Children with dyslexia are slow writers because they
pause more often and not because they are slow
at handwriting execution
Emma Sumner •Vincent Connelly •Anna L. Barnett
Published online: 20 July 2012
ÓSpringer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012
Abstract It is commonly assumed that children with dyslexia are slower at
handwriting than other children. However, evidence of slow handwriting in children
with dyslexia is very mixed. Thirty-one children with dyslexia, aged 9 years, were
compared to both age-matched children and younger spelling-ability matched
children. Participants completed an alphabet-writing task and a composition task on
the surface of a digital writing tablet. Children with dyslexia wrote the same amount
of letters per minute in the alphabet task but wrote fewer words per minute when
composing their texts than children of the same age. Crucially, no differences were
found between children with dyslexia and their same age peers for speed of
handwriting execution, measured by the tablet, when writing the alphabet or
composing their texts. However, children with dyslexia were found to pause within
their compositions as often as the spelling ability matched group. Thus handwriting
execution is not impaired in children with dyslexia. The slow writing that is typical
of children with dyslexia is due to pausing more often when composing and is
related to spelling ability. This may reﬂect processing problems in response to high
cognitive load through having to contend with spelling and composing concurrently.
Keywords Composing Dyslexia Handwriting Speed Writing
Dyslexia is a developmental disorder characterised by a speciﬁc learning difﬁculty
with written language (Berninger, Nielsen, Abbott, Wijsman, & Raskind, 2008).
There has been much research demonstrating that individuals with dyslexia have
persistent difﬁculties with reading acquisition and accurate spelling (Kemp, Parrila,
E. Sumner (&)V. Connelly A. L. Barnett
Department of Psychology, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, UK
Read Writ (2013) 26:991–1008
& Kirby, 2009; Lyon, Shaywitz, & Shaywitz, 2003). However, little research has
explored whether a spelling impairment results in difﬁculties with other aspects of
writing. This is particularly surprising as most educational assessments are heavily
weighted towards written ability and adults with dyslexia report that composing
writing and not reading is their greatest concern (Mortimore & Crozier, 2006).
In fact, most available research on dyslexia and composing writing has focussed
on adults with dyslexia and, in particular, university students. These studies have
shown that a large proportion of students with dyslexia fail to complete written
compositions within a given time either on short pre
´cis tasks (Hatcher, Snowling, &
Grifﬁths, 2002) or on longer expository writing tasks (Gregg, Coleman, Davis, &
Chalk, 2007). Furthermore, characteristics of their compositions include: a high
number of spelling errors, fewer words written overall (Connelly, Campbell,
MacLean, & Barnes, 2006; Gregg et al., 2007), and fewer words written per minute
than age-matched peers (Sterling, Farmer, Riddick, Morgan, & Matthews, 1998).
These ﬁndings suggest that, for students with dyslexia, spelling and/or handwriting
act as a barrier to productivity and make the writing process slower.
Poor spelling and slow handwriting constraining written compositional quality
and text length has been reported in studies of younger typically developing children
(Berninger et al., 2008; Graham, Berninger, Abbott, Abbott, & Whitaker, 1997;
Wagner et al., 2011). In the Graham et al. (1997) study, handwriting speed
accounted for a large proportion of the variance in the quality of writing produced
by typically developing children. In addition, motor skill, as measured by
performance on a speeded ﬁnger-sequencing task, has been found to contribute
uniquely to the compositional quality of writing in the primary years (Berninger,
Yates, Cartwright, Rutberg, Remy, & Abbott, 1992; Berninger, Cartwright, Yates,
Swanson, & Abbot, 1994) as has spelling ability (Abbott & Berninger, 1993).
Orthographic coding, which is the ability to access letter clusters from memory, was
pinpointed as a predictor of handwriting skill through to age 11, whereas motor
skills did not contribute in this way after the initial years of schooling. Moreover,
both orthographic coding and phonological skills were found to uniquely contribute
to spelling ability, which in turn were related to written text length and quality
(Abbott & Berninger, 1993).
There is mixed evidence that children with dyslexia are slow at handwriting even
when the demands of composing text are eliminated. This makes it an important
area to investigate. Martlew (1992) found that children with dyslexia were able to
complete copying tasks in the same time as their age-matched peers. However, poor
legibility was noted alongside a high number of misspellings even in sentence-
copying tasks. In contrast, an earlier study by Sovik and Arntzen (1986) did
demonstrate that children with dyslexia were slower than their peers when asked to
copy short sentences. The ﬁndings here may, however, be confounded by many
handwriting speed tasks relying on alphabet or letter knowledge, which may in turn
be lacking due to poor reading or spelling skills (Sumner, Connelly, & Barnett, in
press). Moreover, different tasks have been used across the studies reviewed here
and, therefore, could explain the inconsistent ﬁndings. Nevertheless, this mixed
evidence has not prevented a common belief in the practitioner community that
children with dyslexia are slow text writers due to their slow handwriting, and that
992 E. Sumner et al.
this slowness is caused by poor motor skill development (Goldup, 2000; Rose,
2009). Studies have reported that children with dyslexia do have poor motor skills
(Iversen, Berg, Ellertson, & Tonnessen, 2005) but many have not taken into account
possible co-occurring difﬁculties such as Developmental Co-ordination Disorder
(DCD; Kaplan, Wilson, Dewey, & Crawford, 1998). In fact, it is still rare for motor
performance to be separately assessed or DCD considered in studies of writing in
children with dyslexia. Thus, there is a danger that much effort in teaching children
with dyslexia may be wasted by focussing on motor skills related to handwriting
that are not actually impaired.
The idea that spelling problems instead lie at the heart of the slow writing of
children with dyslexia is theoretically more plausible than delayed motor skills
related to handwriting. Children with dyslexia have signiﬁcant difﬁculties with
acquiring orthographic knowledge and show poor phonological skills (de Jong &
Messbauer, 2011). Thus, it is likely these difﬁculties will have an impact on spelling
and written compositions. Poor phonological and orthographic skills would make
accurate spelling more arduous, and if these children spend a large proportion of
time deliberating over spellings then speed of handwriting might also be slowed.
This, in turn, may contribute to an explanation for why less text is produced by
students with dyslexia (See Gregg et al., 2007 and Sterling et al., 1998 for studies of
university students with dyslexia).
Berninger et al., 2008 recruited a large sample of 122 children with dyslexia, with
a mean age of 11 years, and tested them on a handwriting task (writing out the
letters of the alphabet), dictated spelling, and a written composition task amongst
others. No comparison group was used and the results were compared with previous
studies using the same tasks with typically developing children. The ﬁndings
indicated that children with dyslexia were impaired in: handwriting (1.1 SD below
the mean value; Berninger & Rutberg, 1992), spelling (1.03 SD below the mean)
and written composition (1.1 SD below the mean). General spelling skill contributed
more in a regression model to the compositional quality of essay writing than a
separate measure of handwriting speed, as measured by the alphabet-writing task.
An additional motor skill measure was included in this study, asking the children to
complete the speeded ﬁnger-sequencing task. However, in contrast to their studies
of typical writing development (Berninger et al., 1992; Berninger et al., 1994)
performance on this task did not contribute to written compositional skills of
children with dyslexia. Overall, the Berninger et al. (2008) study highlighted that
children with dyslexia have signiﬁcant problems with spelling and show slow
handwriting. However, they concluded that spelling acts as a constraint on written
ability rather than handwriting or motor skill.
Unfortunately other research in this area is lacking and the Berninger et al., 2008
study had no direct comparison group. Some studies have been conducted on adults
who were typing compositions and not handwriting. Swedish research on keystroke
logged typed essays demonstrated that university students with dyslexia paused
more frequently within- and between-words than age-matched controls and that
pausing appeared to contribute mostly to the time taken to complete the writing task
(Wengelin, 2007; Wengelin & Stromqvist, 2000). More recent work with typically
developing French speaking children from age 10 to 15 years (Maggio, Le
Children with dyslexia 993
Chenu, Jisa, & Fayol,2012) demonstrated that the majority could concurrently
process spelling and composition but that there were strong relationships between
pausing duration, writing rate, word frequency and grapheme to phoneme
consistency in this study. Given that children with dyslexia read less and have
problems accessing grapheme to phoneme knowledge (Snowling, 1980; Wolf &
Bowers, 1999) they may be expected to show more pausing when composing
written text than their peers and that could account for the slower writing of children
Therefore, the main purpose of this study was to examine in detail the speed of
writing a text in a sample of children with dyslexia. First of all, a measure of
handwriting speed was taken when the cognitive demand of writing was reduced,
using the alphabet task as used in studies by Berninger and colleagues. A second
writing task involving composition was then administered to all children. The alphabet
task and the composition task were written on paper attached to a digital writing tablet
so that handwriting execution speed could be captured and distinguished from time
spent pausing during writing. These separate measures were then compared with two
control groups. If children with dyslexia have difﬁculty with handwriting execution
then they should have a slower handwriting execution speed (discarding pauses)
compared to a group of children of the same age. If, however, they struggle with a
writing task due to frequent pausing to consider spelling then they should show a
similar pattern of pausing as a spelling ability matched group in the composition task,
with an execution speed similar to the age-matched peers.
Ninety-three children were recruited from primary schools in Oxfordshire. Thirty-
one children (15 boys, 16 girls) were identiﬁed as having a diagnosis of dyslexia. In
the initial selection stage, all of these identiﬁed children were tested for nonverbal
cognitive ability, using a matrices subtest, and completed a reading and a single-
word spelling task: all standardised tests from the British Abilities Scales II (BAS-
II; Elliott, Smith, & McCulloch, 1996). These measures were used to identify a
discrepancy between cognitive ability and reading/spelling skill. This discrepancy
criterion is often used to deﬁne dyslexia for research purposes (Lyon et al., 2003).
These children demonstrated standardised reading and spelling scores more than 1
standard deviation below the age mean (B85). Table 1portrays the dyslexia
selection proﬁle, alongside two typically achieving comparison groups: a chrono-
logical age-matched (CA) group and a younger spelling-ability matched group (SA).
The mean age of children with dyslexia and the CA group was 9 years, 4 months.
Children in the CA group demonstrated age-appropriate spelling and reading skills
(±1SD of the age mean) and were matched by age, school, and gender. The younger
SA group had a mean age of 6 years and were matched to children with dyslexia by
their raw spelling score (p=.64); showing no signs of dyslexia and age-appropriate
reading and spelling skills established from standardised norms.
994 E. Sumner et al.
Post hoc comparisons revealed no signiﬁcant differences between the three
groups for the measure of nonverbal cognitive ability. The results from the
ANOVAs highlight a signiﬁcant effect of group membership for the reading and
spelling measures. Children with dyslexia perform signiﬁcantly worse than their CA
peers in standardised spelling (p\.001) and reading (p\.001). The mean scores
for these measures demonstrated that children with dyslexia scored more than 1SD
below the age mean when compared to norms of the test. However, children with
dyslexia were accurately matched to the SA group on raw spelling skill.
Nonverbal cognitive ability
All children completed the Matrices subtest (BAS-II; Elliott et al., 1996). This is a
standardised task assessing nonverbal reasoning skills. The scaled score (M50, SD
10) was derived from the number of correctly identiﬁed answers. Internal reliability
of this test for the age groups of the participants ranges from a=.78 to .90.
The BAS-II (Elliott et al., 1996) is a dictated single-word spelling task completed by
every child. The researcher began reading the words at the deﬁned starting point
depending on the age of the child, and continued until 8 or more spelling errors were
made in a block of 10 words. The raw score was the total number of correct
Table 1 Mean performance scores of children with dyslexia (D) the CA peers, and the SA matched
Selection measures D (n=31) M
CA (n=31) M
SA (n=31) M
Age in years 9.44 (.90) 9.41 (.84) 6.63 (.78) F(2, 90) =111.17,
(D =CA) [SA
(BAS II matrices;
51.00 (3.83) 51.74 (6.21) 54.46 (4.87) F(2, 90) =7.92, p=.001,
(D =CA) \SA
Spelling raw score
8.09 (2.15) 25.16 (8.34) 9.29 (2.38) F(2, 90) =54.14, p\.001,
(D =SA) \CA
score (BAS II)
79.06 (5.33) 110.68 (13.04) 92.84 (8.58) F(2, 90) =64.28, p\.001,
score (BAS II)
80.87 (10.56) 113.75 (11.68) 100.81 (10.38) F(2, 90) =37.13, p \.001,
BAS II = British Ability Scales II. Matrices scaled score (M50, SD 10). Spelling standard score (M100,
SD 15); Reading standard score (M100, SD 15)
Children with dyslexia 995
spellings. This could then be converted to a standard score dependent on the child’s
age. Internal reliability for this test ranges from a=.84 to .93.
To assess single-word reading ability, each child completed the BAS-II reading task
(Elliott et al., 1996). This required reading aloud a series of single words printed on
a card, starting at the point that corresponded with their age and continuing until the
child made 8 or more errors in a block of 10. Standardised scores for the three
groups were available from this task (M100, SD 15). Internal reliability for this test
ranges from a=.88 to .95.
The ‘Manual Dexterity’ component of the Movement Assessment Battery for
Children, second edition (MABC-2; Henderson, Sugden, & Barnett, 2007) was used
to assess various aspects of ﬁne motor control. This includes three tasks: placing
pegs in a pegboard, threading lace, and completing a drawing trail. In the ﬁrst two,
speed of performance is measured (completion time in seconds) while the third
assesses accuracy (number of errors). Together these three scores provide an overall
component score of manual dexterity (M10, SD 3).
The alphabet task from the detailed assessment of speed of handwriting or DASH
(Barnett, Henderson, Scheib, & Schulz, 2007) was administered to measure writing
speed in a task with low cognitive demand. Children were asked to write the
alphabet in the correct sequence from memory as many times as possible in 1 min.
The total number of correctly sequenced lower case letters was recorded. This test is
standardised from the age of 9 years to 16 years, 11 months. The younger SA
controls fall under this age group, but the task was deemed appropriate and raw
scores are used. This task has very high inter-rater reliability (r=.99, Barnett et al.,
All children completed a short composition task; the prompt was taken from the
Wechsler Objective Language Dimensions (WOLD; Rust, 1996). The prompt was
typed above the writing paper and read to the child. This asked them to describe in
writing their perfect place to live. They had 15 min to complete this task and no
help was given with spelling or ideas. This task was completed on a piece of lined
paper on the surface of a digital writing tablet. Prior to scoring the written
compositions, all spelling errors made by the three groups were recorded and
counted. Compositions were then later typed, correcting only spelling errors to
prevent bias when scoring. The WOLD assessment criteria were used to score each
composition for: ideas/development, sentence structure, organisation/coherence,
996 E. Sumner et al.
vocabulary, grammar usage, and punctuation. The raw score was converted to a
standardised score (M100, SD 15) for the children with dyslexia and CA controls.
The test is standardised from age 8 upwards, therefore, only raw scores are shown
for the younger SA group.
This study was fully approved by Oxford Brookes University Research Ethics
Committee. Children were tested individually and the study began with the
standardised tests for group selection. In the second testing session the MABC-2
manual dexterity tasks were administered, followed by the alphabet task. A week
later, the children completed the composition task. The alphabet and writing tasks
were recorded on a digitizing tablet (Wacom, Intuos 4; 100 Hz; Eye & Pen
software, version 1). This requires writing on lined paper (taped on to the tablet)
with an inking pen. The tablet surface records the XY coordinates of the pen
position to a laptop (Alamargot, Chesnet, Dansac, & Ros, 2006). The procedure is
identical for the child to a typical written composition task undertaken in their
The eye and pen software allows for detailed analysis of the temporal characteristics
of writing, including pausing patterns and the production of text. A pause is an
interruption to the ﬂow of handwriting and is deﬁned as when the pen is no longer
writing, a period of inactivity (Olive, 2010). All pauses (recorded in milliseconds)
above the baseline threshold of 30 ms were included for analysis. The baseline
threshold is ﬁxed by the software according to the sampling frequency (100 Hz).
Here, a pause is equivalent to three successive digital samples (Alamargot et al.,
2006; Alamargot, Plane, Lambert, & Chesnet, 2009).
Execution speed is the distance covered by the pen divided by the actual writing
time when the pen was moving across the tablet (cm/s). This calculation excludes all
pauses when writing, giving an indication of handwriting execution speed and the
automatisation of the motor processes (Alamargot et al., 2009).
The results from the manual dexterity task assessing motor performance and the
alphabet-writing task assessing speed of handwriting when cognitive demands are
low can be seen in Table 2. The score for the alphabet task reﬂects the number of
correctly sequenced letters in a minute.
One-way ANOVAs to investigate group differences on the measures are shown
in Table 2. For the measure of manual dexterity, no differences were found between
children with dyslexia, the CA group (p=.29) and the SA matches (p=.084);
reﬂecting no reliable differences in ﬁne motor control between the groups.
However, when looking at individual scores for this measure there was more
Children with dyslexia 997
variation in the performance of children with dyslexia, with a tendency for these
children to score lower than the other two groups. For the alphabet task a signiﬁcant
effect of group was demonstrated. Tukey post hoc comparisons indicated that
children with dyslexia did as a group perform at a similar level to the CA group
despite a lower mean score (p=.095); and these two groups wrote signiﬁcantly
more than the SA matches (p\.001).
The alphabet task was analysed further by using the Eye & Pen software.
Temporal characteristics from the online analysis of this task are provided in
Table 3. The execution speed was calculated by the software and excluded all pause
time, focussing solely on the graphomotor execution of handwriting.
Table 2 Mean performance scores of motor assessment in children with dyslexia (D), the CA peers, and
the SA matched control group
Motor performance D (n=31)
Manual dexterity (MABC-2
8.00 (2.05) 8.91 (2.33) 9.46 (2.74) F(2, 90)=2.30, p=.10,
Alphabet task (DASH) 30.87 (14.98) 37.87 (10.51) 17.87 (11.95) F(2, 90) =20.03,
(D =CA) [SA
MABC-2 =Movement Assessment Battery for Children-2: component score (M10, SD 3);
DASH =detailed assessment of speed of handwriting Alphabet task =correct letters in a minute
Table 3 Mean scores of temporal characteristics from the alphabet task for children with dyslexia (D),
the CA, and the SA control groups
2.32 (.59) 2.23 (.53) 1.75 (.47) F(2,90) =10.47,
(D =CA) [SA
Distance (cm) 44.39 (18.08) 52.46 (15.79) 33.95 (16.20) F(2,90) =9.55,
(D =CA) [SA
Pause time (secs) 40.41 (5.94) 36.75 (5.56) 39.45 (4.57) F(2,90) =3.80, p=.03,
(D =SA) [CA
19.25 (5.59) 22.95 (5.37) 20.04 (5.10) F(2,90) =4.10, p=.02,
(D =SA) \CA
1057.71 (726.60) 722.25 (261.33) 1213.74 (666.74) F(2,90) =5.64, p=.01,
(D =SA) [CA
Execution speed =centimetres/seconds (excluding pauses)
998 E. Sumner et al.
A series of one-way ANOVAs and post hoc comparisons revealed that children
with dyslexia executed the writing of alphabet letters in cm per second (execution
speed) at the same speed as the CA controls. These two groups were signiﬁcantly
faster than the younger SA group and covered a larger distance when writing.
However, when exploring the time spent on task, children with dyslexia showed a
similar pattern of pausing to the younger SA matches. There was no signiﬁcant
difference between these two groups on writing time and the overall mean pause
The next set of results focus on the short composition task. Raw and standard
scores of the written compositions produced by the three groups are shown in
Table 4. Additional text characteristics of the written product were recorded. Total
time taken, calculated from the tablet, was from when the pen physically started the
ﬁrst word until the pen completed the ﬁnal word for each composition.
An independent samples ttest was conducted for the mean standard scores from
the WOLD writing task, which indicated that children with dyslexia were
underperforming in the quality of their writing when compared to their CA peers
(p\.001). The CA group consistently scored higher than the other two groups on
Table 4 Mean scores of text characteristics from the written compositions of children with dyslexia (D),
the CA, and SA control groups
t(60) =-6.67, p\.001
WOLD raw score 8.61 (2.72) 13.68 (3.20) 7.52 (1.59) F(2, 90) =49.09, p\.001,
(D =SA) \CA
8.89 (2.79) 11.32 (2.98) 6.58 (2.37) F(2, 90) =22.47, p\.001,
Words per minute 8.19 (3.43) 11.48 (3.56) 5.17 (2.34) F(2, 90)=30.68, p\.001,
Spelling errors 15.39 (9.01) 4.87 (4.08) 12.56 (8.78) F(2, 90) =15.74, p\.001,
(D =SA) [CA
% of text
24 %4%37 %F(2, 90) =57.54, p\.001,
WOLD =Wechsler Objective Language Dimensions, Standard score (M100, SD 15); words per
%in italics represents the percentage of spelling errors within each text
Standardised score not available
Children with dyslexia 999
all sections of the WOLD marking criteria, and the mean score of this group
conﬁrms that they performed within the expected range for their age (M=105).
The raw score for the writing task highlighted no signiﬁcant differences in
performance between children with dyslexia and the SA group.
One-way ANOVAs revealed signiﬁcant group differences for all of the
remaining measures in Table 4. Children with dyslexia wrote for a signiﬁcantly
shorter amount of time than the CA group (p=.002) but they wrote more
(p=.001), and for longer (p=.005) than the SA matches. The results reveal that
children with dyslexia wrote signiﬁcantly fewer words per minute than the CA
group (p\.001), conﬁrming they were slower at composing a text. Finally, no
signiﬁcant differences were revealed between children with dyslexia and the SA
matches for the number of spelling errors in their compositions. These two groups
made a signiﬁcantly higher proportion of spelling errors in comparison to the CA
With marked group differences in the quality and production of writing between
children with dyslexia and their peers, Table 5explores the temporal characteristics
of the written compositions.
A multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) using Pillai’s trace, revealed
there was a signiﬁcant effect of group on all of the measures in Table 5,V=.61,
F(10, 174) =7.68, p\.001. However, post hoc comparisons of the outcome
variables indicated no signiﬁcant difference between children with dyslexia and CA
peers on the measure of handwriting execution speed (p=.98). Thus, when pause
times are removed these two groups were able to execute handwriting at the same
speed. Further analysis revealed that the percentage of pause time taken by the
children with dyslexia was signiﬁcantly more than for the children in the CA group
(p\.001), but the same as children of the same spelling ability (p=.99). The
overall duration of pausing while writing also highlights that children with dyslexia
and the SA group spent a large proportion of time not writing compared to the CA
group (both p\.001). This overall pattern is similar to the results for the alphabet
task, shown previously in Table 3.
Table 5 Mean scores of temporal characteristics from the compositions of children with dyslexia (D),
the CA, and the SA control groups
Temporal characteristics D(n=31)
Execution speed (cm/s) 2.11 (.69) 2.19 (.64) 1.59 (.44) (D =CA) [SA
Distance (cm) 341.53 (169.03) 585.97 (226.45) 170.59 (89.42) SA \D\CA
Pause time (mins) 6.48 (2.11) 7.03 (2.15) 4.61 (1.40) (D =SA) [CA
%of total time 73 %62 %73 %
Writing time (mins) 2.41 (.99) 4.29 (1.91) 1.97 (1.95) (D =SA) \CA
%of total time 27 %38 %27 %
Mean pause duration (ms) 1681.74 (948.98) 1252.74 (570.59) 2065.64 (1183.7) CA \D\SA
%in italics represents the percentage of time spent in this category (pausing orwriting) in relation to the
overall task time
cm/s =centimetres per second; ms =milliseconds
1000 E. Sumner et al.
The ﬁnal stage of analysis investigated relationships between the variables
described above. First of all, the following section will explore the relationship
between motor control and the production of written text. Then the relationship
between spelling ability, speed of composing, and the temporal characteristics of
executing written text will be considered.
Manual dexterity and writing skill
An analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) was conducted to determine whether the
scores of the dependent variables: quality of writing (WOLD raw score), words per
minute, execution speed, and pause time, differed after adjustments for manual
dexterity performance. Manual dexterity was included as the covariate given the
trend towards the children with dyslexia being worse on this measure and group was
the between-subjects factor. For the measure of writing quality the covariate,
manual dexterity, showed a signiﬁcant effect F(1, 89) =4.10, p=.046, partial
=.04, and so did group F(2, 89) =51.96, p\.001, partial g
=.54. There was
no interaction between group and manual dexterity, suggesting that both of these
factors affected the quality of writing produced. Pairwise comparisons remained the
same as shown in Table 4. For the measures of words per minute and execution
speed, there was no signiﬁcant effect of manual dexterity F(1, 89) =.92, p=.341,
=.015; and F(1, 89) =1.33, p=.251, partial g
Although, these two measures still reﬂected a signiﬁcant effect of group,
F(2, 89) =33.77, p\.001, partial g
=.43; and F(2, 89) =9.93, p\.001,
=.18 respectively. Pairwise comparisons conﬁrmed that children with
dyslexia wrote fewer words than the CA group but executed handwriting at the same
speed even when controlling for manual dexterity. However, when pause time was
analysed there was a signiﬁcant effect of manual dexterity F(1, 89) =11.84,
p=.001, partial g
=.12, and group F(2, 89) =13.29 p\.001, partial g
Comparisons revealed that children with dyslexia paused for the same percentage as
the SA matches; pausing for longer than the CA controls. Bivariate correlations
were also conducted for the three groups of participants. For children with dyslexia,
the manual dexterity scores showed a signiﬁcant positive correlation (p\.001)
with the quality of writing produced (r=.62) and words per minute (r=.53), and
a negative correlation with pause time (r=-.48). No correlation was found
between manual dexterity and handwriting execution speed. These correlations were
not signiﬁcant for the CA or SA group.
Spelling ability and ﬂuency of composing
Bivariate correlations were computed individually for all three groups to examine
the relationship between spelling, pausing and speed of composing text (words per
minute) from the writing task. For children with dyslexia a signiﬁcant positive
correlation was found between the percentage of spelling errors in their text and the
time spent pausing (r=.42); while signiﬁcant negative correlations were demon-
strated for the relationship between pause time and words per minute (r=-.62),
and also pausing and quality of writing (r=-.78). Furthermore, for the children
Children with dyslexia 1001
with dyslexia there were signiﬁcant negative correlations between spelling errors
and words per minute (r=-.44) and between spelling errors and quality of writing
(r=-.51). Out of interest, a correlation analysis was performed for general reading
skill and text quality, to determine whether performance in writing is associated
with more global literacy ability. For children with dyslexia, a positive correlation
was found for reading and text quality (r=.43). A different pattern was reﬂected in
the two typically developing groups. There was no signiﬁcant correlation between
spelling errors and pause time or words written per minute in both the CA and SA
groups. However, a positive correlation was revealed between the measure of words
per minute and the WOLD quality of writing score for the CA group (r=.59) and
the SA matches (r=.43); although these were much weaker correlations than for
the children with dyslexia (r=.83).
The present study has conﬁrmed that children with dyslexia composed text more
slowly than children of the same age when examining words written per minute.
Importantly though, it has been demonstrated that children with dyslexia executed
handwriting as rapidly as children of the same age when both composing text and
writing single letters, but that they paused more than their peers when writing. In fact,
the amount of pausing was the same as children of the same spelling ability. These
patterns conﬁrm our hypothesis that children with dyslexia are not slow at handwriting
execution but are slower at composing texts than their peers. This slowness is due to
less time actually writing on paper and correlation analyses highlighted that the
amount of time spent pausing when composing text is linked to spelling ability.
Furthermore, the correlations demonstrated that poor spelling and frequent pausing
have a negative effect on the number of words written and the quality of writing
produced. The latter is conﬁrmed by the large gap in the written assessment scores
between children with dyslexia and their age-matched peers. Further investigation is
required of the relation between reading and writing that was demonstrated by the
correlation between reading and writing quality in the children with dyslexia. Other
studies have found these two skills to have an interactive relationship that varies in
strength depending on the stage of development (Fitzgerald & Shanahan, 2000;
Shanahan, 2006). It is not possible with our one time measure of reading to investigate
this relationship in detail. However, in support of our stance Fitzgerald and Shanahan
(2000) argue that these two skills should be considered as separable processes, with
shared variance failing to reach more than .50. Moreover, the literature would suggest
that in children with writing difﬁculties spelling is the predominant driver of writing
quality after reading has been accounted for (Dockrell, Lindsay, Connelly, Mackie,
2007; Dockrell, Lindsay, & Connelly, 2009).
In comparison to children with dyslexia, the typically developing age-matched
group illustrated a more efﬁcient proﬁle of writing. They do not exhibit problems
with accurate spelling and so spelling did not correlate with pausing, speed of
composition (words per minute), or the quality of writing for this group. Similar
patterns were mirrored in the typically developing spelling-ability matched group.
1002 E. Sumner et al.
However, execution speed was signiﬁcantly slower for the spelling-ability group,
which may be explained by their age and having had less practice at making
handwriting automatic. The young age of the spelling-ability group was not initially
predicted to be so low and may be considered a limitation to this study.
Nevertheless, they were accurately matched to the children with dyslexia on
spelling capabilities and thus provided a useful comparison for the temporal
characteristics of text execution.
The pattern of results for each group conﬁrms currently accepted models of
writing development whereby problems in one area of writing (in this case pauses
related to spelling) impact on the overall quality of composition (Berninger &
Swanson, 1994; Berninger et al., 2002). However, our results also contrast with
other studies that showed that spelling ability and slow handwriting (as measured by
the alphabet task) were separate factors impacting on writing composition (e.g.,
Graham et al., 1997; Wagner et al., 2011). We have been able to demonstrate using
our temporal data that pausing may be the link between these seemingly different
writing tasks and that handwriting execution speed needs to be considered distinct
from the overall time taken to complete a handwriting or composition task.
Pausing during writing would appear to be the key difference leading to slower
writing between children with dyslexia and their same age peers. The amount of
pausing seems related to spelling level as shown by the match with the spelling
control group and the strong links between spelling errors, pausing and composi-
tional quality. Other recent research with typically developing samples has also
shown that writing, pausing and spelling are intimately linked and that the writing of
words may be inﬂuenced by in-word level pause effects related to frequency and
morphological complexity (Kandel, Peereman, Grosjacques, & Fayol, 2011). To
date, none of this work has been carried out on children with dyslexia and it remains
to be seen how spelling and writing interact at the word level for these children with
a speciﬁc spelling impairment. It would certainly be interesting to analyse the
execution of single-word spelling, but unfortunately this data was not recorded on
the writing tablet for the sample in this study. Isolating single words from the text
may give an indication of whether they are pausing at a syllable boundary or less
frequent letter strings that impose a higher cognitive cost (Kandel, Alvarez, &
Vallee, 2006; Kandel et al., 2011). This could be the next step for research, to
further analyse pause locations and durations to see whether it is possible to infer
how spelling is interrupting and constraining the compositional ﬂow in children
with dyslexia. It may be that children with dyslexia are pausing more frequently
around more complex spellings in their compositions. However, anecdotal evidence
suggests that children with dyslexia will avoid writing words they ﬁnd difﬁcult to
spell (Wengelin, 2007). Generally, complex spellings are associated with a more
sophisticated vocabulary and for this measure of the writing assessment criteria,
children with dyslexia scored particularly low when compared to their peers.
Therefore, it may be that the pause behaviour of children with dyslexia when
writing is not necessarily around longer, less frequent spelling conventions but that
there is simply more consistent pausing within the text.
In line with the idea of spelling acting as a constraint of compositional quality,
another direction of research could explore the effects of eliminating spelling
Children with dyslexia 1003
demands, by using methods of dictation to compose text. This would give a detailed
insight into the composing skills of children with dyslexia when the demands of
transcription are removed. This method of producing text through dictation has been
shown to assist children with general learning difﬁculties and the results reﬂect a
higher quality of text being composed in dictation rather than written mediums (De
La Paz & Graham, 1997). However, analysis of dictated text raises questions about
assessment, particularly as conventions of verbal and written communication differ
greatly. In dictation conditions participants have been found to usually start their
answer to an essay assignment with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, to report with little structure or
conclusion, and showing many repetitions in their verbal answer (Graham, 1990;
Graham, Harris, MacArthur, & Schwartz, 1991). This method can be perceived by
the participant as a less formal method of assessment and as Graham et al. (1991)
discuss, dictation conditions can almost turn into a question-answering task where
participants report what comes to mind immediately rather than considering how to
structure an answer. Thus, while comparisons with oral compositions would be
useful it is only through studying the actual process of composition that we can
begin to understand the complex interactions involved in writing for children with
A limitation of previous work in the ﬁeld is that it has not considered possible co-
occurring motor difﬁculties in children with dyslexia, which might have an impact
on writing performance. Many studies report that children with dyslexia have poorer
motor skills (See Nicolson & Fawcett, 2011 for a recent review). We addressed this
issue and found that the children with dyslexia had slightly poorer scores although
these were not signiﬁcantly different to the age-matched controls. To check further
the possible inﬂuence of motor skill, we used this measure as a covariate, but found
this did not alter the main group ﬁndings on the handwriting execution speed
measures. Interestingly, manual dexterity did not correlate signiﬁcantly with
execution speed as measured by the writing tablet. However, there were signiﬁcant
correlations between manual dexterity, pause time, writing quality and ﬂuency
(words per minute) for the children with dyslexia, which do warrant some attention.
Thus, it would appear that motor skill might be related to writing per se but not in
the commonly assumed way of constraining writing execution speed. A strong
relationship between motor skill and text quality has been found in typically
developing children that were younger than the children with dyslexia in the present
study (Berninger et al., 1992). However this relationship diminished by the time
typically developing children reached the age of these children with dyslexia
(Abbott & Berninger, 1993). Therefore, it could be postulated that these children
with dyslexia are showing signs of a developmental delay in writing as this
relationship is observed for these children, but not shown by their peers. However,
in that case the younger spelling-ability group would also have been expected to
show this same pattern, which was not the case. Furthermore, this ﬁnding differs
from the (Berninger et al. study where motor skills were not associated with written
compositional skills in children with dyslexia, although these contrasting ﬁndings
could be due to the quite different motor tasks used.
The relationship between completing general manual dexterity tasks and pausing
more in writing also needs more exploration. Adults with dyslexia have been found
1004 E. Sumner et al.
to show difﬁculties in implicit sequence learning when completing motor tasks
(Kleine & Verway, 2009; Menghini, Hagberg, Caltagirone, Petrosini, & Vicari,
2006). Completing motor tasks require many active processes, such as motor
planning, accessing motor memory, motor execution, and coordination. Writing is
very demanding for young children and, therefore, it is possible that the association
between motor skill and pausing could represent a problem with coordinating the
many complex processes required when composing text. This would lead to hesitant
performance, instead of the automated and ﬂuent accessing of knowledge in
typically developing children. Therefore, while the high spelling error rate within
compositions shows that the children with dyslexia struggled with accuracy of
spelling patterns, the higher rate of pauses may also demonstrate problems with
rapidly accessing the motor patterns from memory while composing written text.
This problem could be at the word or letter level, or both. It could be related to
accessing phonological knowledge or perhaps accessing motor movements related
to letter patterns. Furthermore it could be down to cognitive overload due to the
complexity of juggling the transcription processes and composition. (Maggio et al.
2012hypothesised that some children may alternate between spelling and compos-
ing when the cognitive load is too high for them to successfully execute these skills
in parallel. This hypothesis relates to the capacity theory proposed by Alamargot,
Dansac, Chesnet, & Fayol (2007) and McCutchen (1996)
When the cognitive cost is too demanding sequential processing would be
typiﬁed by more pausing being evident during composition due to the stopping and
restarting of processes. This may reﬂect what is happening in the children with
dyslexia and remains to be further explored in detail. However, what is interesting
here is that handwriting execution speed is not slowed even if the cognitive load
from these lower-level skills is more demanding for children with dyslexia.
To conclude, we found no indication that the handwriting execution of children
with dyslexia was impaired when writing the letters of the alphabet or composing
text, compared to children of the same age. However, spelling ability, pausing when
writing and overall speed of composing text are closely related. Therefore,
educational interventions for writing that include motor skills practice to improve
handwriting execution speed should be approached with caution (Ott, 2007). It may
be important to include an assessment of the speed of text composition when
assessing the educational needs of children with dyslexia. As a result, more speciﬁc
information may be available to then support the development of writing skills.
While not playing down the importance of ﬂuent handwriting or the possibility of
poorer motor skills for some children with dyslexia, it may be more prudent to
concentrate on improving their spelling skills. A focus on improving spelling is
suggested in order to help these children rapidly access word speciﬁc knowledge
and subsequently have a greater impact on the production and quality of text
writing. In fact, a study almost ten years ago showed that improving spelling in
children struggling with writing had direct beneﬁts on improving written
compositions (Berninger et al., 2008; Berninger et al., 2002). In some ways this
is not a surprising educational conclusion as dyslexia has been shown to be a
speciﬁc language problem related to learning to read and spell (Bishop & Snowling,
2004). However, our study has shown that pausing is a key factor in these children’s
Children with dyslexia 1005
difﬁculty with writing. This is a signiﬁcant step forward in understanding writing
Acknowledgments This research was supported by a studentship from The Waterloo Foundation.
Special thanks go to the children and schools that participated in this study. This research was supported
by a studentship from The Waterloo Foundation and Oxford Brookes University awarded to Emma
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