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Writing: Helping Kids Get Off to the Write Start

by Daniela Montalto, PhD and Erica Chin


Sam is a nine year old boy in the third grade. His parents describe homework time as a daily struggle that lasts several hours and typically results in tears and frustration. In school, Sam excels in math, science, and reading but has considerable difficulty with writing and spelling. During these lessons, he becomes disruptive to his classmates or shuts down and refuses to participate. His parents report that he reached all developmental milestones on time, although he is still unable to tie his own shoes. Sam has many friends and is generally a happy boy who enjoys playing sports and watching movies.

Q: When should children begin to write?

A: Writing is a process that begins with fine motor development and hand strength. Preschoolers engage in activities like playing with clay and pasting that build their hand-eye coordination, hand strength, and finger dexterity so that they are ready to handle a marker or pencil by age four.

Q: Is it OK for my six-year-old to still reverse letters like b and d or L?

A: Letter reversals are common in kindergarten and first grade. As a child learns the names and spatial orientation of letters and as he or she practices forming letters with the correct motor patterns, the frequency of letter reversals should decrease. Letter reversals are not usually apparent after age eight.

Q: If a child has difficulty writing will it affect any other aspects of his or her functioning?

A: Many times, a child who has difficulty with handwriting avoids writing tasks. In some instances children become demoralized and develop a mindset that they cannot write. Research informs us that when the handwriting and spelling demands are high, students spend less time on other aspects of writing such as planning, generating ideas, and writing more complex sentences. Basic skills such as handwriting and spelling need to become automatic so that other cognitive capacities and resources can be devoted to the complexities of written expression.

Q: What skills are necessary for a child to develop good writing?

A: It is very important for children to read and write every day. When a child reads, he or she is exposed to varied sentence structures, lots of vocabulary, and stories that have a sequence of events. When a child reads, the text serves as a model. In order to become expert writers at any age, a child requires writing support, instruction, and activities that help him or her to organize information and use brainstorming prior to writing. At each grade level, teachers help their students make decisions and evaluate what seeds in their writing are worth cultivating, revising, and elaborating on.

Q: How can a parent recognize when a child is struggling with writing?

A: During the preschool years, children need to develop hand strength and fine motor coordination for writing. In addition, children should learn to tell stories that have a beginning and an end, which is a precursor skill to writing a sentence, paragraph, or story. During elementary school, automatically writing letters and words, sequencing a more complex story, and writing using their knowledge of mechanics and sentence structure is important. In middle school and high school, children should be proficient writers who learn about how to generate appropriate content and length. In addition, they can take someone else’s perspective into account as they write. As children get older, there are increased demands for writing and they become more adept at evaluating their own writing.

Q: What should a parent do if his/her child is struggling? Where can a parent find help for writing issues?

A: If your child – especially a child aged 2 through 11– is having difficulty with the fine motor coordination and precision required for any small motor task including writing, an evaluation with an occupational therapist is suggested. The professional can then determine a specific therapy to remediate the problem.

If your child – at any age – is having difficulty putting his or her ideas into words, organizing thoughts for writing, or completing lengthy written assignments, working with a language pathologist, or a learning or remedial specialist, can be helpful.

In addition, a writing assessment as part of a complete psychoeducational evaluation will help to identify your child’s strengths and weaknesses so you can develop an appropriate remedial plan.

Recommendations will vary based on your child’s specific needs.  For young children it can be helpful to work individually with an occupational therapist on building fine motor skills.  Children who are in the third grade and older would benefit from developing keyboarding skills.  Learning to keyboard would allow them to gain automaticity for both taking notes in class and completing homework assignments and papers. Assigning struggling note-takers a scribe or having a classmate share their notes can also be helpful. Other times, it is recommended that teachers provide extended time on written assignments, allow for access to a laptop on tests that require extensive writing, and/or not penalize for spelling errors. Overall, the recommendations will be based on your child’s personal strengths and weaknesses and the supports his or her school is able to provide.

The Institute for Learning and Academic Achievement at the NYU Child Study Center (CSC) offers a comprehensive, specialized approach to assessing a child’s learning strengths and weaknesses, and provides parent, educator, and child-friendly evaluations and integrated strategies for improvement. We provide a carefully constructed, personalized evaluation as well as an extensive written report and recommendations for treatments distinct from any other program.

Originally published in May 2007 as an "Ask the Expert" Q & A with Susan Schwartz, M.A. Ed., former Clinical Director of the Institute for Learning and Academic Achievement (ILAA) at the NYU Child Study Center. Updated by current ILAA Director Daniela Montalto, Ph.D., and NYU Child Study Center psychology extern Erica Chin in August 2011.

For more information about the Institute for Learning and Academic Achievement at the NYU Child Study Center, please call (212) 263-6622.