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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Writing Strategies for Students With ADHD

Tracy Collins

Passionate educator. Academic writing instructor. Author of EssayUniverse.org
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Boy in deep concentration writing with pencil

Too often, students with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) get labeled as "problem students." They often get shuffled into special education programs even if they show no signs of developmental disability. Though these students' brains do work differently, studies prove that it doesn't preclude them from being highly intelligent. That means teachers should pay special attention to help students with ADHD discover their potential and deal with the challenges they face in their learning process.

As essay writing is both the most common and the most complicated assignment for students, writing instruction for students with ADHD requires special efforts. Each step of writing process may present certain difficulties for these young people. Here are some practical solutions for teachers to encourage, motivate, and focus their students on writing process.

1. Difficulty Concentrating on Assignment

Research proves that ADHD doesn’t result in less intelligence, but rather in difficulties controlling emotions, staying motivated, and organizing the thoughts. So a teacher's first task is teaching students focus enough on a writing assignment.

Solution: Give clear, concise instructions.

When assigning an essay or other writing project, be specific and clear about what you expect. Don't leave a lot of room for interpretation. Instead of the assignment "Write about a joyous moment," include instructions in your writing prompt, such as:

  • Think about the last time you felt happy and joyful.
  • Describe the reasons for your happiness.
  • What exactly made you feel joy?
  • What can that feeling be compared to?

Make sure every student knows that he or she should come to you directly with any questions. Plan to take extra time reviewing the instructions with students one to one, writing down short instructions along the way.

2. Difficulty Organizing Thoughts on Paper

Several studies have found that students with ADHD struggle with organizing their thoughts and mental recall. These students can often speak well and explain their thoughts orally, but not in writing.

Solution: Get them organized from the start.

Start each project with a simple note system. Give students the freedom to take their own notes and review them together if possible. Have students pay special attention to filing these notes in a large binder, folder, or other method for making storage and retrieval simple.

To help students understand how to organize their written thoughts, teach them mind mapping. A semantic mind map for an essay may include major nouns, verbs, and adjectives, as well as phrases to use in writing each paragraph. Some introductory and transition sentences will also come in handy. Another step after mind mapping is advanced outlining. Begin and end the initial outline with the words "Intro" and "Conclusion" as placeholders. Then have students expand that outline on their own.

3. Difficulty With Sustained Work on a Single Task

ADHD can make it difficult for students to focus on long-term goals, leading to poor attention and concentration when the task requires work for an extended period of time.

Solution: Create small, manageable milestones.

Since accomplishing a five-page essay takes a lot of time, you can chop it into smaller, easier-to-manage pieces that can be worked on in rotation. Each piece may be checked separately if time allows. Treating every issue and section as an independent task will prevent students from feeling overwhelmed as they work toward a larger goal.

4. Difficulty in Meeting Deadlines

Deadlines are the things that discourage students with ADHD, as they work on assignments more slowly than their classmates, are often distracted, and tend to procrastinate.

Solution: Allow for procrastination.

It may sound ridiculous, but build procrastination into the writing process by breaking up the work and allowing for extra research, brainstorming, and other activities which diversify students' work while still focusing on the end result.

5. Spelling Issues

Students with ADHD often have difficulties with writing, especially in terms of spelling. The most common issues are reversing or omitting letters, words, or phrases. Students may spell the same word differently within the same essay. That's why lots of attention should be paid to spelling.

Solution: Encourage spell checkers, dictionaries, and thesaurus.

There are plenty of writing apps and tools available to check spelling and grammar. As a teacher, you can introduce several apps and let students choose which ones work better for writing essays. When checking the submitted papers and grading the work, highlight the spelling mistakes so that students can pay special attention to the misspelled words and remember the correct variant.

6. Final Editing Issues

Students with ADHD may experience problems during the final editing of their work since, by this time, they will have read and reviewed it several times and may not be paying attention to mistakes.

Solution: Teach them to review their writing step by step.

Take an essay template as an example and show students how to revise it. Go through the editing process slowly, explaining the "why" behind certain changes, especially when it comes to grammatical issues. Assign students the task of revising each other's essays so that when they revise their own final draft, they'll know what to pay attention to and what common mistakes to look for.

Addressing the challenges unique to students with ADHD will help these students find ways to handle their condition effectively and even use it to their advantage. Their unique perspective can be channeled into creative writing, finding new solutions to problems, and most of all, finding, reaching, and even exceeding their goals and fulfilling their full potential.

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Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

This is good advise for all students, not just students with ADHD. Writing is hard for all of us, even "writers." What I've seen in the teaching of writing is that less and less time is devoted to

a. Writing in the classroom.
b. Teacher/student conferencing time.

Funny the way it is--- that if you ask most districts, admin, and teachers which skill is lacking the most, they will probably say writing. Yet, most of the writing done in middle and high school is at home and almost expected to "not be terrible."

In the beginning of your piece, the clear and concise questions you state are a great way to let kids see that they can write a story. I've actually written the questions on blank pieces of paper and let the students answer the questions right after each one. Then I'll erase the questions and... Boom! A story! An essay! This has really helped kids with learning disabilities.


haney_gerald's picture

These are good point to change writing plan in ADHD. if you have good power your spelled mistake issues were not increased.

Penny Williams's picture

These strategies are spot-on! My son is twice-exceptional -- gifted IQ and ADHD and LDs -- so he rarely gets this level of help with writing, despite having an IEP for dysgraphia. His obvious intelligence clouds most teachers' judgement on this subject and increases their expectations beyond his limitations. I hope many more teachers than we have come across understand ADHD and the writing challenges at this level.

Penny Williams
Author of "What to Expect When You're Not Expecting ADHD" and "Boy Without Instructions: Surviving the Learning Curve of Parenting a Child with ADHD"

Lessia Bonn's picture
Lessia Bonn
I am Bullyproof Music

This is fascinating..

When I was in fifth grade, my class was shown a film and instructed, "Watch this, then write around the theme." I scribbled off the top of my head, didn't give it much thought, and lo and behold, won top writing prize for our entire city. They even gave me cash :-)

I'm flaming ADHD, yet found school easy except for math. And throughout my life, if I've ever wanted to clear out my head and figure things out, I've just penned a song to arrive at my truth. I teach my own ADHD students to do the same - we all write things down to organize our heads. My students tell me scribbling helps them a lot. We may be grammar challenged, but still, writing is how we happily unclutter our heads.

After reading your piece, I'm wondering if there are two kinds of ADHD wirings. I definitely relate to "long term goals are tricky," and "scattered thinking," but the part about writing doesn't completely resonate. I got easy "A"s throughout high school and college, pretty much faking it - so many grades were essay-answer based.

There are a lot of fun things about being ADHD. We're highly whimsical folk, fun-loving, and super honest - haha probably because we have no filter. We are also usually the person in the room most likely to give you a hug. I hate the word "condition." I prefer to think of us as a fun flavor of ice cream; cherry garcia maybe, or a root beer float.

Thank for this interesting post! Much to ponder here.

Susan Chen's picture

These are good steps to follow for all essay writing assignments. I frequently find that my students can talk up a storm, but when they have to write an essay, they stare at the paper. To help them focus in on the little steps that they can take, all of my students are always given a printed copy of the writing prompt. After reading aloud the prompt, they break down the prompt together as a class. Here they circle all the verbs and underline what each verb is to do. Then they reread aloud the prompt slowly so that they can number all the steps (verbs) that the prompt is requiring them to do. This succeeds in getting most of them able to work independently. I work together with the few who are still staring at their paper. We hold a more extensive discussion for each step. They write after each discussion.

Andrew Guthrie's picture

These are very nice strategies to change writing plan in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Kelly Miller's picture
Kelly Miller
Special Education Teacher

This is an excellent article Tracy. Mind Mapping is a powerful graphic technique which provides a universal key to unlock the potential of the brain. I have been following this technique at the ADHD School (http://www.winstonprep.edu/) to help my students.

Children with ADHD show different combinations of the behaviors you mentioned in this article and typically exhibit behavior that is classified into two main categories: poor sustained attention and hyperactivity-impulsiveness.

Because no two children with ADHD are alike, it is important to keep in mind that no single educational program, practice, or setting will be best for all children.

Kelly Miller
Special Education Teacher

Kelly Miller's picture
Kelly Miller
Special Education Teacher

Great article Tracy! Students with ADHD often lack the ability to organize and
structure information or activities. School for ADHD students often use graphic or bullet format for presenting information. The key terms and dates are highlighted to help students with ADHD understand the information easily. When lecturing, While teaching at special needs school I find out that it is helpful for students to provide verbal cues in the form of introductory statements and concluding summaries. Most students with ADHD will benefit from sitting near the front of the class where they can stay focused and mentally engaged in the lecture with fewer distractions.

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