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By Diane Wagner, BA, Grad. Dip. Child Study, LD@school LD Expert

Image of a Teacher Helping Pupils Studying At Desks In Classroom

Writing involves juggling many things at the same time: grammar, spelling, letter formation, vocabulary, punctuation, capitalization, content, and following the directions of educators. All of these skills must be automatic for writing to be effective. For most of us, this is a big task. However, for many students with learning disabilities (LDs), it is an almost impossible chore.

As a student progresses through school, the challenges relating to writing continue to increase. Students become involved in story writing, editing, research, note-taking, text/exam writing, etc. All of these tasks require planning and time.

Students with LDs who have difficulties in writing are often accused of procrastination or lack of effort, and indeed may become discouraged if they do not get help. It is important for educators to recognize where the breakdown in written language occurs, and find creative ways to assist these students. Difficulties can be in handwriting and/or in written expression.

Identifying and Addressing Difficulties in Handwriting

The term dysgraphia is sometimes used to describe the specific aspect of fine motor function which affects the speed, fluency and legibility of writing.

Common forms include:

  • Motor memory dysfunction -- lack of automaticity of letter formation (cannot rapidly remember how to form letters)
  • Graphomotor production deficits -- incorrect pencil grip (perpendicular, too close to tip, excessive pressure)
  • Motor Feedback problems -- trouble keeping track of where the pencil is while writing

Students with handwriting difficulties often avoid paper pencil tasks and have reduced written output.

Suggestions for addressing handwriting difficulties

  • For students learning to print/write, teach letter formation in a methodical method (ie. grouping letters which have similar formations), emphasizing the correctness of pencil grip, motor memory for the letter formations, practice for fluency.
  • Have the student practice copying for short periods of time and then increasing the time as fluency increases.
  • Encourage the use of pencil grips and/or large mechanical pencils.
    Encourage use of alternative paper material (e.g. for younger students, paper with raised lines provides a sensory guide for the student to stay within the lines).
  • Encourage training for keyboarding skills so that a computer can be used for school assignments.

Identifying and Addressing Difficulties in Written Expression

Frequently, students with LDs demonstrate a significant discrepancy between oral expression and reading ability vs. their written output. This functional gap is a source of extreme frustration for everyone involved, particularly the student who does not understand why they are unable to write with the same ease as they can understand, think and discuss.

Sources of this breakdown include:

  • Lack of skill/expertise with the writing process - i.e. putting thoughts on paper in an organized, sequenced and edited form
  • Not following the necessary writing stages - i.e. prewriting and writing
  • Weak active working memory - i.e. remembering and using all the skills involved in written production: expressing ideas and knowledge, grammar, punctuation, capitalization, proofreading, editing, etc.
  • Weak revision and proofreading skills
  • Attentional weaknesses - weak sustained attention for difficult tasks, distractibility, low mental energy, easily fatigued
  • Difficulty recognizing “the big picture”, disorganization
  • Slow processing speed, weak retrieval memory

Suggestions for addressing written expression difficulties

  • Assist with the development of a schedule allowing time to complete assignments
  • Work in small time periods rather than spending hours at a time
  • Begin with a brainstorming stage where ideas about the subject are written down. If a student has spelling or graphomotor problems, scribe for them or allow use of a computer
  • Help the student organize their ideas from the brainstorming to an organizational model (i.e. a story map, a timeline, an outline, organizational software such as Inspiration, Spark-Space)
  • Encourage the student to elaborate on which ideas need to be included in the assignment within the organizational model
  • Begin writing first/rough draft from the model
  • Edit for vocabulary usage, sentencing, grammatical constructions, mechanics of writing (spelling, capitals, punctuation, paragraphing)

Suggested accommodations for written expression difficulties

  • Additional time for writing assignments
  • Alternative means of assessing knowledge (e.g. oral reports or visual projects)
  • Marks for spelling only deducted when spelling is an essential skill requirement for the task
  • For students who cannot keep up with note taking from a blackboard, provide a copy or outline
  • Use of organizational assistive software
  • Use of a digital recorder to dictate thoughts or answers
  • Use of a scribe or speech-to-text assistive software
  • Use of word prediction or spellchecker software

Adapted from an article by Faye E. Hart, Educational Consultant (used with permission), which was based on the following references: Levine, Mel.  Educational Care 1994: Cambridge. Educators Publishing Service Ltd.: Levine, Mel.  Keeping a Head in School.1990: Cambridge. Educators Publishing Service Ltd.

Relevant Resources on the LD@school website:

Click here to access an article entitled, “Developing Interventions for Students with Writing Disabilities: Addressing the Most Complex Academic Problem”, by Jessica A. Carmichael and James B. Hale.

Click here to access an article entitled, “The Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) Approach for Helping Students with Learning Disabilities to Improve their Use of Writing Strategies, their Knowledge of Writing, and their Motivation to Write”, by Véronique Parent, Anne Rodrigue, Julie Myre-Bisaillon, Carole Boudreau, and Annick Tremblay-Bouchard.

Click here to access an article entitled, “Expressive Writing”, by Jeffrey MacCormack and Nancy L. Hutchinson.

Click here to access an article entitled, “Narrative Story Writing”, by Robert M. Head and Raymond Leblanc.

Click here to access an article entitled, “The COPS Editing Strategy”, by Nicole Lauzon.