Writing While Dyslexic

Are you familiar with the definition of “synonym?” If I say the world “dyslexia,” the synonym most people think about is “reading.”  Every time we talk about dyslexia, we wind up talking about ways to help our students become better readers. Students with dyslexia also have difficulty with writing,  but this struggle is often overlooked.

Dyslexic students may have difficulty with the physical act of writing, but today I’d like to address the common challenge dyslexic students have simply expressing themselves. A student with dyslexia often knows what they want to say but somehow can’t seem to get their point across in writing. This experience is an incredibly frustrating !

As students enters high school and heads off to college, essays and research papers become increasingly important, and students who have difficulty  writing are in danger of falling further and further behind. Often, if dyslexic students have achieved an adequate level of reading proficiency, adults feel that the students have addressed their main difficulty. Unfortunately, this attitude can frequently lead to students not getting adequate support when it comes to addressing their writing challenges.

The article How does dyslexia impact on the writing process? describes paints  a vivid picture of the various ways this problem may present:

Students may try to choose words they can spell rather than those they want to use. Those with short-term memory problems may have difficulty transcribing a mentally composed sentence, thus much backtracking is required which disrupts the flow of thought. When this is coupled with reading difficulties, it is easy to see why written tasks are laborious. The techniques of editing and refining demand extra stamina and time, and need to be done in separate stages. To be effective, this requires good pre-planning and time management. Paradoxically these may be the very skills that students with dyslexia may find particularly challenging.

So, what can be done about the problems that dyslexic students face when writing? A great article by Anne-Marie Morey  lays out 5 writing “hacks” specifically geared to help students with dyslexia or dysgraphia:

1. Graphic Organizer

A graphic organizer is a visual planner that shows the parts of a paragraph or essay. Graphic organizers help kids see the relationship between parts of a paragraph: the topic sentence, supporting details, and conclusion.

Here why’s graphic organizers work:

  • Graphic organizers free up working memory. When kids write, they can max out their working memory by remembering ideas, sentence structure, organization, spelling, mechanics, etc. With a graphic organizer, kids can plan out their ideas before they start writing. This pays big dividends. That’s why skilled writers plan before they write.
  • Graphic organizers help students self-monitor their work. This means that your child can figure out for herself if she’s left out the topic sentence, details, or a conclusion. All she has to do is look at the graphic organizer to see if it’s complete.

You might be thinking, I’ve already tried teaching with graphic organizers, but they didn’t help. Have you explicitly taught how to use a graphic organizer?

When researchers reviewed 43 different studies on teaching writing, they discovered that writing interventions are only effective if time is spent teaching the writing skill. Providing the graphic organizer isn’t enough. Make sure you give clear instructions, show how to use the tool, and give plenty of practice with feedback.


2. Provide a Model

How much would you enjoy completing a jigsaw puzzle without the photo box cover? Would you bother? Writers too need to know what a successful finished product looks like. How do you do this? Give students a model. Models show kids what to write and how much to write. Models give kids opportunities to learn from other writers.

A Carnegie Corporation report examined over 100 studies on teaching writing. They found that providing models was one of only 11 strategies that have been shown to actually help all students write. They recommend providing models since:

[Models] provide students with opportunities to read, analyze, and emulate models of good writing.

Educators can take this one step further. We can actually write in front of our students! We can talk out loud as we write, sharing our feelings, and more importantly, discussing our strategies. Most effective writing interventions include this modeling process.

3. Show Kids How to Use Rubrics

Most teachers share writing rubrics. These charts or checklists show how the composition will be evaluated. It spells out the teacher’s expectations. Researchers have found that children thrive when their teachers share clear goals.

Yet most students don’t bother with rubrics. When I tell students that their teachers share rubrics to show them how to get a good grade, they perk up…For a novice writer, here’s what a rubric might look like:

I have finished my paragraph when:
1. I have a topic sentence that explains the main idea.
2. I have three supporting details that back up my main idea.
3. Each supporting detail sentence includes a transition word.
4. I have written a conclusion that restates the main idea.
5. Each sentence is complete and makes sense.


4. Teach Kids to Read Aloud

Experienced writers know that reading their work aloud helps them find errors and confusing sections. At the Writing Center at Chapel Hill, they recommend that writers read aloud because:

When you read your draft out loud or listen to someone else read it, your brain gets the information in a new way, and you may notice things that you didn’t see before.


5. Use Technology

Researchers have found that technology can help children work around handwriting, spelling, and mechanics problems. I’ve found that teaching kids to use technology helps to unlock their writing abilities and develop a more positive outlook on writing.

Here are my top two recommendations.

Dictation. Dictation is a game changer. Especially for children with dyslexia, dictation frees them from the tyranny of spelling and mechanics. The built-in dictation software on Mac OS X is genius. Dictation frees up working memory that would otherwise be used on handwriting and spelling. Kids can focus on their ideas.

Typing. For a lot of kids, typing makes more sense than Dictation. Typing makes it effortless to spell-check. We know that kids with LD tend to spend less time revising.  With basic word processing, revising is faster and it’s much easier to catch mistakes.

Do you think these are good strategies? Have you tried any of these in your classrooms? Let us know in the comments!

  • Elizabeth Ross, M.A., SMARTS Media Manager