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Signs and Symptoms of Written Language Disorders

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

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

Emergent Level (Preschool Age)

Phonological Awareness
  • Does not pay attention to sound patterns in songs, books, and nursery rhymes (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 (e.g., clapping out syllables; generating nonsense rhymes and words that rhyme)
  • Has difficulty with phonemic awareness—hearing, identifying, and manipulating individual sounds in spoken words
Emergent Reading
  • Does not know the names of any letters of the alphabet
  • Has limited print awareness (e.g., does not recognize environmental print, does not know that books have a front and back, does not turn pages, does not know the direction of words in books, and does not recognize where words start and stop)
  • Shows minimal interest in print (e.g., does not point to pictures in a book, does not listen to favorite books over and over, and does not look 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)
  • Is not aware that words are being read
  • Does not understand where words start and stop
  • Does not pretend to read a book by telling the story from memory
  • Does not recognize letters of the alphabet
  • Does not recognize own name in print
Emergent Spelling/Writing
  • Has limited interest in or ability to “pretend write” by drawing and scribbling, including scribbling letters, numbers, or pretend letters
  • Lacks awareness that drawing and writing are different
  • Does not copy simple lines or shapes
  • Does not attempt to print letters (large uppercase letters like A-B-C) or numbers

Early Elementary Level

Phonological Awareness
  • Shows limited phonological awareness, including weakness in
  • rhyming;
  • blending and segmenting spoken words at the syllable, onset-rime, and phoneme levels;
  • making judgments about phonemes (e.g., selecting which of three words begins with a different sound); and
  • manipulating syllables and phonemes in spoken words.

Sound, syllable, and word level

  • Has difficulty naming printed letters from A to Z and 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) and that words (strings of letters) are made up of sounds
  • Cannot match sounds to letters (e.g., the letter B sounds like /b/ in the word bus)
  • Has not acquired some sight words
  • Has difficulty matching spoken words with 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
  • Does not re-read 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)

Sentence and discourse level (includes reading comprehension)

  • Shows limited interest in story narratives
  • Has difficulty reading and retelling a story in the right order
  • Cannot explain the main parts of a story (e.g., main idea, main characters, plot)
  • 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 (i.e., expository, literary nonfiction, argument or persuasion, procedural) text
  • Has difficulty stating the main idea and supporting details from informational text
Writing [Written Language Composition]

Sound and word level

  • Does not write upper- and lowercase letters
  • Does not print first and last name
  • Does not draw a picture to tell a story, or name or write words about the picture
  • Does not print clearly

Sentence and discourse level

  • Does not draw a picture to tell a story, or name or write words about the picture
  • Cannot write short pieces like stories or journal entries
  • Has difficulty engaging in co-constructed text (interactive writing)
  • Uses a limited variety of sentence types
  • Does not use details in writing

Writing conventions

  • Does not use writing conventions correctly (e.g., starting sentence with a capital letter; ending sentence with a period, question mark, or exclamation point)

Writing process

  • Has difficulty planning own writing
  • Has difficulty revising and editing own writing
  • Does not use one to three letters to spell words (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


Sound, syllable, and word level

  • Displays 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 “walk-ed” rather than “walkt”)
  • Has weak reading decoding skills (may impact reading fluency and reading comprehension)

Sentence and discourse level (includes reading comprehension)

  • Has difficulty recognizing ambiguity in words and structures with multiple meanings
  • Shows poor understanding of different text structures and genres (e.g., narratives, including biography and fiction; poetry; persuasion; and curriculum-based expository passages)
  • Shows poor understanding of concepts that signal text structure (e.g., compare–contrast; cause–effect; 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 (e.g., to persuade, inform, or entertain)
  • Shows poor understanding of content-specific vocabulary, concepts, and content (disciplinary literacy)

Metacognitive skills

  • Is unaware of failure to comprehend a reading passage
  • Has problems developing and using strategies for the following skills:
  • Managing different styles of reading (e.g., skimming, reading for overview, analytic reading for complete meaning, critical reading for interpretation)
  • Facilitating comprehension, storage, and retrieval (e.g., skimming for structure and important points using headings and subheadings; posing questions as advance organizers; using end-of-chapter questions and rereading to check understanding; and taking notes)
Writing [Written Language Composition]

Sentence level

  • Uses higher percentage of grammatically unacceptable T-units (e.g., sentence fragments) than peers
  • Tends to use shorter T-units than peers
  • Uses 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 (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)

Discourse level

  • 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

Writing conventions

  • Demonstrates errors of punctuation, capitalization, and paragraph formation (e.g., does not demonstrate use of quotation marks)

Writing process

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

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