5 Writing Hacks for Children with ADHD, Dyslexia, or Dysgraphia

Imagine seeing your child eager to write. Wouldn’t it be great to see him enjoying the challenges of composition?

How thrilled would you be to see your child proudly turn in her book reports?

Well, it’s absolutely possible.

I recently taught a fourth grader whose writing didn’t reflect his thoughtful personality. His compositions were a jumble of misspelled words, run-on sentences, and off-topic musings.

But his latest paragraph? It was clear and accessible. Best of all, it sounded like him!

It’s inspiring. I want you to see what’s possible after a few hours of targeted instruction.

I want you to know that teaching writing to a child with dyslexia, dysgraphia, or ADHD doesn’t have to be such a struggle.

There’s no secret to it. Just like everything we share here, it’s a matter of taking small steps and giving kids the right supports.

1. Graphic Organizer

The graphic organizer is the easiest way to help children write more organized compositions. It is especially useful for children who turn in disorganized writing assignments, forget writing mechanics, or get distracted.

A graphic organizer is a visual planner that shows the parts of a paragraph or essay. Graphic organizers help kids see the relationship between parts of a paragraph: the topic sentence, supporting details, and conclusion.1

Here why’s graphic organizers work:

  • Graphic organizers free up working memory. When kids write, they can max out their working memory by remembering ideas, sentence structure, organization, spelling, mechanics, etc.2 With a graphic organizer, kids can plan out their ideas before they start writing. This pays big dividends. That’s why skilled writers plan before they write.3
  • Graphic organizers help students self-monitor their work. This means that your child can figure out for herself if she’s left out the topic sentence, details, or a conclusion. All she has to do is look at the graphic organizer to see if it’s complete.

You might be thinking, I’ve already tried teaching with graphic organizers, but they didn’t help. Have you explicitly taught how to use a graphic organizer?

When researchers reviewed 43 different studies on teaching writing, they discovered that writing interventions are only effective if time is spent teaching the writing skill.4 Providing the graphic organizer isn’t enough. Make sure you give clear instructions, show how to use the tool, and give plenty of practice with feedback.

You can download this paragraph organizer that I use daily with my students:

Download My Free Graphic Organizer (BayTreeBlog.com)
Right-click the image above and select
“Save Link As” to download.

2. Provide a Model

How much would you enjoy completing a jigsaw puzzle without the photo box cover? Would you bother?

Writers too need to know what a successful finished product looks like.

How do you do this? Give students a model.

Models show kids what to write and how much to write. Models give kids opportunities to learn from other writers.

A Carnegie Corporation report (see link to full article in the footnotes) examined over 100 studies on teaching writing. They found that providing models was one of only 11 strategies that have been shown to actually help all students write.5 They recommend providing models since:

[Models] provide students with opportunities to read, analyze, and emulate models of good writing.

If your son or daughter hasn’t received a model, you can do a Google search for “Example 6th grade reflection essay.” You can also find student examples here at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.

Educators can take this one step further. We can actually write in front of our students! We can talk out loud as we write, sharing our feelings, and more importantly, discussing our strategies. Most effective writing interventions include this modeling process.6

3. Show Kids How to Use Rubrics

Most teachers share writing rubrics. These charts or checklists show how the composition will be evaluated. It spells out the teacher’s expectations. Researchers have found that children thrive when their teachers share clear goals.7

Yet most students don’t bother with rubrics. When I tell students that their teachers share rubrics to show them how to get a good grade, they perk up.

Before your son or daughter begins a writing assignment, take a few minutes to review the rubric.

If your child hasn’t been given a rubric, you can ask the teacher for one. You can use a Google search, or try one of these to 6+1 Trait® Writing Rubrics.

For a novice writer, here’s what a rubric might look like:

I have finished my paragraph when:
1. I have a topic sentence that explains the main idea.
2. I have three supporting details that back up my main idea.
3. Each supporting detail sentence includes a transition word.
4. I have written a conclusion that restates the main idea.
5. Each sentence is complete and makes sense.

4. Teach Kids to Read Aloud

Recently I met a fourth grader whose teacher nearly obliterated his writing assignments with red pen markings. His teacher was fed up with his omitted words and missing capitalization. We finally got him back in his teacher’s good graces with a simple strategy.

He learned to read his work out loud.

By quietly reading his composition out loud, tracking each word with his finger, he found every mistake.

Experienced writers know that reading their work aloud helps them find errors and confusing sections. At the Writing Center at Chapel Hill, they recommend that writers read aloud because:

When you read your draft out loud or listen to someone else read it, your brain gets the information in a new way, and you may notice things that you didn’t see before.

5. Use Technology

If you’re looking for a way to get homework done faster with fewer tears, it might be time to think about technology.

Researchers have found that technology can help children work around handwriting, spelling, and mechanics problems.8 I’ve found that teaching kids to use technology helps to unlock their writing abilities and develop a more positive outlook on writing.

Here are my top two recommendations.

Use the built-in dictation software from Apple as a writing tool for kids with LD. (BayTreeBlog.com)

Dictation. Dictation is a game changer. Especially for children with dyslexia, dictation frees them from the tyranny of spelling and mechanics. The built-in dictation software on Mac OS X is genius. Dictation frees up working memory that would otherwise be used on handwriting and spelling. Kids can focus on their ideas.

What researchers say9:

Students with LD who dictated their compositions […] showed greater writing improvements than students who composed by hand.

Typing Instruction For Kids (BayTreeBlog.com)

Typing. For a lot of kids, typing makes more sense than Dictation. Typing makes it effortless to spell-check. We know that kids with LD tend to spend less time revising.10 With basic word processing, revising is faster and it’s much easier to catch mistakes. If your son or daughter isn’t a great typist yet, this is the program I use: Typing Instructor for Kids

You’re Ready to Help

We could write an entire book on the topics from this post! For now, though, I invite you to choose just one of these five straightforward strategies to use.

We don’t have to do everything at once. It’s just one small step forward at a time.

I always love reading your comments and answering questions. How is your child struggling right now? What are your best strategies for teaching writing?



  • Research References

    1 Dexter, D. D., & Hughes, C. A. (2011). Graphic organizers and students with learning disabilities: A meta-analysis. Learning Disabilities Quarterly, 34(1), pp 51-72.

    2 Berninger, V. W., (2009). Programmatic, interdisciplinary research on writing. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 23(2), pp. 69-80.

    3 Santangelo, T., Harris, K. R., & Graham, S. (2008). Using self-regulated strategy development
to support students who have “trubol giting thangs into werds.” Remedial and Special Education, 29(2), pp 78-89.

    4 Gillespie, A., & Graham, S. (2014). A meta-analysis of writing interventions for students with learning disabilities. Exceptional Children, 80(4), 454-473.

    5 Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007). Writing
next: Effective strategies to improve writing of adolescents in middle and high schools. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

    www.all4ed.org/ files/WritingNext.pdf

    6 Gillespie, A., & Graham, S. (2014). A meta-analysis of writing interventions for students with learning disabilities. Exceptional Children, 80(4), 454-473.

    7 Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement.

    8 Portilla-Revollar, C. (1994). Differences in story production between students with learning disabilities and normally achieving students under two modes of production. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX

    9 Gillespie, A., & Graham, S. (2014). A meta-analysis of writing interventions for students with learning disabilities. Exceptional Children, 80(4), 454-473.

    10 Gillespie, A., & Graham, S. (2014). A meta-analysis of writing interventions for students with learning disabilities. Exceptional Children, 80(4), 454-473.

  • Photo Attributions

    Feature Image – “Kindergarten Handwriting” is copyright (c) 2015 Sharon & Nikki and made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode. Changes were made to this image.

22 Replies to “5 Writing Hacks for Children with ADHD, Dyslexia, or Dysgraphia”

    1. Angela — I’m so glad you found the tips helpful. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.

  1. I was sitting here making revisions to my son’s IEP when your email popped up. Great suggestions.. We will definitely use them.. Thank you!

    1. Chris — I’m so glad the suggestions were helpful for your family. It can be tough to write great goals and accommodations for composition on an IEP. What other tools has your son found helpful?

  2. I plan to hand these tips to my staff at our upcoming staff meeting. Thank you for your willingness to share freely!

  3. What great, clear descriptions for using powerful tools that developing writers (with or without LD) can put to use! Love this Anne-Marie.

  4. Great ideas! I have a rubric for my students to use for writing sentences where they color a smile face if they completed the task. I am going to add your ideas for writing paragraphs for another rubric. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Laura — thanks so much for commenting. That’s a fantastic idea to have a rubric for sentence writing. I do something similar With some of the struggling writers I work with. For them it’s a BIG deal to remember to capitalize the first letter in the sentence and include ending punctuation. Once they have something visual to remember those elements, their accuracy jumps.

    1. Hi Beth — It’s so great hearing your insights as an adult. That’s awesome that thought bubbles helped to organize your thoughts.

  5. Thank you for the helpful insight and tips! Our son was recently diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia. I appreciate your article for the help it gives in explaining the problem and for the practical, easy-to-follow solutions! Thank you!

    1. Londa, thank you so much for sharing your response to the article. I’m delighted you found the strategies and straight-forward. That’s exactly what I was going for!

  6. Great article Anne-Marie! While working for special education school I found out that reading out loud is one of the best things ever.This method has helped my students develop control, timing and focus of attention.

    Practicing loud reading regularly had put my students on the fast track to beating dyslexia. Dyslexia students finds it more challenging than reading silently.


    Kelly Miller
    Retired Special Education Teacher
    Winston Preparatory School

    1. Kelly — thanks so much for sharing about your years as a classroom teacher. That’s really interesting that you found other benefits from reading aloud. Fascinating!

  7. I was diagnosed with a LD in second grade. I have since diagnosed myself with dysgraphia. I took the required typing class my freshman year of high school and it was the most useful class I took.
    I found graphic organizers frustrating in elementary school because I was not taught the correct way to use them. In sixth grade my Social Studies teacher made us outline every chapter in our textbook and learning that skill made a huge difference in my ability to learn and retain information.

  8. Anne-Marie, I love this website and appreciate the lengths you have gone to to provide such great resources. I have a brain building (therapy) business and plan to share your link with many parents.

    1. Tara, thanks so much for your comment. I hope the parents you work with find the information helpful. Actually, I wrote the article thinking about the families that I work with, and the “quick and dirty” tricks that I feel that everyone should know!

  9. I came across your website looking for worksheets to help my daughter learn to write paragraphs better. She is in 7th grade but still writes like she is in 3rd. Learning and writing is a struggle for her every day. Im so glad I found your site and will continue to follow for more great ideas on how to help my child succeed. Thank you.

  10. I have just now found this site and from what I am looking at it appears to be what I have been searching for. I am a grandmother who is trying to help very bright dyslexic grandson. We are learning together; he has been in private tutoring but that is no longer an option. He is getting help through his local public school but needs extra help with homework; so his grandfather and I are trying to help him. He so desperately wants to be on grade level with his reading so we are working hard on that along with his writing skills. Thank you so much for your help and it certainly helps that so much is free. Blessings be upon you for sharing your gifts with others.

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