Barry was two years old and had only a few words that he used to express himself. He was often frustrated at not being able to communicate. He worked with a speech language pathologist (SLP) through his preschool years to build his expressive and receptive language skills. By kindergarten, he was communicating on the same level as peers and had no difficulty understanding the language around him or using his words verbally to express himself. As he progressed through elementary school, though, his teachers noted that the quality of his written work was falling below that of his classmates. He had a very difficult time with written expression and was struggling to keep up.
Barry’s story is an understandable one for some children with underlying language disorders. In some cases, a student who improved his spoken language abilities through therapy as a young child may encounter some difficulties when he begins to transfer language skills to written expression in the school years. Fortunately, intervention can help with this as well. The task of written expression involves multiple layers of language skills. Exploring these areas one at a time can give insight into which component of writing is difficult for a student, and how it may be addressed and remediated. We will examine the first two below.
The most mechanical component of writing is the process of spelling words, or encoding. Although this is one discrete skill, it in fact relies on multiple levels of language including phonology (the understanding/use of separate sounds in language) and morphology (the understanding/use of word parts). For instance, if a child wants to write the word “both,” she relies on her phonological skills to break that word into the three sounds: b-o-th, and then must apply her knowledge of phonics to attach each of those sounds to a letter or letter combination. To write the word “running,” the child relies on her understanding of morphology to know that -ing is a meaningful suffix, and it has implications for spelling rules (i.e. doubling the “n” in “run” before adding “ing”).
HOW TO HELP: For a child struggling with the phonology and morphology of writing, a review of phonics and a rules-based approach to encoding can be useful. A teacher, reading specialist, or SLP can help the child to strengthen her understanding of phoneme-grapheme correspondence – that is, the relationship between the individual sounds in words and the letters or letter combinations that are used to represent those sounds. The child will likely also benefit from structured, direct teaching and practice of spelling rules.
Syntax (Sentence Structure)
Syntax refers to the grammatical order of words in a sentence. Just as in spoken language, written expression requires following certain rules to put words together into meaningful ideas. Beyond the mechanics of spelling, students in early grade school learn how to build written sentences as a first step towards composition. Children initially write in the same way that they speak, transcribing sentences that they would say into written form. As they progress through school, their written syntax should take on a more refined form than their casual speech. A difficulty with syntax in spoken language (i.e. trouble putting together words in a meaningful order to express a complete idea) will likely be reflected in written expression as well, but syntax may be difficult even for students who have no apparent difficulty expressing themselves in coherent spoken sentences. These are the students who may tend to start every written sentence the same way, or have a hard time varying their sentence structure in a composition. A second grader can write a narrative in which every sentence starts with “I” or follows the form noun+verb+noun (e.g. “I ate cake. Then I played a game. Then I went home.”), but by fourth or fifth grade, students are expected to demonstrate variety and complexity in their written sentence structure, including compound sentences, independent and dependent clauses, conjunctions, transition phrases, and beyond.
HOW TO HELP: Students who have trouble with the syntax of written expression can benefit from guided practice and activities that break down sentence structure, explain parts of speech, and focus on expanding sentences. Following direct instruction, a student can be challenged to take a “boring” bare-bones sentence and make it more interesting by adding descriptive words and clauses.
In our next article, we will examine additional areas of language that affect written language ability.
Anna Fredman, M.S., CCC-SLP
Certified Speech Language Pathologist
Anna Fredman is a licensed, certified Speech Language Pathologist. She received her Master of Science in speech language pathology from the MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston, MA and previously worked at the Monarch Center for Autism. She currently sees school-aged children and has also worked with toddlers through students 21 years old. Anna has specialized in therapy for individuals on the autism spectrum, with a special interest in high-functioning students focusing on social pragmatics and young children learning basic communication and social skills. She also addresses reading, expressive language skills, written expression, and articulation with her students.