Dysgraphia or Disorder in Written Expression. How to Help

While we promote handwriting and its benefits from improved story writing and composition, to aiding with memory and recall; there are times when handwriting has gone really wrong.  Some children have Dysgraphia or Disorder in Written Expression, and no amount of handwriting intervention has been able to assist them with achieving fluid and legible handwriting.

handwriting accommodations, accommodations for poor handwriting, typing accommodation, handwriting interventions, OT and handwriting, help for handwriting, activities to promote handwriting, dysgraphia, disorder or written expression, dysgraphia accommodations, alternatives for handwriting

When it comes to this situation, we are lucky to be in the techno age!  25 years ago I was working at a school for children with learning challenges.  The occupational therapy department was called upon during examinations to assist with scribing for students in the high school who were not able to achieve the handwriting requirements of a 3 hour exam, and I had the opportunity to experience this process first hand.

Alternatives for Handwriting: Amanuensis.

An amanuensis, or scribe, is someone who transcribes and records what the learner verbalises to them.  While there is nothing wrong with that, the advent of the techno age has certainly offered more options to our children who struggle with Dysgraphia or Disorder in Written Expression.  For many, it has offered the empowering option of independence.  Instead of having to suffer through the humiliation of having to verbalise their answers to the scribe, many children can now independently type their examinations and for me, that is a win!

Back then, the options for a typing dispensation were not the order of the day.  While we know that those who write by hand have advantages over those who type, there is that small group of learners who will perform better with a typing dispensation.  It is my experience that where children are struggling with a Dysgraphia or Disorder in Written Expression, they have a tendency to dumb down their answers just to get the handwriting part over and done with.  And this is most certainly detrimental when teachers are awarding marks and scores for written work.  Our children are measured by what they can write down and if they are trying to get it over and done with as soon as possible to avoid the writing demands, then they fall into the small category of children who certainly do achieve better when they are typing.

Accommodations for Dysgraphia or disorder in written expression: extra time.

Extra time is not there so your child can write more that the examiner can’t read.  Extra time is there for children who have very slow handwriting.  Also, it is there for the child who needs to slow down to make their handwriting legible.  If a child has a typing accommodation for other subjects, they may need extra time to form their numbers carefully in maths and physics papers.

How do we go about preparing for a typing accommodation?

Preparing is the word we need to take note of.  We can’t just make the decision that typing is the way to go and jump right in.  We do not want to be changing one form of bad handwriting for another.  Typing is your child’s new handwriting and you want to be sure that it doesn’t go wrong a second time.  It is always easier to learn motor tasks, than to change badly entrenched motor patterns.  You want to make sure they do it "the right way the first time®."  A decision to move to typing is often preceded by a diagnosis of Dysgraphia or Disorder in Written Expression.

Steps to follow to prepare for a typing accommodation for Dysgraphia or disorder in written expression.

1. Choice of Keyboard.
The choice of keyboard is critical.  It is too easy to suggest that the child uses an iPad because it is transportable and can fit in a back pack.  If your child is granted a typing accommodation, they will be doing examinations on a laptop.  So, we want to be sure they learn to type on a a standard keyboard.  Apple devices with their auto-capitalisation and auto full stops are going to do your child no favours when they get to examinations.  I always recommend starting with the standard keyboard.  Much later on when keyboarding skills are well-established, your child will be able to shift between different keyboards and accommodate the differences.  But not at the beginning.

2. Touch Typing.
Your child has to learn to touch type.  Hunt-and-peck typing is not going to crack it in the examination situation.  They need to spend time learning their new “handwriting” and learning it properly.  With hunt-and-peck, the child is looking at the keyboard to find the keys, rather than looking what they are writing on the screen.  This is pretty similar to our children who, when writing by hand, are thinking about how to write and not what to write.  Again, we do not wish to be changing one form of bad handwriting for another.

3. High Speed and Low Error Rate.
From Grade 7 and up, I go for gold.  The gold standard of 60 words per minute.  Why wouldn’t you?  Unless they have a motor output issue or other neurological deficit which would have precluded the choice of typing in the first place, the children I have worked with are perfectly capable of achieving this.

4. No Typing in the Classroom Until it has been Mastered!
They HAVE to stick with their old handwriting until their new “handwriting” is in place.  Every time you practise a motor task, you are laying down and building the motor pathways.  If you allow your child to practise in the incorrect motor patterns – in this case hunt-and-peck typing – those are the patterns that are going to be established.  I have found teachers to be hugely understanding about ignoring the bad handwriting while the child is working towards a greater goal.  As with everything, communication is the name of the game.  I have yet to find a meeting with all the role players present where for time to get the typing well established, is not allowed.

5. Turn off the Spellcheck and Autocorrect.
In examinations, the spell check will be disabled.  So, your child needs to do that from the start.  We said we wanted a low error rate, and that is a low error rate without a friendly spell check doing the work for your child on the way!

6. I Propose 10 – 15 Minutes a Day 5 Days a Week.
If your child has the option to work on their touch typing both at home and at school, then 10 minutes twice a day is even better.  If they are able to concentrate for longer than 10 minutes then that is great, but I usually find that, particularly in the early stages, after 15 minutes, errors start to creep in.  We are looking for little and often, rather than two long typing sessions a week.

Can we get rid of handwriting altogether if our child has Dysgraphia or disorder in written expression?

No, sadly not!  There will always be things that need to be written.  Maths and physics papers are going to demand a handwritten component.  And that needs it’s own accommodations.

Which typing programme to use?

You can use any good touch typing programme.  You can buy one, or make use of one of the online ones.  These are some that people have used over the years – you can explore them and make a choice.

  1. Typing.com
  2. Learn Touch Typing for Free
  3. Dance Mat Typing

Please do let us know if you come across another wonderful option!

OT and handwriting, handwriting interventions, dysgraphia and untidy handwriting, disorder of written expression

This piece is about the “How To” of typing if you child has Dysgraphia or Disorder in Written Expression, but not the “How To” of being awarded a handwriting dispensation for Dysgraphia or Disorder in Written Expression.  The Department of Basic Education has their procedures for this and you can be guided by your school counselor.  If you child is studying through another examination body, they too, will have their own procedures.  Follow them by the book to ensure that your child will not miss out on a dispensation because of a paperwork issue.

I have worked with children with Dysgraphia or Disorder in Written Expression who have followed this process.  Some have finished matric and are now in university where they are flying.  In the right circumstances, child with poor handwriting can fly!

©Bunty McDougall
Occupational Therapist

Get your copy of “Steps to Prepare for a Typing Accommodation" by entering your details in the form below:

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

In the mood to shop?

More about improving handwriting interventions: