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The difference between dysgraphia and expressive language issues

By Amanda Morin

Dysgraphia and both affect language use and learning. Dysgraphia can make it hard to express thoughts in writing. (You may hear it called “a disorder of written expression.”) Expressive language issues make it hard to express thoughts and ideas when speaking and writing. (You may hear it called a “language disorder” or a “communication disorder.”)

These two learning differences are easy to confuse. They share symptoms and commonly co-occur. In fact, expressive language issues can often lead to problems with writing. This table shows the differences and similarities between these two learning differences.

 DysgraphiaExpressive language issues
What is it?

An issue that makes it hard to express thoughts and ideas in writing. Some kids may also have difficulty expressing thoughts when they talk. (Trouble with the mechanical aspects of writing can also be a part of dysgraphia.)

An issue that makes it hard to express thoughts and ideas through spoken language. Kids with this issue typically understand what they hear, but they can have trouble forming and producing a spoken response.

Signs you may notice
  • Has trouble organizing ideas and information in writing.
  • Has trouble expressing thoughts in writing.
  • Uses simpler sentences when writing than when speaking.
  • Uses poor spelling and incorrect grammar or punctuation.
  • Writes run-on sentences and doesn’t use paragraph breaks.
  • Seems frustrated by the inability to get thoughts down on paper.
  • Has trouble holding a pencil.
  • Has trouble forming letters and words or spaces them oddly.
  • Mixes capital and lowercase letters or print and cursive letters.
  • Has slow, labored, and sloppy writing.
  • Is late to start talking.
  • Uses short phrases or sentences.
  • Has a limited vocabulary compared to kids the same age.
  • May talk very little, but understands what is said.
  • Uses unspecific words like “thing” or “stuff.”
  • Has trouble finding words.
  • Has trouble using complex sentences. Uses certain phrases over and over again.
  • Leaves out words and confuses verb tenses.
  • Pronounces words well, but what your child says doesn’t always make sense.
  • Finds it hard to learn new vocabulary words.
  • Appears frustrated by inability to say what he’s thinking.
  • Has trouble telling about experiences in a way that makes sense to others. Stories can lack detail or be told in the wrong order.
  • Uses poor grammar and run-on sentences when writing because so much effort is going into simply coming up with sentences. This happens mostly with younger writers.
Possible emotional and social impact

Kids with dysgraphia may freeze up when they try to put thoughts on paper. This can cause them to be frustrated and anxious and to avoid taking risks.

They may worry about being seen as “sloppy” or not trying hard enough. This can lead to low self-esteem.

Kids with expressive language issues might not be able to communicate what they’re thinking, or that they’re understanding what other are saying. This can cause trouble with making friends.

What can help
  • Using advance organizers to help map out ideas before putting them on paper.
  • Providing a checklist of what to look for when editing and proofreading, such as spelling, neatness, grammar, syntax, clear progression of ideas.
  • Taking a short break before proofreading or editing work.
  • Working with a reading specialist on written composition.
  • Doing occupational therapy (OT) to help build fine motor skills and dexterity.
  • Using pictures, symbols, or photos to help with communication.
  • Providing explicit feedback when a child is vague or not clear. For example: “Can you tell me where ‘there’ is?”
  • Being patient and allowing kids to speak at their own pace.
  • Speech and language therapy to help build vocabulary and improve grammar.
  • Allowing for extra time on tests that involve writing.
  • Providing examples of finished assignments.
  • Giving sentence starters showing how to begin a written response.
  • Allowing kids to respond in ways other than writing.
  • Breaking writing assignments into steps (and showing the steps).
  • Allowing kids to use a word processor in school.
  • Grading based on what the student knows, so spelling and handwriting are taken out of the equation.
  • Providing a “proofreading buddy.”
  • Talking out a story or ideas first and helping to create an outline.
  • Using graphic organizers to map out the necessary parts of an essay and the order they should go in.
  • Using assistive technology, such as mind-mapping software.
  • Using labeled pictures or other visual supports to help kids access vocabulary during certain situations or activities.
  • Using a herringbone diagram (a type of graphic organizer) to help with sentence structure.
  • Providing a thesaurus, word wall or vocabulary journal to expand vocabulary.
  • Using visualization techniques to expand details in writing.
  • Providing choices of correct grammar, word choice, or sentence structure. For example: “Is that a car or a bicycle?” or “You’re talking about a boy — should that be he or she?”
What you can do at home
  • Use speech-to-text tools that allow your child to speak and have it be translated to text.
  • Play writing games, like Mad Libs.
  • Find apps and games that encourage creative writing and help your child organize ideas.
  • Work on keyboarding skills.
  • Try other tools to help with dysgraphia.
  • Play word games like Pictionary or Apples to Apples to teach new vocabulary.
  • Repeat back what your child says to you, modeling the correct sentence structure, grammar, or pronunciation.
  • Find apps and games that encourage vocabulary building.
  • Read together and look at pictures. Have your child try to tell you “what’s happening” in familiar stories.
  • Plan new experiences and involve your child in daily activities to learn new vocabulary.
  • Practice sequencing. For instance, you can say, “Can you tell me how we made mac and cheese for dinner? What did we do first, second, third?”
  • Expand their short sentences. For example, if your child says, “See car!” You might expand by saying “You see a fast car!” Gradually, you might cue your child to tell you “the whole thing.”

If your child is struggling with expressing thoughts, there are a number of steps you can take. First, learn more about what can cause trouble with writing and trouble with spoken language . Talk to your child’s teachers about what they’re seeing in the classroom. And if your child hasn’t already had one, consider getting a full evaluation to pinpoint what’s causing any difficulties.

Related topics

Reading and writing Reading and writing Talking and understanding Talking and understanding

Did you know?

Many people think that writing letters backwards is a sign of dyslexia, but that’s often not the case.

More on: Reading and writing

Role-playing is a great way to build conversation skills. Act out a situation and switch parts with a partner midway.

More on: Talking and understanding

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