by Kathy Kuhl
[Part 4 on helping struggling writers. The series began here, with “Why Writing Matters.”]
A spelling dictionary is easier to use than a conventional dictionary because it only lists words and has no definitions.They are available from many publishers, including Educators Publishing Service, which carries My Word Book and several levels of Words I Use When I Write.
Franklin makes many kinds of handheld electronic dictionaries. Type in the first few letters, and the dictionary will make suggestions. It’s programmed to interpret more “creative” spelling than word prediction software. For high schoolers, try the Speaking Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate® Dictionary. The speaking dictionaries are great for the voracious reader who wants to know how to pronounce the words and for the dyslexic who wants to hear if it sounds like the word he or she is trying to spell. There are Spanish-English electronic dictionaries, too.
Accommodations for composition — how to organize a paragraph or essay
For my first big papers in middle school, I remember writing facts on dozens and dozens index cards and sorting them out across the floor. I enjoyed amassing so much information, but with my slow handwriting, this took too much time and I got bogged down in details.
Accommodation: Dictate facts and ideas using dictation software. Put each idea on a new paragraph. Print, cut apart the ideas, spread the paper strips out and organize them, without having to push a pencil.
Tools to help organize thoughts
Later I learned how sketch out the connection of ideas and supporting details using a graphic organizer or a web. Webs are also known as mind maps.
Graphic organizers are forms with blanks to fill in. They can come in many shapes. An old classic for teaching beginners how to write a paragraph is shaped like a hamburger. The top bun is the topic sentence. The fillings–cheese, meat, lettuce, pickle, catsup, and so on–are the supporting facts. The bottom is the concluding sentence.
Personally I prefer a web—I don’t always have the same number of ideas as the graphic organizer assumes I have and my words don’t always fit in the spaces!
To create a web or mind map, you briefly write each topic and circle it. (Ideas fit in circles if you draw the circles after you write!) Then around each idea, you write related facts, each with a small circle around it. Then you use lines to show connections. Here’s one of several webs I wrote while drafting part of my third book, Encouraging Your Child.
Accommodations: Write the web on a huge piece of paper, or better yet, on a whiteboard, which makes erasing easy. Then take a photo. If the whiteboard gets smudged, don’t fret. I find rewriting the web is a great way to think it through a project and improve it. For a chapter or section that’s hard to organize, I may redraw the web several times to get the organization I like best.
Encourage your student to think of this as a craft. Many great writers have learning disabilities, but have a talent for storytelling, for organizing thoughts, for compelling phrasing. These tools can help them reach their goal.
I know of five programs to let you draw webs on your computer or iPad. These could be paired with dictation software to help those with dysgraphia or physical disabilities.
- Kidspiration and Inspiration software runs on Windows or Mac. You type the phrases, it draws the circles, and you point, drag, and click to draw lines. Once your web is complete, these programs will convert them into outlines. Both have free trials. For the iPad, Inspiration Maps and Kidspiration Maps are available.
- Creatively lets you create graphic organizers online, and it’s free.
- eDraw is only for Windows users, and it also is free.
WriteWell is a web-based tool that lets your student organize their writing projects visually. Onscreen, students can work on with one chunk of a document at a time, add sources, notes, and links. Templates can help provide structure. Projects can be exported as Word documents, PDFs, or to Google Drive. There are free and paid versions. (Thanks to Alisha Gratehouse for recommending it.)
Learn more about graphic organizers and webbing here.
Think outside the box
Your child can be gifted but have trouble with writing. In his book Learning Outside the Lines, David Cole describes his passion for sculpting. (He made his first metal sculpture at age 4.) The assignment for his senior English project at the Landmark School was “explicate your writing process.” He responded in metal. Later, he submitted the sculpture to Brown University to answer the application question, “What in your life has prepared you for the college experience?” and was admitted.
In homeschool, we can let our children creatively communicate their knowledge. How have you let your child express what he has learned? Please answer in the comment section below.