Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Editor’s note: While learning at home, children can make progress toward grade-level reading and writing standards. This post is part of an ongoing series designed to help caregivers support children’s and teens’ literacy learning at home.

Academics can be a challenge for children with dyslexia and for their parents who are trying to support those children. And it is not just reading that is affected. Writing also commonly creates significant frustration for children who have underlying language deficits (Hebert et al., 2018).

The term expressive language refers to those elements of spoken and written language used to make our thoughts known to others (Newhall, 2012). There are many steps in the writing process where children may struggle with expressive language skills. Without a purposeful plan, there is a lot that is taken for granted in the steps required to create a written response to a prompt. Children have to:

  1. Determine the content of a proper response
  2. Decide what words to use to express the proper response
  3. Determine what letters represent the sounds in the words of that response
  4. Recall how to form the proper letters with baseline orientation and legibility
  5. Recall exactly how to form the words into sentences with proper mechanics (e.g., capitalization, punctuation)
  6. Remember to attend to structure, syntax semantics, point of view, verb tense, etc.

This heavy demand on expressive language skills too often results in a written response with far less content than children with disabilities would provide verbally (Harris & Graham, 2013). In addition, children may suffer feelings of failure or exhibit emotional outbursts to avoid the work altogether or cover the overwhelming feeling of not being able to even get started (Terras et al., 2009). This whole process often leaves caregivers offering well-intentioned yet not overly helpful phrases such as, “If you had just started working, you would be done by now” or “Come on, you can do this, I know you can!”

To help children with dyslexia develop and demonstrate better writing skills, caregivers and teachers might try the following approaches.

1. Teach and Facilitate Prewriting

When they are preparing to respond to a writing prompt or assignment, explain to children that the first step is to generate some ideas that will address the topic and requirements of the assignment. Discuss with children what they know about the topic or what ideas they have for their writing. As children talk, pause periodically to ask, “Would you like to include that point in your writing?” Either have the student use assistive technology devices to record the idea or offer to make a note of it for them. After developing a list of ideas that children can incorporate into their writing, have them organize those ideas by reordering or grouping them in a logical order for presenting in the draft.

2. Utilize Strengths

Many children with dyslexia have strong verbal expression skills (Adlof & Hogan, 2018). This can be observed in children who are able to describe a topic at length but, when asked to write about that same topic, the children cannot express that same knowledge. If verbal expression is strong but writing is not, start with verbal expression and help children work their way to written expression. For example, as children talk about a point they want to make from the prewriting list (see the first approach above), suggest a sentence that would help to expand on or clarify the point. This will prevent children from losing that great thought when changing to writing about the topic. Start by repeating the thought and prompt the student to write it. Repeat the thought as many times as needed until the student has captured it in writing. With that as a starting place, have the student look for a keyword in the sentence that might become the focus of the next sentence. If the student is still unable to generate the next sentence, either verbally reiterate other ideas the student has already told you about the topic or ask the student to begin verbally discussing the topic with you again. When you hear another sentence that can be written down, repeat the process.

3. Separate Drafting from Editing

Spelling also can be challenging to children with language weaknesses (Berninger et al., 2008). To help maintain the flow of ideas, it is important not to stop and correct spelling while children are trying to produce those ideas in a written draft. Spelling can be addressed during the editing process. When editing and revising, have children with dyslexia listen to what they just wrote by having assistive technology, a caregiver, or a teacher read aloud the written draft exactly as it was written. Do not point out the errors for children but use the combination of looking at the written piece while listening to it being read to support children in catching the errors for themselves.

Speech-to-Text Training

Using the dictation or speech-to-text features of assistive technology (see our previous blog post for examples) to write requires some skills to prevent dictated sentences that look like this:

“They went to fight the ah wait no why is it writing that”

Seeing their expressive language errors typed out on the page in front of them can often be discouraging to children with dyslexia. Fostering a successful first experience may help to reduce children’s inclination to abandon the technology. Here are some tips for helping children develop skills for making the best use of speech-to-text technology.

  1. Pick a familiar book, poem, or even song lyrics they have memorized and have children dictate the content through the assistive technology. You can make it a competition. Pair the student with a peer or family member and have each partner try saying the same phrase to see whose dictated result is more accurate—punctuation included. Start with short phrases and slowly extend to trying longer or more complex passages to build children’s confidence in their abilities. Children must learn how loud they should speak and how to clearly enunciate their words in order to be successful with dictation.
  2. It may reduce the pressure of using speech-to-text to turn the computer screen away from the student to obscure what the computer is typing. Have the student wear headphones with a microphone to do the initial dictation while you view the computer screen. You can make corrections during this stage, or you can ask the student to repeat portions that need to be corrected.
  3. If children are going to dictate their ideas about a topic or respond to questions, it may be helpful for them to refer to something visual that will keep their thoughts on track. For example, if they are dictating a paragraph about the Hawaiian flag, have a picture of the flag in front of them so that they can describe it easily. You also can draw pictures or make notes for the children to reference. For example, there are eight stripes on the Hawaiian flag representing the eight major Hawaiian Islands, so perhaps a small picture of each island would be helpful.
  4. When reading over their own writing to correct any errors, many children with dyslexia will not notice their errors (Santangelo, 2014). However, they may be able to detect errors when listening to someone read aloud their writing. Rather than jumping in and offering corrections to the writing, help children learn to find and correct the errors independently. If you see an error in a sentence, read the entire sentence out loud and ask the student to identify the part with the error. Using assistive technology software that has a read aloud feature (see our previous blog post for examples of assistive technology to read aloud text), have the student proofread by having each sentence read aloud. Build children’s skills in correcting the dictation by gradually increasing the length of text they review, starting with sentences, progressing to paragraphs, and finally entire passages.

In addition to the assistive technology described in our previous blog post, your computer or mobile device’s operating system may have built-in read aloud and speech-to-text features. For a customized overview with demonstrations of assistive technology devices and apps, the Iowa Reading Research Center offers assistive technology consultation appointments for families of children with dyslexia.


Adlof, S. M., & Hogan, T. P. (2018). Understanding dyslexia in the context of developmental language disorders. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools49, 762–773. https://doi.org/10.1044/2018_LSHSS-DYSLC-18-0049   

Berninger, V. W., Nielson, K., Abbott, R., Wijsman, E., & Raskind, W. (2008). Writing problems in developmental dyslexia: Underrecognized and undertreated. Journal of School Psychology46, 1–21. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2344144/   

Harris, K. R., & Graham, S. (2013). “An adjective is a word hanging down from a noun”: Learning to write and students with learning disabilities. Annals of Dyslexia, 63, 65–79. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11881-011-0057-x

Hebert, M., Kearns, D. M., Hayes, J. B., Bazis, P., & Cooper, S. (2018). Why children with dyslexia struggle with writing and how to help them. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools49, 843–863. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6430506/   

Newhall, P. W. (2012). Language-based learning disabilities. Landmark School Outreach Program.

Santangelo, T. (2014). Why is writing so difficult for students with learning disabilities? A narrative review to inform the design of effective instruction. Learning Disabilities—A Contemporary Journal12(1), 5–20.

Terras, M. M., Thompson, L. C., & Minnis, H. (2009). Dyslexia and psycho-social functioning: An exploratory study of the role of self-esteem and understanding. Dyslexia15, 304–327. https://doi.org/10.1002/dys.386