Years ago I had the privilege of being in an audience of about 500 participants listening to a lecture  on learning disorders from the renowned neurologist, Dr. Martha Denckla.

As Dr. Denckla noted,  “It’s like these kids who are struggling with reading, spelling and writing are not  tuned in to the language –  it’s  like not having an ear for music.”


That statement sums up the underlying issue for the vast majority of children who are called “dyslexic” or “learning disabled.”

They have a “tin ear” for language, that is, how words work, whether it’s how the words go together in a sentence or a paragraph.


Let’s look at young, Gavin, age 9, a fourth grader who does not have an “ear” for music.

When Gavin writes it’s the equivalent of him screeching on the violin. Below are two samples of Gavin’s writing.

In the first sample Gavin discusses how he and his sister have been trying to convince their parents to get a dog.  In the second, Gavin talks about his love of the holidays.  (Note: The upper and lowercase lettering and punctuation are as close to the original as possible.)

me a nd Mi sitter Bine in for a Dog for a year we wunta Dog so s soso Bad leyMy sitt ersay she is going to Do The work wen she is not going to Do the Wrok”

“ever crimus We Do it my Huose and see my family and These Year my House is getting redown so it will be exsided for them to see it and on Thanks giving we to my Mom-Mom and Pop-Pops and my cosans come over to my mom-mom and pop-pops and my mom-mom makes super good food evry year they get Pie and aother deserts and we get a choes and I PikeThe Best Cokeand we get wiped crem with it.  I love Thanksgiving and crismus

A child of above average cognitive functioning on nonverbal tasks, Gavin is not classified in special education and he receives no special remediation.

Occupational therapy  (OT) has been considered by the school for him.  While OT works on strengthening the fine-motor skills, it isn’t intended to teach the concepts of writing

Underneath Gavin’s writing, he doesn’t understand the concept of a sentence, that a sentence expresses a complete thought that starts with a capital  letter and ends with a period.

By fourth grade, about 70% of the children have intuitively internalized these concepts.  They understand the concept of a sentence and its basic components.  They understand that a paragraph represents a singular theme.

The rest have a “tin ear” for the music. Just sending them for fine-motor exercises or asking them to just “write what you feel,” is not doing them a service.

Takeaway Point

Writing deficits are largely deficits in language awareness.  Spelling and writing are the X-rays that we have that such deficits are meaningful and need to be addressed.

Dr. Denckla has it right on the money.

Copyright, 2020
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(***  Please note: Dr. Richard Selznick is a psychologist, clinician and author of four books.  His blog posts represent his opinions and perspectives based on his years of interacting with struggling children, parents and schools.)

The  advice in the blogs and in practice is governed by one overriding principle – “If this were my child, what would I do?”   The goal of the blogs and the website is to provide parents and professionals with straight-forward, down-to-earth, no-nonsense advice to help cut through all of the confusion that exists in the field.)