Does Dyslexia Affect Writing?
Reading and writing go hand-in-hand, and research shows that there is a reciprocal relationship with reading and writing. In other words, instruction in reading helps support students’ writing skills, and attending to students’ writing helps improve their reading. Reading and writing share underlying processes, so students with dyslexia who struggle with reading oftentimes show difficulty in writing as well. Some characteristics of difficulties exhibited in their writing may entail poor spelling, poor handwriting, lack of organization in their writing, and lack of a robust vocabulary.
What Is Dysgraphia?
Dysgraphia is a condition that impairs one’s ability to write letters by hand (or handwriting) and is characterized by students’ difficulties in writing. Dysgraphia can occur in students with or without dyslexia and may co-occur with other learning disabilities. Because students may not always receive a dysgraphia diagnosis, they may not receive the instructional support needed to improve their writing difficulties that manifest itself in poor handwriting, spelling, and overall writing skills. Therefore, providing explicit instruction and scaffolded support to students with dyslexia who exhibit writing difficulties and those with dysgraphia throughout the course of their writing development is crucial.
In the early years, as students become emergent readers and are learning how to crack the alphabetic code, effective reading instruction incorporates students writing and forming each letter and letter patterns to build words. Sometimes, we begin to see difficulties in students’ forming the letters correctly, and handwriting difficulties may emerge. Words can sometimes run together as long strings of letters in a sentence, are illegible, or sentences are written above or under the writing lines. Oftentimes, students only practice with tracing letters one letter at a time. It is beneficial to extend the practice and have students trace whole words while providing scaffolds such as guided tracing activities and reference models for whole sentences. As the tracing and copying scaffolds are removed, have students put one finger between each word for proper spacing, and two fingers at the end of each period. This also reinforces to the students that words are distinct, that each carries a meaning or function, and that they can take longer pauses at the end of the sentence when reading.
Having writing paper that has a bolder line at the bottom with two lighter lines colored differently for the middle and top lines allow students to bring their attention to form the letters on the appropriate line. As students get older and use loose leaf paper, highlighting every other line as writing lines is helpful for those students who continue to write off the lines.
In addition, spelling difficulties may persist throughout elementary and into secondary school for many students with dyslexia. First and foremost, providing evidence-based phonics instruction is essential to teaching students how to decode and encode words. Teach spelling rules in an explicit and systematic manner. Reinforce the letter-sound correspondences with complex vowel and/or consonant combinations, the six syllable types, and lessons on morphology that teach students prefixes, suffixes, root words with various Latin and Greek meanings.
Writing Strategies for Your Classroom
1. Provide explicit instruction on good writing.
As with any good instruction, begin with explicit teaching of what good writing entails. Provide students with good models using a relevant or high-interest topic. Have students highlight and notate what makes the model example a good paragraph or essay. As students identify the elements of good writing, show an example of a writing piece that needs improvement. Work through the paragraph or essay together, identifying where and why it needs improvement.
2. Begin by writing sentences.
Before writing longer paragraphs or essays, begin on the sentence level. Practice writing sentences that distinguish sentences from sentence fragments. More words do not always entail a complete sentence. Then, build those sentences so students can write different types of sentences, such as compound, complex, or compound-complex sentences. Have students practice both writing these sentences and identifying them. In addition, have students practice adding descriptive words to short sentences. For example, students can change a simple sentence (e.g., It was sunny) to a more illustrative one (e.g., The sun’s rays glistened on a humid summer afternoon.).
3. Write paragraphs one sentence at a time.
As students begin to write various genres (e.g., informational, narrative, and persuasive writing), instruct students on how to write each paragraph sentence by sentence. In other words, what does an effective introductory sentence look like? How does a conclusion sentence restate the main idea? What elements should each sentence in the body entail? Break down the paragraph one sentence at a time, and then have the students piece them together. In addition, include a list of transition words that help tie the sentences together.
4. Teach writing compositions as a multi-step process.
As students transition to longer 3-paragraph or 5-paragraph essay writing, teaching the writing process as a multi-step process is essential. In this way, reading and writing skills are distinct. For example, one goal of reading is fluency with the aim of having students read at an appropriate rate on their first read. However, sometimes students erroneously think that the writing process should also be an easy process that they can complete on the first draft. Explicitly teach the steps of writing, which often entails writing one piece over several days and sometimes several weeks.
- Select your topic. Have students choose their topic of writing from a selection of writing prompts. Depending on the genre of writing, this may also require conducting some research on the topic.
- Organize the ideas. As students gather information on the topic, it is essential to organize these ideas, thoughts, or factual information in a cohesive manner. Use various graphic organizers appropriate to the writing type. For example, an O.R.E.O. graphic organizer can be used for opinion writing (Opinion, Reason, Evidence, Opinion). Students can use Venn Diagrams for compare and contrast writing. Particularly for students with dyslexia, this phase of arranging ideas into graphic organizers is essential so that students can visually see how the sentences and ideas piece together.
- Write. Once all the ideas are written down and organized cohesively, have the students bring all the sentences and paragraphs together. Include a writer’s checklist or a rubric so that students can determine whether they have all the elements of the writing assignment.
- Revise and edit. Have the students re-read their writing multiple times with a specific purpose in mind. During the first review, check to see whether any mechanics of their writing needs improvement (e.g. spelling, sentence fragments, punctuation, etc.). Then, have the students re-read the writing to see if any words can be replaced with stronger academic vocabulary (e.g. replace good book with an intriguing novel). Ensure that transition words are appropriately used so that the sentences and paragraphs are effectively woven together. Provide additional text evidence or citations to make the writing more compelling.
5. Practice writing frequently.As with reading, students with dyslexia need ample writing practice in order to become masterful writers. Therefore, provide frequent, if not daily, opportunities for writing. Have the students keep a writing journal so that they can see their progress from the beginning to the end of the year. Shorter but frequent writing practice allows students to get into the sheer habit of expressing their thoughts on paper, which entails a more laborious process than speaking. Provide a variety of writing types and offer open-ended, engaging writing prompts so that students are exposed to the different characteristics of each genre of writing and can improve their writing skills.
6. Provide writing supports and accommodations using technology
For students whose writing difficulties or handwriting and spelling issues persist throughout elementary school, encourage them to type their assignments becomes critical. Writing an essay by hand may take some students longer than others, and students begin to lose their train of thought as a writer because they are expending more energy on the physical act of writing. Also, there is an expectation that students and many careers require efficient keyboarding skills. Therefore, providing effective keyboarding instruction after second grade when writing assignments begin to get longer will become important.
Various editing software such as spell-checks and grammar-checks that help correct students writing also plays a critical role in helping improve their mechanics of writing. Students can instead concentrate on the higher-order skills of how their ideas flow and transition from paragraph to paragraph. Additionally, in some cases, using various text-to-speech software capabilities embedded in the computer or available as add-ons can help students get their thoughts on paper in order to formulate their writing into a polished final piece.
As we develop fluent and proficient readers through evidence-based reading strategies, it is just as essential to nurture students with dyslexia with evidence-based writing strategies to become capable writers who express and craft their thoughts in an engaging, persuasive, and compelling manner.
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Nikki La Londe
Director of Services Content Development, HMH