Writing may be particularly troublesome for students with language difficulties for a number of reasons, including its demands on spelling, sentence formulation, working memory, word retrieval, language organization, and linguistic executive functioning skills. At Language & Learning, we like to divide these contextual language skills into “Macro-Structure” and “Micro-Structure” components to make it easier to break down and understand how the individual skills impact written language.


Written Language “Micro-Structure”

This component includes written language skills at the word and sentence level. At the most basic level, a student who struggles with “encoding” (i.e., spelling), will have trouble producing written language. Working on phonological awareness/manipulation, sound-symbol correspondence, and/or syllabification and word part identification may be necessary. Additionally, strategies such as using spell-checking tools and speech-to-text may be beneficial. At the word level, your child may also struggle with finding specific or accurate words to convey his/her message.   Your child may benefit from therapy addressing his/her understanding of semantic attributes to improve breadth and depth of word understanding, or using strategies to enhance word retrieval, such as thesaurus-type tools or other visuals (check out our post on Grammarly for more information about how this tool may help). Micro-structure also includes sentence-level skills, including creating clear, grammatically correct sentences. Many students must work on understanding sentence structure, and benefit from visual programs such as Framing Your Thoughts to teach and build on sentence formulation skills. As sentence writing becomes more complex, students with language difficulties often need direct instruction regarding transitions, conjunctions, and “phrase starters” to begin to create compound and complex sentences. Aspects of Framing Your Thoughts, visuals (e.g., lists of conjunctions and phrase starters) and isolated practice with creating and expanding sentences may be necessary.


Written Language “Macro-Structure”

Many students struggle with contextual writing and the writing process as a whole. At Language & Learning, we use an acronym called UPOWER to help students tackle the writing process strategically.

U: Use the Prompt

Many students have trouble understanding and keeping track of what they are supposed to be writing about in the first place. Visual strategies to help the student break down and use the prompt to guide them through the writing process are highly beneficial. For instance, highlighting key words (it’s often necessary to discuss what information would need to be highlighted; we generally refer to this as the information that “the future you” will need to see to be able to know what to do), color-coding different parts/steps of the directions, identifying “signal words” that tell the student that a new step is coming, and paraphrasing each step are useful for many students.  Older students may benefit from using the prompt to visualize what the different paragraphs of their essay will need to be about, and visual learners can sketch this out on paper to help them process and keep track of everything the prompt is asking them to address. The directions can then easily be used as a checklist to refer to while completing the assignment and/or after the assignment has been written.

P: Plan

Before writing, a student must plan his/her ideas. For many students this involves creating a graphic organizer or bulleted outline to generate ideas. In terms of graphic organizers, learning how to create/use webs (we love Webspiration as a tool for this) can be beneficial. Even for older students who are resistant to more childish-looking graphic organizers, using boxes to represent each paragraph and generating their ideas for paragraph topics within each of these boxes can be a great way to start. Every student adapts the planning process and use of outlines/graphic organizers differently to meet their needs. We believe that introducing strategies is only the beginning – it’s important to listen to the student and discuss what is and isn’t working for him/her so that the strategies can be modified to suit what makes sense for each student on an individual level.  For most of our students, the “Plan” step involves generating something visual (either boxes or a bulleted list) for all of the different paragraphs that will need to be included and the topics for each paragraph.  We separate this step from generating specific ideas so that the student is able to see that both steps are essential.

For students with issues managing their time and breaking tasks into discrete steps, the “Plan” step may also involve planning out when they will complete each step of the assignment.  To address this, we introduce the use of paper planners or Google Calendar, depending on the individual student’s strengths and needs.  We then discuss skills and strategies to utilize these tools effectively, such as: identifying implicit steps not directly stated in the directions; breaking the integrated task down into specific, actionable steps; inputting the deadline first; and, if the student is able, working through the steps backward to input them, estimating how much time they will need for each step (this method allows them to see when they absolutely need to start the assignment to have it completed in time).

O: Outline

For most of our students, this step involves generating the details and specific ideas that go into each paragraph that they carefully mapped out in the previous step.  We also often address categorizing/sequencing information within paragraphs, note-taking strategies to put only the essential information in their outline, removing ideas that are unnecessary, and elaborating on ideas as needed. This is the part of the process during which a student’s ideas become a fluid outline that can be followed through systematically to produce the contextual written language.

W: Write

Students are often amazed that it takes this long to get to the actual writing part of writing. At this point, he/she can use the outline to turn ideas into sentences and paragraphs. Many of the previously-mentioned “Micro-Structure” elements come into play during this step, so the student should have strategies ready to help produce writing that is specific, readable, and grammatically correct.

E: Edit

Editing is the portion of the writing process wherein the student re-reads his/her work looking for mistakes. Edits include anything in the writing that is wrong and needs to be corrected, such as capitalization, spelling, punctuation, fragments, and run-ons. Before beginning this step, we believe it’s important for the student to identify his/her “most common errors” and keep this short list with him/her for the editing part of the process. If the student reviews this list before editing, it’s easier to look out for those mistakes that occur most commonly on an individual basis. Use of editing tools such as Grammarly are a great idea!

R: Revise

Revising differs from editing in that it involves aspects of the student’s writing that can be improved upon, but are not necessarily wrong. This piece is more abstract, as it involves evaluating the quality of the work rather than its objective correctness. Because this aspect is often more difficult, the discussion about each student’s own “most common revisions” may involve more input from the therapist; however, it is still important for the student to create a list of his/her own areas of difficulty and refer to it before he/she begins revising. Editing tools often do not work as well for this step; however, reading aloud is one of our favorite strategies. It slows the student down and allows him/her to hear how his/her writing “sounds” to find aspects to revise. Additionally, perspective-taking discussion in which the student learns to think like an outside listener with no previous background knowledge on the subject can be useful. This helps put the student in the right frame of mind to identify aspects of his/her writing that may be unclear to the reader.

While your child may be struggling with any aspect of this complex process, as discussed, at Language & Learning we will work on the underlying skills and help implement strategies to enhance your child’s written language at any level!