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By Jessica A. Carmichael and James B. Hale

Image of a student writting

Debunking the Myths: If You Can Talk, You Can Write

An old myth still can be heard in some schools: If you can talk (expressive language), and are taught handwriting and spelling in school, then you can also write well. For some children this may be true, but explicit instruction in handwriting, spelling, and written expression is needed for children to successfully convey their ideas in writing. As Hooper et al. (2011) note, there are many brain systems and neuropsychological factors that influence written expression competency. While some of these are related to literacy can lead to both writing and reading learning disability (LD) when impaired, other causes of writing LD, such as visual-motor integration skills and executive functions (Fenwick et al., 2015), require additional attention during assessment and instruction.

Approximately 4-6% of students have a written language learning disability (Bernstein, 2013)


Written expression includes the basic skills of handwriting and spelling, but other important skills – related to executive (brain boss) functions, play a critical role as well. As a result, it is important to note that children with literacy problems often have problems with handwriting (e.g., comorbidity of “aphasia” and “apraxia”; Hale & Fiorello, 2004) and other children with executive function problems (e.g., ADHD, depression, anxiety) are likely to struggle with written expression (Mayes & Calhoun, 2006).


A telltale warning sign of writing difficulties is when a child can present her ideas well using spoken language but the writing product is much more limited or poorly constructed.

Handwriting: Visual-Tactile-Motor Connections

The physical act of handwriting may cause some students difficulty. Students with graphomotor (i.e. paper and pencil) difficulties often have signs of constructional apraxia, which can be caused by visual, tactile, and/or motor aspects of handwriting. If they have this problem, they may write less, regardless of whether they have good ideas or not. That is why an evaluation of the visual-tactile-motor functions, and the coordination of these processes, can help guide an intervention for a child (Feder & Majnemer, 2007). The following table highlights the issues at hand (pun intended!)

Basic Skill Automaticity and Written Expression  Orthographic-motor automaticity is necessary to free up higher level processes for adequate written expression (Jones & Christensen, 1999)


Sensory Problem Integration Problem Motor Problem
Students may have difficulty feeling the pressure they put on a pencil, which may cause print that is too dark (pushes too hard) or too light (pushes too little), or handwriting inconsistencies due to a kinesthetic (movement) problem. This is a touch problemStudents have print that is too big or too small, have poor spacing and/or alignment of words and letters, or produce directional errors (e.g., writing “q” for the letter p).  This is a visual problem. Students can struggle with connecting many different processes at once, like sensory and motor functions. The problem is white matter connections in the brain. These children may do better using one hand or the other, but have more difficulty when both hands are required. These children also tend to be slower at doing things quickly and efficiently, so can be slow at processing speed and fluency tasks. Students can have difficulty with motor plans, organization, sequential motor steps, control and coordination. This apraxia problem is in the front of the brain. It can lead to problems with writing, drawing, building blocks or puzzles, tying shoes, or dressing. Students often have problems with oral expression and grammar too, because these are also motor acts from a brain perspective. These children need motor control interventions to address their poor letter formation and spacing, so you have to see if a child’s poor handwriting is due to sensory, motor, or integration.

Spelling: Understanding and Producing Sound-Symbol Connections

Spelling is an important part of writing that many students struggle with, but there are many causes of spelling problems. There is a strong link between a student’s reading and spelling, because sound (phoneme)-symbol (grapheme) connections are needed for both (Nag & Snowling, 2013).

Although sound-symbol connections needed for spelling and reading are more related to perceiving and mapping these relationships, some students have difficulty with the motor memory of spelling (Planton, Jucla, Roux, & Démonet, 2013). Some students can read words well, but because they have difficulty with representing the orthography (visual representation) in motor memory. The practice of handwriting spelling words improves sound-symbol connections when spelling and reading (Berninger et al. 2008).


Don’t automatically provide keyboarding or computers for handwriting and spelling problems, children need to practice both to learn sound-letter connections!

Error analysis is critical for helping children learn correct spelling patterns, as noted in the table below.

Letter Additions

Letter Omissions Letter Reversals Sequencing Errors


“thinke” for think;“coome” for come “gving” for giving;“blak” for black “qast” for past;“bog” for dog “freind” for friend;“pats” for past “nise” for nice;“troo” for true

Sources: Hale & Fiorello, 2004; Cassar et al., 2005.

More teachers are turning to keyboarding and computers for children with writing or spelling difficulties, which often results in improved written output  (Berninger et al., 2014). While these computer skills are useful, they can actually cause more difficulties for children with sound-symbol association problems in spelling and reading if introduced too early. As noted earlier, extensive research findings show that when a child uses handwriting to spell words they often improve their word reading too (Berninger et al., 2008), so handwriting and spelling are not only important for writing, but reading as well!  

Written Expression: Most Complex of All Academic Tasks

Written expression is the most complex academic task, but little time is spent on it during classroom instruction (Hooper et al., 2011). One thing that written language requires is what is known as brain boss skills or executive functions.

During writing tasks, students must:

  • Brainstorm main and supporting ideas
  • Plan and organize their ideas so they are presented in logical order
  • Write sentences that include nouns and verbs that logically convey ideas
  • Monitor their writing to ensure sentences are grammatically correct
  • Evaluate their sentences in terms of grammatical accuracy, and in relation to the initial plan
  • Revised the writing draft to ensure an optimal error-free final product, something seldom accomplished by children with writing disabilities

The myth that if you can handwrite, spell, and use expressive language that you will write well has now been dismissed. Direct instruction in written expression is critical, especially for children with executive function problems (e.g., ADHD, depression, anxiety), who are likely to have significant written expression LDs (Mayes & Calhoun, 2006). These children may have excellent ideas, but translating them into writing is a struggle. Interventions that foster metacognitive (i.e., thinking about thinking) competency (Harris, Graham, Brindle, & Sandmel, 2009) may be quite helpful.

Executive functioning (EF) in Writing – the process of planning, organizing, implementing, monitoring, evaluating, and changing the writing sample a student produces.


Written expression requires the whole brain, but the frontal-lobe circuits are most important, as they coordinate motor, internal and internal executive control, and decision/error monitoring (see table below).

Brain Area Function
Anterior Cingulate Circuit
  • Self-monitoring
  • Cognitive switching
  • Decision making and error monitoring
Dorsolateral Prefrontal Circuit
  • Planning, flexibility, and organizing ideas
  • Retrieving words and content from memory
  • Implementing and monitoring the writing
Exner’s Area
  • Handwriting and spelling
  • Written expression – similar to Broca’s
Broca’s Area
  • Grammar and syntax, oral expression
  • Sequencing in sentences and writing sample
Supplementary Motor Cortex
  • Motor act of writing (routinized hand movement and coordinating posterior visual and somatosensory or touch processes)
Left Parietal Lobe
  • Somatosensory feedback (pencil grip/pressure) and letter orientation
Right Parietal Lobe
  • Spatial feedback for letter quality
Left temporal Lobe
  • Explicit sentence structure and vocabulary meaning
Right Temporal Lobe
  • Implicit vocabulary and sentence structure
  • Fine motor control and coordination


Given that there are a number of cognitive processes that can cause writing difficulties, it is important to tailor interventions based on individual student needs. The following section discusses various evidence-based strategies that can be implemented, but targeted interventions should address individual child needs.


GOAL – Have students learn to write using appropriate letter size, shape, and spacing.

Cognitive Instruction (Zwicker & Hadwin, 2009)

  • Cognitive approach includes letter identification, directional modeling, imitation, discussion, practice, and evaluation effective
  • Skills targeted: Motor coordination, visual-motor integration, and directionality of handwriting
  • Target age group: Grades 1-2
  1. Student Alphabet Warm-Up for mapping sounds and letters
  2. Teacher modeling of directionality and steps for producing letter parts (e.g., Berninger approach)
  3. Student traces letters following teacher model (imitation)
  4. Teacher and student discussion of similarities/differences of letter formation
  5. Student names letter, directional steps, and then writes; repeats without arrows, then copies
  6. Student circles best formed letter (visual discrimination required)

Handwriting Letters/Words Critical Writing

Hoy, Egan & Feder, (2011) note handwriting of actual letters/words is critical; sensory-motor interventions without handwriting are ineffective

à Practice Makes Perfect!

Graph Paper (Hale & Fiorello, 2004)

  • A simple strategy that uses graph paper as a tool to guide appropriate writing
  • Skills targeted: Motor coordination and visual-motor integration of handwriting
  • Target age group: Grades 1-5, older children with spatial handwriting disability
  1. Provide student with graph paper instead of lined paper during writing tasks
  2. Have the student fit each written letter into one square of space on the graph paper
  3. Have the student use one square of space to indicate a space between words
  4. Over time and with increased accuracy, use increasingly faded graph paper until the student is able to write appropriately sized/spaced letters and words on regular lined paper


GOAL – Increase spelling accuracy and sound (phoneme) – symbol (grapheme) correspondence

Cover-Copy-Compare (Skinner, McLaughlin, & Logan, 1997)

  • An intervention that increases spelling proficiency through training and repetition
  • Skills targeted: accuracy, fluency, and maintenance of spelling
  • Target age group: Grades 2+
  1. Student looks at a correctly spelled word
  2. Correctly spelled word is covered
  3. Student spells the word from memory
  4. The correct spelling of the word is unveiled for the student to compare with their spelling
  5. If the student spelled the word correctly, they move on to a new word; if the student is incorrect, they repeat the cover-copy-compare method with the same word again
Empirical Support: Cover-Copy-Compare found to increase spelling fluency and accuracy in a number of students, including those with LD (Skarr et al., 2012), and high school students with severe behavioural disabilities (Carter et al., 2011)
Combining Oral and Written Spelling:
Since oral and written language brain areas are close in structure/proximity, linking oral and written spelling can be useful in facilitating both (Hale & Fiorello, 2004). Having children say words aloud while writing could facilitate greater automaticity of word recognition and subsequently better spelling accuracy.

Say-Trace-Write Model (Graham & Freeman, 1986)

Uses oral language to assist with the learning of motor scripts

  1. Have the student say the word out loud
  2. Student writes the word
  3. Student checks their word against a model to determine accuracy
  4. Student traces the model and says the word aloud
  5. Student writes the word from memory
  6. Student checks their word against the model to determine accuracy

Self-Correction with Verbal Cues (Gettinger, 1985)

  • An intervention that uses verbal self-talk to enhance written spelling accuracy
  • Skills targeted: accuracy, fluency, and maintenance of spelling
  • Target age group: Grades 2+
  1. Teacher trains students in spelling self-correction methods, followed by practice tests with teacher feedback
  2. Spelling pre-test with 5 words each session.
  3. Check work and correct errors. Student given flash cards to compare to spelled words (8 steps)

Spelling post-test administered, flash cards used by student to check accuracy


GOAL – Increase written output/word count and improve quality of ideas in the written product.

Sentence Combining (Saddler, 2005)

  • Kernel sentences1 are developed into more diverse and complex sentences using direct instruction
  • Skills targeted: Flexibility and complexity of thought conveyed in sentences, more interesting writing
  • Target age group: Grade 2 and higher

1A kernel sentence is a simple, active, affirmative declarative sentence with only one verb.

  1. Teacher provides sentence-combining examples using think-aloud approach.
  2. Students given kernel sentences, usually in pairs or small groups
  3. Students use multiple kernels to combine words and phrases using connecting words, isolating and expanding key points
  4. Eventual metacognitive brainstorming of related ideas leads to word or phrase additions
  5. Guided practice, then independent practice.

Students with writing problems often write simple sentences that lack syntactic maturity (Robinson & Howell, 2008). Unlike traditional grammar instruction, having students expand kernel sentences improves both sentence complexity and diversity, and more interesting written language product.

Teacher-Directed Strategy Instruction (Troia & Graham, 2002)

  • Teacher-directed strategy instruction of goal-setting, brainstorming, and organizing
  • Skills targeted: Provides purpose/direction, increasing content/complexity, and organization to convey
  • Target age group: Grade 4 and higher
  1. Pre-instruction in SPACE (setting, problems, actions, consequences, emotions) and DARE (Develop position statement, add supporting arguments, report/refute counterarguments, end conclusion)
  2. Direct instruction in the STOP & LIST (Stop, Think of Purposes, List Ideas, Sequence Them) approach to planning the writing sample
  3. Process approach to writing (drafting, revising, proofreading, editing, publishing) for guided practice and then independent practice

Integrated Writing Instruction (MacArthur, Graham, & Schwartz, 2005)

  • Authentic sentences about life experiences to increase student engagement and motivation
  • Skills targeted: Authentic writing with peer feedback and integration fosters writing motivation
  • Target age group: Grade 6 and above
  1. Status-Checking Teacher checks with students about writing goals for day
  2. Mini-Lesson Teacher provides mini-lesson on writing process with writing strategies offered
  3. Student Writing Students draft authentic sentences based on self, group, or teacher topic ideas
  4. Peer & Teacher Conferences Feedback from peers and teachers leads to revision and improved product
  5. Publishing/Group Sharing Students share revised passages in group discussion, bulletin board, or approved computer website

PLEASE (Welch, 1992)

  • Metacognitive strategy for idea generation, organization, composition, and editing
  • Skills targeted: Metacognitive brainstorming of ideas, planning and organizing, writing, and revising
  • Target age group: Grade 6 and higher


Image of the PLEASE pdf

Click here to access LD@school’s template for the PLEASE strategy.

Adapting these strategies for younger students. Young children do not typically write essays, but these metacognitive strategies can be adapted to suit the narrative writing tasks of early curricula.

PLAN and WRITE (De La Paz, 1999)

  • Metacognitive strategy that helps students plan/organize their ideas
  • Helps students refer back to the goal of the assignment to aid in the writing process
  • Skills targeted: planning, writing expository essays, and goal-directed writing
  • Target age group: Grades 6-12


Image of the Plan and Write PDF

Click here to access LD@school’s template for the PLAN and WRITE strategy.

Empirical Support: PLAN and WRITE found to increase length and quality of writing assignments in LD and non-LD students when used in an inclusive setting (De La Paz, 1999).

TOWER WITH COPS (Mercer & Mercer, 2001)

  • Skills targeted: planning, organization, monitoring, and revision of written work using TOWER and COPS techniques
  • Target Age Groups: Grades 1+


Image of the Tower Strategy.

Click here to access LD@school’s template for the TOWER strategy.


Image of COPS Strategy

Click here to access LD@school’s template for the COPS strategy.

Helpful for ALL Students and ALL Ages! These interventions are easily implemented for all beginning writers. Posting one or more of these mnemonics in class for all students to refer to during writing assignments is a great class-wide strategy for writing success!

Additional Resources

Great resource to use when choosing words to use in spelling interventions


Berninger, V. W., Nielsen, K. H., Abbott, R. D., Wijsman, E., & Raskind, W. (2008). Writing problems in developmental dyslexia: Under-recognized and under-treated. Journal of School Psychology, 46(1), 1-21.

Bernstein, J. H. (2013). Process Analysis in the Assessment of Children. The Boston Process Approach to Neuropsychological Assessment: A Practitioner's Guide, 300.

Carter, M., McLaughlin, T. F., Derby, K. M., Schuler, H., & Everman, J. (2011). Differential effects of cover, copy, and compare in spelling with four high school students with severe behavior disorders. Academic Research International, 1(1), 43-51.

Cassar, M., Treiman, R., Moats, L., Pollo, T. C., & Kessler, B. (2005). How do the spellings of children with dyslexia compare with those of nondyslexic children?. Reading and Writing, 18(1), 27-49.

De La Paz, S. (1999). Teaching Writing Strategies and Self-Regulation Procedures to Middle School Students with Learning Disabilities. Focus on exceptional children, 31(5), 1-16.

Feder, K. P., & Majnemer, A. (2007). Handwriting development, competency, and intervention. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 49(4), 312-317.

Fenwick, M., Kubas, H. A., Witzke, J. W., Miller, D. C., Maricle, D. E., Harrison, G. L., Macoun, S. J., Hale, J. B. (2015). Neuropsychological profiles of written expression learning disabilities determined by concordance-discordance model criteria. Applied Neuropsychology: Child.

Gettinger, M. (1985). Effects of teacher-directed versus student-directed instruction and cues versus no cues for improving spelling performance. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis18(2), 167-171.

Graham, S., & Freeman, S. (1986). Strategy training and teacher-vs. student-controlled study conditions: Effects on LD students' spelling performance. Learning Disability Quarterly, 9(1), 15-22.

Hale, J. B., & Fiorello, C. A. (2004). School neuropsychology: A practitioner's handbook. Guilford Press.

Harris, K. R., Graham, S., Brindle, M., & Sandmel, K. (2009). 8 Metacognition and Children’s Writing. Handbook of metacognition in education, 131.

Hooper, S. R., Costa, L. J., McBee, M., Anderson, K. L., Yerby, D. C., Knuth, S. B., & Childress, A. (2011). Concurrent and longitudinal neuropsychological contributors to written language expression in first and second grade students. Reading and Writing, 24(2), 221-252.

Jones, D., & Christensen, C. A. (1999). Relationship between automaticity in handwriting and students' ability to generate written text. Journal of educational psychology, 91(1), 44.

MacArthur, C. A., Graham, S., & Schwartz, S. S. (1993). Integrating strategy instruction and word processing into a process approach to written instruction. School Psychology Review, 22, 671-681.

Mayes, S. D., & Calhoun, S. L. (2006). Frequency of reading, math, and writing disabilities in children with clinical disorders. Learning and individual Differences, 16(2), 145-157.

Mercer, C. D., & Mercer, A. R. (1989). Teaching students with learning problems. Merrill Publishing Co.

Nag, S., & Snowling, M. J. (2013). Children's reading development: learning about sounds, symbols and cross-modal mappings.

Planton, S., Jucla, M., Roux, F. E., & Démonet, J. F. (2013). The “handwriting brain”: a meta-analysis of neuroimaging studies of motor versus orthographic processes. Cortex, 49(10), 2772-2787.

Robinson, L. K., & Howell, K. W. (2008). Best practices in curriculum-based evaluation & written expression. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best practices in school psychology V (pp. 439-452). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.

Saddler, B. (2005). Sentence combining: A sentence-level writing intervention. The Reading Teacher, 58, 468-471.

Skarr, A., McLaughlin, T. F., Derby, K. M., Meade, K., & Williams, R. L. (2012). A comparison of direct instruction flashcards and cover, copy, compare to teach spelling to elementary school students. Academic Research International, 2(2), 247-263.

Skinner, C. H., McLaughlin, T. F., & Logan, P. (1997). Cover, copy, and compare: A self-managed academic intervention effective across skills, students, and settings. Journal of Behavioral Education, 7(3), 295-306.

Troia, G. A., & Graham, S. (2002). The effectiveness of a highly explicit, teacher-directed strategy instruction routine changing the writing performance of students with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 35(4), 290-305.

Welch, M. (1992). The PLEASE strategy: A metacognitive learning strategy for improving the paragraph writing of students with mild learning disabilities. Learning disability quarterly, 15(2), 119-128.

Zwicker, J. G., & Hadwin, A. F. (2009). Cognitive versus multisensory approaches to handwriting intervention: A randomized controlled trial. OTJR: Occupation, Participation and Health, 29(1), 40-48.