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  • Written Language Disorder: Medical researchers fear there's no cure for bad writing

    A group of Mayo Clinic researchers has found that almost 15 percent of otherwise normal school-aged children in Rochester, Minnesota, are suffering from Written Language Disorder. According to Dr. Slavica K. Katusic, while Written Language Disorder, or WLD, does not pose as great a threat as the H1N1 virus, it’s actually just as common in school children as reading problems, with boys twice as likely as girls to be symptomatic.

    Teachers and editors have long suspected that some people write better than others, and critics typically treat writing they don’t like as diseased. But bad writing wasn’t recognized by the medical profession as pathological until 1994, when the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition, defined the syndrome, and psychiatrists suddenly began seeing it in many of their patients.

    According to the DSM IV, Written Language Disorder typically involves problems with handwriting (dysgraphia), capitalization and punctuation, spelling, vocabulary, word usage, sentence and paragraph structure, production (inability to write a lot), overall quality, and lack of fluency—but only if such difficulties are not attributable to any other mental or physical conditions.

    While there is co-morbidity with other learning syndromes such as reading or mathematics disorder, Written Language Disorder is not to be confused with ADHD, depression, mental retardation, or in the case of nonanglophones, first-language interference. In the Rochester sample population studied by Katusic and her team, 25% of WLD patients have no other disorders or symptoms. They just write poorly.

    Cover of the DSM-IV 

    Bad writing is now a medical condition, according to DSM-IV and researchers at the Mayo Clinic 

    WLD can be detected as early as the second grade, when otherwise normal children start exhibiting writing skills that are significantly below what can be expected for their age, intelligence, and level of education. Adult onset WLD, which manifests as early as graduate school, tends to be more common in the early tenure-track years and is either a side-effect of giving up cigarettes or the result of blunt-force head trauma.

    Until now, the etiology of Written Language Disorder has not been entirely clear. Maslow described a cycle of blame in which employers blamed the poor writing of their employees on bad freshman composition teaching. In turn, college writing teachers blamed writing deficiencies on the high schools, while high schools attributed them to problems with middle schools, kindergarten teachers blamed preschools, and preschools blamed the parents of the 15% of their pre-K children who are literary underachievers.

    Now we have medical proof that no one is to blame for bad writing but the writers themselves. It’s not their nurture that causes Written Language Disorder, it’s their nature.

    There is currently no pill for WLD. Ritalin and Adderall are known to have adverse effects on syntax and fluency, and while Montana State University researcher Dr. Douglas Downs has had some promising early results with Writealin, high doses of that drug are known to induce hypotaxis in laboratory rats.

    Instead, Written Language Disorder is treated symptomatically with a variety of palliative measures, including WLD support groups, called writers’ workshops, which have been popping up ever since articles on Dr. Katusic’s research appeared in Forbes and Reuters, and it’s rumored that Oprah Winfrey is planning to talk with a group of high-functioning Written Language Disorder patients on her popular daytime television show.

    Now that the public is becoming more aware of Written Language Disorder, most health plans will agree to pay for approved diagnosis, for example the Test of Written English and the SAT (or ACT with writing), and approved treatments, including transcendental meditation, herbal tea, and syntactic realignment sessions if conducted by certified writing therapists.

    Sean Connery on Celebrity Jeopardy

    Sean Connery, who regularly raises money by holding the Sean’s Kids telethon for the Written Language Disorder Society, takes writing therapists for $200 on an episode of Celebrity Jeopardy

    Experience shows that WLD sufferers benefit most from remediation that treats writing as a process. Some medical professionals recommend that WLD children use computers rather than pens or pencils. If that doesn’t work, then scribes may be provided to transcribe the writer’s words (older students and adults can move directly to speech-to-text computer programs, unless they can pay for their own scribe). As a last resort, students might be given preferential seating in the classroom.

    With the ban on stem cell research now lifted, researchers hope eventually to develop gene therapies to slow the progress of writing deterioration, if not to halt or reverse it. But that will take years if not decades and unfortunately, for now, the prognosis for WLD sufferers is not good. The website of a leading British psychiatric association offers this pessimistic assessment of long-term survival rates: “Although educators attempt to intervene, there is no proven effective treatment for the disorder of written expression.” 

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edmund.aunger@ualberta.ca May 14, 2009 12:18 pm

Your article on Written Language Disorder is informative and entertaining, but an April 1st publication date might have been more appropriate.  If the pharmaceutical companies ever find out about this new disorder, it may very well spark an explosion of research and publication on potential (and profitable) chemical solutions.

chaucer800@aol.com May 18, 2009 10:49 am

There is truly an excuse for everything, isn't there?  I teach expository writing at the college level and I teach the process  without accepting excuses.  And guess what?  My students learn!  Almost all of them do better and better as the semester progresses.  If we start teaching to this new 'disablity,' then the results will be no better than we expect, will they?  However, if students don't know they can't learn, they seem to learn very well!

tookeggi@aol.com Mar 5, 2011 12:13 pm
Disorder of Written Expression is very real and very painful for those who suffer with it. My 16 year old son has been diagnosed with it and presented with classic symptoms. It has nothing to do with being smart or an ability to learn. Think of it like this: the information is learned and stored in the brain but the path to get this information out onto paper via the arm and a pencil is blocked; the path from the brain through the mouth is not blocked. I can only speak from my experience with my son but when asked to present in verbal form in the classroom, he produces A work, give him a pencil and paper (severe dysgraphia)and ask him to express that same information and he falls apart. How can he focus on content when he is using vast amounts of energy and time in forming letters? Thankfully there is assistive technology like Dragon and other programs where students can use a headset and speak and have the computer type it for them. Some folks need glasses, some need wheelchairs, some need technology. We wouldn't dream of asking someone who wears glasses to remove them for test taking, or grade someone in a wheelchair on their ability to play basketball as a component of their grade. Children who suffer with Disorder of Written Expression must be allowed to show what they have learned in the manner that suits them. Anything less than that is archaic and does a disservice to the child.

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