Academic Writing

Question: I have bright, articulate students who can tell me everything about a topic but can’t get their thoughts from their heads to the paper. What can I do to help these students improve their academic writing?

Response: You describe a difficulty faced by many students with dyslexia, attention deficit disorder and executive function challenges. Academic writing is one of the most challenging tasks because it is so complex cognitively. It puts great demands on attention, memory (especially active working memory), language processing and self-regulation.

  • One of the best ways to manage this demand is to break writing a paper into a series of smaller, less cognitively demanding tasks, starting with accessing ideas and turning them into text. For instance, students can jot down their initial thoughts without worrying about sentence formation or essay structure, just to get their ideas rolling onto the page.
  • Some students prefer to talk about their ideas out loud, either recording them with a personal recorder, or using voice recognition, such as Dragon, to transcribe their thoughts.
  • Other students get more traction if they start with a sketch or drawing and then describe that with words. I even have some students start by building a model with manipulatives like Legos or Tinkertoys to represent how their ideas relate to each other.
  • A kinesthetic approach might be to have students “walk” their ideas, moving ahead when adding new content, moving to the side when elaborating those ideas, and moving back when presenting opposing arguments. Another student can be a scribe as the student walks, or the student can use a voice recorder to capture their thinking.

All of these approaches free the student from the tyranny of the blank page and give them an active way to begin transferring knowledge from their head onto the page.