Students with dysgraphia generally have messy handwriting which may have one or more of the following characteristics:
- Irregular spacing
- Unevenly sized letters
- Writing above or below the lines
- Erratic pencil pressure
- Poor spelling, omits letters or words
- Capitalization errors, including mid-sentence caps
- Frequent scratch-outs and erasures
Dysgraphia is a neurological challenge which affects the ability to write, often referred to as “an impairment of written expression.” Some students with dysgraphia have low muscle tone in their hands, arms, or core which makes handwriting physically taxing. Some students with dysgraphia expend so much mental energy in the formation of letters that they struggle to express their thoughts while writing. Some students with dysgraphia have working memory challenges or other brain differences that make associating letters (graphemes) with their corresponding sounds (phonemes) especially difficult.
With early diagnosis and intervention, students with dysgraphia can make significant improvements in their letter formation and written expression. Researchers have demonstrated that the areas of the brain that are active when writing are also active when reading, and students with dysgraphia usually also have impaired reading abilities (dyslexia). An official diagnosis can be made by a neuropsychologist, or a physical therapist can test for motor skills deficiencies. Teachers, tutors, or occupational therapists can implement structured interventions to help students overcome the challenges of dysgraphia.
If you are a parent or teacher of a student with dysgraphia, the following things may help:
- Wiggling fingers, hand and arm stretching, or using a stress ball before and during handwriting activities
- Provide an assortment of pencil grips, especially fat and cushy ones
- Provide paper with raised lines such as that provided in the Handwriting Without Tears program
- Provide or request accommodations such as reduced writing requirements, the use of graphic organizers, and oral answers or drawn responses to demonstrate knowledge
- Utilize the services of a tutor or occupational therapist to provide 1:1 handwriting instruction using a researched based program such as HWOT or EBLI
What do I use in my teaching?
EBLI (Evidence Based Reading Instruction) provides a research-based handwriting remediation program which has been shown to improve student’s letter formation in as little as 2 weeks with 1:1 teacher support. Students compete against themselves to improve their time in writing the alphabet in order to increase automaticity in letter formation. Teachers use the remaining lesson time for formative assessment and 1:1 instruction in letter formation. The EBLI handwriting program can also be used as a whole class warm up, taking about 5 minutes each class period.
Another evidence-based handwriting instruction program that I have used, Handwriting Without Tears (HWOT), is often provided by Occupational Therapists to students with diagnosed dysgraphia, but it can also be used as a Tier 1 handwriting instruction program. The HWOT program assumes no handwriting knowledge and provides explicit instruction in formation of letters in groups by letter shape and placement on the lined paper. This is a program with a complete scope and sequence and can take up to a full academic year to complete. Handwriting Without Tears is sometimes referred to as the Wet…Dry…Try method.
After a student has mastered letter formation, another tool I use is the handwriting exercises from The Writing Revolution by Judith C. Hochman and Natalie Wexler. The Writing Revolution is a guide to using student writing to inform instruction in grammar and syntax, and this method of instruction makes writing “real” for students. Avoiding sentence diagramming or overuse of writing terminology, The Writing Revolution begins with instruction on how to write clear sentences that are engaging and informative. I am beginning to incorporate instruction from The Writing Revolution into my tutoring practice by having students complete sentence starters or frames using the model because, but, or so to assess their reading comprehension.
For students who have mastered sentence writing, The Writing Revolution instruction moves on to planning, writing, and revising paragraphs, and eventually into constructing essays and research papers. Students gain further understanding of content by expressing their thoughts in writing, and teachers may use student writing to assess their content mastery.
Please do not neglect handwriting instruction!
While it is tempting to accommodate handwriting challenges using alternative technology such as keyboarding or speech to text, the evidence is clear that striving readers benefit from the brain connections made while learning handwriting. Support handwriting development, and you will also support reading development. For a deep dive into this connection, see Brain research shows why handwriting should be taught in the computer age – James, Berninger.pdf (ldaustralia.org)
Thanks for taking time to further your understanding of dysgraphia. Please don’t hesitate to reach out if I can help!