A specific learning disorder with impairment in written expression often remains undiagnosed. It is a persistent difficulty with written expression and/or spelling that may occur in isolation but, more often, occurs in conjunction with a specific learning disorder in reading (dyslexia).

A specific learning disorder in written expression can be defined as:

… a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin. It is characterised by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent written expression and by poor spelling skills. These ongoing delays in activities involving writing are often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction.

Students who have a specific learning disorder with impairment in written expression often have to work much harder and longer to produce written work to the same standard as an individual with typically developing writing skills.

In the past, a specific learning disability with impairment in written expression was identified as either a language-based dysgraphia or a motor-based dysgraphia. The term specific learning disorder with impairment in written expression is now the preferred descriptor for language-based difficulties, whereas the term dysgraphia is reserved for motor-based difficulties. In some cases, students present with mechanical handwriting difficulties that may be consistent with motor dysgraphia, or that may be part of a larger pattern of difficulties that meet criteria for developmental coordination disorder (DCD). For further information on the defining features and functional impact of developmental coordination disorder and motor dysgraphia, please see page.

When looking at identifying a specific learning disorder with impairment in written expression, deficits in one or both of the following key academic areas are usually present:

  • Difficulties with spelling (e.g. may add, omit or substitute vowels or consonants).
  • Difficulties with written expression (e.g. makes multiple grammatical or punctuation errors within sentences; employs poor paragraph organisation; written expression of ideas lacks clarity).

Specific learning disorder in written expression across the school years

Children who have a specific learning disorder with impairment in written expression will show some or many of the difficulties listed below. They may not display all of these characteristics.

  • Reading appears adequate but difficulties with writing are apparent
  • Avoids writing tasks
  • Poor spelling
  • Difficulties learning basic sentence structure and grammar
  • Writing is slow and laborious
  • Difficulties are more apparent as demands on writing ability increase through middle and upper primary school
  • Process of writing is effortful and tiring
  • Poor knowledge of writing conventions, such as punctuation, as well as lack of automaticity in spelling
  • Difficulty choosing correct spelling alternatives
  • Sentence and paragraph structure is poor
  • Inconsistency between verbal ability and written skills
  • Apparent gap between oral and written language skills
  • Difficulties writing at the same speed as their peers
  • Great difficulties noted in transferring thoughts into written words
  • Apparent gap between oral and written language skills
  • Knowledge and application of essay structure is underdeveloped
  • Lack of detail in written expression
  • Written output is limited with far less work being produced in allocated writing time
  • Writing and spelling skills do not appear automatic
  • Poor spelling, including lack of knowledge of patterns in words and morphological knowledge (affixes and base words)

In this section

Sometimes I can have the most amazing ideas for a story – or have the answer to a question in my head - but when it comes to writing it down – the idea or answer somehow turns into complete chaos!
Thomas, Age 11 years

The Next Steps Screening Tool is available on the Auspeld website. This check provides an informal indication of the likelihood that the child being rated is demonstrating writing difficulties. It is designed to assist with determining whether the child would benefit from targeted intervention and/or formal assessment. The check is available at auspeld.org.au/NSST