Written Expression Disorder

Imagine you are in a classroom. The teacher gets up and announces: “Today, I want you to write, in fifty words or more, what it means to be an American.” You think, “That’s easy.” But then the teacher adds one more instruction: “You must write your essay with your non-writing hand.” So, if you’re right-handed, you need to use your left hand; left-handed, you need to use your right hand. Not so easy anymore, is it? To make matters worse, the teacher puts you on a time limit. “You have twenty minutes,” she says, “AND you must write all of your assignments with your non-writing hand today.” Uh-oh. Now things aren’t just difficult, they’re impossible! Now you have a little better understanding of what it’s like to have a written expression disorder. One thing you realize right away is that it isn’t that you don’t know what to say, it’s just that its a real struggle to get it on the page.

Writing ain’t natural.
Writing is not an ability people have at birth. New mothers do not sit around bragging, “Oh my little Junior wrote his first word today!” No. Usually new mothers boast about baby saying his first words, not writing them. Writing is an advanced societal skill, and an incredible one at that. In fact, many early writing forms began as pictures conveying ideas rather than letters representing individual sounds and words. Consider these two examples: Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and Chinese characters. Hieroglyphics is primarily picture writing as opposed to letter writing. Chinese characters, a system developed by the world’s oldest civilization, is a bit of a mix, but leans more toward symbols representing ideas than letters conveying specific sounds and words. Using letters to form words and convey ideas is a revolutionary concept.

Today, you are reading my ideas. I am not with you telling you these things. I am simply stringing symbols together, and because you and I are both agreed upon what these symbols represent, I am able to share my ideas with you even though I am not present with you. Writing is an incredible tool! God Himself staked the future of His truth upon the written word. We would not have the Bible today without it. Yet as amazing and vital as the written word is to our everyday lives, writing is not natural. Like reading, writing is something we must learn.

Consider the mechanics.
If you are able to read this without difficulty, I can make two assumptions: you know the English language and you can read it. But I can take these same symbols that you are used to seeing everyday und ich kann auf Deutsch schreiben. What’s the problem? I used the same symbols, but if you cannot read German, they make no sense. What if I had written those words in Arabic? Unless you could read Arabic, the symbols would be meaningless! Written language is a code; and when we are reading or writing in our native tongue, it is a code we all understand. Consider this classic example: ghoti. George Bernard Shaw used this to demonstrate the inconsistencies of the English language. He said that one could argue “g-h-o-t-i” spelled “fish.” The “gh” has the “f” sound of “laugh;” the “o” has the short “i” sound in “women;” and the “ti” has the “sh” sound in “nation.”

Letters are just symbols, and words are just strings of symbols. Those symbols can be put together in pretty much any way we want, but for the sake of communication there are certain rules we follow in order to make our writing clear and effective. So, it shouldn’t really amaze us that there are people who have written expression disorders. What should amaze us is that there aren’t more of them!

What is a written expression disorder?
Put simply, a person with a written expression disorder has a writing ability that is significantly below what is normal considering the person’s age, intelligence, and education.

How can you identify a written expression disorder?
Most sources agree on the following signs and symptoms:

� Whole hand/whole arm writing: You may notice this when a child colors as well as when he writes. At younger ages whole hand or whole arm writing and coloring is normal. However, in a person with a written expression disorder, this behavior may persist long after his peers have developed fine motor skills for writing and coloring.
âÂ?¢ Frequent letter reversals: At younger ages this is normal. Reversals typically disappear as the child gets older and becomes more familiar with his native lettering system. If letter reversals persist after a child’s peers have progressed past this stage, a written expression disorder may exist.
âÂ?¢ Letter rotations: These are “letters in space.” They are not on the line, and they are positioned in odd ways. They may appear like they are “floating.”
âÂ?¢ Illegible handwriting: A person with a written expression disorder will have trouble forming letters, or may use bad handwriting to cover up their writing problem. Someone with a written expression disorder may also have inconsistent writing. A lowercase “b” may be positioned correctly in one word, but then appear as a lowercase “d” in another.
� Random mixture of printed and cursive letters.
âÂ?¢ Poor sentence/paragraph organization: The ending paragraph may be at the beginning; the beginning paragraph may be at the end. Individual sentences may not convey an idea in logical sequence. There may be difficulty in understanding the concept of “subject” and “predicate.”
� Frequent spelling/grammar errors: People with written expression disorders may write phonetically, and have difficutly writing sentences with correct subject/verb agreement.
� An inability to organize: It is not limited to writing. Often a person with a written expression disorder manifests an inability to organize in other areas of his life: his workspace is cluttered, his book bag is in disarray, he is late to appointments, etc.

Please note that the above are just signs and symptoms, NOT a diagnosis. For a diagnosis, please seek out a medical professional!

Some important facts about written expression disorder:
Written expression disorders and dyslexia are NOT the same. While dyslexia and written expression disorders often do occur together, it is not a cause and effect relationship. There are those who have written expression disorders who are not dyslexic, and there are dyslexics who do not have written expression disorders. One notable example of a dyslexic without a written expression disorder is Stephen J. Canell. He is a writer, director, and producer.

Written expression disorders and oral expression disorders are NOT the same. Just as with dyslexia, the relationship between oral and written expression disorder is not cause and effect. In fact, some people with written expression disorders can be quite articulate.

There is no stand-alone diagnosis for written expression disorder. Because written expression disorders often occur alongside other disabilities, there are few studies that focus specifically on the disorder, and there is no official stand-alone diagnosis for it.

Classroom strategies:

Give them note takers. Students with written expression disorder have a difficult time taking notes in class. They have to listen to what the teacher is saying, process what they heard, convert that into words on a page, continue listening and processing while the teacher is still talking, and also convert that into words on a page. Whew! The bottleneck in the process is going to occur when the student must put the words to paper. While people with reading problems struggle with decoding what they are reading, people with writing disorders struggle with encoding what they are hearing. So much effort is put into the encoding process, that the information is lost. Note takers help streamline the process. A note taker is essentially a printed version of the class notes with blanks in it. Now instead of writing copiuous notes, the student can fill in blanks as he listens.

The teacher can further help by putting the words on the board as he or she lectures. The drawback to this is the tendency to let the note taker become an end in itself. It is important as the teacher to avoid the temptation to have the students just fill in the blanks.

Help them to organize their thoughts visually. Written assignments are unavoidable. As teachers we cannot and should shield our students from this reality. But we can help them deal with it. If a student with a written expression disorder has a writing assignment, here are some things that a teacher can do to help the student complete the task:

  • Provide a checklist to help organize the thought process. Checklists are a great way to help a student externalize the thought process. With a checklist, he can keep the steps in order, and visualize the entire process.

  • Break large assignments into manageable pieces. Students with disabilities that affect their learning are often ovewhelmed by large assignments because they tend to look at the whole picture without breaking it down into manageable parts. If a student has a report due, for instance, give them a due date to come up with five resources on their subject. Next give them a due date to come up with several key points to use in an outline, etc.

Allow them to answer essay questions orally. This will take some extra effort on the part of the teacher, and some may balk and say it gives the student in question an unfair advantage. But ask yourself this: “What is the point of the test?” If the point of the test is to measure what the student knows then the test shouldn’t become a hindrance to demonstrating that. So, if the student can demonstrate his knowledge to you orally rather than through writing, why not let him?

Be willing to see past the execution to the actual effort. So your student with written expression disorder handed in a paper on Queen Elizabeth I, only he spelled queen “k-w-e-e-n.” Those erros aside, did he make his points clear? Did he answer your questions about ‘Kween’ Elizabeth? Did he give you the information you wanted? Did he do it in a creative way? Are you willing to see past the mechanics to what he actually accomplished? That is a question only you as a teacher can answer.

When dealing with students who have disabilities that affect their learning, the question often arises: “What is fair?” Fair isn’t giving everybody the same success. Fair is giving everyone the same opportunity for success. Some will do exceedingly well given the opportunity, and some will crash and burn. That’s life. But all ought to at least be given the opportunity to shine. If a nearsighted child came into your class, wouldn’t you offer him a seat on the front row and let him wear his glasses? Of course. If a child with a medical condition came into your class and had to take a prescription medicine in order to function, wouldn’t you allow him or her the opportunity to take that medication? Of course. Well then, if a child with some kind of written expression disability came into your class, wouldn’t you give him what he needed to do his best?

Glenn Haertlein teaches at a Christian school for children with special needs. He is also a freelance writer and amateur novelist. To see his website on the subject of special needs go to http://www.learnmoreabout.net. To see more of his written work, go to http:\\www.imglenn.net.

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