Why Kids Can’t Write

Updated 2024.

Every week, I receive dozens of calls from parents concerned about their children’s writing skills. Here’s a sample of what these parents are saying:

“He’s very bright, but he just can’t seem to get his thoughts on the page.”

“He just kind of rambles in his essays.”

“She has no idea how to start writing.”

“She’s so frustrated, she’s almost given up trying.”

Good writing skills are essential to learning and professional success


These concerns are shared with me by parents of public school students, private school students, neurotypical kids, and neuro-diverse or neuroatypical students (LD) including those frustrated by dyslexia and ADHD/ADD.

I share these parents’ concerns. We all know that writing well is key to our students’ future success, in school and beyond. Writing practice improves critical thinking and reading skills, develops mental flexibility, strengthens problem-solving abilities, enhances oral and written communication skills, and helps students evaluate and remember learned material.

But there is a deeper concern: Too often, lack of school writing success conduces to insecurity and self-doubt. When left unattended, that insecurity often spills over into other areas of academic performance affecting grades and self-esteem.


Why can’t our kids write?

There are five main reasons students struggle with writing:

1.  Teachers don’t teach writing.

Why? Because they’ve never been taught how to teach writing. In fact, a recent study conducted by Gary Troia of Michigan State University and Steve Graham of Arizona State University found that fewer than thirty percent of American elementary through high school grade teachers have ever taken a college course solely devoted to writing and writing instruction. Another researcher, Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, examined 2,400 syllabi from teacher preparation programs. Walsh found almost no evidence that the teaching of writing is being covered in a widespread or systematic way.  As parents know, the results of these deficiencies are amply evident in our students’ performance. According to a recent study conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a whopping three-quarters of American students in grade eight and grade twelve lack writing proficiency.  A study of students who took the ACT writing exam in 2016 revealed that forty percent of those students hadn’t the basic skills to pass even an entry level college composition class.

2.  Students get inadequate practice.

Presently, I’m working with an AP Language and Composition student enrolled in an affluent, educationally privileged high school. As of November 21, he had not received any writing assignments. (That’s nearly three months into the school year!) Two sixth graders with whom I am working have never been asked to write a one-page essay, or even a short paragraph of academic writing. Instead, they are assigned content comprehension quizzes and tests. But writing, like any other skill, requires practice. The more you do it, the better you get at doing it. It’s that simple.

3.  Students receive inadequate feedback from teachers.

Typically, students’ writing at the elementary and middle school level is assessed for completion, typically with a check, check plus, or check minus, but not for successful communication of ideas, writing fluency, or command of writing conventions. Consequently, early on in their academic careers, students feel that writing is little more than a “time filler” assigned by an overworked teacher or a teacher who doesn’t want to grade their work, a random exercise the purpose and goal of which completely eludes them. When students do begin to receive feedback addressing content, that feedback is typically written in cryptic marginalia (awk, detail!, elab, etc.). But if students are never taught how to detail or elaborate, how can they possibly perform those same required skills in their graded assignments?

4.  Writing requires thinking.

Writing is ninety-nine percent thinking, one percent writing. In other words, when you know what you want to say and how you want to say it, writing becomes easier and more successful. But students are not taught how to think about what they want to communicate and how they want to represent their thoughts before they write. In other words, they are not taught how to make evident to themselves what they know about the prompt, how to organize those thoughts into dominant (relevant) and subordinate (less relevant) patterns, and how to sequence those thoughts in a way that will be meaningful to a reader before writing. As a result, when students do write, their writing is often confused, disorganized, undeveloped, and repetitive.

5.  Good writing requires good reading skills.

Students need to be taught to read for comprehension especially in the early grades. But by middle school, students need to be taught to read closely, purposefully, and strategically as well as for comprehension. This requires that teachers teach students ways of actively engaging with a text, not just passively consuming it. In other words, teachers have to help students realize that they are vital participants in the process of making meaning of the text. To do this, teachers need to teach good annotation skills. While some teachers do require students to annotate, these notes are rarely if ever evaluated. If they are evaluated, typically teachers assess completion but not how well the students engaged with and thought about a text.

Building successful writing skills takes time and practice. But when writing instruction is done well, the results are remarkable: Students get better grades and gain confidence in themselves as learners, active agents meaningfully engaged in the creation of knowledge, not just passive consumers.

If your child is not performing as expected, call me. I’d be happy to help your child toward writing success! Call me.

Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized plan for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and career aspirations. Her holistic approach helps students perform well in school and secure admission to top colleges.  

About The Author

Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.