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Writing disabilities: An overview

Learn from an expert why some kids with learning disabilities struggle with writing - and instructional approaches that help.

By Charles A. MacArthur

"The words are all tangled up inside my head.  I'm confused.  I get tangled up in writing the words, and I stop." — fifth-grade girl with learning disabilities

Writing is difficult.  Most writers could relate to the frustration expressed by this girl.  Writing is a complex process that draws on:

  • our knowledge of the topic
  • our ability to anticipate what readers will need
  • our ability to logically organize information
  • our skill at finding the right words
  • our ability to evaluate our efforts
  • the perseverance to keep working 

Writers must set goals, integrate the many cognitive and social processes involved, and monitor their own success. Students with LD are not the only ones who struggle with writing. In fact, the National Assessment of Educational Progress rated only 28% of fourth-grade, 31% of eighth-grade, and 24% of twelfth-grade students as proficient1. However, for students with LD, the difficulties are greater. In comparison to their normally achieving peers, students with LD have:

  • less knowledge about writing
  • less skill with language
  • substantial difficulties with spelling and handwriting
  • less effective strategies for writing

Consequently, their compositions are shorter, less organized and coherent, more marked by errors in spelling and grammar, and lower in overall quality2.

Parents often wonder to what extent reading and writing disabilities are connected.  Reading and writing are closely related language skills; research shows substantial correlations between reading and writing achievement3. Most poor readers also struggle with writing. However, the reverse is not necessarily true. All of the following can produce writing problems, independent of reading problems:

  • fine motor problems that affect handwriting
  • attention and self-regulation problems that affect persistence and organization
  • limited motivation
  • limited instruction

In addition, some students who overcome their reading problems will continue to struggle with spelling and writing. Thus, it is important that your child's writing problems be assessed, in addition to any reading problems, so that she is provided carefully designed writing instruction.

Writing development and writing problems

"Good writing is writing one, maybe two pages, and having periods, capital letters, indenting, paragraphs, spelling everything right ... and that's all I'd say about that." — student with LD

As the quote illustrates, many students with LD are so concerned with the mechanics of writing that they equate good writing with lack of errors.  Schools must take care not to make that same mistake in assessing a student's writing problems or planning writing instruction. Although problems of spelling and mechanics are highly visible problems, in fact, students with LD struggle with all aspects of writing. In this section, I outline the knowledge and skills that students must master to be good writers, and discuss writing problems in each area. The Hayes and Flower model4 provides a framework for considering the components of writing. The model includes:

  • the social context of writing
  • the writer's knowledge
  • planning what to write
  • text production
  • evaluating one's own writing
  • self-regulation of one's writing process

Comments from readers

"Rewiring the Brain, May 6, 2009, Standard Speaker newspaper, Hazleton PA gives first hand accounts of three indivdiuals 7-76 years of age. All improved in nine hours of work. In Panorama magazine two articles appear with information that provides insight and some techniques entitled: How we help to create dyslexia, ADHD, ADD, and other learning and behavioral problems. Tests label because they are misunderstood. I remediate:)"