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Mar 12, 2018

Do you have a child who can talk at length on a topic but struggles to get all those great ideas downLisa Anders, Executive Function coach for Beyond BookSmart on paper? Because writing draws upon Executive Function skills such as planning, organizing, time management, attention, working memory, and metacognition — it’s no wonder we Executive Function coaches see many of our students struggle in this area. In fact, writing can feel so difficult that just hearing about that upcoming assignment for a 500 word essay can send chills down a student’s back. (Add emotion regulation to the list of Executive Function skills involved in writing!)

When it comes to writing, there really is more to it than just putting words on paper. Let’s take a look at some of the separate components involved to give you a better idea of how complex writing tasks can be.

You can break down the art of writing into these 6 areas:  ideas and content, organization, word choice or vocabulary, fluency, voice, and conventions. I’ll explain each of these areas in a bit more detail and offer a strategy for each area.

1) Ideas and Content

Let’s start with ideas and content - the very “stuff” of writing! If a student is struggling in this area, they are having trouble with originality and elaboration. What does that mean? Students may have trouble generating ideas or lack supporting details that offer examples, definitions, or vignettes that help readers cue in to what the writer is saying. If a student is writing a research paper, they may be having difficulty putting ideas into their own words or analyzing and summarizing information they have learned about throughout the research process. If it’s a creative writing assignment, the content may be lacking focus or development of story elements such as plot, setting, theme, or even the main character.

Strategy for creative writing: This article, written by a Speech-Language pathologist contains a detailed, step by step guide for teaching a younger child about how stories are constructed.

2) Organization

It could be organization and the process of writing that strains your child. It is important that a student understands that writing is not a simple assembly-line process; rather, it’s a process that requires not only putting thoughts and paragraphs together, but also a willingness to rework and revisit sections in order to produce a clear and coherent result. Maybe your child starts on one topic, moves on to another, then returns back to the original topic again? This would indicate difficulties with organizing and sequencing their ideas together, which affects overall flow for a reader.

Strategy for organization: This blog post, How to Organize and Essay, 3 Graphic Organizers for Young Writers contains links and other tips to help with different types of writing assignments.

3) Fluency

Another area of challenge can be fluency, which refers to the amount of words that are generated by the writer. In the opening scenario in this article, the child can verbalize many ideas, but has poor fluency with writing down those ideas and may have difficulty meeting minimum requirements for length of assignments.

Strategy to develop writing fluency: This article provides a step by step exercise to build writing fluency.

4) Voice

Voice is the individual style that a writer uses and it can be one of the greatest struggles that young writers have. A strong writing voice clearly speaks to the reader and accomplishes an objective, such as helping a reader feel exactly what a character is feeling. Students who struggle with voice in creative writing may tell: “The man got mad.” instead of show their reader information about characters and events: “The man slammed his fists down on the table.” In research papers or essays, students may use an informal tone (“The book is about this kid who’s not so happy.”), which indicates a need to develop a more academic or formal voice for this type of writing.

Strategy to develop voice in writing: This is an area that takes time to develop. Read this article for an overview of how voice can be developed in young writers.

5) Vocabulary

Sometimes students have a limited vocabulary, which leads to repetitive and dull writing. Students who struggle in this area will lack grade appropriate words and will simplify what they are trying to say. A student might repeat the same word throughout a story or essay; picture an overuse of the word “big” instead of alternatives such as large, giant, huge, or enormous when describing a dinosaur, for example.

Strategy for building vocabulary: Here’s a fun way to build stronger word choice in students, Put Boring Words in Jail.

6) Conventions

Let’s take a look at conventions now. When someone says that a piece of writing has convention errors, what they mean is that the piece may have spelling mistakes, punctuation errors, or grammar errors. It is common, especially today with auto correct, for students to make these mistakes and to pay little attention to them while writing or editing themselves. This is an area that requires time and attention to details, which may be challenging for students; especially students that need extra support with Executive Function skills.

Strategy for conventions: Use an editing checklist and then customize it for your child’s trouble spots.

Now what?

So, now that you see many of the separate components of good writing, what else can you do to help your child who struggles with writing?

First, find out which of these areas are the reason(s) for your child’s writing challenges. (Yes, there could be more than one area!) It may help to talk with your child’s teachers and observe your child’s writing process to get a sense of what may underlie the struggles. If the challenges are substantial, you may consider seeking an evaluation from your child’s school or an outside provider such as a neuropsychologist. Regardless of the problem areas you may be seeing, there are many ways to help a child develop the skills they need to be confident writers (this article has links to some fun exercises). Time, patience, and persistence with good strategies can help build the writing skills your child needs.


Please see this page for comprehensive information about Executive Function in Elementary students.


Does your child struggle with essay tests? Download our free guide that helps students prepare effectively for open-ended questions.

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About the Author

Lisa Anders

Lisa is an Executive Function coach and intake coordinator with Beyond BookSmart. She earned her Masters degree from Roosevelt University in School Counseling. With 15 years experience working as an educator in Illinois, Lisa has taught students in the public school setting in grades K, 5, and middle school. Lisa has additional experience working with early childhood education as well as serving those with behavioral needs. She believes in supporting students socially and emotionally, as well as academically. As an Executive Function coach, Lisa also provides parents with essential feedback, resources, and progress updates to help parents understand the challenges their children face and how they are developing their skills.

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