Dissembling and Assembling the Moving Parts of Writing
Melvin D. Levine, MD
“Joey has no shortage of terrific ideas, but you’d never know it by seeing something he’s written. To read what he’s written you’d think he was a much younger child.”
“Michael’s writing is incredibly hard to decipher. Sometimes even he can’t read what he’s written. He has a very odd way of holding a pencil; at times he complains his hand gets sore when he writes a lot. The poor kid hates to write.”
“Cindy has a lot to say and much she could write about, but she has a terrible time organizing what she wants to communicate. What comes out on paper seems incoherent and unconnected, almost stream of consciousness.”
“Emma tends to be a quiet child. We notice she has trouble expressing complicated ideas when she speaks, and this also shows up in writing; getting her thoughts down is a very slow and tedious process for her.”
“Will insists that whenever he tries to write his memory shuts down. Our home becomes a battlefield when Will has to do written homework! Plus, his spelling is atrocious, and he’s very self-conscious about that.”
These proclamations of exasperation reflect the agony and confusion parents live with whether they criticize or sympathize with a child who has trouble getting thoughts on paper. That’s not so surprising when we consider the complexity of writing and the many possible ways in which the act can break down.
Writing requires more diverse brain parts to collaborate and synchronize their operation than anything else school demand of a child.
Here are eight of writing’s most pivotal moving parts:
- Graphomotor function
- Language production
- Memory access
- Generation of ideas – creative and/or analytic thinking and brainstorming
- Organization - of time, of materials, and of thoughts
- Sustained attention to detail and self-monitoring
- Interpretation of expectations
- Integration of all of the above
Graphomotor Function: The motor aspects of writing overwhelm some students. Kids with graphomotor dysfunction find letter formation inordinately hard and slow. Frequently, they reveal an awkward pencil grasp, which may need to be retrained. Oddly enough, many of them have good fine motor and gross motor abilities; their motor difficulties are limited to graphomotor function and sometimes speech as well. Some are helped by keyboarding, which can be elusive for others.
Language Production: Writing is the highest form of language. When kids have trouble expressing themselves, they are likely to encounter problems with written language as well. Some may benefit from language therapy. These are students who need to separate the act of generating ideas from the translation of those ideas into literate written words and sentences. They should brainstorm thoroughly prior to communicating in grammatically complex and sophisticated language. As they progress through their school years, students have to discern the difference between the language of instant messaging or twittering and the forms of verbal expression utilized in academic writing.
Memory Access: It is likely that there is nothing a child does that requires as much memory as writing. Memory shortfalls of various types are a common and mostly undetected form of writing failure. Children face an immense challenge in having to recall simultaneously and nearly automatically: spelling, punctuation (and other rules of writing), facts, words and ideas, plus the motor plans for letter formations. Some children lack the rapid, simultaneous, and precise retrieval memory they need. So a 5th grader may sound great in a class discussion yet her thoughts are disappointing as they arise on paper. Nowhere near as much memory is required for speaking as for written output. Computers (basically extra memory) may help. It is imperative that affected children learn to write in stages, so they are not draining too many memory compartments at once.
Generation of Ideas: There is an old adage: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Writing can and should become a means of thinking. The production of fertile personal thoughts enriches writing, while writing, in turn, allows for the elaboration and refinement of those thoughts. The generation and elaboration of ideas consist of such demands as topic selection and research skills, along with creative, analytic, and/or evaluative (critical) thinking. Some children and adolescents are stymied when it comes to deriving or devising ideas. They need to separate out and focus on the brainstorming stage of writing. They can create bulleted lists of their thoughts without at the same time having to strive for elegant language and all the mechanics of writing. They can make use of a digital tape recorder or software (such as Inspiration) to facilitate needed thought processes independent of the act of writing.
Organization: Writing can be a harsh test of a person’s organizational skills. The ability to access needed materials (such as notes, writing utensils, computer files, and notebooks) defeats some young would be writers. Managing time is another hurdle. Knowing how to allocate time, work in stages, and pace yourself are vital ingredients and common impasses for some kids struggling to write reports or take essay tests. Finally, there is the organization of one’s thinking. Some children have impressive ideas, but they are at a loss when it comes to organizing these insights so they cohere and make sense to readers. Some may benefit from using writing webs or some other structures on which to scaffold their ideas so they flow effectively.
Attention: Writing drains attention. And that is one reason why children with attentional weaknesses may be reluctant to write. They simply run out of fuel and therefore have trouble getting closure on a written assignment. For others simply getting started is a huge hurdle; a parent may need to offer a “jump start” by helping create the first sentence. These children may come up with superb ideas, sometimes highly original and imaginative. But they have trouble attending to small details (like punctuation and spelling) and are prone to commit frequent careless errors. They much prefer the “big picture” and are apt to protest over the need for “grunge work” like proofreading. These writers need to write small amounts in a sitting. They are helped by having multiple work sites – a new burst of mental energy becomes available each time they switch locales. Parents should find times of day when a kid is best able to concentrate on writing.
Comprehension of Expectations – Writing assignments can confuse some students. They fail to understand sufficiently what is expected of them. Many have trouble with question comprehension and are unsure of what they are being asked to accomplish, answer, or cover to satisfy a specific writing task. Related to this is the ability to determine what it will take to please a particular teacher (sometimes referred to as “the hidden curriculum”). For example, some teachers reward imagination and original thinking, while others expect you to adhere narrowly and firmly to the facts! Highly competent students sense what writing style will win over a particular teacher. A parent can be helpful in raising these issues as a son or daughter launches a written response to demands.
Integration (of all of the above) – The diverse writing ingredients cited above have to be blended seamlessly. There are young writers who can handle all the individual parts but somehow are unable to integrate them smoothly. They may feel inundated and intimidated as they set about writing. They need targeted help particularly aimed at knowing what to do when!
The complexity of writing is indisputable. Ironically, relatively few careers require a great deal of written output. However, to be successful in life, individuals need to cultivate the individual parts of the brain that writing serves to strengthen during the school years. As such, learning to write effectively and efficiently comprises a vitally relevant “package deal” for any developing mind!
Further information about the work of Melvin D. Levine, MD, including his blogs, books, videos, and tools can be found on his two websites, bringingupminds.com and amindatatime.com.