Signs and Symptoms of Written Language Disorders

Common signs and symptoms of written language disorders are listed below by developmental level. Some signs and symptoms may be influenced by cultural and linguistic variations and may not be indicative of a disorder.

Metalinguistic skills are included where appropriate. They include phonological, morphological, syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic awareness. Metalinguistic skills affect reading, writing, and spelling. They are necessary for the development of higher order language skills (e.g., inferencing and comprehension monitoring) and are critical for self-regulation and self-monitoring.

Emergent Level (Preschool Age)

Phonological Awareness

  • Does not recognize sound patterns in songs, books, and nursery rhymes after repeated exposures (e.g., recognizing and then generating words that begin with the same sound [alliteration])
  • Cannot demonstrate awareness of syllables and rhymes in the context of verbal play, including
    • clapping out syllables,
    • generating nonsense rhymes, and
    • rhyming existing words
  • Has difficulty with phonemic awareness—hearing, identifying, and manipulating individual sounds in spoken words. Note that phonemic awareness is associated with letter knowledge; therefore, this is a later phonological skill (Ehri & Roberts, 2006).

Emergent Reading

  • Does not know the names of any letters of the alphabet
  • Does not recognize letters of the alphabet
  • Does not turn pages
  • Has limited print awareness, including poor awareness/recognition of
    • environmental print,
    • the fact that books have a front and back,
    • the direction of words in books, and
    • where words start and stop
  • Shows minimal interest in print, including lack of
    • pointing to pictures in books,
    • listening to favorite books repeatedly, and
    • looking at books with others
  • Does not understand that words represent objects, actions, or ideas
  • Does not understand that different words can stand for the same referent (e.g., “chair” and “seat”; “angry” and “mad”)
  • Does not understand that written words represent spoken words
  • Does not pretend to read a book by telling the story from memory
  • Does not recognize their own name in print

Emergent Spelling/Writing

  • Has limited interest in or ability to “pretend write” by drawing and scribbling, including scribbling
    • letters,
    • numbers, and
    • pretend letters
  • Lacks awareness that drawing and writing are different
  • Does not copy simple lines or shapes
  • Does not attempt to print uppercase letters or write numbers

Early Elementary Level

Phonological Awareness

Shows limited phonological awareness. This includes the following:

  • Weakness in
    • spoken rhyming
    • spoken blending
    • segmenting spoken words
  • Poor phonological awareness at the following levels:
    • syllable
    • onset–rime
    • phoneme
  • Difficulty making judgments about phonemes (e.g., selecting which of three words begins with a different sound)
  • Does not know that spoken words are made up of sounds
  • Difficulty manipulating syllables and phonemes in spoken words

Word Recognition/Decoding

  • Has difficulty naming printed letters from A to Z
  • Has difficulty learning numbers from 1 to 10
  • Is unable to point to specific letters on a page
  • Does not know that letters make sounds (i.e., limited or absent knowledge of sound–symbol relationships)
  • Cannot match sounds to letters (e.g., the letter B sounds like /b/ in the word “bus”)
  • Has not acquired sight words
  • Has difficulty matching spoken and written words
  • Does not recognize sound patterns in printed words (e.g., “cat” and “hat” both have the “at” sound)
  • Cannot accurately sound out new words in print
  • Does not reread words and does not make corrections as needed when a word does not fit the context
  • Does not read smoothly without frequent pausing (i.e., impaired reading fluency)

Reading Comprehension

  • Shows limited interest in story narratives
  • Has difficulty reading and retelling a story in the correct order
  • Cannot explain the main parts of a story, including
    • main idea,
    • main characters,
    • plot, and
    • setting
  • Has difficulty predicting what will happen in a story
  • Has difficulty using clues from a story to figure out the meaning of new words
  • Has difficulty asking and answering questions about informational text, including
    • expository,
    • literary nonfiction,
    • argument or persuasion, and
    • procedural
  • Has difficulty stating the main idea and supporting details from informational text

Writing Process

  • Does not (a) draw a picture to tell a story or (b) name or write words about the picture
  • Cannot write short pieces like stories or journal entries
  • Has difficulty engaging in collaborative writing
  • Uses a limited variety of sentence types
  • Has difficulty planning their own writing
  • Has difficulty revising and editing their own writing

Writing Product

  • Does not write uppercase and lowercase letters
  • Does not print first and last name
  • Does not (a) draw a picture to tell a story or (b) name or write words about the picture
  • Does not print clearly
  • Does not use details in writing
  • Does not use writing conventions correctly, including
    • starting a sentence with a capital letter and
    • ending a sentence with a period, question mark, or exclamation point


  • Uses only one to three letters to spell words with multiple phonemes (e.g., “p” for “purple,” “tn” for “train,” or “pte” for “pretty”)
  • Has difficulty spelling words as they sound (e.g., “letl” for “little” or “egl” for “eagle”)
  • Does not attempt to spell words phonetically (e.g., “chree” for “tree,” “kande” for “candy”)
  • Cannot spell common words correctly (e.g., “sat,” “play,” “best,” “add,” “also,” “mail”)
  • Does not show awareness of common bound morphemes in sentence contexts (e.g., –ing, –ed)
  • Cannot recognize or correct spelling mistakes

Later Elementary Level and Above

Word Recognition/Decoding

  • Has deficits in morphological awareness—for example, when reading prefixes and suffixes, tries to sound out rather than read as whole units (e.g., reads the word “walked” as /wɔkɛd/ rather than /wɔkt/)
  • Has weak reading decoding skills, which may impact reading fluency and reading comprehension

Reading Comprehension

  • Has difficulty recognizing ambiguity in words and structures with multiple meanings
  • Shows poor understanding of different text structures and genres
  • Shows poor understanding of concepts that signal text structure, including
    • compare–contrast,
    • cause–effect, and
    • problem–solution
  • Has difficulty making inferences based on information in text
  • Has difficulty determining main idea and key details of informational text
  • Has difficulty paraphrasing information from various texts
  • Has difficulty explaining relationships between individuals, events, ideas, or concepts in informational text
  • Shows poor understanding of different purposes of texts, including
    • to persuade,
    • to inform, and
    • to entertain
  • Shows poor understanding of content-specific vocabulary, concepts, and content (disciplinary literacy)
  • Is unaware of their failure to comprehend a reading passage
  • Has problems developing and using strategies for the following skills:
    • Managing different styles of reading, including
      • reading for overview,
      • analytic reading for complete meaning, and
      • critical reading for interpretation
    • Facilitating comprehension, storage, and retrieval, including
      • skimming for structure and important points using headings and subheadings;
      • creating advance organizers (e.g., using graphic organizers, posing questions in advance of reading to increase comprehension of key elements);
      • using end-of-chapter questions and rereading to check understanding; and
      • taking notes

Writing Process

  • Has difficulty planning to write, including difficulty
    • researching a topic and
    • taking and organizing notes
  • Uses inappropriate or ineffective strategies for planning and organizing various written text (e.g., narratives, expository passages)
  • Has poor editing skills—may be unaware of errors and may lack strategies for correcting errors

Writing Product

  • Uses a higher percentage of grammatically unacceptable sentences than peers
  • Tends to use shorter sentences than peers
  • Uses a less complex sentence structure
  • Uses less abstract language
  • Displays syntax errors, including omission of
    • auxiliary verbs,
    • prepositions, and
    • pronouns
  • Is unable to judge the grammaticality in written text (their own or others’)
  • Has difficulty with inflectional morphology (e.g., omission of present progressive –ing, third-person singular, regular plural –s errors, and omissions of past tense –ed)
  • Demonstrates poor organization of narratives and expository discourse—writing may lack cohesion
  • Does not link ideas and elaborate
  • Is unable to write for different audiences or from different points of view
  • Demonstrates errors of punctuation, capitalization, and paragraph formation (e.g., does not demonstrate use of quotation marks)


  • Is unable to spell or identify the phonological, orthographic, and morphological aspects of regularly and irregularly spelled words
  • Is unable to identify or spell orthographic patterns of previously introduced irregularly spelled words

Reference/Further Reading

Ehri, L., & Roberts, T. (2006). The roots of learning to read and write: Acquisition of letters and phonemic awareness. In D. Dickinson & S. B. Neuman (Eds.), Handbook of early literacy research (Vol. 2, pp. 113–134). Guilford Press.

Nelson, N. W. (2014). Classroom-based writing assessment. In C. A. Stone, E. R. Silliman, B. J. Ehren, & G. P. Wallach (Eds.), Handbook of language and literacy: Development and disorders (pp. 524–544). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Puranik, C. S., Lombardino, L. J., & Altmann, L. J. (2007). Writing through retellings: An exploratory study of language-impaired and dyslexic populations. Reading and Writing, 20, 251–272.

Scott, C., & Windsor, J. (2000). General language performance measures in spoken and written narrative and expository discourse of school-age children with language learning disabilities. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 43, 324–339.

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