Language Arts Canadian Lead Primary School

Dysgraphia

If you cast your mind back to the Simple View of Writing, you will remember that there are two critical components to fluent writing:

  1. Transcription (the mechanics and conventions of writing)
  2. Ideation (text generation)

We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes, forming letters on a page is a severe weakness for some children. In extreme cases, letter formation and organizing/expressing written information is caused by neurological impairment. This impairment is known as written expression disorder or dysgraphia.

In simple terms, dysgraphia is difficulty with both processes in the Simple View of Writing: transcription and ideation.

A quick checklist if dysgraphia is suspected:

On a scale of never-rarely-sometimes-frequently-always, how often does the child:

  • Have messy handwriting? 
  • Reverse numbers? (e.g. 67 for 76)
  • Write letters backwards? 
  • Have difficulty writing numbers legibly and distinctively from letters? 
  • Mix up lowercase and uppercase letters? 
  • Have trouble correctly spacing letters in words and/or between words? 
  • Have difficulty writing on a line and within margins? 
  • Have trouble ending sentences with punctuation? 
  • Have difficulty keeping columns straight when setting up a maths problem? 
  • Have difficulty writing text from left to right? 
  • Resist writing tasks? 
  • Have difficulty getting thoughts down on paper? 
  • Have difficulty copying text? 
  • Have trouble completing writing tasks independently? 
  • Make spelling errors in homework assignments? 

If the answer to these questions is in the majority frequently/always category, it is a good idea to contact a psychological professional who can diagnose dysgraphia.

Then what happens?

In confirmed dysgraphia cases, it is important to implement reasonable accommodations as soon as possible. Some reasonable accommodations are:

  • Allowing more time for written work (this does not mean keeping them in during scheduled breaks).
  • Allowing students to begin projects and assigments early.
  • Allow and encourage the development of keyboarding skills.
  • Provide excellent writing templates.
  • Look into providing a scribe for high-stakes assessments wherever possible.
  • Allow dictation software wherever possible.
  • Check your marking rubric for neatness or spelling criteria.

A note on assistive technology

When a child is fitted with a hearing aid, a pair of glasses etc., they are carefully shown, after much consultation and fitting, how to use and care for those devices. They are coached, scaffolded, given practice and allowed to build up to prolonged use. They are helped and supported to persevere, even if they are uncomfortable at first, even if they have to get used to a new world with those devices.

Assistive technology requires as much coaching, checking and encouragement as a hearing aid or a pair of glasses. You can’t just throw a C-Pen at a child and get them to “try it out”.

Just about every school has a tech whiz, you know, the person you call on to figure out what’s going wrong with this or that cable, or why won’t this load etc. Perhaps make them the assistive tech officer, the one with whom the kids get some scheduled sessions on accessing the amazing technology we have to help level the playing field for everyone. It could be life changing.

The Language Arts approach acknowledges the need for assistive technology for transcription, so that struggling dyslexic and dysgraphic students get to express themselves in writing on a level playing field.

A note on pen licences

Arbitrary ‘pen licence’ systems that discriminate against children with poor letter formation, regardless of cause, are frowned upon by this author and those of us in the field who work with struggling children.

It is a school’s responsibility to establish good handwriting techniques from the very start, and it is also their responsibility to monitor and provide understanding and appropriate support for children who struggle with this. Pen licences occupy the same reprehensible territory as discouraging left-handedness, corporal punishment and reprimanding people who stutter.

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