Do you struggle teaching writing to your kids with dyslexia? Does the writing process seem overwhelming to you? This step-by-step guide to overcoming writing obstacles with kids with dyslexia and dysgraphia will show you how.
I was chatting with a homeschool mom friend this morning. She is one of the most thoughtful, insightful people I know and I consider her an amazing homeschooler. She was super worried about her young teen son’s ability to write independently.
I thought through my many years of dragging reluctant teens through the 5-paragraph essay writing process and compared that to how they are doing now as adults.
Here’s what I told her:
First of all, let’s step back and look at the big picture!
Why teach writing in the first place?
Honing in our purpose for teaching writing is helpful. Once we understand this, we can tailor our instruction to meet those needs.
What kinds of writing skills do productive adults in today’s society need?
Writing a simple letter or note
Writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper
Writing an apology note
Writing an email
Writing a social media post
Taking notes in a class or workshop
So basically, we need to be able to organize our thoughts and put them into words that are concise and easy to understand.
The point of writing is to communicate ideas.
Why do homeschool parents stress about teaching writing?
The main reason I see parents stressing about teaching writing especially to their kids with dyslexia and other language-based learning differences is that the parents are looking at the very end goal – writing a 5-paragraph essay with ease or at least independently.
So we’re looking at our tween or teen and their independent writing ability (lack thereof) and we freak out. How will they ever be able to write concisely and independently in just a few years?
Common writing struggles for kids with dyslexia and language-based learning differences:
Grammar, punctuation, and spelling
The creative nature of dyslexia means that it can be difficult to form one train of thought and stick with it. Dyslexics may be seeing many connections between ideas that we more linear thinkers don’t consider. This is actually a dyslexic strength.
So let’s look at 5 things to keep in mind as you teach your child with dyslexia to write.
5 things to remember when teaching writing to kids with dyslexia
Dyslexics have a different learning trajectory
It’s important to remember that kids growing up with dyslexia have a very different learning trajectory than traditional learners. I wrote an entire chapter on this in my new book, No More School: Meeting the Educational Needs of Kids With Dyslexia and Language-Based Learning Difficulties. It takes our kids a lot longer to master many foundational academic skills than it does for traditional learners. For example, kids with dyslexia don’t usually become independent, fluent readers until age 10-15. It makes sense that teaching writing will take a back seat until all the remediation to get them reading well is finished or at least well on its way.
This difference in learning also affects learning to spell. Honestly, none of my kids were able to master spelling at the same time as reading. Their brains just could not hold spelling rules until their reading was much more automatic. That is one reason I love the All About Reading and All About Spelling curricula. Reading and spelling instruction are separated so kids can progress with reading and not be held back by their slower-to-develop spelling skills.
It’s okay to delay or modify teaching formal writing until your child’s reading and spelling are more fluent.
Delays in learning to read and spell as well as handwriting struggles can make written expression extremely difficult for our kids!
Many of our kids have difficulty processing language so getting ideas out of their heads, putting them into words, and then writing and spelling them is really difficult!
Break writing into steps
Parents can get overwhelmed by teaching writing, especially to older kids because we look at the big goal of writing essays independently and freak out.
However, if we break up essay writing, or any writing project, into individual steps we can focus on each step, helping our students to become independent with each one until they have developed the skills they need to write an entire essay on their own – or largely on their own. You are a teacher and you can offer insight and tips along the way of course.
Brainstorming can be done orally and is often super helpful for kids with language processing differences to develop and begin to organize their thoughts. My kids have found using mind maps and other graphic organizers very helpful for seeing both the big picture and the organization of their writing projects.
Determining the main point
Many kids with language processing differences struggle to pinpoint the main point of a writing assignment. They need help to sift through their thoughts to come up with the main idea. This can be done by writing different points onto Post-it notes and rearranging them until a theme or pattern emerges. Don’t overthink this step. If they have lots of ideas, have them just pick one!
These are a little easier but some kids still struggle to see this clearly. Many people think that this difficulty is due to the dyslexic mind being so used to looking at things from many different perspectives that they can actually see too many options rather than not seeing any at all. Walking kids through this and helping them get organized is an accommodation that they would receive in school and is 100 percent okay to offer as long as they need it.
Create an outline
This can be written in the traditional way with Roman numerals or can be done with a mind map. Either is fine but my kids always did better with the visual aspects of their mind maps.
Now with this extensive brainstorming and outlining finished, the student can create sentences and paragraphs to express their ideas. Our kids will be all over the map with these kinds of skills. Accommodations to offer are scribing – you just write what they say. This can be helpful as they learn to think like a writer. Remember their limited attention and working memory can make it very hard to stay on task and organized.
Other accommodations for getting their words onto the page are typing or using assistive technology like speech-to-text. You can be their grammar and spell checker or you can use electronic ones like Grammarly from Google Chrome.
Make all suggested changes and create a final draft.
Avoid overwhelm for both you and your kids by breaking the writing process into steps and focusing on building independence one step at a time.
Learning to write well takes time and practice
Learning to write is like learning anything. It takes time to get good at it. I know for me, I often felt my kids’ papers couldn’t be ‘finished’ until they had something profound to say.
I have found that by looking at learning the skills of writing like learning the skills to use carpentry tools is helpful.
Think about learning carpentry. You want to build a bookshelf so you get some wood, a saw, a hammer and nails, and some measuring tools.
As you begin to learn, your cuts are rough, your measurements a bit off, your angles a bit askew. But over time, the more you use those tools, the better you get at using them.
It’s the same with writing. Take your kids through the process of expressing ideas that are meaningful to them and help them get a feel for the tools. Practice, practice, practice.
Allow your kids to get comfortable with the writing process.
Don’t stress if their ideas lack depth or their sentences are a bit flat.
Give plenty of opportunities to practice writing.
Well-known writing teacher, Andrew Pudewa of the Institute for Excellence in Writing, even says that you cannot help your kids too much.
“Some teachers, meaning well, might think: “It won’t be ‘fair’ if I help too much. I shouldn’t just tell them what to write, it wouldn’t be their own work.” There’s truth to that statement, but let us not forget our purpose and goals: To model structure & style, teach through application and develop confidence and fluency. It is OK to help a child past a block, even so far as dictating to them two or three possible “which” clauses and allowing them to choose one and use it. Did they think of it themselves? No–but so what? They chose one, they used it and in the process of using it, they have learned. You may have to “spoon-feed” some examples many times, but ultimately, they will start to think of possibilities on their own. Children who read a lot will be more likely to come up with the words and constructions needed for success with the stylistic techniques, but there’s nothing “illegal” about teaching by providing examples and options. It is especially important for reluctant writers. How else will they learn?” Andrew Pudewa
Give them the help they need to feel successful and gradually release more responsibility as your kids seem ready.
Helpful writing accommodations are:
Oral brainstorming until they are so familiar with the process that they can do some of this on their own
Offering some form of scribing. Whether you write their words or they use some form of speech-to-text assistive technology, allow them to get their words out without the pain of physically writing every word. There is a time and place for handwriting and spelling instruction, but if the purpose of your lesson is for them to concisely express their ideas, use assistive technology.
Grammar, spelling, and punctuation help. We don’t want to recreate the red pencil trauma that many dyslexics experience in school. This is when a teacher marks every error in red – causing the paper to ‘bleed’ and our kids’ creative process to shrivel up.
I work on grammar daily with this program so when going through the rough draft of a writing assignment I will remind them of concepts they already know by asking questions to guide their thinking. For example, “do you remember the rule for capitalizing names?” Then I help out with the rules they may not know yet. Sometimes I’ll share the correction and the reason for it and other times, I won’t. You are the best judge of how much correction you offer. Just be mindful of overwhelming and discouraging your writer.
Offering accommodations while our kids learn to write helps them to develop confidence
Accommodations also help kids to focus on the goal of writing, expressing their ideas clearly, without getting too tripped up by their writing and spelling challenges.
Work on grammar and spelling separate from working on writing.
There are some really good assistive technology options for accommodations as well. As your kids get older, they can rely more and more on these for guiding their writing process.
Use assistive technology
We’ve already talked about what kinds of grammar, spelling, and speech-to-text programs can help our kids become more independent writers so in this section I will just say for those of you who may be new to this whole accommodations LINK thing, it is not cheating to use assistive technology.
Remember, we are not trying to pound our square pegs into round holes. We are trying to help our creative outside-the-box learners to express their ideas well. All of my adult kids use assistive technology for writing whether texts, emails, research papers, or business proposals. I’m so thankful our kids have this available to them!
Just do the next thing.
Lastly dear reader, don’t beat yourself up because your child isn’t writing beautifully – yet.
If you feel that you’ve dropped the ball with teaching writing, it’s okay. Just start where you are and begin to build some writing time into your school week.
One step at a time, one sentence at a time and you will get there.
Other posts on teaching writing to kids with dyslexia:
Teaching Writing to Kids With Dyslexia: With strategies and links to specific assistive technology and homeschool writing programs that I’ve loved.
Teaching Writing to Kids With Dyslexia and Dysgraphia: Information on dysgraphia and what to look for in a homeschool writing program.
Teaching Writing to Kids with Dysgraphia: An in-depth look at the underlying causes of our kids’ writing difficulties. One of 11 online video-based parent education courses that will teach you everything you need to know about understanding your child’s writing difficulties as well as how to teach writing to kids with dysgraphia.