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10 Tips to Help Students with their Writing Skills

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A struggling writer may be having difficulties with any of the following writing skills: forming ideas, planning, organising, selecting and using language, transcribing, spelling, knowledge of grammar and sentence structure, and revising. Or, they may be struggling with the physical act of writing or typing.

Students with difficulties such as these would benefit from additional support. Here are some tips to help remove the barriers to writing so that students can improve their writing skills.

1. Allow students to record their ideas, plans and sentences they have formed orally on a Dictaphone so memory difficulties do not constrain their writing. They can then use this as a prompt when transcribing to paper.

2. Use direct instruction to teach students sentence combining. Sentence combining helps students combine sentences to make their writing stronger, more effective and less repetitive. E.g. Bob is Joe’s friendAndy is Joe’s friend. Combine them to make: Bob and Andy are Joe’s friends. See https://www.readingrockets.org/strategies/sentence_combining for more information.

3. Concentrate separately on handwriting and spelling, including phonics until they become automatic.

4. For students with poor gross or fine motor control, look into assistive technology tools such as keyboards with different sized keys, joysticks and speech recognition software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking or SpeakQ.

5. Watch for those students who slump in their chairs, flop their head on the desk, tuck their legs around, the chair, tire quickly and complain of pain. These students may need to work on their shoulder or core control. 

6. Reduce the amount of writing required by using writing paper with bigger spaces and less lines or using word prediction software such as Co:Writer or Read&Write Gold which reduces the number of keystrokes.

7. Provide students with a text rich environment, be enthusiastic about reading, listen to them read and read to them regularly. Teach them new words regularly to develop their vocabulary and explicitly teach them how to capture and use exciting words and ideas from texts read. Read more about how oral language skills impact literacy development.

8. Use Scholastic story starters. Students choose a theme, then spin a wheel to get a random set of characters, text type and plot. http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/story-starters/index.html

9. From magazines or newspapers, cut out pictures of characters, settings and actions and sort them into folders. Students can then choose one or more characters, a setting and action ideas that form the basis of their story plan.

10. Find wordless books. Have students write the story or dialogue to go with word-less picture books. Or, cover the words on picture books and have students write the replacement.  

It is possible to both motivate and support struggling writers and providing as much time as possible to write is key for students to develop as writers. I hope these tips help you pinpoint the difficulties your student has with writing and some strategies to address them. 

Learn more about how we can give your child the right support in literacy.

What causes reading comprehension problems?

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In this post we will discuss what causes reading comprehension problems. We will argue that comprehension problems are caused by poor oral language skills and discuss two of those skills- semantics and grammar. Poor oral language skills can also impact word reading development, which we discuss in another post.

What is semantics?

Learning words involves acquiring information about the phonological (or sound) features of the word and the meaning (semantics) of the word. Reading comprehension then involves integrating these two understandings into a coherent and complete mental model of the text.

The relationship between reading comprehension problems and semantics

Poor comprehenders typically have deficiencies in understanding what they have read, but intact phonological and decoding skills. For some, effortful semantic processing may leave limited cognitive resources available for making meaning at word and sentence level, while others may have deficits in integrating meaning across the whole text.

Poor comprehenders may not have a specific problem just with reading comprehension, but deficits in a wide range of language skills such as vocabulary knowledge, listening comprehension and grammatical skills. Studies have shown that students with persisting language impairments are those that also fit the “poor comprehender” profile.

What is grammar?

Grammatical knowledge is the implicit knowledge used to extract meaning from sentences through cues including ‘word order, grammatical morphemes, and function words such as relative pronouns, conjunctions and modals’ (Kamhi & Catts, 2002, p.54).

The relationship between reading comprehension problems and grammar

Grammar knowledge aids word recognition, inferencing, predicting, comprehension monitoring and error detection and correction; all of which support comprehension. Grammatical difficulties impair sentence comprehension which in turn impedes text comprehension as a whole. Some studies have found however, that the link between grammar and reading comprehension is indirect and cannot be separated out from the effect of vocabulary knowledge and memory.

What does this mean from a practical perspective?

We have argued that poor oral language skills can cause reading comprehension problems. For those children already at school age with literacy difficulties, identification of oral language and literacy skill strengths and weaknesses are imperative in order to determine the best path forward in terms of remediation.

Interventions that include a focus on oral language skills as well as narrative skills, story structure knowledge and inference making have been found to be the most effective in aiding reading comprehension. Interventions focussing on oral language skills have significantly improved poor comprehenders’ expressive vocabulary, and have led to long-lasting improvement in their reading comprehension abilities.

Furthermore, interventions such as Colourful Semantics (Bryan, 1997) and Shape Coding (Ebbels, 2007, Ebbels, Van Der Lely & Dockrell, 2007) which link vocabulary learning with sentence production and grammatical awareness have demonstrated an improvement in the grammar of children with language impairments.

Read more about our approach to teaching literacy and language.

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Adams, C., & Bishop, D. V. M. (1990). A prospective study of the relationship between specific language impairment, phonological disorders and reading retardation. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 31(7), 1027–1050.

Bryan, A. (1997). Colourful semantics: Thematic role therapy. In S. Chiat, J. Law & J. Marshall (eds.), Language Disorders in Children and Adults: Psycholinguistic Approaches to Therapy (pp.143-161). London: Whurr.

Cain, K. & Oakhill, J. (2007). Children’s comprehension problems in oral and written language. New York: The Guildford Press.

Cain, K. (2007). Syntactic awareness and reading ability: Is there any evidence for a special relationship? Applied Psycholinguistics, 28(4), 679–694.

Clarke, P. J., Snowling, M. J., Truelove, E., & Hulme, C. (2010). Ameliorating Children’s Reading-Comprehension Difficulties. Psychological Science, 21(8), 1106–1116.

Ebbels, S. H., Van Der Lely, H. K. J. & Dockrell, J. E., (2007). Intervention for verb argument structure in children with persistent SLI: a randomized control trial. Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research, 50, 1330–1349.

Ebbels, S. H., (2007). Teaching grammar to school-aged children with specific language impairment using shape coding. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 23, 67–93.

Fricke, S., Bowyer-Crane, C., Haley, A. J., Hulme, C., & Snowling, M. J. (2013). Efficacy of language intervention in the early years. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 54(3),

Kamhi, A. G. & Catts, H. W. (2002). The language basis of reading: Implications for classification and treatment of children with reading disabilities. In K., G. Butler & E., R. Silliman (eds.) Speaking Reading and Writing in Children with Language and Learning Disabilities (pp.45-72). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Stothard, S. E., & Hulme, C. (1992). Reading comprehension difficulties in children – The role of language comprehension and working memory skills. Reading and Writing, 4(3), 245–256.

How oral language skills impact reading development

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In this post we will discuss how poor oral language skills can cause word reading difficulties. We will discuss two oral language skills specifically: phonological processing and vocabulary knowledge. Oral language skills also cause reading comprehension problems. We discuss this in another post.

Word reading and oral language skills: Phonological awareness and decoding

Phonological awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate the sounds of language at sentence, word, syllable and phoneme (individual sound) level. Phonemic awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate the individual sounds of a word. Isolating, blending, segmenting and rearranging sounds in words all rely on strong phonemic awareness skills. (Read our blog on how to help your child when they are struggling with phonics).

Decoding involves recalling the sound that represents each letter and blending them together to form a word.

These two skills are critical for word reading new, unfamiliar words.

Word reading and oral language skills: Vocabulary knowledge

There is a positive relationship between vocabulary knowledge and reading skills. Previously encountered words form one’s vocabulary, and these words are then recognised quicker (i.e. by sight rather than sounding out) during subsequent readings. The relationship between vocabulary knowledge and reading skills is reciprocal: the more time spent reading, the more words you encounter and the more your vocabulary grows. The bigger your vocabulary, the easier it is to read fluently and efficiently.

What does this mean from a practical perspective?

For children with literacy difficulties, identifying oral language and literacy skill strengths and weaknesses is imperative in order to establish the cause of the difficulty and determine the best path forward in terms of remediation.

At a general level, interventions for word reading difficulties are more effective in facilitating reading acquisition if they include vocabulary development, phonological skill development, phonemic awareness learning, and systematic and explicit phonics teaching.

What is phonics?

Phonics instruction involves teaching the letter-sound rule system and reading by decoding. Phonics teaching approaches have been consistently associated with increased word reading attainment for typically developing and struggling readers. For phonics instruction to have a lasting impact on reading ability, it is crucial that teaching is systematic, comprehensive and explicit.

Learn more about how we can give your child the right support in phonics, reading and writing.

For more information:


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Snowling, M. J., & Hulme, C. (2011). Evidence-based interventions for reading and language difficulties: Creating a virtuous circle. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 81(1), 1–23.

Hulme, C., & Snowling, M. J. (2014). The interface between spoken and written language : developmental disorders. Philosophical Transactions Of The Royal Society B-Biological Sciences, 369, 1–8.

Adlof, S. A. & Perfetti, C. A. (2014). Individual differences in word learning and reading ability. In C. A. Stone, E., R. Silliman, B., J. Ehren & G., P. Wallach (eds.) Handbook of Language and Literacy: Development and Disorders (pp.246-264). New York: The Guildford Press.

Paris, S. G. (2005). Reinterpreting the development of reading skills. Reading Research Quarterly, 40,184-202.

Stanovich, Keith, E. (1986). Matthew Effects in Reading : Some Consequences of Individual Differences in the Acquisition of Literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21(4), 360–407.

Murphy, K. A., Justice, L. M., O’Connell, A. A., Pentimonti, J. M., & Kaderavek, J. N. (2016). Understanding Risk for Reading Difficulties in Children With Language Impairment. Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research, 59(6), 1436–1447. https://doi.org/10.1044/2016

Child struggling with phonics? Here’s how you can help

Many children with additional needs, especially those with speech, language and communication needs struggle to use phonic skills as part of learning to read.  Here are some top tips on how to help your child who is struggling with phonics at home.

These ideas can be adapted for the non-verbal learner by using objects and pictures to indicate a response.

Learn more about how we can help give your child the right support in phonics and reading.

Use multi-sensory approaches

Learn about letters and the sounds they make by using the different senses. For example, manipulate wooden or magnetic letters whilst saying the sounds, or tracing over letters in shaving foam.

For the non-verbal learner: over-stretch the sounds in words and allow your child to put their hands on your throat so they can feel the vibrations of your voice-box. Use a mirror so you both watch the movements the mouth makes when making the sounds. These multi-sensory approaches help to ‘anchor’ sounds to memory.

Play memory games

Children with poor short term memory struggle to ‘hold’ a sequence of sounds in their mind in order to blend them. Play memory games that involve your child remembering and carrying out 2, 3 or 4 instructions in order.

Developing phonological awareness skills helps a child struggling with phonics

Students at risk for reading difficulty often have lower levels of phonological awareness. Phonological awareness is the ability to recognise and work with sounds in spoken language. Practise skills such as:

  • Rhyming- read books with rhymes, match pictures or symbols of words that rhyme, continue a rhyming string
  • Recognising syllables- clapping out or tapping the beats in spoken words e.g. win-dow
  • Identify same and different speech sounds- ask your child to identify whether two sounds (not letters) are the same. E.g. are the ‘c’ and ‘p’ the same?
  • Recognising initial sounds of words- play games such as ‘eye spy’ or ‘Simon says’
  • Recognising final sounds in words- sort objects into groups based on their final sounds. Over-pronounce the sound if your child is having difficulties
  • Blending and segmenting sounds in spoken words- give your child instructions with a word that is segmented. Your child will have to blend the sounds to follow the instruction, such as ‘give me your b-oo-k’ or ‘find the h-a-t’. Swap roles and let your child give you instructions to follow.

Once your child’s phonological skills are secure, you can then move on to blending to read written words and spelling. Read more about how oral language skills impact reading development.