Don’t Forget About Writing & Spelling…

Focus on reading development, effective instruction, and interventions has been a major educational push in recent years. And rightly so, given the crucial role reading plays in a child’s education. At the same time, writing development and instruction often seem to take a backseat. This is unfortunate because writing is a critical component impacting a child’s success in school and their ability to express their thoughts and ideas on paper. 

Before we can look at effective writing instruction and intervention, we first need to be aware of the developmental expectations for writing, as well as the signs and symptoms of a written language impairment.  That is the focus of this blog post, specifically targeting the elementary years. 

Written expression is one of the most difficult and complex skills students will ever learn in school! Writing taps into many areas, including:

  1. Attention
  2. Organization
  3. Planning
  4. Self-Monitoring
  5. Working Memory
  6. Grammar Knowledge
  7. Vocabulary Knowledge
  8. Spelling and Punctuation Knowledge
  9. Text Structure Knowledge
  10. Fine Motor Skills

Here is an excellent visual by Joan Sedita (2019) of The Strands That Are Woven Into Skilled Writing. This accompanying text outlines the complexity and high cognitive and linguistic demands required for writing.

All of these skill areas must work in harmony for students to be able to effectively complete writing assignments in the classroom. As you can imagine, weakness in one or more of these areas can result in writing challenges impacting quality and quantity of written output, and has the potential for negative impacts on social-emotional learning.

This list is not exhaustive, but it will give you an idea of some of the major signs and symptoms of a student who is struggling with writing.

Difficulties with writing can be attributed to a variety of factors, including executive function deficits, ADHD, speech and language disorders, dyslexia, fine motor deficits, and dysgraphia.  Dysgraphia is a writing disability characterized by difficulties with transcription, including letter formation, spacing, legibility, spelling, and slow, effortful writing that can result in quick fatigue and often limited and decreased quality of written output. It can co-occur with dyslexia, or it may occur alone or with other disabilities.

Often times, there are multiple factors at play that are impacting a student’s writing development. The presence of other disorders can increase the likelihood that a student will struggle with writing. In the graphic below, shared from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association website, you can see that students with a history of speech or language impairments are far more likely to struggle with writing than students who do not have a history of speech or language difficulties.

Reference: American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

In terms of incidence rate, a retrospective study by Katusic et al. (2009),  found the presence of written language disorders among the population of Rochester, Minnesota to be between 6.9% and 14.7%, with a higher incidence in boys than girls.

In addition to understanding the complexity of writing and being aware of the signs that a student is struggling, it is important to know what is being required of students in school. North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction has laid out the specific standards for handwriting, spelling, writing conventions, sentence structure, and text productivity for each grade level. Students are expected to make progress across all writing domains as they move from grade to grade.

If you see that your student is struggling with any of these areas, it is worth investigating early to determine if any additional support may be needed. 

Start by talking with your child and getting their input on any challenges they are experiencing with writing. Are they feeling frustrated or stressed? Do they say it is difficult to organize their thoughts, formulate sentences, spell or know when to use punctuation? Do you see that it is taking them an excessive amount of time to complete assignments? 

Next, collect some data. What grades are coming home on their spelling tests and writing assignments? Are you able to clearly read what they have written? Do you see frequent errors with sentence formation, spelling, punctuation and capitalization? Save a variety of writing samples that come home from school.

Share your concerns with the professionals in your child’s life, including your child’s educators and healthcare providers, to see what recommendations they may have. Talk with your student’s teacher and see what insights they can share regarding your child making progress and meeting grade level standards. You may find that your child is significantly behind grade level standards and should be evaluated by the school system for possible special education support.

Know that Written Expression is a qualifying category of Specific Learning Disability under federal law. Per IDEA Section 1401 (30),  “ the term ‘specific learning disability’ means a disorder in 1 or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.” Per IDEA Section 300.39, special education includes, “specially designed instruction…to address the unique needs of the child that result from the child’s disability; and to ensure access of the child to the general curriculum, so that the child can meet the educational standards within the jurisdiction of the public agency that apply to all children.”

Other Helpful Articles & Resources:
1. Disorder of written expression and dysgraphia: definition, diagnosis, and management
2. Understanding Dysgraphia
3. Dyslexia Training Institute, Advocate for Spelling workshop

Emily J. Mora, M.Ed., CCC-SLP