Writing Issues in College Students with Learning Disabilities: A Synthesis of the Literature from 1990 to 2000

Article excerpt

Abstract. This article provides a synthesis of the literature published from 1990 to 2000 on college students with learning disabilities and writing difficulties (LD/WD). Thirty-eight articles met the criteria for describing writing difficulties in this cohort of students. Upon reviewing the articles, four major topics emerged: (a) assistive technology for college students with LD/WD; (b) effectiveness of assistive technology for college students with LD/WD; (c) characteristics and error patterns in the writings of college students with LD/WD; and (d) instructional support and methods. The review of the literature shows that there is an urgent need for empirical studies, especially on instructional methods and strategies. Recommendations for future research are presented.


In 1989, Professor of English Carolyn O'Hearn brought attention to the lack of research and scholarship on college student writers with learning disabilities (LD), saying that "very little has been written specifically about the LD college writer" (p. 295). O'Hearn (1989) conducted a review of the literature at that time, in an effort to assist the instructors who work with this growing college population. More and more students with LD were entering college, and thus enrolling in composition courses and laboring through written assignments. These students were encountering instructors who might not have known anything about their difficulties with written language. Additionally, the literature about these issues was sparse. In O'Hearn's words, "the relative absence of scholarship in this area is indeed unfortunate because composition is crucially important to the success or failure of the LD college student" (p. 295).

The difficulties of students with LD have been explored by many researchers (e.g., Gregg & Hoy, 1990; Hughes & Smith, 1990; Leuenberger & Morris, 1990), even if the specific causes have not been addressed. For example, Blalock (1981) claimed that 80% to 90% of adults with LD experience written language difficulties. Furthermore, writing problems have become a major concern of students with LD and their instructors. Indeed, they are believed to exceed students' other academic difficulties (Gajar, 1989; Ganschow, 1984; Gregg, 1983; Plata, Zelhart, & House, 1995; Scott, 1991). A review of the literature shows that the writing difficulties range from mechanical aspects of writing, that is, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization, to content aspects of writing, such as organization and coherence issues. In addition, students with LD are also likely to experience perceptual difficulties, suffer from test anxiety, demonstrate poor study and planning skills, and have weak revision skills (Higgins & Zvi, 1996; Sills, 1995; Stracher, 1993). These writing difficulties tend to be "exacerbated in secondary schools, where more complex curricular demands and higher teacher expectations compound the difficulties of adolescents with LD' (Hallenbeck, 1996, p. 108). If the secondary environment increases the demands on students with LD, then, as Norton asserts (1992), the next educational step, the postsecondary experience, must place its own unique and intense demands on writers with LD. As Norton writes, many institutions of higher education "acknowledge that learning disabled students at the postsecondary level present unique needs" (p. 106).

With this reality in mind, and in light of the increasing percentage of students with LD who progress to the postsecondary level, the authors asked the following questions: How far have we come in the decade since O'Hearn's literature survey in exploring the specific issues that face college student writers with LD? Much information is necessary to successfully meet the needs of these students. Has this information been culled and disseminated since 1990 in a way that O'Hearn claims it had not been before that time?

Charged through the Program to Enhance and Ensure Learning for Students with Disabilities (PEEL) grant with conducting a survey and synthesis of the literature on college students with LD, the authors searched 67 peer-reviewed journals in both LD and composition/writing since 1990 to see if the dearth of research on this population and its writing issues that O'Hearn discovered had been addressed. …