What is written expression disorder?

By Gail Belsky

Expert reviewed by Karen Wilson, PhD

Updated January 12, 2024

Written expression disorder is a learning disorder that makes it hard for people to put their ideas into writing. It also creates difficulty with grammar and punctuation. It’s a type of learning disability that’s common and lifelong.

Snapshot: What written expression disorder is

Written expression disorder is a learning challenge that impacts writing. The formal diagnosis is “specific learning disorder with impairment in writing.” Schools might call it a learning disability in writing.

This lifelong disorder makes it hard to express thoughts in writing. People might have great ideas. But their writing is disorganized and full of grammar and punctuation mistakes.

Written expression disorder is caused by differences in the brain. While it’s not as well-known as dyslexia, it may actually be more common. Experts think between 8 and 15 percent of people have it.

Written expression disorder often co-occurs with other learning challenges. Two of the most common are dyslexia and ADHD.

There aren’t any major teaching programs to help with these writing challenges. But there are strategies and techniques that can help people manage the difficulties and improve their skills.

People can be tested for writing challenges at any age. Parents can request a free evaluation at school. Adults typically have them done privately. The tests are different for kids and adults.

Written expression disorder impacts learning. And it can make certain tasks at work difficult. But it’s important to know that people who have it are just as smart as other people.

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Written expression disorder signs and symptoms

When people struggle with written expression, it doesn’t mean they also have trouble expressing themselves when speaking. They might tell a story that’s well organized and detailed. But it looks very different when they try to write it out.

The difficulties can show up in different ways. Here are some things you might see in their written work:

  • 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
  • Disorganized essays and papers
  • Written work that seems incomplete
  • Missing facts and details
  • Slow writing and typing

There are behavioral signs, too. These include:

  • Making excuses and avoiding writing assignments
  • Complaining about not being able to think of what to write or not knowing where to start
  • Sitting for a long time at a desk without writing
  • Finishing a writing task quickly without giving it much thought

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How written expression disorder is diagnosed

The only way to know if someone has written expression challenges is to have a full evaluation. Parents can request that the school evaluate their child. School evaluations are free.

Certain professionals do private evaluations. But they can be very costly. In some cases, there are ways to get private evaluations for free or at a low cost.

Evaluators use a series of tests to look at writing skills. They also test for strengths and challenges in other areas. Many people with written expression disorder also have other learning and thinking differences, like dyslexia or ADHD.

There are a few types of professionals who do evaluations. These include:

  • School psychologists
  • Clinical psychologists
  • Speech-language pathologists
  • Neuropsychologists

Getting a diagnosis (schools call it an identification) can lead to extra help at school. It can also lead to accommodations at college and at work.

Dive deeper

Trouble with written expression can impact people of all ages and create challenges at school and work. But there are supports that can help. Find out how accommodations work. Learn how to apply for them for the SAT and ACT and how to request them at work.

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