Writing tools for dyslexia

Writing tools for dyslexia - a person is holding the 2 ends of a broken pencil in his hands, surrounded by a pile of books, a notebook and crumpled paper

Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that impacts reading and spelling. As a result, it can impact students across all areas of the curriculum. Writing, whether it’s answering short science questions or composing an essay, can be frustrating for students with dyslexia. Luckily, there are many writing tools for dyslexia. Some are already in our computers, tablets and smartphones, and others are inexpensive pieces of software that are easy to learn. Having the right tools for writing can help students write more easily and more confidently!

The “write” tool for the job

Early learners (K-3)

For young students, dyslexia can be less of a barrier to writing, as many students are still learning to form letters, spell, and write short sentences. For students who are still learning to form letters, magnetic letters or letter tiles can be a great option for spelling activities. 

When students are writing sentences, it can be helpful to give them a personalized word bank that includes some of the things they write about often and might misspell. Knowing they can look up the name of their favorite team or favorite animal (or even the word favorite!) can make writing feel easier.

Some technology options are appropriate for young writers, too. Clicker software is a tool that lets students choose words in their sentences by clicking. It gives students the opportunity to generate complete sentences without being slowed down or distracted by handwriting or spelling challenges. 

Middle grades (3-6)

By third grade, students are being asked to write longer compositions of a paragraph or more. Writing tools for dyslexia at this age should focus on helping students get their ideas out efficiently, catch their errors, and produce a polished final draft. Third grade is the perfect time to introduce technology that will help dyslexic students write well all the way through school and into adulthood.

When I started teaching students with writing difficulties, we had just one piece of writing software on our classroom desktop computers. We taught them to use word prediction with Co:Writer, but with only a couple of classrooms in the computer, they didn’t have much access. Dictation was a possibility, using Dragon Dictation, but training the computer to a student’s voice was a challenge. These days, pretty much any device you pick up at home or in the classroom has powerful speech recognition, spell check and word prediction. Both Android and Apple devices offer these as core features, no special assistive technology apps needed. 

For students in the classroom, Google Docs is often the preferred tool. And on any Chromebook or computer running the Chrome browser, students can access Voice Typing. With a few minutes of training, students are ready to practice dictating their writing. It’s not magic. Students may begin writing more than they ever have before, and will need help editing that longer work, including placing punctuation and catching the computer’s errors. As students are starting out, I strongly recommend doing this editing for them, preferably in their presence. Because students with dyslexia who read and write slowly are exposed to less text, they might not have experience with quotation marks, run-on sentences, and proper nouns. They will need an adult to model this for them. When I do it, it sounds like this: “OK, you wrote ‘the king’s crowd has many signing jewels.’ Did you mean ‘the king’s crown?’ and is it ‘signing jewels’ or ‘shining jewels?’” I try to keep them engaged in the process without asking so many questions that they get overwhelmed.

Once students have some comfort with a device, writing on the computer should always be an option, unless the task is specifically for the purpose of practicing handwriting and spelling. This is something that should be made clear in the child’s 504 or IEP accommodations. Otherwise, teachers tend to say “it’s OK, you can write with a pencil, just this once,” and they don’t take into consideration how challenging and frustrating that can be. Students with writing tools for dyslexia in their accommodations should not have those tools taken away! It’s 2022. We have lots of options for turning a worksheet into a pdf, and lots of tools (like Kami for Google Drive or Noteability for iPad) that make it easy to speak or type an answer onto a PDF.

If your middle or high school student is struggling with writing, consider our paragraph writing class this winter. In 6 weeks, we talk about the anatomy of a paragraph and practice a reliable formula for turning ideas into finished paragraphs. Sign up here to be notified of winter course dates. 

Middle and high school students

Writing expectations vary widely from grade to grade, school to school, even teacher to teacher. But one way or another, your child will be asked to produce longer form writing, such as essays or reports, in middle and high school. Having the right writing tools for dyslexia at hand can make the difference between a composition they are proud of and a frustrating mess that may never get turned in at all! 

For many students, planning in advance, using a mindmap or an outline is the way to ensure an organized final product. But for me, outlining a paper is too high-stakes and I can get totally stuck because I don’t know what I want to write until I’ve started writing it. 

An alternative that works for many of my students is a sort of hybrid approach. Instead of a blank outline, we start with a paragraph template. For middle and high school students writing from research or writing about their reading, I like the TBEAR model. I create a template for the essay’s body paragraphs that looks like this: 

T – Topic Sentence
B – Brief explanation
E -Evidence #1
A – Analysis #1
E -Evidence #2 (sometimes more than 2 pieces of evidence are needed)
A – Analysis #2
R – Relate

In the boxes on the right, students write notes or complete sentences that will go in their paragraph. Sometimes they start with very brief notes, like “Lady Macbeth washing hands” for evidence, or sometimes they already have a quote in mind. Seeing the blank lines in their paragraph plan helps students figure out where they need to do more thinking or research. If they go directly to writing paragraphs, sometimes it’s easy to see the writing is “too short,” without knowing what to add to it.

When the plan is finished, students can take their sentences out of the table, right there in the same document, and cut and paste the paragraph together. This can also be done with speech recognition or word prediction software to help with spelling or writing speed.

Writing isn’t easy

Too often, people become teachers because they enjoyed school and succeeded there themselves. They think of reading and writing as “easy” and jump write to helping their students enjoy it. But for many students, writing doesn’t come naturally. Having the right tools available can make writing less of a burden and help students more fully express themselves in writing. 

Does your child struggle with writing assignments? What has been helpful?

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