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Writing Problems Common for Students With ADHD


Updated September 16, 2011

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Writing Problems Common for Students With ADHD

People may view writing as an automatic, natural process; however, for many students with ADHD it can be quite overwhelming.

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Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are more likely to have difficulties with written language. Research published in the September 2011 issue of Pediatrics finds that kids with ADHD are five times more likely to have writing problems than are kids without ADHD, regardless of gender. Among both boys and girls with ADHD who also have a reading disability, however, girls have an even higher chance of developing a written language disorder -- creating even more challenges for girls in the classroom.

The Process of Writing Involves Integration of Several Skills

The process involved in expressing oneself through writing is actually a quite complex, multi-step process, and unfortunately sometimes students who struggle with impairments in written language are overlooked. It is often much easier for teachers to spot students who struggle with reading or math, for example. Writing requires the integration of several skills, including planning, analyzing and organizing thoughts; prioritizing and sequencing information; remembering and implementing correct spelling, punctuation and grammar rules; as well as fine motor coordination.

As a student ages and moves into the high school and college years, the expectations around writing become even more demanding as essays and reports that require students to communicate what they know on paper figure more prominently into the curriculum. It is no wonder that writing can create such anxiety in students with ADHD!

ADHD Challenges That May Lead to Writing Difficulties

Many students with ADHD find that they are slower to recall, retrieve, and process information and so tend to take much longer to complete work. And when they do complete their assignments, they may find that they produce less written work -- shorter reports, less "discussion" on discussion questions, and fewer sentences on each test question -- as compared to their peers without ADHD. Simply starting the process and getting ideas and thoughts out of their head in an organized manner and down on paper can feel like uphill battle.

Deficits in working memory often associated with ADHD can impair a student's written expression. In her book, How to Reach and Teach Children With ADD/ADHD, Sandra Rief, M.A., explains that in addition to the retrieval of information, working memory helps with the following skills necessary in the process of writing:

  • Keeping ideas in mind long enough to remember what one wants to say
  • Maintaining focus on the "train of thought" so the flow of the writing will not veer off course
  • Keeping in mind the big picture of what you want to communicate, while manipulating the ideas, details, and wording

Additionally, with the time and frustration it can take to complete work, there is often no time (or energy) remaining to check over the details, edit assignments, and make corrections. Problems with focus and attention common for students with ADHD may lead to a lack of attention to these details anyway. If a child is impulsive, he or she may also rush through school work. As a result, papers are often filled with "careless" mistakes. The whole proofreading and editing process can be quite boring, so if a student does attempt to review work, he or she may quickly lose interest -- and focus.

To top it off, challenges with fine motor coordination can complicate writing ability further. Many students with ADHD labor with their fine motor coordination, resulting in slower, messier penmanship that can be very difficult to read and may even look like "chicken scratch" to the teacher with words cramped too closely together, or spaced too far apart, or over or under the lines of the paper. Though we joke that all physicians have terrible handwriting, for a student with ADHD, struggles around handwriting can result in feelings of self-consciousness and embarrassment. People may view writing as an automatic, natural process; however, for many students it can be quite overwhelming. Simply sustaining the attention and mental energy required for writing can be a struggle for someone with ADHD.

Read Strategies To Improve Writing Skills for tips on addressing common learning problems that can interfere with the expression of written language for students with ADHD.


Chris A. Zeigler Dendy, M.S., Teaching Teens with ADD, ADHD, and Executive Function Deficits: A Quick Reference Guide for Teachers and Parents. Second Edition. Woodbine House, 2011.

Kouichi Yoshimasu, M.D., William Barbaresi, M.D., Robert Colligan, Ph.D., Jill Killian, B.S., Robert Voigt, M.D. , Amy Weaver, M.S., Slavica Katusic, M.D.; Written-Language Disorder Among Children With and Without ADHD in a Population-Based Birth Cohort. Pediatrics 2011; 128:e605-e612.

Sandra F. Reif, M.A., How to Reach and Teach Children With ADD/ADHD: Practical Techniques, Strategies, and Interventions. Second Edition. Jossey-Bass . 2005.

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