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Name: margalit
Location: Massachusetts, United States Professional writer, educational advocate, opinionated ultra liberal mother of 18 year old twins, living life in the slow lane due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, congestive heart failure, and diabetes.

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Sunday, October 15, 2006

When writing isn't simple at all

The Boy is dysgraphic. This is a learning disability that most people, including school staff and administration, do not understand or even acknowledge. That makes having this type of LD even more difficult. Every year when the IEP tune-up meeting comes around, I have all the needed accommodations for the Boy included in his IEP. Every year he ends up with one or more teachers that either don't care, or don't believe in dysgraphia, and won't accommodate him. The accommodations are very simple. But before I explain the accommodations, let me explain dysgraphia.

Dysgraphia is a severe difficulty in producing handwriting that is legible and written at an age-appropriate speed. That's a simplified version of this problem. When a child is dysgraphic, they do not make the connection between writing individual letters as part of a group of words, and drawing. Each letter they write is like a stand-alone character.

Students with dysgraphia often have sequencing problems. Studies indicate that what usually appears to be a perceptual problem (reversing letters/numbers, writing words backwards, writing letters out of order, and very sloppy handwriting) usually seems to be directly related to sequential/rational information processing. These students often have difficulty with the sequence of letters and words as they write. As a result, the student either needs to slow down in order to write accurately, or experiences extreme difficulty with the "mechanics" of writing (spelling, punctuation, etc.). They also tend to intermix letters and numbers in formulas. Usually they have difficulty even when they do their work more slowly. And by slowing down or getting "stuck" with the details of writing they often lose the thoughts that they are trying to write about.

Students with an attention deficit disorder (especially with hyperactivity) often experience rather significant difficulty with writing and formulas in general and handwriting in particular. This is because ADHD students also have difficulty organizing and sequencing detailed information. In addition, ADHD students are often processing information at a very rapid rate and simply don't have the fine-motor coordination needed to "keep up" with their thoughts.

Some students can also experience writing difficulty because of a general auditory or language processing weakness. Because of their difficulty learning and understanding language in general, they obviously have difficulty with language expression. Recall that written language is the most difficult form of language expression.

Although most students with dysgraphia do not have visual or perceptual processing problems, some students with a visual processing weakness will experience difficulty with writing speed and clarity simply because they aren't able to fully process the visual information as they are placing it on the page.

Symptoms of dysgraphia include:

  • Students may exhibit strong verbal but particularly poor writing skills.
  • Random (or non-existent) punctuation.
  • Spelling errors (sometimes same word spelled differently); reversals; phonic approximations; syllable omissions; errors in common suffixes.
  • Clumsiness and disordering of syntax; an impression of illiteracy.
  • Misinterpretation of questions and questionnaire items.
  • Disordered numbering and written number reversals.
  • Generally illegible writing (despite appropriate time and attention given the task).
  • Inconsistencies : mixtures of print and cursive, upper and lower case, or irregular sizes, shapes, or slant of letters.
  • Unfinished words or letters, omitted words.
  • Inconsistent position on page with respect to lines and margins and inconsistent spaces between words and letters.
  • Cramped or unusual grip, especially holding the writing instrument very close to the paper, or holding thumb over two fingers and writing from the wrist.
  • Talking to self while writing, or carefully watching the hand that is writing.
  • Slow or labored copying or writing - even if it is neat and legible.
The Boy has most of these symptoms. His handwriting looks like a first or second grader. He has never learned cursive. He prints everything, but his letters are huge, misformed, and generally difficult to decipher. Writing is physically painful for him. So he must have some accommodations in order to perform his work at grade level. Luckily, he has no spelling problems at all, his vocabulary is huge, and he's got punctuation down pat, thanks to a year of homeschooling where grammar was emphasized, and then a second year of grammar within the public school he attended.

Accommodations for dysgraphic kids include:
1. Encourage students to outline their thoughts. It is important to get the main ideas down on paper without having to struggle with the details of spelling, punctuation, etc.

2. Have students draw a picture of a thought for each paragraph.

3. Have students dictate their ideas into a tape recorder and then listen and write them down later.

4. Have them practice keyboarding skills. It may be difficult at first, but after they have learned the pattern of the keys, typing will be faster and clearer than handwriting.

5. Have a computer available for them to organize information and check spelling. Even if their keyboarding skills aren't great, a computer can help with the details.

6. Have them continue practicing handwriting. There will be times throughout a student's life that they will need to be able to write things down and maybe even share their handwriting with others. It will continue to improve as long as the student keeps working at it.

7. Encourage student to talk aloud as they write. This may provide valuable auditory feedback.

8. Allow more time for written tasks including note-taking, copying, and tests.

9. Outline the particular demands of the course assignments/continuous assessment; exams, computer literacy etc. so that likely problems can be foreseen.

10. Give and allow students to begin projects or assignments early.

11. Include time in the student's schedule for being a 'library assistant' or 'office assistant' that could also be used for catching up or getting ahead on written work, or doing alternative activities related to the material being learned.

12. Instead of having the student write a complete set of notes, provide a partially completed outline so the student can fill in the details under major headings (or provide the details and have the student provide the headings).

13. Allow the student to dictate some assignments or tests (or parts thereof) a 'scribe'. Train the 'scribe' to write what the student says verbatim and then allow the student to make changes, without assistance from the scribe.

14. Remove 'neatness' or 'spelling' (or both) as grading criteria for some assignments, or design assignments to be evaluated on specific parts of the writing process.

15. With the students, allow abbreviations in some writing (such as b/c for because). Have the student develop a repertoire of abbreviations in a notebook. These will come in handy in future note-taking situations.

16. Reduce copying aspects of work; for example, in Math, provide a worksheet with the problems already on it instead of having the student copy the problems.

17. Separate the writing into stages and then teach students to do the same. Teach the stages of the writing process (brainstorming, drafting, editing, and proofreading, etc.). Consider grading these stages even on some 'one-sitting' written exercises, so that points are awarded on a short essay for brainstorming and a rough draft, as well as the final product.

18. On a computer, the student can produce a rough draft, copy it, and then revise the copy, so that both the rough draft and final product can be evaluated without extra typing.

19. Encourage the student to use a spellchecker and, if possible, have someone else proofread his work, too. Speaking spellcheckers are recommended, especially if the student may not be able to recognize the correct word (headphones are usually included).

20. Allow the student to use cursive or manuscript, whichever is most legible

21. Encourage primary students to use paper with the raised lines to keep writing on the line.

22. Allow older students to use the line width of their choice. Keep in mind that some students use small writing to disguise its messiness or spelling.

23. Allow students to use paper or writing instruments of different colors.

24. Allow student to use graph paper for math, or to turn lined paper sideways, to help with lining up columns of numbers.

25. Allow the student to use the writing instrument that is most comfortable for them.

26. If copying is laborious, allow the student to make some editing marks rather than recopying the whole thing.

27. Consider whether use of speech recognition software will be helpful. If the student and teacher are willing to invest time and effort in 'training' the software to the student's voice and learning to use it, the student can be freed from the motor processes of writing or keyboarding.

28. Develop cooperative writing projects where different students can take on roles such as the 'brainstormer,' 'organizer of information,' 'writer,' 'proofreader,' and 'illustrator.'

29. Provide extra structure and use intermittent deadlines for long-term assignments. Discuss with the student and parents the possibility of enforcing the due dates by working after school with the teacher in the event a deadline arrives and the work is not up-to-date.

30. Build handwriting instruction into the student's schedule. The details and degree of independence will depend on the student's age and attitude, but many students would like to have better handwriting.

31. Keep in mind that handwriting habits are entrenched early. Before engaging in a battle over a student's grip or whether they should be writing in cursive or print, consider whether enforcing a change in habits will eventually make the writing task a lot easier for the student, or whether this is a chance for the student to make his or her own choices. Beware of overload, the student has other tasks and courses.

32. Teach alternative handwriting methods such as "Handwriting Without Tears."

33. Writing just one key word or phrase for each paragraph, and then going back later to fill in the details may be effective.

34. Multisensory techniques should be utilized for teaching both manuscript and cursive writing. The techniques need to be practiced substantially so that the letters are fairly automatic before the student is asked to use these skills to communicate ideas.

35. Have the students use visual graphic organizers. For example, you can create a mind map so that the main idea is placed in a circle in the center of the page and supporting facts are written on lines coming out of the main circle, similar to the arms of a spider or spokes on a wheel.

36. Do papers and assignments in a logical step-wise sequence. An easy way to remember these steps is to think of the word POWER.

P - plan your paper

O - organize your thoughts and ideas

W - write your draft

E - edit your work

R - revise your work, producing a final draft

37. If a student becomes fatigued have them try the following:

* Shake hands fast, but not violently.

* Rub hands together and focus on the feeling of warmth.

* Rub hands on the carpet in circles (or, if wearing clothing with some mild texture, rub hands on thighs, close to knees)

* Use the thumb of the dominant hand to click the top of a ballpoint pen while holding it in that hand. Repeat using the index finger.

* Perform sitting pushups by placing each palm on the chair with fingers facing forward. Students push down on their hands, lifting their body slightly off the chair.

38. Allow student to tape record important assignments and/or take oral tests.

39. Prioritize certain task components during a complex activity. For example, students can focus on using descriptive words in one assignment, and in another, focus on using compound sentences.

40. Reinforce the positive aspects of student's efforts.

41. Be patient and encourage student to be patient with himself.

The Boy's accommodations include keyboarding for notetaking and writing papers, task prioritization, organizational help, extra time for writing projects and test taking, and extra help with standardized tests. He is also allowed to chew gum (which helps ADHD kids with concentration, believe it or not!) and to use a stress ball during class. There are other accommodations for other issues, but those are specifically for dysgraphic issues.

This weekend he came home with a writing assignment. As soon as I heard the dreaded words "I need to write three paragraphs on the Book of Job for English" (they're reading the Bible first term), my eyes teared up. I just knew what was coming. I talked him into doing both his math and Latin homework Friday afternoon so he could focus on the paper he had to write.

We discussed his topic sentence and the 3 quotes from Job he would use to support his thesis. The rest was up to him. He sat down to type the 3 paragraphs this evening at 8 pm. Normally this would be more than enough time for a neurotypical (NT) kid to write this paper backwards, forwards and inside out. The first paragraph took two hours. He ended up in tears, then threw a fit when his sister cracked a rather nasty comment, tossing the Bible across the room (I KNOW!!!) and throwing something at me. He stomped upstairs to cool off, and came down a bit later, ready to start in again. First he had to eat a piece of fudge, and then he sat down at the computer and began the second paragraph.

I reminded him about the quote he had next chosen, and how it would support his thesis. Pretty broad hints in fact. This one paragraph took more than an hour. He finally finished up the third paragraph at midnight. All in all, about 4 hours to write three paragraphs.

That's the face of dysgraphia, folks. It is horribly painful to watch him struggle so much in order to get a few words down on the screen. It's not typing, he's a good typist. It's not that he doesn't have ideas, he has tons of great ideas. It's not that he can't make connections or understand the material. His teacher said he has brilliant and insightful comments. It's that when he has to write a structured paper he just can't do it. It's too hard for him to organize his thoughts and then he panics.

Which makes me want to stab myself in the eyeballs because I can't do anything right. If I help him, he gets mad when I try to put my words into his paper. If I don't help him he's mad because I'm lazy. I can't win this one. I really can't.

I'm so sad tonight. Watching him crumble is horribly difficult for me. Never mind for him. Imagine what it must be like to be so intellectually gifted but unable to write down your thoughts. How devastating would that be?




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3 Comments:

Blogger gordaboo said...

Oh wow...I've never heard of that. My heart goes out to you and the boy!

16/10/06 2:29 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

Hi, I found this post from the Blogher Ad network, and I am so glad I did! My second grade son was diagnosed with dysgraphia at the end of last school year, but his IEP team says dysgraphia is a MATH learning disability. They never said anything about it affecting reading or writing! How is it possible that they diagnosed my son with something without exploring all the ramifications?

He also had his IQ tested and came out as high IQ, so he KNOWS he's not doing math as well as his classmates. His teacher tells me he is "distractable", but he doesn't have other ADD or ADHD symptoms. I don't know if just having him go to the resource room for special math classes is enough or not. I'm going to print out this post for my husband to read and take it with me to parent-teacher conferences next month. I want to know if the school is really doing everything they can for him.

17/10/06 9:24 AM  
Blogger KateGladstone said...

Dear Margalit — I found your blog while searching the GLOBE for handwriting articles after I appeared on Sunday, May 7 in the GLOBE's front-page article on handwriting improvement.

Do you think it might encourage your son (and yourself) to meet with a handwriting specialist who in fact *has* dysgraphia? (I became a handwriting specialist in order to help others, including some kids/teens/adults known to me who have failed with the standard "alternative" handwriting programs such as one that you mention in your own blog-entry.)

I live in upstate New York and visit Massachusetts at times for handwriting work — in fact, this June or July I'll work with a group of MDs at a hospital in the Lowell area. If you or your son (or anyone involved in your son's education) would like to speak to (possibly) the only handwriting specialist who literally knows dysgraphia "from the inside out," please contact me via my web-site — http://www.learn.to/handwrite

Kate Gladstone -
The Handwriting Repairwoman
http://www.learn.to/handwrite

16/5/07 10:18 AM  

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