The difference between dysgraphia and expressive language disorder

By Amanda Morin

Dysgraphia and expressive language disorder both affect language use and learning. Dysgraphia can make it hard to put thoughts in writing. Expressive language disorder can 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 often co-occur. In fact, expressive language disorder can lead to problems with expressive writing. This table shows the differences and similarities between them.

 DysgraphiaExpressive language disorder
What is it?

An issue that involves difficulty with the physical act of writing. Kids may find it hard to express their ideas in written form.   

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 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 act of writing 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 is said doesn’t always make sense.
  • Finds it hard to learn new vocabulary words.
  • Appears frustrated by inability to express thoughts out loud.
  • 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 disorder might not be able to communicate what they’re thinking, or that they’re understanding what others are saying. This can cause trouble with making friends.

What can help
  • Using organizers to break writing assignments into smaller chunks.
  • Providing a checklist of what to look for when editing and proofreading, such as spelling, neatness, grammar, syntax, etc.
  • Taking a short break before proofreading or editing work.
  • Doing occupational (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.
Accommodations
  • Allowing for extra time on tests that involve writing.
  • Allowing kids to respond in ways other than writing.
  • Breaking writing assignments into 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 assistive technology, such as speech-to-text 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 families can do at home
  • Use speech-to-text tools that allow kids to speak and have it be translated to text.
  • Play writing games, like Mad Libs.
  • Find apps and games that encourage interest in writing.
  • 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 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.”

When kids are having trouble expressing thoughts, there are steps you can take. If they're having difficulty with other aspects of writing other than just the physical act of writing, it may also be a learning difference known as written expression disorder. You can learn more about what else can cause trouble with writing and trouble with spoken language. A full evaluation can help pinpoint what’s causing challenges. And families and teachers should talk about what they’re each seeing and develop a plan together.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Amanda Morin is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Kelli Johnson, MA is an educational speech-language pathologist, working with students from early childhood through 12th grade.