Blog: Identifying an Expressive Writing Disorder

Could your child have an expressive writing disorder? Read this article for warning signs, tips and strategies to help.

An expressive writing disorder is a type of learning disability in which an individual has difficulties putting thoughts to words when writing and the overall writing ability falls substantially below what is normally expected.  Individuals with this sort of difficulty will find any sort of written composition to be a painstaking process and may have great difficulty constructing sentences and paragraphs in a grammatical or logical format.

Expressive Writing Disorder is a reflection of underlying difficulties with written language.  Some common symptoms are:

  • Cramped fingers when grasping pencil or pen 
  • Unusual pencil grip
  • Frequent cross-outs or erasures in written work
  • Inconsistent writing, mixture of upper and lower case letters, printed and cursive, variations in letter sizes and irregular formation of letters and slants
  • Difficulties writing on the lines or within margins
  • Very slow writing
  • Easily fatigued while writing
  • Illegible handwriting
  • Many reversals of letters and numbers
  • Some words are written backwards
  • Letters might be out of order
  • Difficulties organizing thoughts on paper
  • Multiple spelling mistakes
  • Errors in grammar and punctuation
  • Sentences lack cohesion

Here are some examples of how to help a child with Expressive Writing Disorder overcome some of their difficulties with written expression:

In Preschool or Kindergarten:

  • Encourage the correct pencil grip, posture and paper hold while writing.  Try to reinforce this often before a habit is formed.  Using a rubber band can help keep the correct finger grasp in place.
  • Use different pens and pencils that are a comfortable fit for your little one.  Sometimes-fat markers on the white board work best for little fingers.
  • Use paper with raised lines to help guide staying within the lines.

A young child with Expressive Writing Disorder will need to practice letter formation using multisensory writing strategies to improve motor memory.  They will need to move, touch, feel and manipulate real objects as they learn the habits and skills essential for writing.  Some examples are:

  1.  Have the child first write the letter in the air with two fingers.  Then they can trace over a yellow highlighted letter.   Finally, they can write the modeled and traced letter independently on a whiteboard or piece of paper.
  1. Use the wet-dry-try method.  Children write the letter on a chalkboard with a wet sponge using the correct letter formation.  Afterwards, they dry the letter with a dry sponge using the correct formation.  Then, they rewrite the letter correctly again with a piece of chalk. 
  1. Build letters out of clay or play dough
  1. Use shaving cream to write the letters
  1. Trace letters on a piece of sandpaper or a bumpy surface
  1. Speak out loud while writing the letters.  For example, speaking through motor sequences, such as “b” is “first comes the bat, then comes the ball.”

In Elementary School:

  • Introduce a word processor program on the computer as soon as possible.  Typing can make it easier for a child with Expressive Writing Disorder to write by alleviating the frustration of forming the letters.   
  • Give student extra time to complete writing activities. 
  • Have students proofread work later in the day.  It is easier to see mistakes after taking a break. 
  • Help students create a checklist of editing their own work.  This can include spelling, neatness, grammar, syntax, written expression.
  • Encourage the use of a spell checker
  • Students can first verbally talk into a recorder to express their ideas and then follow up by writing them afterwards.
  • Create a well-organized plan that breaks writing assignments into small tasks.
  • Use games and movement activities to reinforce spelling and sight words.  Some examples are:
  1. Bounce a Ball  - bounce a ball as you spell words.  1 bounce per letter.
  1. Cheerleader Chant – Give me an S, give me a P, give me an E, give me an L, give me a L, give me another L – what’s that spell? SPELL!
  1. Jumping Jacks – Instead of writing the words, the student can spell them aloud while doing jumping jacks. 

A student with an Expressive Writing Disorder will benefit from being explicitly taught the steps of the writing process.  Just as these students were taught to read in a step-by-step process, they will also need explicit and direct instruction in writing. 

Students who struggle with written expression will need to explicitly be taught different types of writing such as expository and personal essays, short stories, poems, etc.  This means that a teacher will need to provide these students with specific ideas and instructions.  As part of these writing lessons, students will need to be given “visualization” strategies and mnemonics, which are a fun and easy strategy for remembering essential steps in the writing process. 

Students with Expressive Writing Disorder will need a structured, sequential, systematic, cumulative and multisensory writing program to help them build lasting memories. This might require more one-on-one sessions with a trained writing teacher, parent or tutor. 



Karina Richland, M.A. is the Founder of PRIDE Learning Centers, located in Los Angeles and Orange County.  Ms. Richland is a certified reading and learning disability specialist.   Ms. Richland speaks frequently to parents, teachers, and professionals on learning differences, and writes for several journals and publications.  You can reach her by email at karina@pridelearningcenter.com or visit the PRIDE Learning Center website at: www.pridelearningcenter.com










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