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Emma Sumner, Vincent Connelly and Anna Barnett explore how spelling difficulties can constrain the writing of children with dyslexia

It is well known that children with dyslexia struggle with writing in the classroom. While their obvious reading difficulties will have a part to play in this, we know less about how poor and hesitant spelling may constrain the quality of written compositions produced by children with dyslexia. We recently carried out a research study at Oxford Brookes University to investigate this area and found that children with dyslexia produced handwriting at the same speed as their peers but paused for long periods due to poor and hesitant spelling. This led to shorter and more poorly rated written texts and a slower overall speed of writing.

Writing is a complex activity that requires coordinating cognitive, linguistic, and motor processes. Children learn to write from a young age and are expected to be able to integrate a number of related skills, such as spelling, handwriting, and vocabulary. When thinking of the many demands of writing, it is not surprising that children with dyslexia struggle.

Reports of slow handwriting by children with dyslexia exist, although research evidence is inconclusive. The Rose review (2009) suggested that some children with dyslexia experience co-occurring motor problems. However, studies rarely assess general motor skill or the influence of spelling ability on the rate at which handwriting can be produced.

Teachers often express concern that children with dyslexia limit the vocabulary in their writing to simple words that can be more successfully spelled. Surprisingly, there has been little previous research on this selective written vocabulary.

Testing writing skill

Our studies compared a group of 31 children diagnosed with dyslexia (aged eight to ten years) with children of the same age and year group, and with another group of children of the same spelling ability (aged six to seven years). Children completed measures of cognitive ability, motor skill, reading, spelling, and writing. This confirmed the diagnosis of dyslexia and, interestingly, there were no differences in motor skill between the three groups.

Children were asked to write a letter to a friend about their dream home. They had 15 minutes to complete the task, using an inking pen to write on lined paper placed above a digital writing tablet. The surface of the digital writing tablet recorded the co-ordinates of the pen to a laptop while the child wrote, so that the writing could later be analysed. In particular, the analysis examined execution speed of the pen and temporal characteristics, such as locating where the child paused while writing.

The written narratives composed by children with dyslexia in this task were rated significantly below those produced by their same-age peers in aspects of ideas and development, coherence, vocabulary, sentence structure, grammar, and punctuation. Children with dyslexia performed at a similar level to the spelling-ability matched children, and spelling ability was shown to highly correlate with the text quality ratings above.

In tests, children with dyslexia wrote fewer words per minute than their peers.When children with dyslexia composed the written narrative, their level of lexical diversity (a measure of how varied the vocabulary use was) was much lower than when they were asked to compose a similar narrative text verbally. This implies that the spelling demands experienced by children with dyslexia when writing are restricting the level of vocabulary these children can actually express, compared to the verbal task. In comparison, the same-age peers showed a higher lexical diversity in their written composition than in their verbal task.
Children with dyslexia were found to write fewer words per minute than their peers, suggesting a slow rate of productivity. However, the digital writing tablet delivers a more detailed analysis of the execution speed of the pen when writing. This measure (cm per second) calculates the physical distance the pen covered divided by the total writing time (excluding any time spent pausing) and demonstrated that children with dyslexia were able to execute the motor act of handwriting at the same speed as their peers, disputing the suggestion of slow handwriting due to poor motor control.

Interestingly, the software used to analyse the temporal characteristics of the writing demonstrated that children with dyslexia paused frequently while writing, often around spelling errors and within-words, reflecting a word-level problem. It was the time spent pausing (hesitating around spellings) that accounted for the low productivity scores shown for children with dyslexia. Again, a similar pattern was shown to the spelling-ability group, suggesting that spelling level constrains handwriting fluency.

Pausing frequently while writing indicates a breakdown in the parallel processing of transcription, whereas typically developing children aged nine were able to transcribe (combining the act of spelling and handwriting) more fluently. The same-age peers paused less and thus composed more words per minute and overall. Statistical analysis revealed that a large proportion of productivity was predicted by spelling ability for children with dyslexia.

Practical suggestions

The findings show that poor and hesitant spelling hinders the quality of the written texts produced by children with dyslexia. By using a digital writing tablet to analyse writing in more detail, it was possible to identify that the typical slow writing associated with dyslexia is not always due to poor motor control and coordination. Thus, interventions that focus on practicing motor skills to speed up handwriting might not always be beneficial for children with dyslexia. As the root of the problem is spelling, time may be best spent trying to increase spelling knowledge.

By improving spelling, children with dyslexia may become more confident writers and may pause less while writing as a result. They could feel more confident expressing their vocabulary in writing and not hold back on the more difficult spellings. Improving spelling will also allow working memory resources to be devoted to other aspects of writing, such as idea generation and structuring. The implications for text quality are thus clear, and could increase the motivation to write. In fact, a study in the US found that spelling interventions have positive effects for written compositional skills. However, work in this area remains exploratory and needs to be further developed.
While some might suggest using an aid to reduce the spelling demands and transcribe ideas, this does not fix the problem and remains only a short-term solution. Writing is a crucial life skill to acquire throughout education and thereafter.

These findings emphasise that if a foundational skill such as spelling is poorly developed, it acts as a constraint on other key processes (vocabulary choice and rate of handwriting production) when producing written work. Support for spelling is therefore important to allow children with dyslexia to fully express themselves through their writing and demonstrate their actual knowledge in written assessments.

Further information

Dr Emma Sumner is a research fellow at Oxford Brookes University, where she co-authored the study discussed above with Professor Connelly and Dr Barnett.

Sumner, E., Connelly, V., & Barnett, A. L. (2013). Children with dyslexia are slow writers because they pause more often and not because they are slow at handwriting execution. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 26, 991-1008. DOI 10.1007/s11145-012-9403-6.


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