Monday, October 11, 2010

Ways Around Exceptions: Handwriting and Dysgraphia

I received so many (insightful) comments to my last blog I decided to expand it and talk about handwriting exceptions and dysgraphia.  First, some background:

Dysgraphia is a learning disability that affects written expression and makes the act of writing difficult.  Dysgraphics have signtificant difficlty writing or forming letters, keeping track of letter sequences, writing inconsistently sized letters, not using the space on the line or page appropriately, and/or exhibiting significant difficulty with spelling. Note that handwriting involves graphomotor processing so fine motor skills (sewing, drawing - using the fine hand muscles) and gross motor skills (skipping, walking, throwing - using large muscle groups) are not usually affected.

Last week I responded to a WSJ article which noted that writing by hand activates certain brain centers that promote learning.  My response was that handwriting trains the brain because it provides additional motor-memory pathways and associations.  My blog entry also discussed suggestions for boosting writing skills.

Follower comments: Susan, wrote that
"I found writing by hand arduous, so I took cryptic notes...Recopying by hand didn't work for me as I spent more brain cells on creating the perfect document than on absorbing the materials...My son...described...'I can't think and write at the same time'... While I'm not disputing your evidence or even your pro-handwriting argument, I do believe there are exceptions..."
Insights and Alternatives for Dysgraphics:  
  • Make visual representaitons - I assume that Susan's first comment about recopying was directed toward my suggestion that  making study notes can help create memory and recall paths.  While this is true for most students, Susan is correct -IF your child directs most of his or her attention to spelling and forming letters, this method of study will not be effective.   What may work better is making visual graphs/charts/diagrams/time lines when applicable.  The point is that by creating different ways of visualizing and or summarizing the material you provide additional paths for memory and recall.  What may also work is not caring about the neatness or spelling (at least when writing for him or herself) and making study notes for personal review. [I realize not all dysgraphics can or want to do this - it is merely a suggestion.]
  • Attention:  Susan's son's quote, "I can't think and write at the same time" clearly illustrates the demands on attention that writing places.  For many, especially dysgraphics, so much attention must be placed on recalling sequences, shapes, size, available work space, sounds, and patterns, that little is left for cognition and learning.  
  • FIRST get thoughts down.  When, as with Susan's son, attention is so drained, I recommend that first your child get his or her thoughts down and organized.  This can be in what my husband calls, "chicken scratch" or on a computer.  It can be written in outline, in graphic representation, or on post-it notes (that can be shuffled and organized when expressing sequences of thoughts or events).  Don't worry about spelling, grammar or punctuation - just get the ideas down.  Focus on spelling, grammar, etc. can occur during the editing phase (which we all must do regardless of strengths and weaknesses).
  • Keyboarding.  One obvious alternative for dysgraphics is to keyboard information. Note, however, that some dysgraphics (my son and twilightme's grandchild are two) still prefer taking notes by hand (which only they can decipher) over keyboarding.  For school papers, however, my son keyboards.  [Note that because handwriting was so arduous for my son, he learned to express himself succinctly and accurately - the less he had to write the better.]
  • Pen/pencil grips - When handwriting sometimes the pencil grip is an issue.  In this case try using different types of pen/pencil grips.  My son had more of a sensory-integration issue (he was too sensitive to the paper and grip and pencil) and the grip did not help.   As with most interventions, some help some but not others, my advice is to try and if necessary move on if not effective.
  • Graph paper - For those who have trouble with letter size, experts suggest practicing print hand writing on large-boxed graph paper, using one square per letter.  IF you want to pursue this, I recommend this practice be done at home in private, without worrying about teachers or peers looking on.
  • Provide work space - In sixth grade my son had a lovely seasoned, dedicated, sensitive math teacher.  My son, who is actually quite good in math was failing because this teacher put 30 problems on one page with _______ spaces for the answer and no room to work out the problem.  The teacher expected his students to turn the page over and show work there.  My son's problem was that his 3's became 8's and 4's became 9's, etc.  At that point his teacher was testing my son's copying ability (which he obviously failed).  After convincing the teacher to keep the same problems while providing work space directly on the page (and not have students turn it over or recopy to work) my son earned A's not F's.  The point:  make sure your child has enough space to work in.  If not, talk to his or her teacher about it.
  • Sequencing - IF your child has difficulty with letter sequence, please go through earlier blog entries as many recommend fun activities are provided to help boost sequencing skills (and note that more entries will follow).
  • Twilightme, in her comments made another suggestion:
    I'd like to mention a product to add to your list. I co-write a blog for an inventor who developed a dry erase paddle that is ideal for many of the things you suggest in this post. Here is the link to KleenSlate Concepts  Check out the products and the blog. The paddle and the erasers definitely promote active writing and active learning.
These are just a few suggestions.  As Susan appropriately notes there are always exceptions and that is really what my blogs are about:  understanding school's demands, understanding your child's strengths and weaknesses and tweaking solutions that fit in an effort to enhance strengths and boost weaknesses.  I hope you continue to follow and comment as we continue this journey.


  1. I am certified in Alphabetic Phonics, an Orton Gillingham type of program. It uses only cursive. I'm wondering if you agree or disagree that joining letters is much easier for dysgraphics.
    And thanks for visiting my blog.

  2. Hi, Meryl. I'm going to respond first to thelmaz's comment: while cursive can help some children because it is more fluid, my son struggled (still does at 18) even more with cursive than with printing. He could not track his pen or pencil on the page, couldn't control the size of his letters and couldn't stay on the line. To this day, he can barely sign his name, the only cursive we insisted he practice.

    Graph paper worked very well for my son, in writing and in math. He felt the squares constrained each individual letter and space. He was finally able to read his own writing. In math, he could align the numbers properly to complete the problem. To his credit, he has never been embarrassed to use a tool in public. When someone teases him or asks him about it, he matter-of-factly says: "Writing is really hard for me. The squares help me stay in control and lets other people read my work." Composition books are available in graph paper.

    Keyboarding was also important. Writing by hand was so difficult, that my son would truncate his thoughts. It wasn't a matter of learning to be concise, it was that his thoughts were literally limited by his dysgraphia, he was often so frustrated that he would abbreviate words or write only the first letter. Obviously, this was stifling his ability to express what he knew. One teacher was amazed when he asked my son to write the first paragraph of a paper and then type the second paragraph. That teacher said it seemed as if the work had been done by two different students. From that point on, he typed everything.

    "Not caring about neatness" was not an option for my son. His messiness distracted him as it did not represent what he was conceptualizing, so he would just give up, doing only the bare minimum. Giving him tools that allowed him to represent his thoughts cleanly, clearly and accurately allowed him to produce more and better work.

    Two other thoughts. One great way to work on sequencing is to have a child watch his or her favorite TV show, the shorter the better. Then have him or her tell you the beginning, middle and end of the story.

    Finally, I created a customizable assignment notebook for my son. It was one page a day, with squares (like graph paper squares) for the name of the book, page numbers, due dates, etc. This addressed his need for space, as you mention in your post. With a short term memory deficit, he needed to write down much more information than the typical student. For example, a typical student might write "intro to bio, pictures." My son would have no idea what that meant when he got home. He would have to write: "Write 2 paragraph introduction to my autobiography with birthdate and family information. Bring in five pictures of me at different ages." He needed plenty of room to write all that and the graph squares to be able to read it, so the standard issue assignment notebook never worked for him. Anyone interested in learning more about my system can email me at 2kopeople at gmail dot com. Please put "Assignment Notebook" in the subject line.

    Sorry for the run-on comment. I think these issues are fascinating.

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  5. Susan, thank you so much for your feedback and suggestions. My son also had a lot of trouble with cursive! Some people do find it easier though because at they don't have to lift the pencil (and lose their place so to speak). Dysgraphia has so many different manifestations that (even from those who commented) one strategy does not work for everyone. I love your idea, however, for organizing the notebook and I hope others email you for further information.

    Thanks again for your comments, I hope you come back and comment again!

  6. This is also indicative of ADHD. My son is severely ADHD and has horrible handwriting and cannot seem to space his words properly. From what I see in him, his brain is moving too fast for his hands and he can't keep up. It's definitely a struggle, but my son is worth it and his love for learning is high.

  7. My son also has attention issues. For me the key was trying to slow him down AND to edit. He didn't like either but they seemed to help him a bit. The other trick was to have him read aloud what he wrote. He would frequently catch omitted words and misspellings that way!

  8. I enjoyed your entries on Toxic Words - such great thoughts and a wonderful reminder to watch the words I use - to be positive and kind and use words to build up rather than tear down. :)

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