Learning disabilities and writing | Part 1

by | Jun 16, 2008 | Encouragement, Special Needs

Learning Disabilities and Writing | Part 1

Part 1: The Problem

My son is a brain. What can I say? He’s in England right now finishing up his master’s degree in philosophical theology. I can’t read most of his papers, but not because they’re illegible. His vocabulary simply surpassed mine years ago.

He was a smart child, too, assembling complicated Lego creations with the skill of a trained artisan and the patience of Job. And he was a verbal little guy who could spin stories around the campfire that kept us glued to our logs!

We were grateful for those glimpses into his bright young mind because academically, that boy struggled at every turn. He had an ear for literature and knew all sorts of historical facts and details. But the three Rs eluded him. He finally learned to read (sort of) at age 7, but couldn’t manage chapter books till he was 11 or 12. And writing? Forget it! His hand and shoulders tensed and cramped as he gripped his pencil in a stranglehold.

Illegible handwriting. Horrible spelling. Letters and words that ran together like ink in the rain. And an overall aversion to anything having to do with pencil and paper.

Although Ben wasn’t diagnosed with a specific learning disability, he did have a kinesthetic deficit (and perhaps some sensory processing issues) that created learning challenges and caused him to exhibit symptoms of dysgraphia.

I’m no expert in the area of special needs, but let me give a brief overview of three common learning difficulties, including dysgraphia, that can affect the writing process.


Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a condition characterized by inattention, hyperactivity, and/or impulsivity and can lead to a variety of academic problems. The ADHD writer’s symptoms often include:

  • disorganization
  • lack of focus and general distractability
  • difficulty paying attention to detail
  • making careless errors
  • having trouble finishing assignments
  • avoiding writing projects that require the student to stay mentally focused


Dysgraphia is a neurological disorder that can produce its own set of writing difficulties. The dysgraphic writer’s symptoms include:

  • poor or illegible handwriting
  • holding his pencil in a death grip
  • avoiding writing at all cost
  • using the shortest words instead of the best words
  • strong oral/verbal skills but difficulty communicating ideas in writing
  • problems forming letters
  • poor word and line spacing


Dyslexia, though a reading disorder, can affect the learning process in writing and spelling as well. Dyslexic students usually show a big gap between their ability to tell you something and their ability to write it down. In addition, the dyslexic student’s symptoms can include:

  • avoiding writing whenever possible
  • laborious, often illegible handwriting
  • problems with sentence structure
  • long run-on sentences
  • incomplete sentences
  • poor spelling
  • poor word and line spacing
  • difficulty proofreading his own work (or appearing careless) because he can’t see his errors.

No doubt about it, writing is a tough subject for most of us to teach. But if our kids have been diagnosed with a learning disability, the challenge is magnified. I want to encourage you that there’s hope for teaching your own learning-challenged child.

Though I tried to teach Ben to write using the conventional methods that worked with his sisters, something just wasn’t clicking. Bursting with ideas, he couldn’t manage to transfer his thoughts to paper.

So how did that boy make the leap from struggling student to academic A-list? Honestly, I can’t pin it on any one thing. Rather, a number of factors contributed to his turnaround, including the teachings of the late Dr. Raymond Moore, high school involvement in homeschool speech and debate, and WriteShop.

What worked for us may not work for you, though I’m sure you already know that. Still, there are some universal principles that might help you over the hurdle. I encourage you to check back next Monday for Part 2 in our series on Learning Disabilities and Writing. I promise to share all sorts of tips and solutions for helping your struggling writer.

Copyright © 2008 Kim Kautzer. All rights reserved.

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