I was certain for a number of years that my eldest son had dysgraphia. His handwriting was abominable. He would bring me things he had written and ask me to interpret them!
We laughingly teased him, saying he should grow to be either a doctor or a pharmacist, because they were the only professions where someone might possibly be able to read his writing.
Every attempt to get him to write, whether it was to show his work for his mathematics or draft a composition, usually resulted in a battle royal.
What IS This Thing Called Dysgraphia?
The symptoms of dysgraphia include:
- Illegible handwriting
- Mixing uppercase and lowercase letters,
- Mixing printed and cursive letters
- Failure to adhere to line and margin (their writing drifts to the right as they progress down the page)
- Odd body, wrist and paper positions
- A frequent need to speak the words aloud as they write
- A strong reliance on watching oneself write – using vision to actually form the letters.
If this were a checklist, I could probably say that my son had all of these symptoms at one time or another. However, true dysgraphia is very rare. According to Dr. Karen Holinga, who spoke in depth on the subject at FPEA’s Special Needs Struggling Learner Homeschool Conference, true dysgraphia must be diagnosed by a professional. It cannot be judged by a handwriting sample, and the diagnostics are intensive.
How is a parent supposed to handle a child who hates to write? How do we walk with them through this struggle? We can misunderstand legitimate handwriting challenges and think they show laziness or carelessness. We can unknowingly create more of an issue by making handwriting a daily struggle.
Writing Difficulty Suggestions
Dr. Holinga has provided some very practical advice for working with children with writing difficulties. Her suggestions include:
1. Give them permission to speak their composition assignments into a recording device. This takes the pressure off of having to remember the idea while attempting to put that idea on paper. They will then be able to separate the effort of composition from the act of writing.
2. Allow them to keyboard their thoughts, with the intention that the final product will be produced by hand. The keyboard draft is exactly that, with no emphasis on capitalization or punctuation. You are solely seeking to capture their thoughts.
3. You be the scribe; allow them to dictate to you. This was my favorite way to complete writing assignments, particularly with my “reluctant Pen Men” (yes, all three of my boys balked at using pencil and paper). They would talk, more or less in a stream of consciousness, and I would type – double-spaced and without punctuation (if I could restrain myself). The difficult part in this enterprise is not to engage in editing while they are thinking. Let them talk through their ideas. Their final draft should be their own, in their own handwriting.
Dr. Holinga stressed the neurological benefits of learning to write by hand. Handwriting orders the brain and thinking processes, and helps to alleviate the ever-present distractedness that has become part of our world. It helps our children focus their thoughts. It is, however, a discipline that has to be practiced to be attained. In fact, in the process of creating muscle memory for the written word, a child may need to engage in hours of practice. As a parent, don’t do your children an injustice by giving in too soon. Winning the war may just be over the next hill. Above all, Dr. Holinga reminded us to encourage the effort. Celebrate any forward progress, even if it is only a sentence or two, written in their own hand.
Dr. Holinga said that this is one of the reasons that Spelling You See can be such a powerful tool for us as parents. As we use this program to teach spelling, we help our children with that muscle memory task. The muscle memory that is created by working with the same passage on a weekly basis removes the stress of composing thoughts. Learning becomes permanent when the information is presented at timed intervals. Although Spelling You See is a fantastic program, it also provides the ancillary benefit of helping our children through the stress of learning writing proficiency. Students using the Spelling You See program write entirely by hand in order to tap more areas of the brain. The more areas we can engage, the greater the learning experience.
What is the rest of my story with my eldest son? I am delighted to tell you that, at about the age of 18, he decided that his struggle with handwriting was indeed all in his head, and his handwriting started showing improvement. Now at age 25, he has beautiful handwriting and even a degree in graphic design and typology (the study of fonts). He creates complicated calligraphy as a hobby! If you had told me back when we were working on this daily that this would be the outcome, I would have said you were wrong. In humble gratitude I realize the Lord was far more faithful to raising him up than I believed when I was in the middle of the struggle.