August 22, 2012
By Sandra Rief
Written language is very challenging and frustrating for many children and teens with ADHD and/or Learning Disabilities. Although they may verbally be able to share a wealth of information on a topic or articulate a creative, detailed story, students with LD and/or ADHD frequently struggle to show what they know or communicate their ideas effectively on paper. The writing process is very complex. It involves the integration and often simultaneous use of several skills and brain functions (e.g., organization, planning, memory, language, attention, spelling, grapho-motor, processing speed, self-monitoring and metacognition), some of which are significant areas of weakness for students with LD and/or ADHD.
Pre-planning and Organization
This requires being able to generate, plan, and organize ideas. When given a written assignment, many students with ADHD and/or Learning Disabilities get stuck here. They do not know what to write about, how to organize and begin, or how to narrow down and focus on a topic.
Working memory is necessary in order to juggle the many different thoughts that one might want to transcribe onto paper. It involves:
- Keeping ideas in mind long enough to remember what one wants to say.
- Maintaining focus on the “train of thought” so the flow of the writing won’t veer off course.
- Keeping in mind the big picture of what you want to communicate, while manipulating the ideas, details, and wording.
The process of writing also requires other memory functions:
- Retrieval of assorted information from long-term memory (e.g., facts, experiences) to share about the writing topic.
- Recall of vocabulary words, spelling, mechanics, and grammatical usage.
Writing requires the ability to:
- Express thoughts in a logical and coherent manner.
- Utilize descriptive sentences while maintaining proper sentence and paragraph structure.
- Fluidity of expressive language and facility with vocabulary usage.
People with attention difficulties are often:
- Inattentive to visual detail, and do not notice or recall the letters, sequence or visual patterns within words.
- Prone to making many careless mistakes.
Those with learning disabilities are commonly weak in spelling due to:
- Phonological processing weaknesses and auditory-sequential memory deficits (causing great difficulty learning letter/sound associations, as well as hearing, remembering and writing those sounds in the correct order).
- Visual-sequential memory weaknesses (causing them difficulty recalling the way a word looks, and remembering the correct order/sequence of the letters in a word). This results in misspelling common, high-frequency words (e.g., said, they, because) that cannot be sounded out phonetically and must be recalled by sight.
Many children with ADHD and/or LD have impairments in grapho-motor skills. This affects the physical task of writing and organization of print on the page. They often have trouble:
- Writing neatly on or within the given lines.
- Spacing/organizing their writing on the page.
- Copying from the board or book onto paper.
- With fine-motor skills, causing the act of handwriting to be very inefficient, fatiguing, and frustrating (e.g, affecting pencil grip, pressure exerted, legibility).
- Executing print or cursive with precision or speed.
Revision & Editing
Students with ADHD and LD often show during the revision stage of the writing process. After the tedious task of composing an initial draft, having to revise and rewrite can be very frustrating. Proofreading and editing for students with ADHD or Learning Disabilities is often very difficult for them, and generally cannot be done without assistance (from peer, adult, and/or assistive technology). It is common to find lack of capitalization, punctuation, and complete sentences, along with numerous spelling errors in their written products.
Fluent writing requires the following self-monitoring skills:
- Thinking and planning ahead.
- Keeping the intended audience in mind and writing to that audience with a clear purpose.
- Following and referring back to the specific structure of a writing genre (e.g., steps of a complete paragraph, narrative account, persuasive essay, friendly letter).
- Knowing how to read one’s own work critically in order to make revisions and develop ideas more thoroughly.
Speed of Written Output and Production
Some students with ADHD or LD rush through writing assignments, producing illegible work with many careless errors. Others write excruciatingly SLOW. Although they know the answers, and can verbally express their thoughts and ideas articulately, they are unable to put more than a few words or sentences down on paper. Needless to say, this is extremely frustrating.
This blog is adapted from my book: Rief, S. (2008). The ADD/ADHD Checklist: A Practical Reference for Parents & Teachers, 2nd edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Tags: ADHD, grapho-motor, language, Learning Disabilities, memory, organization, pre-planning, revision and editing, self-monitoring, spelling, writing, written language difficulties, written output