Six writing problems—and solutions—for children with ADHD

Writing, like reading, is really many skills used together to produce a product.  These skills include:

  • prewriting skills (deciding on a topic, narrowing it down to one main idea, gathering information, and sequencing it)
  • composition skills (figuring out how to begin, sticking to the plan, concluding, writing in complete sentences, including details, and using good vocabulary, grammar, spelling and punctuation),
  • revising skills (adding missing information, reordering ideas or sentences, deleting off-topic information, and confining or expanding information to the desired length),
  • editing skills (checking for grammar, spelling and punctuation),
  • handwriting legibly, and
  • finishing by the deadline.

For children without ADHD, integrating all these skills produces anxiety.  But for children with ADHD, writing might produce tears, temper tantrums, and shut-downs.  Yet there are ways to mitigate the fear of writing, and with time, to overcome it.

Some of the most noticeable problems ADHD students face when writing and some solutions to those problems include

  • Staying focused long enough to remember what to say. One solution is demanding that students create a written organizer.  It can start as a list of ideas/details related to the topic.  Then students can group the related details, using colored highlighters to identify what ideas go together.  Lastly the student can number the colors in the order in which he/she wants to use them in the writing passage.  Teachers need to model how to create such organizers and how to implement them, over and over, until students realize organizing before they begin is as much a part of writing as is using a pencil.  Later, as students advance, writing a thesis and subtopic sentences can become part of the prewriting organizer.

 

  • Figuring out how to start and how to conclude. Looking at that blank piece of paper can be daunting.  One solution is for a teacher or parent to brainstorm various ways to begin and end with the student, and to write those beginning sentences and ending sentences as options.  You might think, but the student is supposed to do the work himself.  Eventually, yes, but not when the student begins.  When you learned to walk, didn’t you have an adult right there to catch you when you stumbled, and to lift you up again?  When you learned to ride a bike, didn’t you have an adult running at your side to keep you balanced and to “launch” you?  Students need adults “launching” them in the writing process too.  With enough practice, students will gain the skills to start writing and to conclude on their own.  But at first, they need an adult to provide models of good writing.

  • Sticking to one main idea. Following organizers will keep students on course.  An adult should ask the student to read aloud his in-process work, and the adult should match the sentences with the organizer.  Students might not realize they have drifted off-course.  It’s important to discover off-topic information quickly, before students have invested too much time and too many sentences into information that needs to be deleted.

 

  • Using correct grammar, spelling and punctuation. One method to deal with these kinds of errors is to allow students to write without regard to them.  Then, after the compositions are finished, go back and help students fix some of them.  One time, focus on run-on sentences.  Another time focus on apostrophes.  If the student is expected to fix all his errors as he goes along, he will lose the flow of his writing and might never finish.  Another method to deal with grammar, spelling and punctuation errors is to give two grades—one for composition and one for conventions.  Or give one grade for composition only.

 

  • Taking time to revise and edit.  ADHD students are impulsive.  They tire quickly of activities where they need to sit still and focus.  Yet revising and editing are necessary steps to produce good writing.  One solution is to separate the revising process from the composing process.  Do composing today and revising tomorrow.  Do twenty minutes before recess and twenty minutes after.  Write post-it notes to students, identifying one problem for each student.   If Jimmy can’t identify run-ons, underline the run-ons he needs to fix and ignore the other problems.  If Mary can’t figure out when or how to use apostrophes, underline the words which might need them.  Help them start on the revision process so they needn’t start from scratch.  Not every piece of writing needs to be perfect.

  • Writing legibly. Allow students to use computers, laptops, iPads or other electronic devices to write school assignments.  Not only allow them, but teach students how to use these devices during writing classes.  Show them how to swipe a sentence and move it to a better location.  Show them how to look up spelling or synonyms.  Show them how to indent or double space or to do whatever helps them to write better.

Like all skill-based activities, writing well depends on practice.  If a teacher assigns one writing assignment a month or a semester, the student will not improve.  Yet, this is often the case since reading and marking student writing is time-consuming.  If your child is not assigned writing weekly, then you, as the parent, can assign it.  If you think you are not qualified, may I suggest you buy my writing instruction book, How to Write a 5th Grade (or Any Other Grade) Essay, available on Amazon.  Everything I’ve talked about here is included there but in more detail.

If you hope your child will attend college or professional school, he or she will need to be able to write.   Reading and writing are two of the most basic skills your child needs to do well in life.  Don’t let fear of writing (his or yours) handicap your child.

 

Imitate classic sentences to improve your writing

Do you want to improve the sentences you write?  One way to do that is to imitate classic sentences, according to Stanley Fish, author of How to Write a Sentence (2011).  A sentence form he recommends imitating is the additive (cumulative) sentence.  This form of writing seems spontaneous because it shifts back and forth, digresses, repeats, and loses itself in details—much like the speech of some people.

How do you recognize such a sentence?  Many are compound sentences, or if not compound, then containing compound subjects, predicates, and phrases.  They use coordinating conjunctions, especially “and,” “but” and “or.”  One word or idea is not more important than another.  They mostly use one- and two-syllable words.

Why would you want to use such sentences?

  • To show spontaneity, distractedness, and randomness of thought.
  • To write in a way which seems unplanned and lighthearted.
  • To create dialog which ambles from one thought to another.

Ernest Hemingway is one of the best known writers of additive sentences.  Here, for example, is one such sentence from A Farewell to Arms (1929):  “In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.”

Where do you begin to imitate such a sentence?  One way is to identify its structural components.  It starts with 1) a prepositional phrase showing a general location; 2)that phrase is followed by  “there” plus the verb “to be” followed by two nouns acting as subjects; 3) they are followed by two adjectives connected by “and”; 4) they are followed by another prepositional phrase showing location; 5) “and” is followed by another noun acting as subject of the second clause; 6) then come three adjectives describing that noun; and 7) and another prepositional phrase related to the subject of the second clause ends the sentence.

Or and easier way is to substitute the words in Hemingway’s sentence with your own words.  That’s what I did to come up with the following three additive sentences:

  • Example 1: In the fur of the dog there are fleas and more fleas, jumping in the moonlight, and the dog scratches and twists and bleeds from the bites.
  • Example 2: In the driveway to the house there are drifts, blowing snow, cold and white in the storm, and the snow is thick and racing fast and scurrying over the driveway.
  • Example 3: On the test in Miss Mathers’ class, there are short answers and essays, some easy and some hard, and the students must think and decide quickly and write in their bluebooks.

If you practice creating enough sentences like these, using various additive forms, you will become good at it, and these kinds of sentences will occur naturally to you, expanding the sentence universe you can rely on.

(For a related topic, see a previous blog on Hemingway’s writing rules.)

Two kinds of citation errors:  not citing paraphrases and summaries, and using the wrong punctuation

Students make several kinds of errors when using citations in their research papers.

One error is thinking that only direct quotations need to be cited.  Not so.  Direct quotations, paraphrases and summaries all need to be cited.

  • A direct quote is a reproduction of the precise words of a speaker or document. Shorter direct quotes of a phrase or a sentence are preferred to longer direct quotes of several sentences.  Direct quotes are used when the original words are iconic (Lincoln’s “of the people, by the people, and for the people”) and when the original words have a stronger impact than a paraphrase (Churchill’s “We shall never surrender.”)
  • A paraphrase is a “translation” of a direct quote into synonyms using different sentence structure from the original direct quotation. A paraphrase “translates” only a small portion of a speaker’s words or of a document.  Paraphrases are used to make difficult ideas easier to understand or to simplify long, complex thoughts.  Many teachers today prefer paraphrasing to quoting directly.
  • A summary is a straightforward repetition of the main ideas of a speaker or document. A summary presents longer amounts of information than a paraphrase and usually follows the same idea order as the original.

Direct quotations, paraphrases and summaries all need to be cited.  If the original source of  material you are using in your essay or research paper is not you, you need to give that source credit.  Not to do so is plagiarism, which I will discuss in a future blog.

Another error—the most common error—is to use improper punctuation in your essay or research paper.  In the United States, three commonly used documentation “styles” of citing information are the MLA, the APA, and the Chicago Manual (sometimes known as the Turabian).  If you are not familiar with “styles,” ask your teacher to explain the one you need to use.  You can find information online as well.  The MLA style is used in English courses and  in other language courses.  The APA style is used in the social sciences.  The Chicago style is used in history, social sciences and humanities courses.

Whole books are written on each of these styles, so I will not attempt to explain them here.  But let me take one example so you know what I am talking about.  Suppose you quote the author of a book in the text of your paper.  How do you show that citation?  For the MLA style, immediately after the quotation, you key an introductory parentheses, the author’s surname, the page number from which the quote came, an ending parentheses, and a period to end the sentence (Smith 368).  For the APA style, after the quotation you key an introductory parentheses, the author’s surname, a comma, then the year the quotation was made, an ending parentheses, and a period if you are ending a sentence (Smith, 2007).  For the Chicago style, a numeral 1 is placed after the quote, and a footnote is written in a footnotes section of the paper to identify complete information about the quote’s source.

You may think, you gotta be kidding!  No.  As you go through middle grades, high school and certainly college, you need to become familiar with various styles and to use them correctly.  Fortunately, online sources exist where you can input your source’s information and the website will order and punctuate the information correctly.  Swipe, copy, and paste into your paper.

Three wrong ways to introduce a citation

Suppose you are researching how the novel To Kill a Mockingbird was reviewed when it first was published.  You find the July 13, 1960, review by Herbert Mitgang in The New York Times. In the review you find words worth citing.  How do you introduce the citation?  Let’s look at some examples, returning to the image of the hamburger and bun.

[First, you introduce your source, the top bun of the hamburger:]  The New York Times reviewed To Kill a Mockingbird when the book came out.  [Second, you introduce the citation, the hamburger:]  It says Mockingbird is “a winning first novel by a fresh writer with something significant to say.”  [Third, you give your opinion why this citation is significant, the bottom bun of the hamburger:]  The Times writer singles out both the novel’s writer and its message.

Now, let’s leave out the bracketed information:  The New York Times reviewed To Kill a Mockingbird when the book came out.  It says Mockingbird is “a winning first novel by a fresh writer with something significant to say.”  The Times writer singles out both the novel’s writer and its message.

What’s wrong?  Several things.  First, did The New York Times review Mockingbird or did a person?  If it was a person, the name of that person should be identified.  Second, can you, the research paper writer, identify the date when the review was published?  If so, including that specific information increases the credibility of your source.  And third, since a pronoun needs to have an antecedent, what is the antecedent to “It,” the first word of the second sentence?  There is none.

Better:  The New York Times published a book review by Herbert Mitgang of To Kill a Mockingbird on July 13, 1960, when the novel was published.  Mitgang says Mockingbird is “a winning first novel by a fresh writer with something significant to say.”  Mitgang singles out both the novel’s writer and its message for praise.

Suppose we keep the “better” citation with one change:  The New York Times published a book review by Herbert Mitgang of To Kill a Mockingbird on July 13, 1960, when the novel was published.  Here it is.  Mockingbird is “a winning first novel by a fresh writer with something significant to say.”  Mitgang singles out both the novel’s writer and its message for praise.

Here what is?  The last noun in the previous sentence is “novel.”  Yet “Here it is” does not refer to the novel.  “Here it is” refers to the review.  “Here it is” is a poor transition from the upper bun of the hamburger to the hamburger itself.

Let’s try again with another change.  The New York Times published a book review by Herbert Mitgang of To Kill a Mockingbird on July 13, 1960, when the novel was published.  The quote is “a winning first novel by a fresh writer with something significant to say.”  Mitgang singles out both the novel’s writer and its message for praise.

The word “The” before the word “quote” indicates a particular quotation.  Yet no particular quotation is mentioned in the previous sentence.  “The quote” refers back to nothing.  An improvement would be, “A quote from that review” but even that improvement is not as good as naming the person doing the quoting.

When you are introducing a direct quote,

  • Introduce the quotation with the name of the person or organization responsible for the quote. For example, The US Congress passed an act which says, “. . .”
  • Identify additional details to put the quote in context. Such details could be a date, a place, or the context (a war, an election, a first novel, after the passage of 30 years).
  • Don’t use “It says” unless “it” has been identified and “it” identifies who is responsible for the quote. Even then, your writing is better if you remove the pronoun “it” and use the noun.
  • Don’t use “The quote is” unless you have already identified the quote in some way. Even then, use more specific language, usually naming the source of the quote, for a better transition.

Three parts of an effective citation

In the past two blogs, I have discussed citations:

  • What comes first, the idea or the citation?
  • What are citations? and
  • Why do we use citations?

Today I would like to discuss the correct way to introduce a citation into your writing.

Incorporating citations, whether direct quotes, indirect quotes or paraphrases, can be difficult when you start.  You may not have read the kind of writing—academic, scientific—which routinely uses citations.  And you may not have been taught how to insert citations.

One good place to start is with an image of a hamburger in a bun.  The top part of the bun represents the the identity of your source, and if that person or document is not well known, the credentials of that source; the hamburger represents the quote or paraphrase of the quote; and the bottom part of the bun represents your reasons for citing that particular information in your research paper.

For example, suppose you are writing a paper on the meaning of democracy.  You want to quote Abraham Lincoln’s definition from his Gettysburg Address.  You could introduce your citation (the top part of the bun) by writing, “Abraham Lincoln defined democracy in his Gettysburg Address as. . .”  This introduction tells who said the original citation (Lincoln) and for what purpose (addressing an audience in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania).  If you quote someone who is not readily known to your readers, you need to identify that person or document being quoted.

The hamburger part of the image is Lincoln’s definition of democracy: “government of the people, by the people and for the people.”  You don’t need to quote a whole sentence—just the part which meets your needs.  You might need to rewrite your introductory information to make it work grammatically with your quote.

The bottom part of the bun is your understanding of the quote and why you consider it relevant.  A possible example is “This definition is deceptively simple yet eloquent.”

The finished quotation is “Abraham Lincoln defined democracy in his Gettysburg Address as ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people.’  This definition is deceptively simple yet eloquent.”

After reading this citation, the readers of your paper know who is being cited, that person’s actual words, and why you think those words are a good definition of democracy.

To recap:

To use a direct quotation, you must put it in context by identifying who made the direct quote and why it is relevant in the context you are using it.

The transition from your introductory information to the quotation must use correct grammar.

Sometimes words of the direct quote must be left out or changed slightly (for example, from singular to plural, from one verb tense to another, from one pronoun to another).

In my next blog, I will discuss common errors students make in including citations in their work.