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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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A Learning Disability, Written Language Disorder

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Aug 24th 2011

A Learning Disability, Written Language DisorderA Learning Disability, Written Language Disorder

Case History:

"It was so very frustrating. I was teaching the Introduction to Psychology to Freshmen in a small college in New York. The college was known for giving low achieving students a second chance to complete their education. Among these students were many adult learners who were working and attending school part time. Most of them had histories of poor school performance during their early years.

The philosophy behind giving these students a second chance was the theory that their poor academic performance was due to everything from being rebellious teenagers to home conflict, the need to drop out of High School in order to work and poor concentration because of serious and distracting problems at home.

What was shocking and baffling was that a few of these learners had extremely poor writing skills. Their sentence structure, paragraphs and grammar made no sense. Their handwriting was almost impossible to read because the letters were so poorly formed. The flow of ideas, if such a thing even existed in their essays, were jumbled, confusing and beyond any logic.

Finally, the school started a remedial program for those with similar problems.

Were these few just plain stupid?" The answer is, no, but they probably believed they were.

Little did the psychology and instructors know then that they were suffering from a learning disorder called "Written Language Disorder"(WLD).

WLD is usually accompanied by reading disabilities. In addition, a youngster does not have to have ADHD to have WLD but a very high percent of youngsters and adults with ADHD also have this combination of problems with writing and reading.

Some of the symptoms of WLD are problems with:

1. Handwriting such as correctly structuring the letters.
2. Capitalization of letters so that sentences do not begin with a capital letter.
3. Punctuation, such as correctly using commas, semi colons, periods, etc.
4. Spelling.
5. vocabulary, including a very restricted written word usage.
6. Sentence and paragraph structure. For example, run on sentences and run on paragraphs.
7. Production. Some of the students in the example above would write a few lines but not seem to be able to explain and elaborate on their ideas.

Written Language Disorder is recognized when an individual is writing far below what they should be able to given their age and educational level. If a 6th grade student is writing as though he is in second grade, he probably has this disorder.

Up until recently, there was a tendency to recognize reading disabilities early on in the educational process. For some reason, teachers and parents seemed to either dismiss or not notice problems with writing. It was only during the 1990's that WLD clearly came to the attention of psychologists and educators.

There are a few facts that must be emphasized with regard to these learning disabilities:

1. Reading, writing and ADHD problems have nothing to do with verbal expression nor with intellectual abilities. People with very high IQ are not precluded from having these difficulties.

2. Colleges and Universities complain about their Freshman lacking the ability to read and write. This was commonly attributed to the failure of High Schools to prepare youngsters for college. That may be true in some cases. In other cases, it is the presence of learning disabilities that are at the root of the issue. Having a learning disability should not be blamed on anyone.

3. The presence of these disabilities have nothing to do with verbal expression. Reading and writing are separate from spoken verbal abilities. That is why some type of neurological disorder that affects eye hand coordination as well as fine motor skills are most probably the cause of this issue.

These disorders, writing and reading, are usually noticeable by the time children are in second grade when writing and reading become ever more important. Once this is recognized it is important to have a psychologist and learning disorder specialist diagnose the problem and recommend a course of action that will help the youngster learn how to cope. As of this moment, a good remedial program is most helpful for these children and teenagers.

It's interesting to note that computers have helped many children and adults with WLD.

Your comments and questions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Learning Disabilities - John Mertes - Aug 25th 2011

Based on your blog, my son has a written language disorder.  He has been assessed by a psychologist and did not meet the criteria for ADHD; however, he did show a deficit with respect to reading and writing skills.  The psychologist never mentioned, "Written Language Disorder" as a possible diagnosis.  It is interesting, in my son's case, that he was scored in the (99th percentile) with respect to math and reasoning ability.  In school my son has an individualized learning plan.  He works a full grade ahead of the rest of his class in math/science and he is working below his grade level in reading and writing.  This September my son will be attending grade eight.  He will also be attending grade nine for math and science. 

I have done a lot of reading regarding the whole left versus right brain argument and have come to the conclusion that this does not explain the disorder.  Having said this, is there any research that you are aware of regarding the brain's processing speed and trouble with reading and writing.  I have a theory that individuals, like my son, who are gifted in math and reasoning process information in their brains so quickly that the finer motor skills of their hands and mouth can't keep up.  As a result, written thoughts become mixed up, letters become malformed and when the person attempts to read out loud their mouth can't keep up with their thoughts.  It would be interesting to study whether or not slowing the brain's processing speed would impact a person's written language abilities.  


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