When Reading or Writing Trips You Up

Reading and writing are not only basics for schoolwork, but also for life beyond the classroom. Anything that gets in the way of clear communication can cause problems — from minor misunderstandings to major disconnects with study material, homework assignments, or human interaction.

Some students struggle with reading and may have a learning disability, such as dyslexia or attention deficit disorder (ADD). Often, instructors can spot students with particular reading problems and may test them to confirm their assessment. If the instructor doesn't spot the problem, but you have a tough time with reading, talk to your instructor about your frustrations as soon as possible (not right before a major reading assignment is due or right at the end of the semester). Your instructor may have available many different resources and strategies to help you improve your reading.

It's important that you recognize and accept help for any reading problems; there's nothing wrong with you. Lots of people struggle with reading (even some very famous and successful people have suffered from reading problems). More importantly, you can learn skills to make reading easier and less of a struggle.

If you think you have a reading problem, expect to be tested, possibly see reading experts, perhaps work with a reading specialist, and for cases where the problem may be caused by something in the way your brain works (like ADD), you may be prescribed medication. In helping with reading problems, you, your instructor, your parents or guardians, and any reading specialists should all be involved in determining the best course of action for your situation.

Another skill students often struggle with is writing. Some mistakenly believe that some people can write, while others just can't; that some people are born writers. While it's true that some students do have a natural knack for writing, like all skills, your writing can be improved. To start, you need to work on your confidence and your belief that you can learn to write — after all, writing's all about storytelling. And everyone has a story to tell!

In addition to changing your attitude, you can improve your writing skills by considering these strategies:

  • Practice. Writing improves with practice. Think about starting out by writing regularly in a journal — just letting your thoughts flow without concern about getting all the punctuation right or becoming the next bestselling author.

  • Try different types of writing. If writing reports bores you, try creative writing. If the thought of putting together an essay overwhelms you, try your hand at outline writing to organize your thoughts. Improving in one type of writing will carry over to other kinds of writing.

  • Read. Reading helps improve your writing because you see how others have built sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into chapters. Reading also improves your vocabulary and introduces you to a variety of different writing styles as well as ways of writing for different purposes.

  • Pinpoint your dislike of writing and get help on that area. For example, many writers struggle with ideas, so they get stymied. In that case, learning some brainstorming techniques can help you see how to come up with lists of possible ideas, themes, or topics. If you get stuck at the introduction, move on and write the body of the paper, and then go back and write the introduction. There's no rule that says you have to start with the introduction; in fact, after you've finished the body of the paper, you know better what your paper contains and you're in a better position to write an introduction that presents the points you're making.

  • Consider working with a writing tutor. A writing tutor can help you pinpoint areas of strengths and weaknesses. For example, suppose you come up with excellent descriptions, but your grammar mistakes detract from your ideas. You can learn to improve your grammar, with the help of a tutor, a grammar class, assistance from your instructor, or your own outside work on the topic (such as grammar workbooks). Some schools have writing centers, where experienced instructors and mentors (sometimes, fellow students) welcome the opportunity to demystify the writing process.

  • Facing your fears of what others will think of your ideas. Often students don't state their ideas with conviction because they are unsure of the validity of their own opinions or are afraid of what others think. Build your confidence by facing the fact that you do have something worthwhile to say. The attitude of confidence you portray in your writing becomes more important as your education advances and your work becomes less about reciting what you know and more about applying and commenting on how this knowledge affects you, your life, and the lives of others.