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.

 

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?)

Reading for PLEASURE! Encouraging the reluctant reader

 

Summer reading – It’s the thing.  For some of us, it is the highlight of summer. And for some of our kids, it is (one of) the highlights of their summer.  And we love that because we know it is making them smarter while they are having some much coveted down-time.  But so many kids are “reluctant readers.”  And “reluctant” can be an under-statement.  Some kids hate reading (but really, they just think they do).

I was not that child.  I loved reading. I mean LOVED IT!  I loved the summer reading program at the library.  I would max out the prizes in one week.  I read the 3 books that I could check out, then read the books that each of my siblings checked out, then I walked down to the neighbors (who also had five kids) and read every book there.  I did that each week all summer.  HEA—VEN—LY!!! As a parent, I couldn’t wait to share this world with my child.  But, as fates would have it, I got a reluctant reader.  So many of us do.

So what to do about the Reluctant Reader?

So you have a child who does not like to read (due to reading disability or simply because they have not found the pleasure in it). It  happens.  My parents only got one avid reader out of the five kids.  (Three out of the four read more as adults, but I have a brother who says, “Nah, I don’t even text.”)   My mother kept promoting it all those years.  She loved reading, so modeled it pretty well (for a busy mother of five).  She converted the shed into a children’s library.  Any kid on the block could come hang out to read. She read to us and also had the babysitter read to us.  She kept promoting it without forcing it.   Progress was made (in small, hard-won increments).

As I began to parent, I certainly wanted my child to love books the way I did.  Fingers crossed.  And my daughter (referred to as the Queen because she skipped the princess stage altogether) did (sort of) love books.  She was very visual and loved detailed images.  She was engrossed with picture books from babyhood.  She liked to be read to.  She could recognize all of her letters before she was two (this took me by surprise as I was not teaching them, but we did read alphabet books).

The early signs were good

Things looked good, but alas no.  The Queen summed it up perfectly when she was about five years old.  I was reading a book to her that she seemed to find thoroughly interesting.  At the end, she turned to me and said in all seriousness, “Why am I not published yet.”  The Queen was a creator.  The creative works of others only primed her own creative juices.  Why should she be reading when someone could be reading a book by her?

And so began my struggle of how to encourage the reluctant reader.  For all her early prowess with letter recognition, reading words and text emerged slowly.  The Queen was never behind in reading, but she was never ahead either. And since she was a Queen, I could not actually order her to do anything.  Well, I could try to order her to read, but her exasperated look and half-hearted attempt did not really accomplish anything.

Stealth Parenting

SO, based on my experiences, I would encourage the stealth approach for parents of reluctant readers.   (These tips will help for kids with reading disabilities, but I will have another blog entry with more specific recommendations about those specific challenges)

First, and most important – You will not win if you force the reluctant reader to read.  This will make reading a chore . . . work . . . drudgery. “My mom MAKES ME READ!”  Remember, reading for pleasure must be pleasurable, so find any literature that is appealing. Look for books of high interest.  This means of high interest to the child, not you.  Do some “stealth parenting.”

  • Libraries are a great start for exploring this. There are a lot of books to look through and, unlike a book store, you can sample a huge range of literature without breaking the bank. And trust me, it can take a lot of sampling before some kids find what they like. Just hang out on a Saturday morning and let your child explore.  Don’t place limits.  They may pick books that seem too young for them (they can be independent with that book) or too old for them (you can read it to them).  It may turn out that they love the subject matter.  Now you have a clue about what may engage them.  You can look for more age appropriate books from there.

 

  • Don’t overlook magazines. Short text with lots of picture support can be really appealing.  National Geographic Kids, Time for Kids, Sports Illustrated Kids – there are many mainstream magazines scaled for kids.  Make these available. Don’t require reading, but do point out interesting articles.  The regular National Geographic (or any magazine) may also be appealing if the photography is great. If your child has a particular interest, go to a really good book store.  The specialty magazine selection is outstanding.  There may be a skateboarding magazine that rocks his world and makes him dream big.  It is okay if he only looks at the pictures.  Eventually, there will be some picture that intrigues him enough to check the text.  If your child cannot read it on his own, read it to them.

 

  • And don’t overlook comic books. Comics are great for the reluctant reader.  The story line is short with lots of picture support.  And if you check out the text, you will find it is not overly simplistic.  Comics, like The Far Side, can have hilarious sophistication when making fun of scientific and cultural norms.  Captain Underpants can hit an irreverent tone that brings many a child glee.  If your kid laughs or rushes to show you a really funny part, you have found the elusive “reading for pleasure” zone.  You can build from there.
She fell asleep reading a (comic) book. I wish the bedding matched.
  • It is important to make a reading area at home.  Have a reading area with boxes or baskets full of library books, books you own, magazines and any other reading material (including books or magazines you are reading).

 

  • Make your own books. If you have a creative child who would rather do something rather than sit and read, then have her create the summer scrap book.  Each day (or a few days a week) have your child make a drawing about some summer adventure.  Either one of you can add the text.  Put these in a binder and read through it throughout the summer and again at the end.  If your child cannot draw well enough to suit their own standards, have them make collages from magazine pictures and photos.

 

  • Model reading as pleasure.  Make a time daily (or at least 3-4 days a week) when everyone sits down to read.  Everyone is allowed to read or look at any literature of their choosing (make sure it is print material for the reluctant reader as online reading is not quite the same and distractions are very accessible).  If you have a child who refuses to read at this time, ask them to work on the scrapbook (“That would be a really big help for me because I really want us to have those memories”). Be sure to provide good magazines for finding the best pictures for the scrap book. (Stealthy, huh.)

Success (of sorts)

These are the strategies I refined over the years with the Queen.  AND SHE BECAME AN AVID READER WHO DEVOURS NOVELS LIKE CANDY!!!  Okay, no, that did not happen.  She has never even read Harry Potter though they all sit on a shelf awaiting her (or maybe a grandchild?).  However she did become a reader.  She became someone with favorite books and favorite topics.  Like me, she loves comics.  She loves The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes, and Zits.  She liked non-fiction stories of kids who overcame difficulties (notice the past tense there).  She likes the sciences and loves aerospace and astrophysics.  By 5th grade, she would peruse college level literature in those areas.  She wasn’t (and largely still isn’t) a front to back reader.  She reads parts of books based on interests and mood, but she always has something she is interested in. She reads daily.  I will take that.

She reads her phone just fine

 

 

And she published her first book this year. Here it is on Amazon if that works better for you.

Homework

I like the teacher who gives you something to take home and think about besides homework.-Lily Tomlin

Labor Day is over, so just about anyone going back to school is now there. And where there is school, there is usually homework.  Although research is not clear on the benefits of homework, about 70% of teachers assign homework.  So it’s probably coming your child’s way.  I, for one, do believe in the value of some homework, even if simply to introduce the idea that some things done in the classroom might have value outside of the classroom.  Let’s face it; it’s useful to know how to work with fractions in daily living, not to mention basic reading and writing.  Kids might as well be helped to learn to use those skills outside of the supervised classroom.  Plus, why are we teaching civics, history, social studies and literature if we do not care whether kids learn to be thinking members of society.  And finally, there will be homework in college, so if you are planning on your kids going to college (and graduating), they should be able to handle some homework.

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August 2014 News about kids, ADHD and the classroom

Just a quick entry.  It is back to school and exciting for most.  For some parents, it is a time of anxiety because for some kids, it is an acute loss of freedom of movement that they desperately need.  As school starts, lets remember that movement is great and classroom structure is supportive.

Here is a reminder that exercise may be critical for kids with ADHD (adults too).

And because exercise won’t be enough,  here are some classroom strategies for helping kids with ADHD.

 

Back-to-School Knots

I was, on the whole, considerably discouraged by my school days. It was not pleasant to feel oneself so completely outclassed and left behind at the beginning of the race.  Winston Churchill

 

Yeay! Its back-to-school time!  Back to a schedule. Back to knowing where your kids are for most of the day.  Back to a modicum of predictability (till someone throws up).  We see all the happy mommies and daddies ushering their kids onto the playground, finding their new teacher, helping haul in the school supplies.  It’s all happy.

But not really.  There are parents trying to smile, but their stomachs are in knots.  They know from experience (last year or for multiple years) that all is not happy.  They want it to be happy.  They want to be there smiling and excited like the other parents.  They are putting on a brave face for their kids. Best foot forward, hope for the best, this year will be different . . . please.

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Exercise

A bear, however hard he tries, grows tubby without exercise.  – A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
Finally, EXERCISE, the last of the four foundations to cover, but certainly not the least. In fact, I consider each of the four foundations – nutrition, sleep, hydration and exercise – to be equally important for learning.  However, something had to be last in the line-up and exercise ended up being it.  (There is deep psychology at work there for me).

But exercise is SOOOOO IMPORTANT for learning.

I am not just talking push-ups, pull-ups and running a mile.  Exercise includes anything that gets your body moving, from climbing at the playground to digging a hole to China.

There is tons of research about exercise and its positive (great, incredible, beneficial) impact on learning.

  • In the classroom, not only has exercise been shown to improve grades, it has been shown to reduce behavior and discipline problems.
  • Exercise also increases activity in the frontal lobes, the part of the brain important for organization, planning and judgment.   (And how many of our kids need work in that area? And how many of us?

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The Summer Slide

Ahh, Summer Slide-reducing, avoiding and out-smarting it

The Summer Slide.  It sounds like fun, doesn’t it? A water park ride, maybe a new dance.  But it’s not. It’s something more insidious, lurking and skulking around our plans for a carefree break from school.  It is one more thing for parents to worry about.  Summer Slide refers to the loss of academic skills that happen over the summer break.    I mean really, we (teachers, parents and kids) are ready for that summer break.  A break from homework, from book reports, from math sheets, from standardized tests, from any tests. AND NOW WE HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT THE SUMMER SLIDE?!?

It’s not fair. . . but it’s there.

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Hydration

Water is the driving force of all nature.  Leonardo da Vinci

 

Hydration, not the most exciting of the four foundations for learning. How can hydration compete with exercise?  Exercise really gets the heart pumping.    Nutrition is also a bit more interesting. Frankly, it has more texture.  Now, you would think that hydration could beat sleep for excitement.  But not when you’re a parent.  We find sleep to be thrilling.

Hydration, the step-child of nutrition, is important, even if it is not exciting.  Our bodies are made up mostly of fluid and this accounts for over half of our body weight.  Our brain floats in fluid. We know that even mild dehydration can lead to physical problems ranging from headaches to faintness to a weak rapid pulse.   However, did you realize that a mere 1-2% decrease in optimal hydration can result in drops in cognitive performance.  And while cognitive skills decline, irritability is shown to go up.  And this will happen before you even feel thirsty (in fact, feeling thirsty means you are more than a little dehydrated).

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Sleep

Sleep is the best meditation.  Dalai Lama

Nutrition, sleep, hydration and exercise-I am reviewing the four foundations of learning (and life).

The second in our four foundations is sleep.  Science is still trying to figure out exactly why we need to sleep . . . but, while they are sorting this out, let me assure you that we DO need to sleep.  We really do.  Adults definitely sacrifice sleep for other things (not the least of which is surfing the internet-so thanks for reading).  And we often think that, because our kids are getting more sleep than we do, they are getting enough.  But they may not be.  And lack of sleep is linked to several problems with learning and attention.

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