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.