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learning disabilities: writing

Posted Feb 22 2010 6:11am
It is so hard for me to understand having a difficulty writing. I am a writer after all (self-proclaimed maybe, but I'm working on industry acceptance). Just put pen to paper, fingertips to keyboard, and go with whatever comes out. You can always edit your thoughts later and polish for something cohesive. That's how I do it anyway.

But I am learning it's not always that easy for some. Take my ADHD son, Luke, for instance. He already has a well-documented difficulty with handwriting, as many ADHD individuals do. I have always felt like he struggled with the task of writing, written ex
pression, because he found handwriting so difficult. This was common sense: handwriting is hard, try not to do anything that requires handwriting.

Now I am seeing that his problem with written expression is much more than a difficulty forming letters though. Luke is bringing home incomplete work now to finish at home, part of his 504 Plan Accommodations. Most of the time, it is his writing assignment. His teacher already works closely with him during writing and he is supposed to be getting the 2nd grade aide's personal attention during this time as soon as they can rework her schedule. But he is still struggling greatly.

This past Thursday, Luke's teacher sent home what she was able to get finished with him and asked that I help him complete it. This was the second time in three days she sent home writing and said she couldn't get him to do it. This time, he had a page in her handwriting with the story starter "my trip to the beach." Under the title, again in her writing, were different phrases about his trip to the beach:
  • saw crabs
  • collected shells
  • went boogie boarding
  • fly a kite
  • climb the lighthouse
  • buy a lighthouse statue at gift shop
  • etc...
They had at least a dozen phrases in all and they described our camping trip at Hunting Island, SC last summer. I thought it would be easy to complete the assignment because he already described the trip and just had to put these thoughts into sentences. Boy was I wrong! It was a major battle to even get started. He kept telling me he didn't know where to start. "I don't know what to say. I don't know which ones to choose. I can't do it. It's too hard."

I was probably a little too hard on him at first because I thought he just didn't WANT to do it. I couldn't understand how he could have this list of phrases in front of him and not be able to put together a short story. The further we got into it, the further I realized everything was a jumbled mess in his head. It wasn't laziness or stubbornness but a real difficulty to organize his thoughts. If I asked him to describe the trip to me, he totally could. He was very eloquent and even used impressive vocabulary. If I asked him to write it down, he couldn't even begin to. This is very alarming!

So, as I always do, I sat down to the computer and began some internet research to try to solve my kiddo's problem. Here's what I found:
  • Expressive writing difficulty is part of the inadequate executive functions in ADHD: taking an issue apart, analyzing the pieces, reconstituting and organizing it into new ideas (complex problem solving).

    A recent research study by Mayes and Calhoun has identified written expression as the most common learning problem among students with ADHD (65 percent). Consequently, writing essays, drafting book reports or answering questions on tests or homework is often very challenging for these students. For example, when writing essays, students often have difficulty holding ideas in mind, acting upon and organizing ideas, quickly retrieving grammar, spelling and punctuation rules from long-term memory, manipulating all this information, remembering ideas to write down, organizing the material in a logical sequence, and then reviewing and correcting errors. (-excerpted from

  • Disorder of Written Expression: encompasses handwriting complications as well as disorganization of thoughts.

  • Dysgraphia: Problems with handwriting, spelling and forming ideas. Luke struggles with 2 out of 3 but does well with spelling (his memory is off the charts).
While these descriptions fit Luke, the problem is I can't seem to find some concrete suggestions on how to help a child with Written Expression Disorder (dysgraphia and Written Expression Disorder may be interchangeable labels for the same disorder, I can't tell). Most of the suggestions are accommodations we've already tried with little or no success.
  • Use story maps/visual graphic organizers to help with pre-writing. Here are two great resources for dozens of different printable versions:, Luke's teachers, both last year and this year, have tried many different story maps with little success. You can also use Post-It notes to organize thoughts.
    I just downloaded a free trial of an interactive graphic organization software called Kidspiration that I can't wait to try with Luke (and Emma too for math). Math, reading and writing in a visual, interactive format.

  • Allow the child to use a word processor for writing and note taking. While Luke is not yet taking notes in second grade, I do see how use of a word processor would be beneficial. Not only does it erase the enormous hurdle of handwriting difficulty, but it also alerts to spelling and grammatical mistakes. This is not a fix for the struggle with organizing thoughts though. I see that as the biggest problem today.
  • Allow the child to dictate the story to a teacher or aide and then the child can copy the story in their own handwriting. Luke's teacher was doing this for a few weeks and it actually infuriated me. I thought it was just her way of trying to get through it faster. Now I realize it is a legitimate way of handling this type of learning disability.

  • Make an accommodation for reduced work. If the assignment is to use at least 8 sentences to tell the story, let a struggling child write just 5 sentences.
So I have emailed our vice-principle and 504 Plan manager for our school to see what else we can do to help Luke with this task now that I've determined it is a much bigger dysfunction than I initially thought. I don't know if I should request testing from special education department for this or accommodations to use a word processor for writing assignments or what. This time I don't have a plan.

Anyone else dealt with Expressive Writing Disorder? What have you done to help your child?
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