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“Writing Made Easier for College Kids with Learning Differences”

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to writing challenges, but these strategies will work for any student.


Being a good writer is tough enough, regardless of your academic prowess and capabilities. Throw in a learning difference, and the task becomes more challenging. There are ways for those who learn differently to write strategically while keeping their writing focused. I should know; I’ve been showing my students at Landmark College, all of whom have LD, how to do that for 30 years.

First, learning differences comprise a broad range of neurocognitive processing, and there’s no “one size fits all” approach to the writing challenges students face. But there are some strategies that will work for any student:

> Initiate the work as soon as it is assigned. When I give a longer-term assignment, I ask students to open a file immediately. I tell them to spend five or 10 minutes to write some notes about the assignment and how they will approach it.

> Activate intentions by staking out space where you can work effectively. I tell students that having trouble writing is natural—writing is hard for anyone. But getting to a desk with your work ready to go is a different issue—get thee to thy desk!

> Check your motivation. Because motivation is one of the key challenges for students who have executive function challenges, I want my students to determine whether they actually want to do the work. Not every college course engages a student’s interest. Good teachers aspire to make every assignment meaningful in ways that generate enthusiasm and a sense of purpose. Because writing is such hard work, it’s important that students reflect on why they’re doing the assignment and what it means for them. Making a conscious commitment to doing the work is an essential step.

At Landmark College, we have a large toolbox to help students write. Writing involves three main activities: gathering and generating ideas; organizing ideas; and drafting and editing. In my experience, students approach these activities in one of two ways: They either take a top-down approach in which they write first and ask questions later, or a bottom-up approach in which they need to build a draft through a series of stages.

>Gathering and generating. If you are a bottom-up writer, this element is vital for getting your ideas on paper and your information accessible in note form. Whatever you’re reviewing —assigned texts, articles, textbooks, novels, poems, or something else you’re researching—read with a pencil and make notes in the margins, making sure you have captured key ideas and quotes you may use in your essay.

Try “focused free writing,” in which you take an element of your topic and write freely about it for five minutes or so without censoring yourself. Brainstorming also works: List key ideas in a short burst without censoring yourself.

“Looped free-writing” can also work: Do a focused free-write and take a key idea from it and do another focused free-write, going through this process several times.

For some students, it helps to use drawings and other visuals to generate ideas. The old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is true in cognitive terms—a picture embeds many words that could be used to describe it, and visual images are a great shortcut to memory for many students with learning differences.

Make a storyboard for your paper, using sketches and words, or use a big piece of Post-it paper and try to make a visual representation of your ideas for your paper.

If you are a top-down writer, who can gather and hold information in mind but struggle with writing itself, write a rough draft of the paper. Start early enough so that you have time to organize and revise the material. Try to write the paper all at once, without worrying about whether it is good or not. You have time to get back to it, re-organize it, and edit it into final form. A student of mine called this the “ready, shoot, aim” approach to writing, and it worked for him. It might for you.

> Organizing. No matter how you approach writing, at some point you have to organize paragraphs, so they flow logically from one to the other. The way I teach this is simple: Based on whatever page requirements you have been given—two or three pages or whatever— break the paper down into its paragraph structure. The paragraph structure of a paper provides a rough, working outline, in a way that may be simple but also may cue a student to remember what each paragraph is meant to be about. Paragraphs represent the idea structure of a paper. Assuming there are five to nine sentences per paragraph, the length would come out to three paragraphs for every two pages. However, don’t get caught up in page counts; it’s more useful to think in terms of paragraphs.

Create a thesis paragraph in which you state your main conclusion and introduce the topic of the paper and your main ideas. The outline does not have to be elaborate. It can be a shorthand map of the paper, with the topic of each paragraph listed.

For a bottom-up writer, it makes sense to try to move material you already have created in the generating-and-gathering phase under paragraph topics where it belongs. For a top-down writer, it may mean reading the rough draft you have created, taking note of the paragraphs and their logical flow, and noticing where the logic of your argument may be incomplete, disorganized, or redundant.

For either type of writer, the main thing is to have some kind of map to refer to before beginning a final draft. Don’t be afraid to seek out help from resources that are available—a writing center, your teacher, or teaming up with a friend with a good logical mind.

> Drafting and editing. Schedule your drafting time to give yourself breathing space and acknowledge the time it will take to produce your best work. Use the map you have created and the material you have generated, and write through the paper. Keep going—don’t give up. If you get stuck somewhere, skip that paragraph or section, leaving yourself a note about what should be in it. If you need to take a break, don’t get up from your desk before you have written a note about what you plan to cover next.

Once you have finished a draft, read it aloud to yourself, or use a screen-reader to read it to you. By this point, you should be looking for errors in mechanics and spelling. Make sure to use technology tools like Spell Check and so on.

As you get closer to the deadline, you may feel like the paper isn’t good enough. Don’t go there. If you have followed all of the steps above and have committed to the project from the start, the paper may be better than you think it is. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Do your best to tidy up what you have produced, and turn it in.


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