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Seven Facts About Learning Disabilities and Written Expression

getting-organized-stack-of-pencilsMany people with learning disabilities (LD) struggle with written expression. For students with dysgraphia, the act of writing is difficult. Those with dyslexia often have serious difficulties with spelling. Also vulnerable are students who have weaknesses in areas such as vocabulary, reading and listening comprehension, word retrieval and information processing deficits. And dyspraxia—a disorder that affects fine-motor skills and often co-occurs with LD—may also impact the physical act of writing. What do parents need to know to help their child with LD succeed in writing? Here are top-level findings from experts Dr. Steve Graham and Dr. Karen Harris.



  1. How can parents tell if a school’s writing program is effective? In addition to providing accommodations and modifications for students with LD, a balanced, comprehensive writing curricula should include explicit teaching of critical writing skills, processes and knowledge as well as less formal techniques like teacher-student conferences and peer-to-peer editing. Students should have opportunities to learn about and practice different genres of writing (e.g., stories, reports, letters, persuasive writing, etc.) and share their writing with others.

  2. One research-validated approach to teaching writing to students with LD is Self-Regulated Strategy Development for Writing (SRSD). Teachers using SRSD guide students through a process that includes:

    • Developing and activating students’ background knowledge
    • Discussion of students’ current abilities and self-regulation abilitie
    • Explicit teaching and memorization of strategies
    • Closely working with the teacher for support at early stages of writing
    • Finally, independent performance with teacher support only as necessary

    To learn more about SRSD, check out the book Powerful Writing Strategies for All Students, watch this video of SRSD in action from Vanderbilt University, and visit Dr. Robert Reid’s website on strategies instruction.

  3. A common stumbling block in writing for students with LD is organization: keeping track of materials (e.g., note cards, research books) and in structuring/organizing an argument to support a thesis. Students need explicit models of support, such as the one offered by SRSD, to keep them on track.

  4. It often takes a child with LD twice as long (or more) as other students to simply copy a piece of writing. Tasks like copying from the board may be less appropriate for students with writing LD. Also, when planning accommodations like extended time for testing, keep a student’s handwriting speed in mind.

  5. Assistive technology is increasingly opening doors to fluent writing for students with LD. Access to simple word processing software may be helpful to students who struggle with handwriting. Software with word prediction and screen reading capabilities is a powerful tool for many students. The advent of portable keyboards and mobile apps allow people to use these tools anywhere. Talk to your child’s teachers and other LD professionals about what assistive technology tools might be most appropriate, and make sure your child’s IEP or 504 plan addresses assistive technology needs.

  6. Many students with LD lack self-confidence in writing. Parents and teachers can help rebuild young writers’ confidence by teaching and developing writing strategies and self-monitoring the use of these strategies. Once a child sees that they have produced successful writing, they will be more motivated in the future. Parents can help by creating a homework environment that is supportive, pleasant, and low-risk. If not offered by the classroom teacher, consider providing incentives to encourage your child to do additional writing practice at home.

  7. As with other types of LD, early intervention for dysgraphia and dyslexia—LDs that especially impact writing—is important. Students who have speech and language difficulties are another group at-risk for writing problems. Young children who have unusual difficulty learning to write the letters of the alphabet should be monitored closely.

Are you concerned that you or your child may be displaying signs of a writing learning disability? Review our dysgraphia warning signs for Pre K–Grade 2, Grades 3–8, Grades 9–12, and college students and adults. Visit our Interactive Checklist of LD Signs and Symptoms for more information on learning disability warning signs in all areas of development and learning.

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