Learning Challenges

How to Remove Hurdles to Writing for Students with ADHD

Half of all kids with ADHD struggle with writing, which can make every assignment — from straightforward worksheets to full-length essays — feel like torture. Boost your child’s skills with these 18 strategies for school and home.

ADHD student's notebook with pen, glasses, and textbook next to it
ADHD student's notebook with pen, glasses, and textbook next to it

Studies suggest that more than half of children with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) struggle with writing. These students may have an overflow of creative ideas, but often struggle when it comes to getting these ideas onto paper.

Children with ADHD have a hard time getting started — and following through — on writing assignments because they have difficulty picking essay topics, locating appropriate resources, holding and manipulating information in their memory, organizing and sequencing the material, and getting it down on paper — all before they forget what they wanted to say.

But these hurdles don’t have to stop them from writing. Discuss the following ADHD writing strategies with your child’s teacher so you can work together to ease the difficulties attention deficit children have with writing.

Solutions in the Classroom: Guide the Writing Process

—Set up a note system. Ask the student to write her notes about a topic on individual sticky notes. She can then group the notes together that feature similar ideas so she’ll be able to easily identify the major concepts of the subject from the groupings.

—Start small and build skills. Ask students with ADHD to write a paragraph consisting of only two or three sentences. As their skills improve, the students can start writing several paragraphs at a time.

[Free Download: 18 Writing Tricks for Students with ADHD]

—Demonstrate essay writing. With the use of an overhead projector, write a paragraph or an entire essay in front of the class, explaining what you are doing at each step. Students can assist you by contributing sentences as you go. Students with ADHD are often visual learners, and tend to do better when they see the teacher work on a task.

—Give writing prompts. Students with ADHD usually don’t generate as many essay ideas as their peers. Help the children with ADHD increase their options for essay assignments by collecting materials that stimulate choices. Read a poem, tell a story, show pictures in magazines, newspapers, or books.

If the student is still struggling to get started, help him by sitting down and talking about the assignment with him. Review his notes from the brainstorming session and ask, “What are some ways you could write the first sentence?” If he doesn’t have an answer, say, “Here’s an idea. How would you write that in your own words?”

—Encourage colorful description. Students with ADHD often have difficulty “dressing up” their written words. Help them add adjectives and use stronger, more active verbs in sentences.

[How Teens with Learning Differences Can Defeat Writing Challenges]

—Explain the editing process. Students with ADHD have a hard time writing to length and often produce essays that are too short and lacking in details. Explain how the use of adjectives and adverbs can enhance their composition. Show them how to use a thesaurus, too.

Solutions in the Classroom: Use Accommodations Where Necessary

—Allow enough time. Students with ADHD, especially those with the inattentive subtype, may take longer to process information and should receive extended time to complete assignments.

—Don’t grade early work. Sensitive students are discouraged by negative feedback as they are developing their writing skills. Wait until the paper is finished before assigning it a grade.

—Don’t deduct points for poor handwriting or bad grammar. Unless an assignment is specifically measuring handwriting and grammar skills, when a child is working hard to remember and communicate, let some things slide.

—Use a graphic organizer. A graphic organizer organizes material visually in order to help with memory recall. Distribute pre-printed blank essay forms that students with ADHD can fill in, so they’ll reserve their efforts for the most important task — writing the essay.

—Grade limited essay elements. To encourage writing mastery and avoid overwhelming students, grade only one or two elements at any given time. For example, “This week, I’m grading subject-verb agreement in sentences.” Tighter grading focus channels students’ attention to one or two writing concepts at a time.

Solutions at Home

—Encourage journals. Have your child write down his thoughts about outings to the movies, visits with relatives, or trips to museums. Add some fun to the activity by asking your child to e-mail you his thoughts or text-message you from his cell phone.

—Assist with essay topic selection. Children with ADHD have difficulty narrowing down choices and making decisions. Help your student by listening to all of his ideas and writing down three or four of his strongest topics on cards. Next, review the ideas with him and have him eliminate each topic, one by one – until only the winner is left.

—Brainstorm. Once the topic is identified, ask him for all the ideas he thinks might be related to it. Write the ideas on sticky notes, so he can cluster them together into groupings that will later become paragraphs. He can also cut and paste the ideas into a logical sequence on the computer.

—Stock up on books, movies, games. These materials will introduce new vocabulary words and stimulate thinking. Explore these with your child and ask him questions about them to solicit his views.

—Be your child’s “scribe.” Before your child loses his idea for the great American novel, or for his next English assignment, have him dictate his thoughts to you as you write them out by hand or type them into the computer. As his skills improve over time, he’ll need less of your involvement in this process.

—Go digital. Children with ADHD often write slower than their classmates. Encourage your child to start the writing process on a computer. This way, she’ll keep her work organized and won’t misplace her essay before it’s finished. Also, by working on the computer she can easily rearrange the order of sentences and paragraphs in a second draft.

—Remind your child to proofread. Let your child know that he’ll be able to catch errors if he proofreads his rough draft before handing it in.

High-Tech Writing Helpers for Kids with ADHD

Portable word processor

These battery-operated devices look like a computer keyboard with a small calculator screen. Light and durable, portable word processors can be used at school for note-taking and writing assignments. Back home, files can be transferred to a PC or Mac. Basic models cost about $20.

Speech-recognition software

Also called speech-to-text software, these programs allow students to read aloud into a microphone and see their words appear on a computer screen. Good programs include Dragon NaturallySpeaking, for PCs and Dragon Nuance, for Macs.

Word-prediction software

Software such as Co:Writer Solo ($325) helps with spelling and builds vocabulary, providing a drop-down list of words from which a student can choose. It also fills in words to speed composition. Some programs read sentences aloud, so the writer can hear what he has written and catch mistakes as they occur.

Electronic spell-checkers and dictionaries

Enter a word phonetically, and these portable gadgets define the word and provide the correct spelling. Talking devices read the words aloud. Franklin Electronics offers models beginning at about $20.

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Chris Zeigler Dendy, M.S., is a member of ADDitude’s ADHD Medical Review Panel.