Tag Archives: Learning Disabilities

Written Expression Disorder

Disorder of written expression

What in the world is Disorder of Written Expression?

Actually this is a relatively new term. Back in my early days of teaching it was called developmental expressive writing disorder, This is a learning disability in which a person’s ability to communicate in writing is substantially below the level normally expected based on the individual’s age, intelligence, life experiences, educational background, or physical impairments. This disability affects both the physical reproduction of letters and words and the organization of thoughts and ideas in written compositions.

Disorder of written expression is one of the more poorly understood learning disabilities. Learning disabilities that manifest themselves only in written work were first described in the late 1960s. These early studies described three main types of written disorders:

  • inability to form letters and numbers correctly, also called dysgraphia
  • inability to write words spontaneously or from dictation
  • inability to organize words into meaningful thoughts

There are several difficulties in studying disorder of written expression and in implementing a remedial program. Disorder of written expression usually appears in conjunction with other reading or language disabilities, making it hard to separate manifestations of the disability related only to written expression. Delays in attention, visual-motor integration, visual processing, and expressive language may also contribute to writing disorders. Also, there are no standard tests specifically designed to evaluate disorder of written expression.

What causes this? This answer is astounding. The cause is unknown. Imagine that! . Different manifestations of the disorder may have different causes. For example, people who cannot form letters correctly on the page (dysgraphia) may have delays in hand-eye coordination and difficulties concentrating. People who are unable to write words from memory or dictation appear to have deficits in their visual memory. They cannot remember what the words look like. People who produce legible script but cannot organize their thoughts on paper may be suffering from cognitive processing problems. Because disorder of written expression is a little-studied disorder, specific causes have not yet been determined.

Symptoms that suggest disorder of written expression include:

  • poor or illegible handwriting
  • poorly formed letters or numbers
  • excessive spelling errors
  • excessive punctuation errors
  • excessive grammar errors
  • sentences that lack logical cohesion
  • paragraphs and stories that are missing elements and that do not make sense or lack logical transitions
  • deficient writing skills that significantly impact academic achievement or daily life.

These symptoms must be evaluated in light of the person’s age, intelligence, educational experience, and cultural or life experience. Written expression must be substantially below the level of samples produced by others of the same age, intelligence, and background. Normally, several of the symptoms are present simultaneously.

Several studies have estimated that between 3% and 5% of students have disorder of written expression. However, it is difficult to separate this disorder from other learning disorders. Deficits in written work may be attributed to a reading, language, or attention disorders, limited educational background, or lack of fluency in the language of instruction. Disorder of written expression unassociated with any other learning disability is rare.

To be honest, there are no specific tests to diagnose disorder of written expression. This disorder is not normally diagnosed before age eight because of the variability with which children acquire writing skills. It is most commonly diagnosed in the fourth or fifth grade. Requests for testing usually originate with a teacher or parent who notes multiple symptoms of the disorder in a child’s writing. Several standardized tests accurately reflect spelling abilities, but do not assess other writing skills with the same reliability.

Well, there are no tests, no treatment, no prognosis, no prevention. So what should one do? I would suggest talking to your child’s teacher. If the teacher is unaware of this and just blows it off, tell them to get a life and do some research on the situation so their child can be helped. I can say this in all honesty because I have a 6th grader this year, who has this disorder and I have been doing research on this.



American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.4th ed. text revised. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association, 2000.

Sadock, Benjamin J. and Virginia A. Sadock, eds. Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry.7th ed. Vol. 2. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, 2000.


American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. P. O. Box 96106, Washington, D.C. 20090. (800) 333-7636. <www.aacap.org>.