Patootie Perspective: My child is struggling to write letters and draw shapes. What can I do to help?

patootie-perspectiveAs I began teaching, the area of academics I felt least prepared to teach was writing. So many of my students were struggling to create a letter– but they were in the upper grades of elementary school. So day after day we practiced the basic skill of writing names, letters, and simple words.

I struggled with this because I knew there was so much more to writing than the motor task. Writing is about creating and expressing yourself. These students were stuck practicing the simple function of writing a letter and were not practicing what writing is actually all about!

The following year I had a class of students even lower functioning than my first year. For many of my students, fine motor limitations didn’t allow them to form letters. Creating anything original was extremely difficult.

So I was faced with the following challenges:

How can I allow a child to produce original thought when they…

    1. Function at a very low cognitive level
    2. Can’t use their hands
    3. Can’t write letter or words

The first thing I changed about my writing curriculum was introducing printed pictures as “choices” for a student to make in order to answer questions. A short description of this approach: If I was reading “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” I would print a picture of a caterpillar, several types of fruit, a leaf, and several other food items the caterpillar eats in the story. I would also print pictures that had nothing to do with the story, like a bathtub, a rat, and a house. I would use these pictures to ask questions. For higher functioning students, I would lay out many pictures and ask them to select the pictures that tell about the story and tell me about it. For lower functioning students I would just present two pictures, one from the story and one distracting picture, and have them select the picture from the book. This is a common way to bridge the gap of writing when a student faces limitations, but I still felt like there was a missing link.

My third year of teaching I had an “A-HA” moment about what I thought might be the missing link. I knew that the most common alternatives to traditional writing were DRAWING or DICTATING. Most of my students had limited communication skills so I focused in on the drawing aspect.

I realized I had never taken the time to try to teach the students to draw. I hadn’t taught them to draw simple things to represent the things they love, and definitely not anything that would allow them to answer questions. I had jumped immediately to printed pictures that were far too complicated for a child to duplicate. So I stopped! I started drawing very basic pictures of the things I was talking or writing about in class to model this important skill. Also important– I talked through the process. If I read “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas”, and the prompt was to write something about the book, I would say out loud “Hmmm, what happens in this book that I could draw about? Oh! I remember a part where the Grinch stole a Christmas tree! I will draw a Christmas tree!” Then as I drew I would explain what I was doing. “First I will draw the triangle tree, then I will add a star. I can add some circle decorations, too! One here, one here, and one here”


I then started drawing several options for students to choose from and draw themselves.

At first, the students struggled. Their only experience with creating had been drawing lines to create letters (pretty boring when you think about it), or coloring in between the lines on a coloring sheet (another activity that gets pretty old). So they were a  little resistant to this new expectation. But it wasn’t long before MIRACLES were happening in my classroom.

By the end of the year, I had students who hadn’t been able to do anything but draw lines drawing pictures with multiple features. One of my favorite examples was a student who got so excited every time he saw a picture of a pirate. He couldn’t speak and could only draw lines on a page, but at the end of the year, his favorite thing to draw was a pirate ship filled with pirates. He would draw the sail, the ocean, the fish below, bow and arrows, and more. And at the end of the year he even added a giant octopus with tentacles coming up onto the ship (a little spooky– but he created it all by himself!)

My students filled page after page with drawings based on basic models I created. They started to enjoy drawing and they looked forward to journal time. Some of my students continued to draw things that were difficult to decipher, but when I asked what it was (I would ask about each of the model drawings I had created) They would clearly know which they had drawn and show considerable excitement when I got it right (most of these students were non-verbal). Those who needed assistance holding a writing utensil were given a choice between the pictures and then got help from an adult to draw and then color the basic picture (We used the hand-under-hand method when drawing and coloring). Those who could write simple words and sentences would write below their pictures.

Soon, I had several students who would add things I had not drawn or talked about to their pictures and, to me, this was the greatest victory.

This is an approach I really believe in. It was an approach that yielded incredible results and one I am so glad I discovered.

Want to give it a try? Let me give you a few more examples of how I used it in my class:

*Remember: Simplicity is Key. Some of the pictures below might be too complicated when you are beginning this approach with your students. And another note: Do not be shy about your drawings!!! These kids do not care! At first I would draw something and be almost embarassed at how silly it looked. I just had to keep telling myself it DID NOT MATTER. In fact, your lack of drawing skills it might actually be a benefit!

1. When we read the text “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” I drew three simple pictures: A picture of a bus, a pigeon, and a steering wheel. I laid them out on the table, gave each student their sketchbook and asked them to draw a picture to tell me about the book. You can make it more challenging by adding pictures that have nothing to do with the book. img_3455

2. When we talked about Valentine’s Day, I drew 3 pictures. A heart, candy, and a pumpkin. This was meant to practice comprehension skills. If they understood what we had discussed about Valentine’s Day they would not draw the pumpkin picture when they were asked to draw about Valentine’s Day.img_3459

3. When we finished our unit on bugs, I drew 6 pictures of bugs different bugs. I asked the student to draw their favorite bug.img_3462









If you have any questions about how I implemented this approach to writing in my classroom, please feel free to contact me! Remember that it will take a little while for the kids to adjust and feel confident in their ability to really create something. Praise every effort. After each journal writing session, I would gather the journals and show the whole class each student’s page. I would talk about what I saw and then we would all cheer together “Hip Hip Hooray!” three times with our hands pumping the air. Their hard work was definitely worth celebrating.

Wishing you the magic of progress in your writing endeavors!


Author: Tawni

Tawni is a former special education teacher, now stay-at-home momma. She spends her days reading, cooking with lots of cheese, listening to professional choral music, and tickling her baby boy, Cy. She lives with her husband and son in Utah.

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