Written Expressive Difficulties in Children: Suggestions For Teachers

by Maggie Mamen, Ph.D., C.Psych.

Background information

Children who have problems getting things down on paper often show the following characteristics:

  • an obvious discrepancy between their oral skills and their written output; this is usually quite noticeable in Grades 3 and 6 when the demands for written work increase;
  • few, if any, difficulties in reading or math in the early grades — except perhaps in the latter when the math becomes written; they often have difficulty lining up the rows and columns and hence make errors when writing that they do not make when they are manipulating the numbers in their heads;
  • tend to dislike colouring, drawing, printing readiness activities; parents often confirm this; will not choose such activities during free play time;
  • few, if any, problems with large muscle activities (balance, climbing, sports, etc.); in fact, they are often quite skilled in a number of sports; parents often report that they much prefer outdoor activities over indoor pursuits; a small group of children do, however, have both fine and gross motor problems;
  • sometimes a mild lag in fine motor development can be measured, particularly in the formation of < and > angles, and sometimes with L and V;
  • a tendency to be extremely slow copying from the board, copying letter by letter, even when they can read the words, because they cannot remember what the letters look like; if you make them go fast, they make many errors and become frustrated and often ashamed of their work;
  • left-handedness or mixed handedness; left-handers have to overcome consciously the brain’s automatic tendency to move the hand from the midline of the body outwards — which for left-handers sends them from right to left; therefore they have to concentrate especially hard when learning to print and write, particularly when being taught by a right-handed teacher and watching right-handed peers; they may still be consciously forming letters when their classmates are doing so automatically — and this detracts from their ability to concentrate on other aspects of the task (e.g., listening, following directions, understanding what they write, etc.)
  • letter/number reversals beyond Grade 1 (especially p/q, b/d, n/u, m/w, 2, z); these are common in the early stages of printing and not something to panic about, but for children who still confuse the formations, it again detracts from what they are supposed to be focussing on and they often get left behind and discouraged;
  • some have spelling difficulties –especially with sound/symbol correspondence during phonic exercises or with sight words –in both cases often due to a weak long-term visual memory for letter formations; many teachers report that the child has auditory problems because they do not seem to be using a phonic approach –however, it often turns out to be difficulty remembering what the correct letter looks like and reproducing it from the mind’s eye onto paper;
  • orally extremely competent — good ideas, well developed concepts, excellent at show-and-tell-type activities, good general knowledge, fluid verbal expression; NOTE: it is extremely important to distinguish between children who cannot organize their ideas verbally from children with a written expressive difficulty the latter know what they want to say and can tell you orally;
  • simplify what they have said orally when they put it on paper– in terms of both quality and quantity; extremely economic in use of vocabulary (will substitute the word “nice” for “beautiful”, for example), even though you know they have a broad lexicon;
  • often complete assignments but do not hand them in; hide them in their desk, schoolbag, at home; homework book often gets “lost”;
  • broad range of avoidance behaviours around pencil-and-paper activities including a compelling need to sharpen a pencil endlessly, chatting to other children; acting out behaviours resulting in removal from the classroom, defiance, trips to the bathroom, tummy-aches, headaches, frequent absences from school; often referred for “behavioural problems” in Grade 3 or 4 or signs of stress (bedwetting, somatic complaints, sleep disturbances, avoidance of school, etc.);
  • often labelled as “lazy” with comments on reports cards like: “… does not complete his work in class”, “… is not working up to potential”, “… could do better with more effort”, and so on;
  • marks in content area subjects (e.g., science, environmental studies, social studies, etc.) start to drop in the junior and intermediate grades;
  • occasionally have general organizational difficulties — arriving without books, pencils; messy desk/locker; forget to use margins; frequent erasures;
  • have difficulty improving their work even when offered attractive incentives or threatened with dire consequences;
  • often become depressed and either act out or withdraw — at which point even their stronger subjects suffer;
  • parents often report considerable stress over homework; often at least one parent has had similar difficulties and fluctuates between sympathy and frustration; occasionally that
  • parent failed grades and/or dropped out and has high aspirations for the child, especially because they know he is bright.

Strategies for helping children with written expressive difficulties

There are two main purposes in remediating these problems:

  • to compensate for the difficulties by utilizing alternative means of output
  • to find ways to encourage the child to practise and improve skill levels.

As a general rule, it helps a great deal to think of these youngsters as having a problem with their hands — as if they had broken a wrist and were in a cast. This enables you to conceptualize their difficulties in rather concrete terms and to be creative when it comes to determining compensatory strategies.

Because this is an “invisible” handicap, there is often great resistance to treating these children differently from others in the class if particular consideration is given to these students. Consider whether you would place a cast on everyone if one child’s arm were broken — and have the courage to take the leadership role by telling the other children that it is basically not their place to be concerned and “life is indeed not fair” it is a valuable lesson for them all to learn.

Although there are a large number of suggestions listed below, there is no need to do all of them! Even one is better than none. Willingness to help a child with a written expressive disorder involves an attitude rather than the acquisition of new teaching skills or the investment of a great deal of time.

Compensatory Strategies:

  1. These children are often extremely sensitive about their difficulties, even if they have been quite obnoxious in their acting out avoidance behaviours. It is therefore extremely important not to point out their problems to the rest of the class, to comment on their work in front of others, or to single them out or put them down in any way.
  2. It is devastating for these children to have their work marked by other children in the class, especially if they have spelling difficulties, since the others will often delight in “bringing down” a child who appears to be smart. It may indeed be necessary completely to abandon peer-marking if you have one of these children in your class.
  3. If it is clear that the child understands the general concept being taught, you might consider reducing the quantity of output required on routine drills by having them complete every second question, for example. Setting individual goals by having the child compete against his or her previous performance is a way to motivate without comparing the child to the extremely competent children in the class; for example, asking for “one more than yesterday” or “see if you can beat your best time”. Children prefer timing themselves — if they are able to do so — and like to keep “records”.
  4. It is necessary to be alert to the fact that many tests that purport to measure such things as reading comprehension actually measure the child’s ability to write and not comprehension at all, and it may be necessary to check out their comprehension orally. It is especially important to see that quiet or introverted children are not overlooked, nor singled out to perform in front of a group when no one else does.
  5. It is almost always necessary to offer flexible time to children whose writing is slow. However, bright children in particular are sensitive to being constantly last to finish. It is therefore useful to start them ahead of time, or allow them to start or continue a written assignment at times when they have completed other work quickly.
  6. For children with spelling difficulties, providing a list of “jargon” words in a particular subject area ahead of time can allow them to familiarize themselves prior to the unit being taught. This again prevents the cumulative lag that develops when they are behind.
  7. Waiting for a child to perfect printing skills prior to starting cursive writing instruction is usually a waste of time. They will never be perfect, and need to learn the cursive formations along with everyone else. Some children, however, have never really been taught to print — they have been expected to pick it up by osmosis — so in the early grades, it is often worth some reteaching, which is best done in small group settings. If they have difficulty learning the cursive script, they may constantly switch to printing. If it is not specifically a cursive writing exercise, it really helps if you can be flexible. They often also have difficulty using pen — it also helps if you can be flexible in allowing the use of pencils. Left-handed children, in particular, often smudge their work when using a pen or a marker, which adds to their difficulties.
  8. Teaching computer keyboarding skills is usually extremely useful. It should be remembered, however, that fine motor difficulties can make the coordinated movements needed to touch-type quite a problem, and the children need patience and flexibility in learning the keyboard. Allowing them to play games at the computer that require knowledge of where the letters are can often lead to incidental learning and can be fun. However, indiscriminate and unsupervised use of the computer using joystick or a mouse does not accomplish this learning goal or any others, in fact.
  9. Teaching a child how to dictate on to a tape recorder can be beneficial. They need to be taught step by step — turning the machine on, inserting the tape correctly, familiarity with all the controls (starting, stopping, rewinding, pausing, etc.), getting used to listening to their own voice. Then it is important to teach them how to listen to what they have dictated and gradually to transcribe using the pause button to give them time to write. It is useful to start with a simple spelling list or a dictate, and gradually progress to phrases, sentences and eventually hopefully paragraphs and/or stories.
  10. There is little more discouraging and depressing to a child with written expressive difficulties than to get back a piece of work covered in red ink, negative comments and corrections. They often glance at it and are too anxious to learn anything from it. The following may help:
    • underlining two or three key words that are mis-spelled and encouraging the child to self-correct;
    • keeping a personal “spelling book” of words that the child commonly misspells so that they can look them up themselves, recognizing that people who cannot spell also often have difficulty using dictionaries;
    • deducting a maximum number of marks for spelling (say, 5%) on any assignment for which spelling is not the main purpose;
    • recognizing that spelling CAN be taught and that most poor spellers can improve, although they will never be perfect;
    • realizing that it is your responsibility to teach spelling, and that these children do NOT learn simply by being exposed;
    • understanding that they do not make these errors on purpose and that they are usually extremely upset by them; in fact, many are perfectionists in other aspects of their life and thus suffer high levels of anxiety over their written work;
    • utilizing the resource teacher if available to implement a spelling program, recognizing that there are a number of computer programs that can help;
    • having the child copy two or three key words two or three times, so that the correct form stands some chance of being recognized and remembered;
    • never expecting a child to write out a word more than three times — the exercise completely loses its purpose; instead, encourage them to write it once correctly, cover it up and see if they can write it without looking, and then once more as an insurance.
  11. NEVER, EVER, under any circumstances, rip up or throw in the garbage any piece of work done by any child. The humiliation and damage to self-esteem that can occur are sometimes irreparable. Many parents report incidents like this that occurred to them thirty or more years before but which still raise the same devastated feelings.
  12. Please think very carefully before you deprive a child of recess — particularly those whose gross motor skills are good and who have good energy levels. The frustration of struggling with printing or writing hour after hour can cause incredible fatigue and they need a change of scenery, pace and activity. It is important to set a number of small goals that can be accomplished and to reinforce positively the small steps. Children seldom object to recording their own successes in a small notebook dedicated to this purpose — nor does this type of book get “lost” en route to home.
  13. It is especially important for an intellectually superior or gifted youngster to receive special attention for his or her areas of strength that does NOT involve written work. Allowing oral presentations, construction projects, drama, musical or artistic productions and other alternative means of expression can often open up a shut?-down child and encourage creativity.
  14. Teaching all children to edit their own work is useful and eventually time-saving. Simply having them read aloud what they have written is a good first step and results in the correction of careless errors. (Sometimes you will be surprised that one or two children cannot read back what they have written only minutes before. This is a whole different ball game!) Going through the work with them and underlining what needs to be corrected, then helping them to correct it (by reteaching if necessary) is the next step. Following this, you can underline and encourage them to correct — and finally the child can be encouraged to find their own errors and correct them independently.
  15. If a child uses a word processor with a spellcheck program, or has a parent or “study buddy” to whom he dictates, teachers often feel that this is “cheating”, when in fact it can be a useful step in the process of encouraging improvement. If you suspect that the parent or buddy is doing a lot more than simply transcribing what is said, have the child write his rough copy with no regard for editing or spelling — and then hand it in along with the edited copy. If the child cannot type, they often appreciate a story that they have written being typed up for them. Parent volunteers or co-op students will often undertake this task.
  16. Surprisingly, children who have difficulty with their handwriting often enjoy calligraphy — especially those who are extremely creatively artistic.
  17. In order to evaluate what a child has learned, consider very carefully whether it is vital for the child to write the information or whether an alternative means of evaluation and assessment could be used. Having the child write what he or she can, and then going over it with them in a warm and friendly atmosphere can sometimes provide important insights into what they have actually learned. Allowing point-form answers or (if possible) multiple-choice formats can help — although if the child has a visual-perceptual problem underlying the written expressive difficulty, they often become confused with computer-ready answer sheets and strict time limits. Just a reminder — what would you do if the most competent child in the class broke an arm the day before an important test or project? How would you ensure that he was fairly evaluated? Use the same ideas for the child with the invisible handicap.
  18. As with any child who is having difficulties, it is extremely important to liaise with the parents to report positive progress, to set reasonable goals, to have an open agenda about what is or is not expected at home, and to confirm that it is the school system that has the responsibility for teaching the curriculum materials. It is not reasonable to expect parents to teach — some will, but the vast majority do not. Parents are responsible for valuing education in a general sense, being supportive, providing the opportunity for homework to be done, and reinforcing success. It is vitally important that a child who has difficulty completing seatwork NOT be sent home with the entire day’s work. This causes major problems in the majority of families — however nurturing and positive they are — and incredible stress for the child. It is also vitally important that the parents know that this situation exists in the classroom and that something is being done at the school to rectify it. A good rule of thumb is that it takes the same amount of time to make a positive, constructive phone call to a parent as it does to make a negative one, but the payoff is considerably greater.
  19. There are many tutors and tutoring services in the community that parents will often use. It is important to remember that whatever helps the child is the primary focus — sometimes it is difficult to be gracious about a subtle or not-so-subtle message that you are not doing your job properly, but parents often recognize (accurately) that you do not have the time or opportunity to teach their child one-to-one and prefer to seek support elsewhere. Try not to take it too personally — but it doesn’t hurt to take inventory and see whether you are missing the chance to help even in a small way. Most tutors are extremely eager and willing to liaise with you — if you don’t mind.
  20. Learning difficulties have been around for a long time and will continue to be. The thrust in education is to integrate all kinds of children into the regular program and thus to raise the anxiety levels of the regular classroom teacher. Do not forget to make use of the important network available to you from fellow staff and administrators; you will find many useful suggestions from your colleagues. There is no magic “fix” — just patience, understanding, perseverance and a flexible approach. A positive and optimistic attitude, along with a willingness to become involved, are the foundation upon which success is built — step by little step.