We’ve all had those students… the ones whose written papers bring to mind a Cy Twombly paining. And while messy handwriting might be nothing more than carelessness, it can also be caused by dysgraphia—a disorder that affects the ability to sequence and control fine muscle movement. In my previous post I detailed how to recognize dysgraphia, often referred to as “impairment of written expression.” Here, I focus on how teachers can provide extra support to help students who struggle with it.
For students with dysgraphia, the act of writing can be physically taxing if not outright painful. In the same way warming up before a run can ready your muscles for the workout ahead, having students warm-up their hands before writing is a big help. Encourage students to wiggle and stretch their fingers before writing. Better yet, give them a stress ball or putty for a pre-writing workout.
Pencil grips help dysgraphic students hold their pen or pencil correctly, reducing strain and increasing maneuverability. Unfortunately, older students are often reluctant to use them. So, use the fattest cushioned grips you can find and offer them “to make the pencil more comfortable,” knowing in your heart that the increased diameter tends to force their hand into the desired tripod position.
Specialty lined paper can also aid students with letter placement and alignment. Paper with raised lines is best since it gives tactile as well as visual cues. (It’s also a must-have for students with visual impairment.) If that’s not in your budget, use regular graph paper or print out this specially lined notebook paper I created to help with spacing.
Allow students with dysgraphia to type assignments on the computer. It eliminates some of the barriers to writing (pencil placement, holding the paper in place, alignment, erasure issues) while it strengthens muscles in their hands. Even cursive writing can be easier than print since they don’t have to lift the pencil up and down quite as much.
Students with dysgraphia also benefit from note-taking assistance. Their struggles with the physical act of writing diverts attention from your lesson. Instead, print out notes for them (one reason why I create most formal lessons on PowerPoint) or ask another student to scribe for them using carbon-paper (@30 cents a sheet, but reusable) or carbonless forms (@10-cents a sheet).
While there’s not enough time to provide one-on-one instruction for handwriting in middle school, you can provide students with a folder of handwriting worksheets they can work on whenever they have some free time. Although some experts claim most middle school students’ handwriting is too deeply ingrained to change, I’ve seen several motivated boys become much neater writers simply by giving them the tools to practice it. Of course, if you’re fortunate enough to have an occupational therapist visiting your school, ask for their help.
Remember in my previous post when I talked about my husband’s soul-crushing “chicken scratching” experience? In high school, his drafting teacher gave him nightly lettering practice that he labored over at home. The long hours paid off by retraining his muscle memory for writing. Today, he gets compliments on his neat, easy-to-read handwriting.
Differentiate the product used to assess mastery by allowing dysgraphic students to respond orally, or when that’s not feasible, use graphic organizers. Graphic organizers can help in two ways. First, on lengthy writing assignments, using a graphic organizer or outline helps students focus their thoughts before they must code them in writing. If possible, let them turn in writing “drafts” as graphic organizers. Graphic organizers can also be used to show mastery of reading skills like plot, character traits, or text structure. Use these for literary text and these for informational text.
Reduce the volume of writing required. Allow students with dysgraphia to highlight text evidence instead of rewriting it. Permit students with dysgraphia to use agreed- abbreviations or symbols when writing (w/ for “with” or + for “and”). Share this list of common symbols and abbreviations as a reference tool. Wherever possible, remove handwriting, capitalization, and spelling as a grading criteria for written assignments. Test the latter two with a computer-based quiz or multiple-choice/check-the-box assessment.
If you want to learn more about dysgraphia and what you can do to support students who have it, I highly recommend Reading Rockets as a resource. You’ll find literally hundreds of articles about it—everything from handwriting samples, to assistive technology, to the latest brain research.