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I Have a Writing Difficulty, What Can Help?

The physical act of writing can be challenging for many pupils. For learners who have Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLD) such as dyslexia or dysgraphia, writing can cause frustration and distress and affect the desire to write.

Writing is a complex task and involves many skills;

  • identifying and forming letters (and their sounds),
  • creating words,
  • sentences,
  • understanding grammar,
  • good spelling,
  • putting thoughts and ideas to develop self-expression.

The suggestions on this page offer a range of options to help improve writing skills both at school and at home.

  • Starting with some basic advice to help with hand-writing difficulties.
  • Then exploring a range of ICT tools (they should not be viewed in isolation) such as:
    • adapting the keyboard,
    • making the most of word processing using text-to-speech,
    • word prediction and ultimately improve writing skills.
 

Identifying the problems

Writing difficulties can arise from a range of factors, i.e.

  • Specific learning difficulties with language, reading and spelling.
  • Vision or visual processing - acuity visual field, visual tracking.
  • Cognition - learning and/or comprehension.
  • Physical causes such as poor coordination, pencil grip, seating and/or positioning.

Do you recognise any of the following?

  • You take excessive time and effort to write.
  • The quality of your writing is poor, i.e. legibility and spelling.
  • Your ability to talk about a subject is much better than writing about it.
  • You are reluctant and try to avoid writing.

Some ways to improve handwriting

If you recognise any of the above it's not because you are stupid or lazy - you just need to make some changes, try different things out, consider using the following:

  • Try using a different size or style of pencil/pen or even using a pen grip.
  • Try using a writing slope or changing your positioning, size of chair, table, room lighting.

Some ways technology can help

  • Writing on a computer or other device is often neater and more legible than handwriting.
  • Spellchecker, Autocorrect and Word Prediction will improve spelling.
  • Changing font colours can make it easier to see what you are writing.
  • Dictating to the computer with Speech Recognition may overcome handwriting or spelling difficulties.
  • Recording 'voice notes' is a quick way to get your ideas down without worrying about typing or spelling.
 

Adopting a SETT (Student, Environment, Tasks, Tools) approach

At CALL we believe that technology (or the tool) is only part of the solution. The needs of the pupil should always be the starting point - rather than vice versa.

Also, it's important to know which tool is appropriate for which task , the environment in which the pupil will be using it, and how to use the tool for the task - with appropriate support from staff.

SETT was developed as a Framework to help with identifying appropriate assistive technology to support a student.

It encourages a team to:

  • consider the capabilities of the individual Student,
  • the Environment in which they are working,
  • and the Tasks they are needing to carry out,
  • before selecting Tools.

Ideally SETT should be a collaborative decision-making process, including the teacher, support for learning teacher, parent and pupil (and/or significant others). In a school, the pupil should be at the centre of the process.

CALL Scotland produced a short video that illustrates the use of a SETT approach to help a pupil with a physical disability to access mathematics coursework.

Further information on the SETT Framework can be found at Joyzabala.com

 

Using a keyboard

For pupils with SpLD being proficient with a keyboard is an invaluable skill. When used alongside a word processor, having a good knowledge of the keyboard layout (keyboard familiarity) or learning to touch type can help to:

  • Increase typing speed and improve accuracy thereby increasing the amount of writing work. 
  • Produce tidier work. 
  • Improve dexterity (learning finger movements and positions).
  • Provide a level playing field for all pupils. 
  • Give a skill for life.

The keyboard can be a barrier in itself – one example of this is that standard keyboards characters are often in ‘upper case’ which can be confusing, particularly for younger children who are learning lower case letters and words. 

Adapting the keyboard

The standard keyboard does not suit everyone and it is relatively easy and inexpensive to make it more 'dyslexia friendly' by making some basic adjustments. 

For example:

If none of the above work, you should consider customising the computer's settings and/or using additional software to improve typing speed and accuracy.

Keyboard familiarity

Getting to know where all the keys are on the keyboard (touch typing) can help to increase your typing speed and improve accuracy.

Touch typing programs include:

 

Customising the computer settings

Customising the screen on a computer or the background and font colours in a program such as Microsoft Word, can make all the difference. 

Examples include:

  • Changing the font style, colour and size - a non serif font is recommended for dyslexics. 
  • Changing the background or desktop colour - to help overcome visual stress or scotopic light sensitivity. 
  • Increasing the line spacing from single spacing, to line and half or double line spacing.
  • Changing the page layout.
  • Increasing the magnification of the desktop.

Tools that can help customise the computer:

Information on customising the computer settings:

iPad built-in settings to support writing

  • Siri
  • QuickType
  • 3rd Party Keyboards
  • Check Spelling and Text Replacement

The 'Using the iPad to Support Dyslexia' guide explains how to make the make the most of these tools.

 

if schools (or other organisations) 'lock down' or prevent access so you can't customise the settings i.e. make reasonable adjustments, they could be breaching disability discrimination legislation.

 

Text-to-speech

A 'text-to-speech' program or 'text reader' on your computer or tablet reads text from a document or web page to you using a computer voice.

A text reader can read:

  •  Text on the Internet and emails;
  •  Digital SQA exams and assessments;
  •  Difficult words and sentences;
  •  Books, documents, and homework;
  •  Scanned or photographed paper materials;

A text reader helps you to:

  • Proof read your own writing;
  • Identify mis-spelled words;
  • Read your text back to improve sentence
    structure, sense and meaning.
 

Where can I get a text reader?

There are many text readers on the market and some of the free programs you can use are detailed in our text-to-speech section (of this website).

What's a computer voice?

A computer voice is installed onto your computer and sits in the background. It's not an actual program you can open but more of a service that the text reader can use to read the text to you. There are a variety of different voices with different accents and languages.

If you're in Scotland you may be able to get a free Scottish Computer voice.

 

Word prediction

Word prediction software predicts words in context as you write (after the first or second keypress). Word prediction aids spelling accuracy and can increase typing speed.

Features of word prediction software include:

  • Word banks - list of words grouped together.
  • Topic dictionaries - predicted words relate to the subject, i.e. 'dinosaurs'.
  • Create your own word banks or topic dictionaries.
  • Phonetic spelling corrections, i.e. elefant > elephant.
  • Tools to customise the colour and font.
  • Words spoken back to you to you - roll the mouse over the word.
  • Next word prediction - predicts the next word in context of what is being written.
  • Text-to-speech - you can hear what you are writing.

Dedicated word prediction programs include:

 

Writing support software

Features of writing support software include:

  • Spell checking.
  • Word definitions.
  • Homophone checker e.g. here and hear, etc.
  • Text-to-speech.
  • Access to whole words, phrases and pictures/symbols.
  • Word and sentence sets/writing frames.
  • Colour filters, masking and highlighting to help with visual stress.
  • Save text to audio - so you can listen to the text on a portable Mp3 player.
  • Word prediction.
  • Optical Character Recognition (OCR) which converts text shown in images to actual text.

Writing support programs include:

iPads and Android

Tablet devices such as iPads and Androids also provide a range of writing support apps including:

  • Text-to-speech apps
  • Word processing apps
  • Note Taking apps
  • Writing support apps

The iPad Apps for Learners with Dyslexia and the Android Apps for Learners with Dyslexia 'wheels' identify relevant apps categorised according to some of the difficulties faces by people with writing difficulties.

Speech Recognition

With Speech Recognition you can speak (via a microphone)
to your computer, tablet or smartphone to:

  • control it,
  • give commands,
  • and dictate text.

Benefits:

  • Useful for anyone because you can typically speak faster than you can type;
  • helpful for people with physical difficulties, dyslexia, writing or spelling difficulties, or visual impairment;
  • freely built in to all computer, tablet and smartphone operating systems;
  • you can also buy software for Windows and Mac computers.

There are many speech recognition programs and apps on the market and most are detailed in our speech recognition section (of this website).

 

Mind Mapping software

Mind mapping programs help you to organise your ideas visually. 

Features of mind mapping software include:

  • Idea bubbles and branches to capture and structure your thoughts.
  • Image bank to supplement text.
  • Spell checking support.
  • Text or sticky notes to expand your ideas.
  • Text-to-speech.
  • Links to websites or files.
  • Options to export to Word or PowerPoint.

Examples of mind mapping programs include:

 

Spell Checking

Spell checking software has improved greatly in recent years. Effective spell checking includes both:

  • identifying the spelling mistake.
  • and replacing it with the correct word.

Features of spell checking include:

  • identifying the spelling mistake, e.g. with a red underline.
  • choosing the correct spelling from a list of words (offering the spelling correction at the top of the list).
  • hearing the correct spelling read aloud, i.e. a talking spell checker.
  • Autocorrect - a built feature of Word that automatically corrects common spelling mistakes, e.g. 'teh' to 'the'.
  • ignore or add new words to the dictionary, including Autocorrect.
  • identifying similar sounding words such as 'hear' and 'here'.

1. Spell checking in Microsoft Word (built-in)

For best results,

  1. open Word and go to 'File' and select 'Options'.
  2. Select 'Proofing'.
  3. Under the 'When correcting spelling and grammar in Word' section ensure the following are ticked:
    • Check spelling as you type
    • Mark grammar errors as you type
    • Frequently confused words
    • Check grammar with spelling

Spelling tips when using Word:

  • Press the 'F7' key to spell check the entire document.
  • Press and hold the 'Alt + F7' keys to systematically go through each spelling error.

Consider using WordTalk, a free text-to-speech plugin for Word. WordTalk also includes a talking spell checker. Listening to text read aloud can often help to identify spelling mistakes or typos. 

 

2. Online spell checking

Online spell checking problems work by identifying misspelt words in the context of a sentence. Most will work alongside most writing programs providing spelling support for writing essays, emails and even writing on the web, e.g. social media.

Online spell checking programs include:

 

3. Spelling Programs

Programs to support spelling can be found in 'larger' literacy software such as Read&Write, ClaroRead, Co:Writer and Penfriend. 

Dedicated spelling programs include:

4. Learning to Spell Activities

Most of the suggestions above support spelling as part of the writing process. However, for early years or pupils at the emergent stages of literacy a range of 'learning to spell' activities are available:

5. Portable handheld spell checkers

Franklin (and other) portable Spellcheckers have been around in various shapes and sizes for over twenty years, and they are still very useful, particularly those that provide speech feedback.

Benefits of portable spell checkers

To some extent they have been replaced by spellcheckers on computers and mobile devices, but there good reasons why they should not be discounted, e.g.

  • Portable.
  • Reliable.
  • Efficient and easy to use.
  • Long battery life.
  • Available for children and adults.

Some also include a dictionary, thesaurus and specialised dictionaries, e.g. medical.

Potential disadvantages

There can still be issues for some learners with transferring a corrected spelling for a device onto a piece of paper, possibly ending up with a new error. Also, they do not include grammar or context checking.

Types of portable spell checkers

 

Support with Grammar

Technology can also be used to help with grammar when writing. 

Examples include:

  • Word's built-in grammar checker, i.e. underlines a potential grammar mistake with a green underline. 
  • Synonyms, Thesaurus and Define in Word to check word meanings and alternatives.
  • Grammarly

Learning about grammar

There is a range of grammar programs to help develop a range of skills with sentence building, punctuation, nouns, verbs and more.

Examples include:

 

Using Audio to support writing and notetaking

Using audio to support writing and notetaking can be a quick and effective method of recording class notes.

Some ways to use audio

A teacher can:

  • Record questions or instructions into worksheets or assignments.
  • Record a passage from a book to support pupils when tackling a comprehension exercise.
  • Record readings from a play into the script.
  • Record passages in a foreign language, for a language  comprehension exercise. 
  • Record correct pronunciation or an explanation or definition of particular words.
  • Record comments when marking pupils’ work.
  • Download sound clips from the internet and insert them into Word, PowerPoint and/or PDF documents. 

A pupil can:

  • Record their answers to questions.
  • Use a recording to plan a piece of writing:
    • record ideas in the order they come to mind,
    • play them back, 
    • re-record as necessary,
    • move the recording around  to get the ideas in the best order for writing the assignment,
    • then listen to each recording in  turn and type them out.
  • Read aloud from a book, then play back the recording to check their own accuracy.  
  • Record readings from a play (with other pupils) into a script.
  • Practice recording and playing back passages for a foreign language task.
  • Create a multimedia document.

Audio recording devices

Consider also using a smartphone, Android or iPad to capture good quality audio.

 

Audio recording software

Remember to ask permission from a teacher or lecturer before recording.

 

'Supporting Writing Difficulties' Infograph

A step-by-step guide in the form of a question and answer 'checklist' helping you to identify problems and suggesting a range of practical technology focused solutions to support pupils with writing difficulties.

This poster can be downloaded from the 'Posters and Leaflets' section of the website.