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Writing Disabilities: An Overview

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 (LD)

Writing is difficult. Most writers could relate to the frustration expressed by this student. 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 proficient.1 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 quality.2

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 achievement.3 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

Social context

Writing is a social process as much as it is a cognitive one. Outside of school, people write primarily to communicate with others, and with some purpose in mind. Both the contexts in which people write and the forms of their writing are determined by social purposes and conventions. We share news and tell personal stories in letters to friends, seek to persuade others in letters to the editor, and register our complaints in letters to businesses. At home, children may write stories, send email to their friends, and chat online. Most of these types of writing are interactive just like conversation; that is, we get responses from the people we write to.

Proficient writers are aware of their audience and purpose and try to adapt their content, organization, and language to communicate effectively. Students with LD and other struggling writers often ignore the audience and approach writing as simply a matter of writing what they know about a topic. One partial explanation for ignoring audience is that the struggle to get words on paper takes all their attention. Another explanation is that they may not have had enough experience writing to real people who respond to them.

A lot of school writing is directed to an audience of one — the teacher — with the purpose of displaying what the student has learned (e.g., tests, sentences with spelling words). To learn to write well and to develop motivation to write, students need opportunities to write and publish their writing for people other than a teacher to read.

Knowledge about content and writing

Just as in reading comprehension, content knowledge is a major factor in writing. One reason that some students with LD have difficulty in writing is that they have not read as much as other students and have less general knowledge to draw on. Also, given assignments that require the student to read for content and then write about it, those with LD have more difficulty gaining knowledge from reading. In addition, proficient writers know a great deal about writing itself. For example, they know about the various forms or genres for writing, and they use this knowledge to generate content and organize their writing. Students with LD and other struggling writers have less knowledge about the common purposes and forms of writing.5

Transcription skills

Text production, in the Hayes and Flower model4, includes transcription and language generation. We deal with them separately here because of their importance for struggling writers. Transcription skills include all the processes involved in getting sentences onto paper ‐ spelling, handwriting or keyboarding, and punctuation. When a student has to pay close attention to these lower-level transcription concerns, they have less mental capacity left for higher-level composing issues. For example, when a student stops to think about spelling or letter formation, it interferes with her thinking about what she is trying to communicate in her writing.

For proficient writers, transcription processes are relatively automatic. In contrast, young writers and struggling writers of all ages devote considerable attention to transcription processes. Research demonstrates clearly that problems with transcription have an impact on the quality of a person's writing. Spelling and handwriting fluency are related to the quality of writing throughout the elementary school years.6 When students with LD are allowed to dictate their writing, so that they don't have to be concerned with transcription, they produce better compositions than when they compose in their own handwriting.7 Furthermore, instruction in handwriting or spelling in the primary grades increases the quality of students' writing.8

Language skills

Skilled writing requires more varied vocabulary and more complex syntax, or sentence structure, than oral language. Both reading and writing demand knowledge of vocabulary and syntax, but writing places higher demands on students because they must produce the vocabulary and sentences rather than just comprehend them. Expository writing, in particular, places high demands on a student's vocabulary and syntactic knowledge. Many students with LDs in reading and writing have difficulties with sentence structure. In addition, vocabulary develops through extensive reading, so limited reading can negatively affect vocabulary.

Planning

Proficient writers engage in substantial amounts of planning and have well-developed strategies for planning. The Hayes and Flower4 model includes three important types of activities in planning:

  • First, proficient writers set goals and sub-goals for their writing, based on the audience and purpose. For example, in writing this piece I began with a general goal of providing useful information about writing instruction to parents of students with learning problems, and worked to define subgoals about what to convey about writing processes and instruction.
  • Second, they are skilled at generating content by searching their memories and by gathering information from reading and talking to others.
  • Third, they have knowledge of a variety of forms or genres for writing, and they use that knowledge to help them generate content and organize their writing. For example, when writing a letter to the editor, they know that they need to give reasons and evidence for their point of view.

In contrast, struggling writers do minimal planning.2 They give little thought to goals or audience and do not have knowledge of forms for writing to guide them. Instead they often simply approach the writing task as one of telling whatever they currently know about a topic, in whatever order it occurs to them. Using this approach, they often generate little content and organize it poorly.

Evaluating and revising

Proficient writers evaluate and revise their work throughout the writing process. They reorganize ideas, change their mind about things, throw out whole sections of a piece of writing, and consider carefully whether they are meeting their goals. They are supported in their evaluation and revision processes by extensive knowledge about criteria for good writing and by good reading comprehension skills that help them detect potential problems.

Most school-age writers, even average writers, do not revise much. Students with LD engage in little revision beyond correcting errors and making minor word changes. Often, they introduce new errors in the process of recopying a paper to fix previous errors.9 There are several reasons why they do not revise more effectively:

  • First, weak reading comprehension skills may limit their ability to detect problems in the text.
  • Second, they have limited knowledge of evaluation criteria to use in revising, for example, evaluating whether the introduction will hook the reader, whether the organization is clear and marked with transition words, or whether enough detail is provided.
  • Finally, even when they do notice problems, they may not be able to fix them because of poor writing skills.

Self-regulation

Writing is a very demanding problem-solving task that requires a student to consider both content and audience, plan the overall organization of the piece, choose words and generate sentences, evaluate the writing using multiple criteria, and maintain motivation and persistence. Even proficient writers cannot do all of these things simultaneously, but they have self-regulation strategies that enable them to manage the demands. For example, they set goals, choose appropriate strategies, monitor their progress, and change the approach to their writing when it is not working.

In addition, they have developed ways to cope with difficulties and to keep themselves motivated and on-task. For example, when I get stuck, I avoid discouragement by telling myself that writing is difficult for most people. Sometimes, I pull out and read an old article to remind myself that I can actually write.

In contrast, struggling writers have difficulty coordinating the skills and strategies that they know, and are often overwhelmed by the demands of writing. Because they have so few success experiences with writing, they are easily discouraged.

Writing instruction

A well-designed program of writing instruction should address all of the above components. A sound writing program will provide a balance between opportunities for a child to engage in writing that is meaningful to her, and to receive explicit instruction in the skills and strategies she needs to become a proficient writer. Students need the opportunity to write on meaningful topics for audiences other than the teacher, including their peers, parents, and other groups outside the school. At the same time, they need explicit instruction in:

  • the basic skills of handwriting, spelling, and sentence formation
  • strategies for planning and revising their writing
  • strategies for self-regulation during the writing process

A writing program that omits the social context and teaches writing as meaningless exercises, or a program that focuses entirely on writing to pass a test will not motivate students, nor will it help them understand how the different forms of writing are related to specific purposes. On the other hand, struggling writers need explicit instruction in order to develop basic skills and sophisticated strategies for writing.

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Endnotes

Endnotes

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1 Persky, H.R., Daane, M.C., et al. The nation's report card: Writing 2002 Washington , DC: U.S. Department of Education, 2003.

2 Troia, G.A. "Writing instruction for students with learning disabilities." In C.A. MacArthur, S. Graham, & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.), Handbook of writing research. New York : Guilford, 2006.

3 Shanahan, T. (2006). "Relations among oral language, reading, and writing development." In C. A. MacArthur, S. Graham, et al. (Eds.), Handbook of writing research. New York: Guilford.

4 Hayes, J., & Flower, L. "Identifying the organization of writing processes." In L. Gregg & E. Steinberg (Eds.), Cognitive processes in writing: An interdisciplinary approach. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1980.

5 Englert, C.S., & Raphael, T. "Constructing well-formed prose: Process, structure and metacognitive knowledge." Exceptional Children, Vol. 54.

6 Graham, S., Berninger, V.W., et al. "Role of mechanics in composing of elementary school students: A new methodological approach." Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 89.

7 MacArthur, C.A. "The effects of new technologies on writing and writing processes." In C.A. MacArthur, S. Graham, et al., Handbook of writing research. New York: Guilford, 2006.

8 Graham, S., Harris, K.J., et al. "Is handwriting causally related to learning to write? Treatment of handwriting problems in beginning writers." Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 92.

9 MacArthur, C.A., Schwartz, S.S., et al. "A model for writing instruction: Integrating word processing and strategy instruction into a process approach to writing." Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, Vol. 6.

Charles A. MacArthur (2009)