By Kathy Kuhl
[Part 2 on helping struggling writers. Part 1 is here.]
If your children struggle to write, you need a two-pronged approach. You need to strengthen their areas of weakness, that is, to remediate.
You also need to work around their specific areas of weakness so they can get their words out and improve their other communications skills. That means you accommodate their area of weakness. Later this month, we’ll look at ways to accommodate disabilities so they can learn to think and write clearly, in spite of them.
But today, let’s look at overcoming writing difficulties in three areas: handwriting, composing sentences, and constructing paragraphs and essays.
If writing causes your child pain or is hard to read, here are some ways to help:
–Handwriting without Tears teaches printing. They now also have an edition for teens and adults.
-for teaching cursive, try Loops and Other Groups by Mary Benbow, or Cursive Writing, a curriculum by Diana Hanbury King. She has separate editions for left-handed and right-handed students.
-apps for iPads and other tablets such as Letter School and iWriteWords teach correct users to form letters correctly, which can relieve wrist and hand pain.
New apps are released daily, so search the app store for handwriting teaching tools. Other apps such as those from Dexteria can help improve fine-motor coordination.
-Visit a pediatric occupational therapist for help and suggestions. Some children and teens may struggle enough that an occupational therapist can justify to your insurance company the purchase of an iPad as an assistive communication device and therapy tool.
Constructing good sentences begins with understanding the grammar. Teach grammar and give your kids an edge and you’ll also fight gobbledy-gook and bureaucratese.
Kids with learning challenges will need grammar to be taught explicitly and clearly. There are many great grammar programs, such as Winston Grammar and for a handbook, I like Writers Inc.
Here are some specialized help:
–William Van Cleave’s Writing Matters. I know nothing else that breaks down the process of constructing sentences and paragraphs so well. William has written many great products, not just Writing Matters, but the Grammar Concept cards and Words at Work games I’ve sold at conferences, and many other useful study tools.
-William’s mentor, Diana Hanbury King, has written several smaller useful workbooks, all published by EPSBooks, now a division of SchoolSpecialty.com. To learn more about her 4 workbooks and teacher’s guide, and see sample pages, visit here for the first two books of the series (A and 1), here for book 2, and here for book 3, or look at the program overview.
Composing paragraphs and essays
Along with the excellent books by William Van Cleave and Diana Hanbury King, there are many good writing curricula, including Institute for Excellence in Writing and Frode Jensen’s Format Writing. (Don’t get the first edition of Jensen’s; it has no examples.)
The best tip I learned from William Van Cleave and also from the teachers at the Landmark School is to break down the writing process. Not every project needs to be completed.
If writing a five paragraph essay seems to your child like climbing Everest, don’t tackle a whole mountain. Focus on a few skills. Spend a week or two or so just learning how to outline. Let them choose the topic, however zany or boring to you. If you have a child who obsesses about reptiles, vacuum cleaners, or a favorite team, let them outline on different aspects of that obsession. Perhaps another week or two you focus on just writing topic sentences for each paragraph.
-The Landmark School in Massachusetts is for students with learning disabilities. I once had the privilege of hearing three of their staff give a workshop on how to teach writing at the Learning Disabilities Association Conference in Chicago.
Narrative flow or discourse is not always taught. Does your child know:
-the first time you mention an object or event, you use the indefinite article, a or an. The rest of the story, you use the definite article, the:
“I saw a dog. The dog was brown,” not “I saw the dog. A dog was brown.”
-Repetitive structure is dull. An essay of only SVO sentences is boring. Your reader is getting sleepy. This paragraph is an example.
-in her Writing Skills series, Diana Hanbury King gives a sentence and has students rewrite it many ways.
Many tools can help remediate our children’s difficulty with writing. Please share your favorites in the comments below.