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By Toby Tomlinson Baker

For more than 12 years, I have taught students with learning disabilities. Each year, I always have students that “struggle” with writing. Often, teachers are confused and frustrated that their student has such great ideas when they are speaking, yet transferring these marvelous ideas to written form (writing or typing) seems impossible. Why is it that so many students with learning disabilities seem incapable of writing cohesive paragraphs?
Some teachers are unaware that students who have learning disabilities, as well as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), may have difficulties with written expression. In fact, having a learning disability in written expression is twice as common in students with ADHD and a learning disability. Consequently, teachers need to be cognizant of students needing support during writing.

But what can teachers do? First, what is written expression? A disability in written expression is an impairment that impacts a student’s ability to express thoughts and ideas. Students may have terrific ideas, but seem to be unable to get the words out. A student’s word fluency, spelling, and vocabulary may be hindered. Teachers, have you ever had a student who bombed every spelling test? Maybe you believed that this student never studied for their spelling test…but maybe they have a disability in written expression.

Elementary school teachers usually see these patterns during writing first. When I have given students a paragraph writing assignment, I know that students may need support with Main Idea and Detail. Support during the Main Idea and Detail activities may help students with a deficit in written expression. Furthermore, conventions during paragraph writing may be affected. Students may choose to write the way they speak and omit or substitute letters or entire words.

When students with written expression deficits do complete a writing task, the product may have blatant errors that would seem obvious to competent writers. These errors may include basic punctuation errors such as missing periods, capitals, and commas. However, these sentences could also include repeated words, run-on sentences, and fragment sentences. There may even be sentences that are missing verbs!

Having a disability in written expression doesn’t just impact a student’s academic progress. It can influence their behavior. Students may make excuses to avoid completing a writing task. The same student may go to the bathroom when the class begins writing. They may delay the inevitable, drop stuff on the floor, say they are thirsty, sick, or tired, which demonstrates task avoidance. Sometimes they just stare at the floor or flick their pencil

In order to appropriately address the behaviors that are impacting a student’s progress in writing and written expression, it may be necessary to amend this student’s formal Individualized Education Plan or IEP. Specific writing goals may be written into the student’s IEP in the Present Levels section or a separate behavior goal may be written to address these specific needs. In some cases, the behaviors shown may be documented in both the Present Levels and in a Behavior Intervention Plan, with a specific goal attached.

Don’t panic – there are solutions for educators. There are some ways to improve a student’s written expression. The best way is to make writing meaningful for the student! Get them engaged! Find out their interests. What do they like? This will dramatically improve the quality of the student’s writing.

Teach spelling and convention skills. Teach paragraph writing and engage the student in correcting punctuation and grammar. Practice is key to learning these skills. Eventually, the student will apply these skills to other pieces of writing. Finally, having an editor may be necessary, even if it’s a student editor. Having somebody read your work allows for them to see things that maybe the writer did not see themselves.

Another strategy is to utilize modeling of excellent writing. Provide an example or model to the student. Teachers should provide a model of the expectation for the student, so they know the expectation. Teachers should also keep their rubric handy, not simply for grading, but rather so the student can understand quality writing.

And finally, encourage the students to embrace metacognition or plainly put: thinking about their own writing. How do they think they could have made their writing even better? Have a pair-share to discuss their strengths and needs of their writing.

If students are good at telling a story, they can record or dictate and then playback what they’ve recorded for content. This even helps reduce mistakes. Always make sure they proofread their writing and have a trusted friend tell them the truth and not just say “Oh, it’s really good.” If you’re in high school or in college and have a final paper, you may want to employ the use of an editor. This can be costly, but it is useful if the writing is a major paper or assignment.

“Students with a learning difference in the area of written expression often persevere even when it is difficult for them.”

Students with a learning difference in the area of written expression often persevere even when it is difficult for them. As teachers, we can teach students who have deficits in written expression the skills necessary to succeed in writing. Communication between the student, teacher, and parent is always important. Make sure that the student’s IEP writing goals are attainable and not unrealistic. And always find something positive to say about the student’s writing! It may not be easy to write, but grit, a positive attitude, and a great teacher can bring any student to writing success!

Toby Tomlinson Baker has earned her Ph.D. from Pepperdine University in Los Angeles. She is the recipient of LDA’s 2020 Harrison Sylvester Award and has written previous articles for LDA Today. She is also CHADD’s 2018 Educator of the Year. Ms. Baker is a special educator with LAUSD and a researcher with the IC4 team at Pepperdine.