Overcoming writing problems begins with a good assessment

Many individuals with dyslexia or learning disabilities think that writing comes easily for others, but this is not the case. Writing is a complex process. Even great writers need to work at it. They draft, edit, and re-write many times until they are satisfied with the final copy.

When assessing written language, we need to first have an understanding of the individual's verbal expression abilities. Many times, oral word finding and formulation problems can manifest in writing. In the case of a person with dyslexia or a learning disability, he or she may have an idea in mind, but find it difficult to express the idea verbally as well as on paper. A good assessment will compare oral skills with written ones.

Additionally, the individual may lack the skills and strategies in spelling or writing mechanics (e.g., punctuation, using paragraphs appropriately) to write effectively; however, with systematic intervention this can be overcome. Since writing is an involved process, there are a number of areas that may be challenging or difficult for a dyslexic and, therefore, should be assessed. These difficulties may include:

  • Poor spelling
  • Difficulty trying to formulate ideas
  • Decreased use of mature vocabulary
  • Poor use of syntax (i.e., poor use of grammar)
  •  Poor use of punctuation
  • Poor planning
  • Poor organization
  • Poor editing skills
  • Messy handwriting
  • Slow writing
  • Procrastination and feelings that the first attempt should be perfect, which consequently inhibit the writing process and product
Some general thoughts on assessment

Systematic and comprehensive writing assessment tools provide you with the ability to diagnose writing difficulties, plan effective writing programs, and monitor progress with your client. Without an effective assessment tool, clients may receive intervention that does not target their specific needs, resulting in slow or poor writing development/achievement.

It is helpful to do some preliminary exploring in order to choose the ideal assessment tool that will align with the client's areas of difficulty. For example, do you know if he has good ideas, but has difficulty writing them down? Maybe the client's ideas are not organized well, or he lacks the skills to go back and edit appropriately. Does she understand that we write differently depending on the purpose and our audience? A brief discussion with the individual will help you choose the right test.

Always obtain a sample of the client’s writing. You may need to see different types of writing (e.g., a term paper, fictional piece) depending on the age of the client. This will help you determine where the areas of difficulty lie and what to assess.

Tests vary in which writing skills are assessed; however, most target spelling, handwriting, grammar, punctuation, editing, sentence construction, and vocabulary. To make the best use of these tests, choose a norm-referenced test that provides the information most applicable to the client’s needs. The main limitations of norm-referenced writing tests are the extensive time required to administer and score them, and the need for a trained, qualified examiner who is experienced in scoring subjective writing assessments. Given that clients may demonstrate problems in multiple areas of writing or have trouble with only one area of writing, it can be a challenge to select an assessment that can provide you and the client with the best information for designing an individualized therapy program.

As noted above, there are several different writing assessments. Our Tests page contains information about various tests, including a brief description and the age group each test targets.

In addition, you can also informally assess your client’s knowledge and use of writing strategies through interviews and self-report questionnaires. You can evaluate how your client(s) apply planning, revising, and editing strategies through an informal writing task. This information allows you to see if your client is aware of writing strategies; if he is able to describe how and when to use particular strategies; and how frequently he actually uses strategies. This informal assessment can provide additional information for you when developing therapy goals and implementing treatment.

As with most interventions, assessment is a key component in developing an effective writing instructional program to meet individual needs. The results of assessment highlight specific areas of difficulty, allowing you to create a systematic and individualized therapy program.

Although learning to write and teaching writing can sometimes be daunting and overwhelming, it helps to take a step-by-step approach using your individualized therapy program, and to know that your client will learn the strategies and enjoy writing. Success starts here!