Month: August 2017

Writing Disabilities and Dysgraphia-Getting Thoughts onto Paper

It starts with a call from a parent

Here is one of my more common conversations with parents who are calling about a possible evaluation of their child’s academic needs –

A mother (90% of the time, it is the mother who contacts me) on phone, “It is about my son (99% of the time, this particular issue is in a boy).  He seems very bright, but . . .”

I fill in with, “he is having trouble getting his thoughts on paper.”

There is a slight pause, and then the mother says, “How did you know?”

Bright (highly intelligent, gifted and talented) boys and handwriting challenges seem to go together like bread and butter, salt and pepper, picnics and ants.  Maybe the latter is the best comparison.  Things seem sooooo good.  This child loves learning.  His intellectual curiousity is endless.  He seems to absorb information as he breathes.  (The parent at this point is saying, “Yes, yes, you must have met him.”)

But writing is not about what information the child is taking in, it is about the information he is putting out onto the paper.  And his head is moving at 90 miles an hour, buzzing with facts, ideas, hypotheses, and opinions, BUT his hand, his poor hand, is only moving at 5 miles an hour.  Just think about how frustrating that must be.  The mismatch is a recipe for failure.

Writing demands come early

The demands for good writing come early in the educational process now.  Fifty years ago, a young child focused on letter formation, penmanship and spelling in the early grades.  Paragraph writing did not come until higher grades.  But now, a child in kindergarten will be expected to learn to write a sentence.  A first grader may be expected to write a story.

I remember when my daughter (the Queen) was in first grade.  She came home with a writing prompt.  The page had a picture of a girl holding a box with a bow on it.  The prompt said to write a story about what’s in the box.  A STORY?!?  The Queen was still inverting letters and struggled to spell most words.  She could not write a sentence with any ease, much less a story.  Undeterred, she smiled with excitement, “I’m gonna write a chapter book!”  Great, there were going to be tears too.  Within a minute came the first shout from the kitchen table, “HOW DO YOU SPELL ‘CHAPTER 1’?”  It was going to be a long night.  The tears came by Chapter 2.  In case you need to know, there were bugs and spiders in the box.  It was a very dramatic story. . . and short.

Why do we do this to little children?  Making them write beyond their capacity does not make them better writers.  And I don’t blame teachers.  They are just trying to hit the standards set before them.   But here we are with heavy writing demands for little hands that are not yet neurologically ready to hold and manage a pencil.  This is particularly true for little boys who tend to develop fine motor in their finger tips at a slower rate than girls.

It starts with the pencil grip

If the little fingers do not have good wiring to “feel” the pencil, then little hands try to compensate. This is why you will get the “thumb overlap” pencil grip where the thumb overlaps the pointer finger.  The poor kid is pressing his thumb against his forefinger so he can feel the pencil.  In fact, you get a lot of funky pencil grips in kids who are pushed to writing too early without proper foundation.  That foundation would be a slower start for writing and more work on basic grip and penmanship.    For many, this lag in development becomes a permanent roadblock.

And we also have to consider those children who have fine motor weaknesses that are more than just a lag and mismatch.  It does not matter how patient and individualized you are in your teaching, some children will not have good fine motor control for writing.

Poor pencil grips are tiring



Some are too tight, some too awkward, some require moving the entire hand to write, not just the fingers.

A lot of you are probably sighing, “Well, it is too late now.  He is twelve and his pencil grip is not great and his writing is worse and his resistance is becoming legendary.”  The “reluctant reader” is nothing compared to the “resistant writer.”

So how do we build skills and when do we accommodate?

First, I should mention, if a child’s writing ability is well below his intelligence (and educational exposure), he can be diagnosed with dysgraphia (a writing disability).  If you think your child’s writing meets that criteria, then seek an evaluation (through your school district or privately).  From there, a formal plan can be developed with the school, either through an Individual Education Plan or a 504 Plan.

Whether your child is simply a “resistant writer” because it feels slow and cumbersome or he actually meets criteria for a writing disability, there are things to be done.

  • Occupational therapy can be done to improve fine visual motor skills. Many OT’s can specifically help with handwriting.


  • Help your child develop proficiency with computer keyboarding (“typing” for the old school folks). Good typing skills have become so important in this technological age that we are sacrificing cursive handwriting for it.  As a child continues through school, such skills will prove invaluable.  He can take advantage of spell checking programs, he can easily go back to correct errors, and it will circumvent any persistent handwriting difficulties.  Many typing tutor software programs are available.


  • As any resistant writer will tell you, thinking and writing are two very different things (yet we require kids to do both at once). Many a tired child will ask a (tired) parent, “Can’t I just TELL you what I know?”  For the child who struggles with the inconsistency between his fast mind and his slower handwriting, his parents (and teachers) might want to consider dictation.   The child can dictate his key ideas to an adult for a paper. Sticky notes can be used to jot down his thoughts, and then they can be re-arranged in a “storyboard” format.  He can then use this “outline” to develop his paragraph or essay.  This helps a child separate his quick thinking from slower writing.  Once the thoughts are out of his head, he can also walk away from the task for a break without his ideas getting away. This strategy will also build a mental habit of thinking through his thoughts before he begins to write.  Do not expect a child to do his own outline because he cannot write fast enough.  That is a skill for another day when he is older (hopefully by college).


  • Parents and children can experiment with voice recognition software. This will allow students to dictate directly to the computer.  Writing papers this way is still a skill to be learned.  Don’t expect this to be a miracle cure-all, but it could definitely have its place for some kids.  Teachers may know some programs that are being used in their school for this.


  • Kids should also be instructed in simple recipes for writing. For example, for book reports, a child may need a basic format in which he will address 3-4 questions, such as 1)  Name the book and the author, 2)  Tell what the book was about,  3)  Tell about your favorite part of the book, and 4)  Comment on whether you would recommend this book to someone.  He should use this format repeatedly.  A new step or question can be added with each grade level he reaches.   I remind kids and parents that this is how journalists write.  They do not invent writing every time they put pen to paper.  They are trained in formats and rubrics for different situations.  Ask the teacher for some recommendations.


  • In a pinch (which happens more often than not on tired evenings), just scribe for your child.  The child dictates his thoughts and you write them down.  No note taking or outline or key phrases, just take the dictation in its entirety and be done. Let the teacher know that this is how you will be approaching writing for most homework (if you suspect that will be the case). For the very writing impaired, this may be an ongoing need.  I know a young man who had a scribe for an academic accommodation all the way into graduate school.  (He was getting his MBA using both a reader and a scribe for severe dyslexia and dysgraphia.)

And while the ability to write is being built, we can provide some additional accommodations.

With the dawn of the printing press and wide spread literacy, we became a world where we read to learn and write to show that learning.  While those habits are well-ingrained, we can also start to think outside of them.  Kids with reading disabilities can use audio-books and videos to acquire learning.  Kids with writing disabilities can show knowledge in other ways as well.

Unless learning to write is the goal of the task, it is okay to go around writing demands instead of trying to plow (suffer) through them.

  • Try alternative test formats instead of essay tests to collect knowledge. Fill-in-the-blank, multiple choice and oral testing are all other possible methods.


  • Oral presentations can be used in lieu of written papers. Some kids can do a great job just telling the teacher or class about what they know.  And oral presentations are an important skill too.


  • Let a child do a project using another strength, such as music, engineering or art, to show knowledge of a subject. I love the project where a child reads a book then, instead of writing a book report, develops a playlist of songs that go with the book.  (I do not have the skills to do this as I seem to be musically impaired, but it is a great project for some kids.)


We push writing early and hard right now.  But bright (highly intelligent, gifted and talented) children can have asynchronous development.  Some skills are surging forward and others are dragging behind.   Nowhere can this be more apparent than in the discrepancy between a child’s cognitive ability and his fine motor ability.  Know this, then find other ways to express knowledge while letting the hand mature into a support for the mind.

Good tripod grip, lovely penmanship, and a teenage boy at that. (It IS possible)

Spelling Skills, Spelling Disability, Spelling Accommodations

We are in a new age for spelling.  A hundred years ago (or even 50) spelling was important.  Everyone wrote by hand and some had typewriters.  Spelling was up to the writer and poor spelling was a sign that you were sloppy or maybe not very literate.  Learning disabilities were unknown or poorly understood.  As with any learning disability,  poor spellers were likely punished for their weakness and left feeling stupid.

A Newer Age

Enter a newer age, where we can fully realize that poor spellers are not illiterate, lazy or unintelligent.  They just lack a specific ability (and remember, we all have a weakness of our own somewhere).  So with the recognition of spelling or writing disabilities came accommodations.  Poor spellers were given modified spelling tests and they were not penalized for spelling errors.  And spelling devices were invented.  Suddenly, there were devices like the Franklin Speller where a poor speller could type in a word and the device would list several correct words that the writer might be trying to spell.

That sounds downright cumbersome now.

Because now, we are in the next age.  Kids are taught to type earlier and earlier (at the expense of good handwriting, but that is another blog entry).  The computer (or Smartphone or word processor) has spell checking programs and auto correct.  These programs aren’t perfect, but they are pretty good.  Yes, a poor speller can absolutely challenge the spell checking program.  And yes, auto correct fails are not uncommon and can often be either hilarious or embarrassing.  But they do help tremendously.  I am impressed with how easily even young children can highlight a mis-spelled word, hit a drop down menu, and pick what they need.

So do we care about spelling?

Yes, we do care.  We are still reading and writing to communicate and will likely continue to do so more and more (even if it is by electronic writing and not on paper). Good basic spelling will be needed.  However there will still be kids (and adults) who are poor spellers.  So how do we spot them and what can we do to help?

Who has weaknesses in spelling?

  • People with dyslexia. Dyslexia is a weakness in phonological processing.  The person has difficulty hearing the individual sounds in words, so struggles to learn to sound out words for reading and spelling.  Even with good reading remediation, spelling often remains a weakness.  I tell people that, at least with reading a word, all the letters are in front of you to see.  When spelling, the dyslexia person has to look inside their head to see if they can find all the sounds. It’s hard.
  • People with visual processing weaknesses. For people who have trouble with visual scanning or visual convergence or people who have atypical visual processing such that letters seem to waiver, move, and even disappear (special shout out to people with Irlen Syndrome), spelling remains one challenge among others in the reading and writing domain.  There are so many demands on their plate when writing that spelling is at risk at all times.
  • People with Attention Deficit Disorder. Weak attention during early grades may cause them to miss spelling patterns as they are taught.  Weak attention in higher grades means there is only so much “band width” when writing.  Spelling may need to be sacrificed for getting good thoughts on paper.  When weighing good thoughts against good spelling, I will take the good thoughts.
  • People with Executive Function weakness. Very similar to attention deficit disorder, but the problem is not in basic attention.  Even when “paying attention,” they may miss important spelling patterns.  Some kids with EF are just not good with patterns.  And again, in higher grades, they may sacrifice spelling for other writing demands.
  • Visual Motor Weaknesses. Often typing can relieve some of the visual motor demand of handwriting, but typing is still a visual motor demand.  Any hand writing or typed work may include spelling errors.
  • Other stuff. Because the brain is big and complex, so there is always something else that can crop up and trash spelling.

  What to do about spelling weaknesses:

  • Remediation
    • Remediation with many of the programs for reading disabilities can help with the phonological skills needed for spelling, but do not expect spelling issues to fully resolve even if reading seems to.  Remediation should aim for consistent spelling of high frequency words.
    • I do think handwriting words builds a better motor memory for the word than typing it (though handwriting the words may be ineffective for kids with significant visual motor weaknesses).
  • Accommodations-Make sure your child’s weakness is identified and given accommodation at school.
    • A child can be given modified spelling lists that focus in high frequency words
    • A child should not be penalized for spelling errors outside of the modified spelling list (and even that should be open to negotiation). A student with a spelling disability should be able to focus on their thoughts and organizing them on paper without having to worry about spelling
    • A student can be given a list of high frequency words for a particular unit or subject matter when testing, so that they can copy the word out accurately for tests or essays.
    • A student can be given access to technology at allows them to compensate for the spelling weakness.
  • TECHNOLOGY!!! (Our new best friend)
    • Word processing, keyboarding, typing. Whatever you want to call it, have a child start gaining proficiency in it early. They will need to use spell-checker programs and auto-correct.  Hopefully, they have enough reading/spelling remediation to enable them to recognize errors due to synonyms or other similarities (e.g., “quiet” spelled “quite”).
    • Voice Recognition software. Some students and teachers are moving more quickly to dictation software that allows students to dictate their thoughts to the computer for written work.  Writing a paper this way is a skill unto itself, but probably a more reasonable skill for some kids than writing or even typing.

Emphasize Strengths Over Weaknesses

I remember reading an essay by John Irving, the author of The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany.  John Irving was a poor student and a terrible speller.  He grew up in a time and in a private school where poor spelling was a sign of many things, none of them good.  He hung in there to write incredible novels where his genius could shine through.  I wonder if any of his teachers saw that coming. Don’t let poor spelling block a child’s other strengths (whatever they may be).  Those strengths will be their future.

(On a side note, my teenager does not think she needs to learn to drive because self-driving cars will be hitting the streets in a few years.  I wonder how many critical life skills will be obsolete in a few years and what new critical life skills will take their place?)