Sunday, January 06, 2013

Dysgraphia - What is it?

            My son has terrible handwriting. Not just bad printing, but poor cursive, poor numbers, and difficulty with drawing. He is 12, in 7th grade, left handed, and until just this past year, printed like a 2nd grader.  While we assumed it was age and left-handedness that resulted in his poor handwriting, he was finally at an age where some improvement should have occurred. Over the past 5 years, we tried every program out there: Handwriting without Tears (we still had tears), Pentime, PACES. Nothing helped.
And while his cursive is at least legible, it is barely legible, and he hates to write in cursive. He says writing a lot (more than one paragraph) hurts his hand and he would rather print. He prefers mechanical pencils and says the wood ones feel funny, grainy, when they write. Getting him to handwrite a paragraph is like pulling teeth; however, put him on the computer and he could write pages, typing like the wind. What he produces when typing is so well thought out that I can’t put together that this same kid can barely put together a sentence when handwriting. He consistently fails to use caps, periods, commas, and even his spacing strange.
It all came to a head for us early this year in 7th grade. We were doing a science project and he needed to write a title for it at the top of the notebook paper. The title he came up with was: “The Water Project.”  What he wrote on the top of his paper was: “th  ewat   erp  rojec  t.”  I was horrified. It was time for something more. I hit the internet.
One quick search answered nearly all of my questions. I typed into Google, “poor handwriting,” hoping for some ideas that I had not yet tried. The first listing used the phrase “dysgraphia” - what was that?
According to Wikipedia (2009), dysgraphia is “a deficiency in the ability to write, regardless of the ability to read, not due to intellectual impairment. People with dysgraphia usually can write on some level, but often lack co-ordination, and may find other fine motor tasks such as tying shoes difficult” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dysgraphia). Further research helped me better understand what this was and check to see if my son fit the bill. The Learning Disabilities Association (LDA) (2009) has this list on their website under “Signs and Symptoms”:
  • May have illegible printing and cursive writing (despite appropriate time and attention given the task)
  • Shows inconsistencies: mixtures of print and cursive, upper and lower case, or irregular sizes, shapes or slant of letters
  • Has unfinished words or letters, omitted words
  • Inconsistent spacing between words and letters
  • Exhibits strange wrist, body or paper position
  • Has difficulty pre-visualizing letter formation
  • Copying or writing is slow or labored
  • Shows poor spatial planning on paper
  • Has cramped or unusual grip/may complain of sore hand
  • Has great difficulty thinking and writing at the same time (taking notes, creative writing.) (http://www.ldanatl.org/aboutld/parents/ld_basics/dysgraphia.asp).
I was fascinated. My son hit all but one of these signs – even tying shoes! My husband was intrigued; he asked if it could be hereditary, as he hits all of those markers as well. And I will admit my handwriting has always been sub par. Wikipedia does indicate that might be the case, but there are too few studies on dysgraphia to really draw a solid conclusion.
Dysgraphia is often a neurological problem (the brain can’t talk to the fingers) and is sometimes compared to dyslexia. The National Center for Learning Disabilities (2009) calls it a “processing disorder,” so the difficulties may change as one ages (http://www.ncld.org).   Typically, students with dysgraphia are bright, speak well, and are excellent readers and good communicators. The fact that they cannot replicate that in the written sense is almost what makes this problem that much more puzzling. My son can critically analyze a text or poem aloud, but ask him to do it on paper and it is a mess. How can a student who obviously thinks so well not be able to write it down?
I am not one to leap at a label; in fact, we have gone out of our way not to use this label with our son. But an answer? Possible ideas on how to help? It was all right there. I felt as if a huge boulder was lifted from my shoulder. Now we had some tools to help him.
Then came the big question – what is the next step to help his writing? The LDA website also provided some strategies to help the writer:
  • Suggest use of word processor
  • Avoid chastising student for sloppy, careless work
  • Use oral exams
  • Allow use of tape recorder for lectures
  • Allow the use of a note taker
  • Provide notes or outlines to reduce the amount of writing required
  • Reduce copying aspects of work (pre-printed math problems)
  • Allow use of wide rule paper and graph paper
  • Suggest use of pencil grips and /or specially designed writing aids
  • Provide alternatives to written assignments (video-taped reports, audio-taped reports) (http://www.ldanatl.org/aboutld/parents/ld_basics/dysgraphia.asp)
There are some good reasons for these recommendations. For example, the use of the word processor allows the student to complete work at his/her level. We can easily complete a three page book report using Microsoft Word that would never happen (or only happen painfully) if it had to be hand written. Also, the reduction on the reliance of written work results in a reduction in stress overall, especially when it is time to write. 
We still require him to use a penmanship workbook, but we only do it 2 days a week. The other days we use a product called Create-a-Sketch by Insight Technical Education. It is a simplified drafting workbook which allows our son to practice his writing skills, but not with writing. He uses it to practice control, and he much prefers it to his handwriting text.  Again, this helps lessen the stresses he has when approaching handwriting projects.
We have used graph paper for a while with math – this is the first year without it. We buy specific mechanical pencils for his written work. Earlier this year he needed to do a report on “Around the World in 80 Days,” and he used Microsoft PowerPoint to do it. I told him it had to include text, but he could play with the graphics element. We showed it to our Education Specialist, and she was so impressed, she showed it to her literature class.
This is not to say we use “dysgraphia” as an excuse or a label – we used the recommendations to help us solve a problem for my son. He still needs to write paragraphs for his schoolwork – not all of his writing is on the computer; just more of it is. For essays, he must handwrite outlines and one paragraph, but the rest he can compose onto the computer. He still has his handwriting workbook. We’ve told him that while his typing is great, he still needs to know how to handwrite, and as he ages, he is starting to see the truth in that.
So have these recommendations worked? Has handwriting less improved his handwriting more?  Yes, and I am as surprised as everyone else. I think the reason for the improvement is that when he has to do handwriting, he can absolutely focus on it – not on what the sentences have to say or if his paragraph makes sense. He copies the text and all his energy is focused on that alone. Then, when he needs to write an essay or answer history questions, typing allows him to focus on that; cognitively, it allows for a better flow of ideas.
Somehow, separating the two processes allows him to integrate them in his mind on his own schedule, and the result is better handwriting, and better writing with that handwriting. Just today, he wrote half a page on Augustus Caesar, which contains varied sentences, specific detail, and has good sequencing. His letters are no longer oddly spaced, the letters are legible, and he doesn’t complain that his hand hurts. That, I think, rates as a success in my book. 


*Originally published in Secular homeschooling, Sept 2010.

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