Dysgraphia – when a pencil becomes an enemy

broken pencil

Kyle is in first grade and sitting in his Friday morning spelling test; a test he knows he is about to fail.  It’s not that he hasn’t studied the words for this week because he can spell them forward, and if his teacher asked, backward as well.  His pencil sweats in his hand because he’s trying to make it spell out the word ‘circle’ and his hand won’t cooperate.  Of course, he doesn’t know that other children around him aren’t having the same problem—their pencils are scratching along on their papers while his sits paralyzed.  Now he’s just feeling stupid again.  When the test ends, Kyle has only a few letters on the page but no whole words.  This isn’t a spelling problem; it’s dysgraphia.

Dysgraphia means a dysfunction in the ability to write or recognize graphemes, which translates to mean, any written material.   Dysgraphia is a lesser form of the more serious disorder called Agraphia, where the person is totally unable to write, hold a pencil or copy even a simple line.

Although the cause of Dysgraphia is still not know, just by correctly identifying it and then introducing therapeutic measures and accommodations, a child can function very well in the class.   Studies show that there is a slight decrease in this problem around puberty.  One interesting fact is that more than 75% of children with dysgraphia are male. (A percentage that stays fairly constant when studying ADD, speech and language problems and stuttering.)

Many students with or without this disorder struggle with producing neat writing that concisely expresses thought.  So why is there such an emphasis on writing?  There are very good reasons why writing is such an important part of any academic program: It helps with memory, thought and concept organization, and visual processing as well as fine motor coordination.  The act of writing engages a part of the brain that helps absorb and solidify the material being written.  Writing takes the child from being a passive listening to an active learner.   Unfortunately, the child who struggles with dysgraphia may laboriously complete the assignments but not have learned anything about the content of what he wrote.

Some of the signs of Dysgraphia are:

  • Overall illegible writing, even when the child gave it his best effort
  • Inconsistent mixtures of upper and lower case letters, printing and cursive, irregular size and shape of letters and the slant may change within the same line
  • Unfinished words or letters or whole words are left out of a sentence
  • Inconsistent spacing between words and letters
  • Unusual position of the writing on the page.  They may not use the lines or the margins correctly
  • Using a cramped or unusual grip on the pencil, such as, holding it too close to the paper or using odd finger holds that make him write from the wrist
  • Strange paper, body or wrist positioning
  • Talking to himself while writing
  • Watches his hand while he writes, almost like he has no feedback as to what it’s producing unless he can see it
  • Slow or labored copying or writing
  • The content in the finished project is not equal to the higher ability of the child’s language

What should you do if your child has dysgraphia?

            School Accommodations:

  • Allow more time for written tasks which includes note-taking, copying and tests.  Allow a classmate to be a ‘note-taker’ or allow a tape recorder.  Give large projects to the child earlier than the rest of the class to allow time to complete them.
  • Encourage good keyboarding skills to increase speed and legibility.
  • Teach your child to prepare his assignment papers ahead of time with his name and numbering already in place so that he won’t be stuck concentrating on writing his name when the teachers is ahead of him dictating words.
  • Have the teacher provide an outline for your child on which he can take notes or a math paper with the problems already written down.  This reduces the need to take down the full set of information first.
  • Allow oral testing or allow your child to dictate to a ‘scribe’ what he wanted to write.
  • Remove neatness or spelling as a part of your child’s grading criteria.
  • Allow abbreviations or shorthand in you child’s work and have your child develop a list of these that he can keep in his notebook and refer to during writing assignments.
  • Have the teacher provide a ‘model’ of the finished product that your child may keep in a binder.  This allows him to have a working template so he’s not re-inventing each assignment from scratch.
  • Allow the child to use cursive or manuscript skills, whichever one is easier.  (Cursive is often easier to manage because once the motor flow starts, it can trigger the rest of the word.)
  • Allow colored paper or colored ink if it helps your child see the paper easier.   Try using different pencils, pens and pencil grips.
  • Word processing is a solution for many children. Teach the use of ‘spell-check’ as early as possible.

Remember, Dysgraphia, doesn’t put an end to your child’s ability to learn, to achieve great things or to believe in himself.  With the correct identification, treatment and accommodations, your child can also have the ‘write’ stuff!

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