Posted in Other, Writing

Accommodations for Dysgraphia

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. [picture]  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.

Posted in Other, Writing

7 Signs Your Student Has Dysgraphia

Decades later, my husband can still recall being called out by an English teacher for turning in a written assignment that looked like “chicken scratching.”  Even though he’d tried his best, his handwriting—weirdly spaced with shaky lines– looked like it was produced by a very young child.  The teacher accused him of being lazy, but he was actually struggling with dysgraphia.

Dysgraphia is a nervous system disorder that affects fine motor skills used for writing.  It’s often associated with other learning disorders such as ADHD or dyslexia.  While it used to be an official diagnosis, now it appears on IEPs or 504s as “impairment in written expression.” Of course, I’ve also encountered dysgraphic students who had yet to be diagnosed.

So, how do you know if a student has it?  There are some tell-tale signs teachers and parents can look for.  First and foremost, students with dysgraphia are often described as having “messy” handwriting, with 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

Students with dysgraphia may hold their pen or pencil in a tight or claw-like grip.  They may hunch over their paper or turn their hand (or paper) at an odd angle to write.  These students often avoid writing assignments and write much more slowly than their peers. Also, because so much mental energy is dedicated to task of production, it’s hard for students with dysgraphia to compose their thoughts while writing.

An official diagnosis can be made by psychologist or neuropsychologist, or an occupational or physical therapist can test motor skills.  However, if you suspect a student has dysgraphia, there are a number of ways you can help them.  In my next post, I’ll detail ways teachers can differentiate for students with dysgraphia, and how one teacher’s intervention made all the difference for my own significant other.

Posted in Writing

Building a Body of Writing Resources

When our state changed writing standards several years back it became especially challenging to find quality, targeted instructional material.  While creative writing prompts were abundant (Imagine you could have any job for one day…), resources for writing text-based essays were few and far between.  Even materials from our textbook provider seemed to have been hastily thrown together.  The example essays did NOT match the requirements of our state writing assessments.  The source texts were only loosely aligned to the prompt, and to one another.

Frustrated, I began creating my own…literally researching and writing my own text sets and exemplars.  I made video tutorials  and practice activities to reinforce skills like analyzing the prompt and elaboration (always a challenge, that one).  Now, I’m fine-tuning those original lesson presentations with lessons learned over time, and I’m making them available to other teachers in an editable form.  Because we all have our own tips and methods to pass on — especially when it comes to writing.

Each new lesson presentation is available to my followers for FREE immediately following its introduction.  This post is to let you know I just released a PowerPoint on Body Paragraphs, and over the next month I’ll be uploading new presentations for Citing Text Evidence and Writing a Conclusion.  I’m also working on a new essay packet and additional practice activities suitable for use in literacy centers.  All materials will be available through  If you’re not already following me there, you may want to consider it.  Followers receive an email notice every time I upload a new product.

I appreciate your support.  I appreciate what you do for our students and our collective future.  (I don’t think any of us hear that enough!)  I’m honored to be a part of it!

Posted in Writing

Uncommonly Good Commentary

In a workshop designed to deepen teachers’ understanding of our state writing assessment, I was struck by just how much emphasis is placed on student commentary. It makes sense. That’s one place where the author’s voice can be most clearly heard. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the places where my students seem to struggle the most.

When the new standards were first introduced, I invested a lot of energy teaching students how to analyze a text and find relevant evidence to back their ideas. But, ever since that workshop, I spend even more time showing them how to add their own commentary to build on that foundation of evidence. Keep in mind, I teach those who struggle with reading. Essay-writing is twice as formidable to them. So, I have to provide lots of examples and mentor texts to model how authors elaborate on their ideas. And, I have to break down each example to show them what makes it tick.elaborationhandout

Here’s what works for me. I focus on six types of commentary: facts, examples, definitions, reasons, importance, and process. At this point, I don’t try to distinguish between elaboration and explanation… I just lump all six together as elaboration.  This handout defines and gives examples of each of the six. My goal is to expose them to these six elaboration techniques as much as possible, so when their role is to author an essay, the possibilities will come to mind.

elaboration-ticketsOf course, you can present the techniques and challenge students to try their hand at writing each one, but unless your students already have a firm grasp on writing, this may prove difficult. Instead, I have them analyze numerous examples of each technique, so they start to see patterns and can replicate those patterns on their own. To that end I created an elaboration game that requires students to match examples of elaboration with the technique used to write it.

I use small numbered cards, twenty in all, each elaborating on one of five different topics.  I print up several sets  of these cards, each on a different color paper, so several students on the activity at one time without mixing up cards.  (I place each set of cards in an envelope or small baggie to keep them organized.)  Each student also gets an answer sheet.

The answer sheet has five boxed “paragraphs” consisting of a topic sentence and cited evidence only. Each ticket elaborates on one of the paragraphs. Students must first sort the tickets by topic, identifying which tickets match each paragraph.  This step passively teaches them how authors use key words and synonyms to add cohesion to paragraphs.  Next, students  analyze each example of commentary to determine if it uses a fact, example, definition, reason, statement of importance, or describes a process to elaborate on the given topic.  In this step, they learn to look for signal words and text structures associated with each technique.  Students record their answers by noting the card number next to technique it represents under the appropriate paragraph.  When they finish, they can check their work against the answer key.  Or, I’ll review their work, put a check mark on the correct answers, and have them revisit and reanalyze incorrect answers.

Another teacher wanted to use this as a quick review for her students. So, she printed a class set of the table containing the numbered examples and saved the time of cutting apart each ticket. This worked for her since her students can easily handle multi-step processes. My kiddos need to take it a step at a time, sorting by topic first, and then analyzing the author’s technique. Plus, the manipulative aspect keeps them more engaged.

We both agreed, however, that all of the students benefitted from the extra exposure and practice.  elaboration-AS

Posted in Writing

Quickest Way to Score Essays

rubricsIn my book, grading student writing is one of the most daunting tasks faced by any teacher.   Considering the time it takes to read each heartfelt word your students have penned, analyze their technique, comment on strengths and offer advice on how to improve it — at a minimum we area talking about two hours per class per paper.   Expediting that process would give us back some of our lost personal lives, and it would also give students more timely feedback.  Toward that end, I never attend an NCTE conference without hitting at least one session dedicated to this worthy goal.  Over the years, I have discovered and tested many innovative methods, including: post-it scoring (where students choose which trait they want you to assess for each piece), audio feedback (where teachers record comments about highlighted text, usually in digital format), and peer-review (which involves students using checklists to offer constructive criticism to one another).  Each method has its pros and cons, but in the end they did not really shave much time off the task.

Eventually, I always returned to the trusty rubric… where the complicated writing process is broken down into its most basic components and a quick stroke of the pen rates student performance on each of these elements.  After grading (literally) thousands of student essays, I was able to identify common areas of strength and weakness, reflecting that in the progression toward mastery that each column of the rubric defines.  I created one for each targeted skill, and I am happy to share some of mine with you here.

Typically, I use the rubrics to either grade student writing overnight (I usually break up essay-writing paragraph-by-paragraph), meeting with students the next day for a one-to-one (and one minute long) mini-conference about their writing.  If I am pressed for time, I sometimes even score the work during the conference as I meet with each young author.   Each rubric offers a quick assessment of the targeted skill, and makes it easy to identify the area where students most need to improve.  At the same time, the next steps are already spelled out.   Below, I am including links to three writing rubrics I developed and have honed over the years.   I’m including both PDF and MS Word formats, and information about the fonts I used, so you can edit them to meet your own needs.

Writing Rubrics (zip file)

After meeting with students, I often “prescribe” a video tutorial for them to review before they make revisions.  In a previous post, I shared tips on using and creating lesson videos.  You will also find links to several of my free writing tutorials in the menu to your right.   Enjoy, and don’t forget to subscribe to get more ideas and freebies from All-Star ELA.

Posted in Writing

Multi-Task With Tutorials

videosTeachers are masters at wringing every second out of our limited instructional time.  Last year, though, as I graded student writing –and made a list of all the topics I needed to go over with my kiddos–I realized there simply was not enough time to cover it all during class.   While I knew many teachers were flipping the classroom, assigning reading or lessons at home that were then practiced during class, I had never seriously considered it since I was hard pressed to get students to spend even ten minutes finishing work they had begun in class.

I usually hold mini-conferences with my young writers, either individually or with small groups, discussing what they did well and what their next steps should be.    At times I feel like a broken record repeating, “Before diving into your opinion on this topic, you have to grab your reader’s attention and give them a reason to care about it.”  Finally, it occurred to me that I could create a video of these same mini-lessons, and instead of having to deliver each one personally, I could use my conference time to triage student essays and then prescribe the lesson that would benefit each student the most.

The multi-media format appeals to a variety of learning styles, and it lets me use color and graphics to highlight important concepts and I can include lots of model texts.   To create each video, I started with a Powerpoint presentation, then I scripted it and used the Record Slide Show feature to narrate and animate each slide.   The program even let me save it in different formats, so I could upload them to the internet and put links on my class webpage.

Students tell me that they often go back to the videos again and again, or pause and play them while they write.   It was effective, too.   Their writing improved by leaps and bounds. In fact, my struggling readers and writers averaged about the same on the state writing assessment as did the advanced and gifted students at our school.   I can tell you we were all celebrating their achievement!

Best of all, this year, when it was time to tackle text-based essays again, I already had several solid lesson videos I could reuse.   This leaves me free to work on adding to my collection.  I’m currently working on one that focuses on the introductory paragraph in an essay.  I will be making it available for free as well.  If you want to be notified when I post it, please subscribe.

Happy writing.



cause-effect essay