Dysgraphia strikes again

I still receive regular traffic to my January post about poor handwriting–probably because people are googling “dysgraphia,” seeking information on this particular learning difference/motor skills problem.  

That brief post didn’t offer any real insight into the issue—nor, sorry to say, does this one.  I’ve never read any serious literature on the topic or consulted any specialists.  I’m simply fascinated that some kids—often smart, creative, even coordinated and athletic ones—can’t control their hands and fingers well enough to write legibly.  Bad handwriting just seems so easy to fix.  Slow down, I tell my current dyslexic student, Big W.  Write on the line.  Space your letters and words appropriately.  Unfortunately, with legit dysgraphia, that sort of advice doesn’t help….

So, anyway, last week my AP Lang students wrote another timed AP practice essay.  Before the exam, I told Big W to try to write as clearly as possible.  Here’s a page from his essay—apparently, this is the very neatest he can write:

I did eventually work through the circled words and the prose next to the “can’t read” complaint—but my deciphering took me extra time, because, yet again, I had to squint, backtrack, and deduce.  (That said, the essay was a darn good one, I must admit.  Enjoyed his rhetorical risks:  “Fate does not skip a beat”; “The feud ends and Fate takes a bow.”  But, my God—what a pain in the ass eyes to read!)

Just a bit more on Big W.  Although he’s earning a good grade in English, he’s shockingly disorganized.  His binder is a cluttered mess and his submitted assignments are often crumpled or smudged or mis-stapled….  There may be some correlation between his poor handwriting and his disorganization–that is, I’ve noticed that many students with very bad handwriting also have problems with organization.  Messy binders used to drive me mad when I was a newer teacher.  Over the past few years, however, I’ve come to accept (and even embrace) the fact that some of these kids are incapable of keeping their stuff in order, a difficult change of attitude for this anal retentive person!   

The student displays his math binder for your enjoyment.

Here's his English binder--papers everywhere. No discernible method to his madness....

I’m certain other teachers deal with students like Big W every year.  Any observations?  Anecdotes?  Advice?

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18 responses to “Dysgraphia strikes again

  1. I have a student, BC, whose handwriting looks exactly like Big W! He is a computer genius and just won a state award in programming in only the 9th grade. He is a great student and very organized though, so I guess he is a bit different. I guess as teachers it is important to remember that everyone has different learning styles as well as strengths and weaknesses. For my 9th graders, I have them get dividers and then I literally tell them where to put each handout and piece of paper. It’s time consuming, but for some of them, it is the only way they get it.

    • Always, always, always good to hear from you, TG.

      I too used to require my freshmen to keep neat binders. My periodic “binder checks” struck fear in those few students who just couldn’t keep their crap organized. I ultimately gave the practice up—as you mentioned, it’s bloody time consuming. But I do think it’s a useful thing to teach.

  2. Your student should be asking for accommodation on the AP exam. My son has been granted them for the ACT – writing based on documentation. He will get both extra time and a keyboard. When writing something he knows, (Mary had a little lamb….) my son produces about 8-10 words per minute and they aren’t legible.

  3. Here is the link for College Board. I know of students who have recieved accommodation for the SAT so I know they have been granted. We recieved some accommodations on the PSAT and it indicated the accommodations would also apply to AP tests as well. Usually takes an appeal to get everything you need. I’ve had two twice exceptional children so I’ve been done this path a couple times. I’d be more than happy to help any parent in the process. We’ve choosen not to take the SAT.



    • Really appreciate your help. I just spent 20+ minutes reading the fine print on that bloody College Board website–hate that site–not user friendly. Anyway, as far as I could tell from the SSD page, exact requirements for computer accommodations are left somewhat ambiguous. I will talk with my school’s Learning Difference specialist next week to sort through this–may require a phone call to the College Board. Thanks again. Will post an update.

  4. Definitely worth a phone call. Does it help when he prints? I know things slow down some, but in Spanish when an ending makes all the difference, I’ve asked some of my students like Big W to print the ending. Some can’t. Somc are more legible with certain writing instruments (pen/pencil/mechanical pencil) or pen grips like you used in 2nd grade. Some I ask to skip lines or make sure they use wide-ruled paper instead of college ruled. It’s never fun for them or me. I KNOW the knowledge is in there. Typing or speaking they’re fine.

    • Phone call to College Board has not been made. The student doesn’t want to type his AP Eng essays–doesn’t want any “special accommodation.” He claims that last year, on the AP US History Exam, he earned a top grade–so apparently those readers could decipher his handwriting….

      Anyway, appreciated all your ideas: different pen, wide-ruled paper, skipped lines, printed text, etc. Not much else we can do, short of writing the bloody essays for them!

      • yep. And sadly, even if he got the accomodation on the exam, most professors/colleges wouldn’t grant it. They’re really cutting back on accomodations.

  5. RAB

    The rising generation has amazing touch-type-on-tiny-keyboard ability, and probably quite good eye-hand coordination, but very poor fine-motor skills in the hand. Many of my college students tell me they were introduced to cursive writing in the fourth or fifth grade but then told not to use it anymore because all their reading will be typeface and cursive will only confuse them.
    Perhaps the teachers also think printing will be more legible, but I’m here to tell them it IS NOT; it’s only slower than cursive.
    Meanwhile, my students tell me they can’t read my handwriting. I used to admit regretfully that since I’ve been doing so much of my writing on the computer I’ve lost those fine-motor skills myself. But I have been learning lately that their inability to read “my handwriting” comes from small vocabularies (when I tell them what word I wrote they reply “That’s a word?!?!?” instead of “oh”) and from inability to recognize certain letters in script (“That’s a T?!?!?!” “That’s an r?!?!”).
    I don’t know what to do about this. But I do believe their awful printing and handwriting comes primarily from lives where writing and recreation involve keyboard tapping rather than complex finger activities, and the necessary muscle control has simply not been developed. (How many play violin or guitar anymore? how many sew or knit? how many construct model cars or airplanes, or take watches apart? etc.)

    • Sorry I didn’t reply to your comments earlier, RAB–I haven’t been tending my blog very carefully–nor have I been writing–it’s been a stressful and busy academic year.

      But, anyway, as always, I appreciate your thoughts. MY handwriting is becoming terrible as well and I think it’s because I’m getting old! I have chronic tendonitis in my right elbow and lately have been experiencing painful finger cramps when grading papers. (A huge annoyance for an English teacher!) Last week, I tried Turnitin.com’s online grading feature–was excited to see if it saved time and hand/arm pain. Well, I quit after one paper–just couldn’t deal with typing all my comments and grammar corrections–much easier to slash and circle! So, back to the pain and illegible scribbles.

      But do you really think bad handwriting comes from lack of fine-motor practice? Perhaps. But I think proper dysgraphia is another matter altogether, no?

  6. I’m coming to this party very late, but hopefully I have something helpful to say. I am dysgraphic as is my 22 y/o son. He was diagnosed in 3rd grade (also with ADHD) and my Dx followed. So I can relate as an “insider”. Somethings become very automatic with practice – stepping on the car’s brakes as you approach a red light or a curve; opening and closing your fingers to use scissors. With dysgraphia, remembering that “and” is spelled a-n-d is not hard, remembering how to form the “a,” connect it to and form the “n,” then connect it to and form the “d” present the challenge, slowing down the writing process. I also have to remember when handwriting to NEVER start a word on top of or after the red margin line showing through from the other side. My stick figures have scoliosis.

    I have been writing since Kindergarten in the early 70s, won nearly every spelling bee in school, read voraciously, yet prior to the computer age, my writing was either physically impossible to read or significantly dumbed down to what I could manage writing or just not done. I didn’t go to college despite being a National Merit Semifinalist. I was a very successful Director of Marketing for a national advertising firm and a compliance/project manager for two multi-national firms. Computers/email leveled the playing field. My electronic files are pristine; without an assistant, my physical files look like your student’s. I am now, at 45 in college – as an English major! I take my lecture notes on OneNote and I need extra time or the ability to type my essay exams.

    In 6th grade, my son read and understood the Odyssey (assigned), then the Illiad and Canterbury Tales for fun. His classroom discussion participation was “impressive” (teacher’s word), his typed papers easily met the 6th grade rubrics, and his handwritten pages barely met the 3rd grade rubric. After battling the local SD nearly to the point of advocates or mediation for accommodations (mostly use of word processor, reduced quantities), my son graduated last summer Magna Cum Laude with a dual English-Education degree in NYC and, while the college knew of his disability, he never asked for formal accommodations – nearly every paper was submitted electronically anyway.

    His note pads are graph paper rather than lined. We use Google Calendar and Drive (for syllabuses, lists, etc.), synced with our smart phones.

    I’d be so happy to talk about the experience of dysgraphia or accommodations with anyone interested.

    • Terri Williams

      My son was diagnosed in 7th grade and just started having problems. Would love to get suggestions about what worked for you as they sound similar.

      • Terri–Thanks for reading and commenting–great to hear from you.

        I hope Rora sees and responds to your message–would be great if she could offer you some suggestions. In the meantime, if you want to reach out to her, you might click on her gravatar–she doesn’t seem to have a blog but the gravatar shows her Facebook contact info….

        As mentioned in my post, I really can’t offer any insights on the topic. I can only tell you that the many dysgraphic students I’ve taught over the years usually end up doing just fine. These kids are often smart and creative, and, especially with accommodations such as iPads and laptops, they have as good a chance as anyone to thrive academically.

        All the best to you and your son—ETC

  7. “I am now, at 45 in college – as an English major!”

    I loved your story, Rora. Interesting to read of your struggles, your strategies, and, of course, your successes.

    Info like this helps me become a better teacher–thanks for sharing.

  8. homeschool teacher

    I am shocked that Prep School English Teacher is so critical about a learning challange like dysgraphia, and admits to never researching or being trained to deal with this subject! I have a son who will be a 9th grader next year and we deal with this problem everyday. Thankfully I am able to homeschool him so he is provided with a nonjudgmental environment where he can thrive. These kids are bright students, who need a different approach to writing/learning; and what is wrong with that? Can teachers be taught to break away from the status quo to learn how to relate to these kids?

    • Get over it, Homeschool Teacher. My post was not meant to be cruel and judgmental, but rather self-mocking and earnest. By using “Big W” as test case, I was seeking help and advice from the community, for I love my students, accept them for who they are, and work my ass off for their success.

      Why don’t you follow Teacher Girl’s, Fromupnorth’s, Rora M’s, and other bloggers’ leads above–instead of judging and attacking, why don’t you offer some help/support I can use?

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