An Intervention for Writing Difficulties

PATOSS Dyslexia Tutor , Rosemary Dickson shares her tips on writing and strategies to make that easier for dyslexic pupils.

Star Writing ~ An Intervention for Writing Difficulties

‘Writing is a complex task. It requires the coordination of fine motor skills and cognitive skills, reflects the social and cultural patterns of the writer’s time and is also linguistically complex.’ 1

I thought I would share with you one approach I use with my dyslexic/dysgraphic students.
As we know, writing requires multiple skills operating together – no wonder it is a complex task! Problems with writing range from thinking up ideas, organising ideas or having lots of great ideas but struggling to put them onto paper. Some students can be easily distracted by background noise or classroom activities; some with weak memory skills forget the aim of the task and what they are thinking. There can be a combination of planning issues as well as fine motor writing issues.
Is it any suprise that this leads to frustration and loss of self-esteem? Once students begin to feel they can’t do it, it is then only a short step to believing they really can’t write. This can then become self-fulfilling.
‘Research has shown that struggling writers can benefit from explicit and targeted instruction in word-, sentence-, and paragraph-level skills.’ 2

Star Writing, an approach I use based on the ideas of Structured Writing, encourages pupils to become Writing Stars! Structured writing is what it says – writing using a very structured method. My dyslexic/dysgraphic students who do not like writing find it gives them a clear, explicit step-by-step structure and helps them think about writing in a very different way. Using Star Writing, they can produce a recognisably interesting piece of writing much quicker and with less stress than normal – and they enjoy it!

My Star Writing cards have five different sentence options, set in specific orders. Each card has different options
A Star Writing Card.

and in different orders. Each card can help produce a different paragraph.

When starting a writing task, we agree a topic, discuss some ideas and create a mindmap or bullet points. Then, using a Star Writing card, the writing task becomes more like a puzzle as they think about creating each sentence as instructed on the card. Students find this step-by-step approach non-threatening. They enjoy the challenge and find they have completed a paragraph in record time and that it reads much better than they expect! They begin to become Star Writers!

Depending on the age of the student, Star Writing cards can be replaced by Star Writing Sticks. The student can choose up to five sticks from a bundle and then choose for themselves which order to use them. This increases independence and ownership of their writing. As confidence in writing grows, the student can choose eg two sticks per paragraph, which continues to bring a variety of sentence structure to the work and a measure of support in thinking, while also developing independence.
Star Writing Sticks

Before long the cards, or sticks, become a familiar way of thinking about writing. The fear of what to write is reduced as they decide on each sentence type. Soon they find that they are using eg a three word sentence, a list or a question in their classroom writing. Their work is more thoughtful, the different sentence types add variety and they find they begin to get praise from their teacher. As their marks improve, so does their confidence and they truly become Star Writers.

This intervention is simple to use across a wide age range. I have used it successfully with students from 7 to 16 years and all enjoy it. In fact they frequently surprise themselves as they find they are enjoying writing for the first time!

The method is very flexible, as cards or sticks can be made to suit the specific age of the student and the writing structures being taught. This could include: use of certain conjunctions eg however, although; alliteration or similes; a semi-colon; ‘In contrast’ or ‘In my opinion’; a list of three etc. As an intervention, it helps to bridge the gap from feeling ‘unable to write’, to increasing confidence and gaining an idea of how writing works. The goal is to move beyond needing the intervention, when the student becomes an independent writer, able to learn all the other writing skills along with their peers.

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Why does Star Writing work? I find using an intervention like this provides structured thinking and narrows choices. It gives the explicit, targeted instructions which help the student focus on a very specific task. This is far less daunting than a whole task of filling a page with writing! The very specific nature of Star Writing means it is easy to remember and I have found it is common for students to transfer this naturally to class work. This intervention helps students write with the greater variety of sentence structures that teachers are looking for and yet students find it fun and enjoyable. Students learn how to combine sentences to convey their ideas in an interesting way. As teachers comment on their improvement, the students realise they can write successfully and confidence is gained.

I have seen students amazed at how quickly and easily they wrote a paragraph, or even two, where before they would have struggled, lost focus and given up. It is great to see their enjoyment in writing begin to grow. Students have found their marks for writing have shot up and some have achieved class awards for their writing and even won school creative writing competitions!

You too could help simplify the complex task of writing – why not give Star Writing a go with your student?

By Rosemary Dickson
Specific Learning Difficulties/Dyslexia Tutor


1 Myhill, D. and Fisher, R. (2010) ‘Editorial: Writing development: cognitive, sociocultural, linguistic perspectives’, Journal of Research in Reading. Volume 33, Issue 1, 2010.
2 Santangelo, T. and Olinghouse, N. (2009) ‘Effective writing instruction for students who have writing difficulties’, Focus on exceptional children 42(4)
Education Standards Research Team, Department for Education, (2012) What is the research evidence on writing? Research Report DFE-RR238