Play word games, give verbal instructions, and ask questions to prompt writing.
  • Kinesthetic: Have your child describe textured objects they can pick up and touch. The same goes for foods: touching and tasting the real thing makes it easier to describe. And when writing about a setting, take a notepad and visit the place so your child can describe it firsthand.

5.     Colored Pencils

Have your child use colored pencils to circle or underline potential corrections. Assign different colors to different strategies: capitalization, spelling, punctuation, repeated words, boring words, etc. The colors give a focus for editing and revising as your child revisits his work for each task.

6.     Repetition and Practice

How do struggling students learn? Repetition, repetition, and more repetition. Since this is key to helping your child better understand concepts, make sure writing lessons build on previously-learned skills. The process will become more automatic with time and practice.

Copyright 2010 Karah Fredricks

When Physical Writing Is A STRUGGLE

What if your child is a quick learner but suffers from a physical limitation such as motor delay, arm and shoulder tension, or vision problems? If the physical act of writing is too challenging, consider an alternative method.

1.     Encourage Dictation

Your child may not be ready to write on his own. Transferring ideas from brain to paper is a pretty complex process. By the time he contends with apostrophes or spelling or a hand cramp, his great idea has simply gone “poof.”

While my daughters were comfortable with writing from a young age, my son could barely form words—let alone paragraphs—even at age 10. Instead of dousing his creativity by forcing him to do it all himself, I let him dictate as I wrote down his thoughts. This simple act helped ease his stress about writing. Eventually, as he gained self-assurance and skill, he became an independent writer.

2.     Teach Keyboarding

While it’s important for kids to learn penmanship, it may prove too much for a child with physical limitations caused by immaturity or special needs. Teach him keyboarding skills and let him use the computer, including the spell-check function.

3.    Share the Pencil

There’s no rule saying your child has to write all or nothing! Let him form the words and phrases he can comfortably write by himself. In turn, you can write the ones he struggles with. His confidence gets a boost as he successfully writes certain words, and his tired hand gets a rest when you take over.

4.     Use Special Pencils or Grips

Normal pens, when combined with your child’s death grip, can produce sore hand muscles and pinched nerves. Ergonomic pens and pencils are designed for a child to hold and manipulate with ease. Look for weighted pens that help with coordination issues, fat pencils that are easier to grasp, or writing utensils with rubber grips. Let him experiment with different writing implements to find what works.

There’s no magic pill to make your reluctant child love writing, but I hope you’re encouraged by these simple steps you can take to ease his resistance and make the process less painful.


 Wife to Jim and mom of three homeschool grads, Kim Kautzer is a curriculum author, speaker, retired homeschooler, and grandma to seven. Having learned the hard way to teach her own writing-phobic son to like (and eventually love) writing, it’s become Kim’s joy to equip parents to teach writing with confidence—even when it seems like an uphill battle. Though her homeschooling days are now behind her, Kim’s hours are far from quiet. As the Creative Director at WriteShop, she blogs, serves customers, and oversees development of new products. The Kautzers live in Southern California, where Kim depends on her grandchildren, English breakfast tea, or a good book to lure her away from her desk! Read a review of Write Shop over at our review site!

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