When your teen is behind in writing…

What to do when your teen is behind in writing

It’s downright scary when your child turns 16 and still can’t write (or won’t write or hates writing or avoids writing). Panic sets in and moms respond in one of two ways:

  • they clamp down and expect more writing
  • or they give up and close their eyes to the problem hoping it will get fixed later, in college.

These are two totally understandable approaches to the realization that your teen is still not writing well and college is only two years away.

I want to offer you a third approach:

Starting over.

Before I share what I mean by starting over, read the following list to determine if your teen is behind in writing (I use masculine pronouns because far more male teens struggle with writing than females, but this list applies to both):

  • No writing program you’ve used has ever worked for him.
  • He hates holding a pencil and avoids any work that requires handwriting.
  • He still finds spelling a challenge and misspells homonyms and easy words regularly.
  • You face a “big scene” whenever you give feedback or try to help him write.
  • His writing is unclear, doesn’t develop logically, and sounds like a second grader wrote it, not a soon-to-be adult.
  • His thoughts are undeveloped and his writing doesn’t show the extent of his verbal vocabulary.
  • He has never written more than a paragraph or two and has no idea how to write an essay or any format beyond freewriting.
  • He is unskilled in punctuation even though you’ve taught him how to punctuate.
  • He seems to understand the instructions while you talk with him, but he goes completely blank once you leave and can’t remember what he was supposed to write once you leave him to work on his own.
  • He can’t keep his ideas in his head while he is writing them down. The pencil “makes” the thoughts “disappear.”
  • He must have supervision while he writes or he will wander off to do something else.
  • He needs leading questions in order to write.

If your child exhibits more than half of these symptoms, you have a delayed writer on your hands. You may also have a teen with a language processing disorder. I want to talk about the difference between the two.

For teens who are simply delayed in writing, it’s possible to get back on track and quickly. As I stated above, you’ll want to start over. You’ll need to let your teen know that what you’ve done to the present point has not worked.

You want to wipe the slate clean and begin again.

In order to do so, you need to enlist your teen’s interest in becoming a competent writer. There’s not a lot that can be done if your teen is unconvinced of writing’s importance to his future.

Once you have a willing teen, I recommend beginning with the “Jot it Down” phase of writing (explained more fully in The Writer’s Jungle chapter 14). You’ll jot down your teens thoughts as he’s thinking them and expressing them verbally. You’ll begin with his areas of expertise and interest rather than typical “school” topics. Your goal is to foster writing skills (the skill called “dredging up words from inside to commit to paper”), not to master subject matter. So separate those goals right off the bat.

As you write out his thoughts for him, you’ll go back to the writing together to do the revising and editing. Talk about the writing, talk about ways to improve it, talk about how to reorganize it so that it makes more impact.

Do it all together.

Stick to topics of interest while you work through this phase. The Writer’s Jungle gives extensive support in helping you know how to foster this kind of development.

You will follow the stages of development in order starting from the beginning. If you do this, your teen will move more quickly through the stages of growth because of his age and maturity and can (believe it or not) reach a level of high school competence in just two short years.

If you follow these steps, however, and you discover that your child makes no progress or continues to become frustrated by the mechanics of writing combined with the generative thinking required, I strongly urge you to get learning disability testing.

Don’t wait.

Auditory and language processing disorders don’t always show up in full strength until high school when mom takes more of a background role in home education and the teen is now responsible for proactive work. (Incidentally, my own son, who is 19 and in college, gets accommodations from the learning center at his university. Knowing in advance means you can look at colleges that are supportive of students with learning issues so that your young adult has a successful experience!)

Yesterday I attended the wedding of one of my first teen students. Seven years ago, he was sixteen and not writing. His mother came to me desperate to overcome his writing struggles. We began at the very beginning. Her son was cooperative and worked hard. Within two years, he became a competent (though not brilliant) writer. By the time he finished college, he wound up earning A’s in his writing classes. Knock my socks off!

It can be done.

Your teen can overcome years of frustration one step at a time with love and support. And if he is fighting a disability, find out so that he can get the kind of support that will make him successful.

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3 Responses to “When your teen is behind in writing…”

  1. Mary in Cincinnati says:


    You are so right about this. Two years ago, I started by reluctant 14 year old who had just been diagnosed with a significant reading disorder with Kidswrite Basic. I had to hold his hand through the whole thing. In fact his 9 year old brother did much better than he did. Last year, we did Kidswrite Intermediate. I had to help him sort out his ideas, but he did the writing. We had to put most other subjects on hold while he struggled through. At the end of the class I asked him how he felt about writing. He said it was a good, long, hard, satisfying write. I was so excited for him. Now he is almost finished with Expository Essay class and is pulling a B+ and keeping up with 2 co-op classes and all his other work. I am so pleased. The learning disabilities specialist who diagnosed him told me that these kids never catch up. He was so wrong. Thank you so much Julie, for giving me the confidence to not give up and the tools to really help my kids.

  2. Bonita says:


    I am interested in the type of accomodations offered at the university level for students who cannot grasp the writing process. Both of our guys continue to struggle regardless of the approach we use. Have you found any materials that address the issue of language delay or processing problems?


  3. Julie Bogart says:

    Bonita, the primary accommodations Noah is receiving are two-fold. They’ve hired note takers for his classes. That means he can listen and not worry about getting it all down as he is being given a set of notes for every class. (He said that’s helped him tremendously.) The other is that he is allowed to take his tests at the learning center without the pressure of a time limit. That means in an essay exam, he can take as long as he needs (which means he stops that internal panic that sets in under a time limit).

    He will do further testing over spring break but up until now, these accommodations were made on the basis on the counselor at the university in conjunction with a psychotherapist we used two years ago.

    Are your guys struggling with in class writing or with writing that they do on their own at home? Is there a writing center at your university? They offer lots of support usually to kids as they are constructing their essays. Tell me more.