Understanding written expression disorder in your child

A lot goes into getting your ideas across in writing. You need good grammar and punctuation skills. And you need to be able to organize your thoughts. If your child struggles with these skills, you might hear the term written expression disorder. This term isn’t an official diagnosis. But people often use it to describe a learning disability in writing.

Kids with written expression disorder are just as smart as their peers. But their challenges impact learning and make it hard to do everyday tasks that involve writing. With the right support, kids who struggle with writing can improve skills and build confidence.

You may not know yet if your child has written expression disorder. But the more information you have about this writing learning disability, the better able you’ll be to help your child.

Signs of written expression disorder

Lots of kids struggle with aspects of writing, like spelling and handwriting. (Trouble with those skills might be referred to as dysgraphia.) But that’s different from written expression disorder. Written expression disorder isn’t about the mechanics of writing. It’s about expressing thoughts and ideas in writing.

For example, kids with written expression disorder may be able to verbally tell you the story of the Battle of Dunkirk without any problems. But when they try to tell it in writing, they run into trouble. They may not know what to write or where to start and finish.

Before you notice writing challenges, you may see behaviors that seem unrelated. For example, your child might refuse to go to school or get angry over small things that go wrong. But if you look for patterns in the behavior, you may see where the trouble really lies.

Kids with written expression disorder might:

  • Make excuses and avoid writing assignments

  • Complain about not being able to think of what to write or not knowing where to start

  • Sit for long periods of time without writing

  • Finish a writing task quickly without giving it much thought

Here are general things you might see in the work of kids with written expression disorder:

  • Words that are misused or that have the wrong meaning

  • The same words used over and over

  • Basic grammar mistakes, like missing verbs or incorrect noun-verb agreement

  • Sentences that don’t make sense

  • Very disorganized essays and papers

  • Written work that seems incomplete

  • Missing facts and details 

And here are specific signs of written expression disorder at different ages:

Grades K–2

  • Has trouble labeling pictures with a few words

  • Makes grammar mistakes in very simple sentences

  • Struggles to write one or two paragraphs about a personal experience

  • Doesn’t understand the difference between different types of writing

Grades 3–5

  • Can’t use a variety of sentences to express ideas clearly

  • Still only writes simple sentences

  • Doesn’t use different content or structure for different forms of writing

  • Doesn’t understand the process of writing (planning, drafting, revising)

Middle school

  • Has poor grammar skills

  • Can’t write more complex narratives about people’s experiences

  • Struggles to write argumentative papers that back up claims or consider other opinions

  • Doesn’t use strategies for planning or revising, like searching for accurate information online

High school

  • Isn’t able to write long, complex papers on different subjects

  • Doesn’t use planning strategies to search for and combine information from different source

Keep in mind that kids develop writing skills at different rates. But there are certain skills they’re expected to have at certain ages.

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Finding out if your child has written expression disorder

The only way to know if your child has written expression disorder is through an evaluation. Your child’s school can do it for free. The evaluator will give your child a series of tests for writing, and for other learning skills, too.

The results will give you a fuller picture of your child’s strengths and challenges. They’ll also show exactly where your child is struggling. That can lead to extra help at school, like .

There are also professionals who do private evaluations. But private testing can be expensive and may be hard to find, depending on where you live.

You may hear different terms depending on where you have the evaluation done. If you have it done at school, you might hear the term specific learning disability in writing. That’s because schools don’t “diagnose” conditions. They “identify” challenges.

Private evaluators make diagnoses. You might hear different terms from them, including:

  • Specific learning disorder with impairment in written expression (the official diagnosis)

  • Disorder of written expression

  • Written expression disorder

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How professionals can help with written expression disorder 

There are techniques teachers can use to make writing easier. For example, they might give kids graphic organizers. These can help kids organize their thoughts before writing and guide them as they write.

Some kids struggle with written expression because of other challenges, like dyslexia and ADHD. In those cases, addressing the ADHD or the dyslexia may help with writing.

The same is true of dysgraphia. Kids with written expression disorder often have a hard time with the mechanics of writing, too. Working on spelling and handwriting may help them express themselves through writing.

One professional who can help guide you and provide insight is your child’s teacher. The teacher can share strategies that have worked in the classroom and recommend next steps for helping your child.

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How you can help your child with written expression disorder

There are many tools your child can use at home to help with writing assignments. These include graphic organizers, software, and apps. Many are free or low-cost.

But one of the most important things you can do is help your child manage the challenges. Struggling with basic skills can be very frustrating, and kids may feel like there’s something wrong with them.

Let your child know that everyone has something they struggle with. Explain that skills can improve with work, and that you’re there to help. Having that belief — that things can improve — is called growth mindset, and it motivates kids to keep trying.

It can be hard for kids to remember they have strengths as well as challenges. You can help your child tap into strengths and use them to work on challenges. And learn how to give praise that builds self-esteem.

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