Is your child having trouble writing?

Is your child:

  • Hating writing?
  • Having meltdowns over writing homework?
  • Coming unglued over having to write a personal narrative?
  • Having difficulty completing writing work in class?
  • Requiring lots of help to write every sentence?
  • Feeling lost on what to write about?
  • Easily feeling frustrated; wrinkling up paper or erasing holes in it?
  • Failing spelling tests?
  • Sitting at the table for a long time but producing very little writing?
  • Getting good grades in math but falling behind in language arts?


Writing is a major part of literacy and academic life. Struggles with writing can be crippling in school. It may be that your child loves school in general but refuses to write. He or she may study hard, but still fail spelling tests.

You may wonder about your child’s memory because you practice and practice the spelling words, but she just can’t remember the words. Your child may cry every time a writing task is assigned for homework. It may be that your child does fine with writing fiction, but has difficulty writing a personal narrative or nonfiction to save his life.

Alternatively, your child may write well conceptually, but has poor grammar or punctuation. It may be that your child has poor handwriting, and although there may be good content there, no one can read it for lack of legibility.

Your child may want writing tasks to look perfect, changing her words until a hole is erased through the paper. Or it might be that your child produces minimal writing, turning in partially completed papers that are full of errors. He or she may refuse to edit work.

When you try to help your child with writing, she may become very resistant, saying, “It’s fine like it is! Our teacher told us we don’t have to fix it!”


The problem here can be what is called “symbol recognition.” Children who struggle to visually perceive the symbols [4] on a page have difficulties in both reading and writing. They often mistake “b” for “d” or “p” for “q.”

They may reverse numbers also, mistaking “9” for “6” or “5” for “2.” This is a problem with visual-spatial processing, or understanding how letters are supposed to look on the page.

When a child cannot create a picture in her head of that symbol [4], she is not going to remember how the word is spelled. This difficulty can be the reason a child can practice for hours the night before, and then forget all the words, failing the spelling test.

Many adults have had the experience of looking at a word and thinking, “I know that’s the right spelling, but it just doesn’t look right.” Children with learning disabilities may have this problem all the time.

They simply cannot create an accurate image of that word in their heads, so they don’t know if it is spelled correctly or not. They get very frustrated as they attempt to search for the words in their heads and forget what they were going to write about in the first place.


Writing skills are extremely important, and problems often require remediation. If your child is truly struggling to get words on the page, intervene early and often. Be patient, and don’t give up.

Reading problems: Children who struggle with the symbols needed for writing will also have trouble with reading.

In that case, intervention is needed. This help may come in the form of outside tutoring that uses a model like Lindamood-Bell or Orton-Gillingham. These multi-sensory approaches help your child learn how to see and visually represent letters and words. This help may also come from the school through special education services at school.

Handwriting problems: A child with poor handwriting may have a fine motor issue that is getting in the way of his writing. If your child is in the second grade and still struggles to form letters correctly, this is a red flag for fine motor problems.

Sometimes, a child is simply being sloppy or rushing through tasks, which is not necessarily indicative of a fine motor problem. However, if your child is working long and hard, and the work is still illegible, fine motor skills should be considered. An occupational therapist, either in the school or private setting, can help with handwriting.

If your child struggles after intensive intervention, into the third grade or above, you may consider requesting a 504 plan from your school that includes a chance to type, rather than handwrite, the written tasks in school.

Use caution with this approach, however, as it is important for your child to keep practicing writing. Regardless, writing is a part of literacy and must be coached and practiced until your child finds success with it.

Expressive language problems: If the issues are with expressive language, a speech therapist, either at school or in the community, may help your child learn how to use the correct words and logical sentences to express his or her ideas.

Narrative coherence is storytelling. Expressive language problems may go hand-in-hand with narrative coherence because children who struggle to express themselves will also not be good story-tellers.

Your kindergartner or first grader may have trouble telling good stories, but if your 8-10-year-old child is still struggling to tell a sensible story, this is a concern that should be addressed. A special education teacher may be needed to help your child with storytelling and writing. If significant issues with narrative coherence are present, especially when there are academic strengths, it may be necessary to consider a psychological evaluation.

Executive functions. Writing requires kids to be good at initiating (getting started). Your child may get stuck before he even writes the first word; he may be paralyzed by the uncertainty of how to begin.

Children with poor organizational skills and planning abilities tend to struggle with writing. Your child may not pay attention long enough to complete writing tasks. In that case, a full evaluation may be needed to determine whether a disability underlies your child’s challenges.

Talk to your school about your child’s problems in writing. Your child scoring below the 12th percentile or approximately two grade levels behind peers may qualify him for special education services.

However, writing is considered an emerging skill in younger children. If your child is in kindergarten or first grade, most schools will wait to test a child for special education. The school may prefer to try interventions and supports within the classroom first.

If your child still struggles significantly with writing into the second or third grade, even with intervention, it is time to request an evaluation at school. It is not enough to be good at other subjects; your child needs to learn to be a good writer too. As a parent, advocate to get the right help for your child.


If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.

  • Expressive language: children who have difficulties expressing themselves orally are likely to struggle with writing
  • Generalized Anxiety: children who feel very nervous about how they will do on a certain task (performance anxiety) or who are perfectionists, tend to get stuck on writing tasks.
  • Handwriting: children who are struggling writers may have difficulty with the fine motor skills needed for writing
  • Learning problems: children who struggle to learn new words, spell, and think logically, will generally have a hard time writing
  • Narrative coherence: children who have difficulty telling stories that make sense are generally not good writers
  • Planning (Organizing): children who have problems with using strategies (metacognition), initiating tasks, planning, and completing tasks may struggle with writing
  • Reading problems: children who struggle with symbolic representations (letters and numbers) generally have trouble in writing
  • Rigidity: children who are inflexible may struggle with open-ended writing tasks. They may insist on knowing every detail of what to write before getting started. They might refuse to do a personal narrative, saying, “I don’t know what to write about”
  • Sequential Reasoning: children with difficulties understanding how to put events in order or create a mental story-board in their heads, may have trouble writing
  • Spatial Reasoning: children with poor spatial processing (low Spatial IQ) struggle to see how letters are supposed to look and have difficulty in reading and writing
  • Verbal comprehension: children who have challenges with vocabulary knowledge and comprehension often have difficulty with written work


Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.

  • Specific Learning Disability in reading / Dyslexia (Educationally Identified Disabilities – can be diagnosed clinically as well): a significant learning disability in reading may also impact writing. Problems with symbol translation (seeing how letters look and knowing how they sound), decoding, and fluency are all common in dyslexia and in writing problems
  • Specific Learning Disability in Written Expression (Educationally Identified Disabilities): Generally, skills are in the 12th percentile or below, and performance is two grade levels behind in order to qualify for special education. Schools conduct evaluations to identify children for special education. A clinical diagnosis of dysgraphia / Specific Learning Disorder (SLD) in writing may be diagnosed by a licensed psychologist outside of the schools if there is a significant learning disability affecting skills like writing narratives, composing sentences, punctuation, syntax, and spelling
  • ADHD: problems with inattention and disinhibition, and impulsivity
  • Intellectual Disability (Educationally Identified Disabilities – may be diagnosed clinically as well): low IQ and adaptive functioning skills impact writing


If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • CLEAR Child Psychology: to obtain a customized profile of concerns for your child or consult ‘live’ with a psychologist
  • Psychologist: to consider a full assessment and to determine diagnoses and recommendations
  • School Psychologist: to assess challenges with writing within the context of overall achievement. If writing skills fall at or below the 12th percentile and/or two grade levels behind peers, the child may qualify for Special Education services.
  • Occupational Therapist: to evaluate problems with handwriting or motor skills that impact performance in all written work, including letter and number formation
  • Learning Specialist: to consider and provide intervention

These professionals may recommend the following tests for this symptom:

  • TOWL: a test of written language
  • WISC-V: an IQ test to establish a baseline of intellectual abilities, particularly verbal skills, which impact writing
  • TOVA: an attention test for focus that may affect writing ability
  • Work samples: an analysis of classwork to evaluate writing skills
  • WIAT: an academic test of overall skills in terms of achievement in multiple subjects, including writing


[1] Linder Ed.D., Toni & Petersen-Smith Ph.D., Ann (2008) Administration Guide for TPBA2 & TPBI2 (Play-Based Tpba, Tpbi, Tpbc)

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Administration-Guide-TPBA2-TPBI2-Play-Based/dp/1557668736/

[2] Words their way. Writing intervention program.

[3] Handwriting without tears. Handwriting intervention.

[4] Bell, N. (2013). Seeing Stars. https://www.amazon.com/Seeing-Stars-Phonological-Orthographic-Processing/dp/1935596012/

[5] Ixl: www.ixl.com. Math and language arts practice using on-line skill progression by grade level, grades K-12.

[6] Lindamood Bell reading and writing intervention.

[7] Orton-Gillingham reading and writing intervention.

For kids:

Esham, Barbara (2014) Keep Your Eye on the Prize (Adventures of Everyday Geniuses). Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Keep-Prize-Adventures-Everyday-Geniuses/dp/1603363904/

Zentic, Tamara (2015). Grit & bear it activity guide: Activities to engage, encourage, and inspire perseverance. https://www.amazon.com/Grit-Black-White-Living-Color/dp/1934490644/

Meiners, Cheri, J. (2003). Listen and learn. https://www.amazon.com/Listen-Learn-Cheri-J-Meiners/dp/1575421232/

Cook, Julia (2013). Thanks for the feedback, I think (Best me I can be!)

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Thanks-Feedback-Think-Best-Can/dp/1934490490/

Deak, JoAnn & Ackerley, Sarah (2010). Your fantastic elastic brain stretch it, shape it.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Fantastic-Elastic-Brain-Stretch-Shape/dp/0982993803/

Hamm, Mia (2006). Winners never quit!

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Winners-Never-Quit-Mia-Hamm/dp/0060740523/

Image Credit:
Name: Learn to Write
By: Bildagentur Zoonar Gmb
Image Number: 208531888 (Shutterstock)
Licensed: October 22, 2016
Stylized exclusively for CLEAR Child Psychology

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