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I Can't Write by Elaine Hook

I Can't Write by Elaine Hook
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Writing can be very difficult for some highly able or gifted children. Not the written content but the physical act of writing. The content is usually of extreme high quality, imaginative and inventive but the scribing with pen or pencil can be painstakingly slow producing illegible handwriting.

Dr Edward Chitham, Education Consultant (1994) wrote 10 years ago in an NAGC article 'Gifted Children and the Process of Writing' that:

*Again and again as we look at case studies of bright children who underachieve, we encounter the problem of writing block; boys and girls who are orally fluent but whose work on paper is scanty, untidy, sometimes mis-spelt and who find the whole process deeply distasteful.

Gifted children and students are often perfectionists and having illegible handwriting can be extremely destructive for their confidence and self-esteem thus resulting in students not performing in the classroom and underachieving.

Parents and teachers mention handwriting regularly on the NAGC Helpline as a large concern within a child's school experience. Writing is such a central activity within a child's school day and is a significant part of the school curriculum. Many teachers still assess pupil ability on handwriting competence although there is still no clear correlation between handwriting skills and intelligence. It is essential that children are not judged or assessed on their writing skills alone.

One highly able boy I have been working with recently on our Helpline consistently failed his maths tests; all his written answers were wrong. In his oral class work in mathematics he achieved outstanding results but in written work he got most of the answers wrong. His teacher and mother were perplexed. Only when his mother went over the test with him orally at home and asked him to answer the questions for her by the spoken word did all come clear. He knew the answers and got all correct but his handwriting was so poor and illegible that although he thought he had written the correct answers the teacher could not read them and answers such as 27 looked like 21.

Can you imagine what this child felt inside? In his mind he can and has answered all the questions correctly but he constantly achieves poor grades. We all know that if we constantly receive negative feedback we feel under valued and suffer esteem issues. In the end we decide not to bother and then make no effort. We become depressed and sad and eventually as adults we would probably begin to look for another job and move on. Children in school cannot do this they are stuck in the situation until someone works out what is happening to them.

The gifted child affected by Dysgraphia can become extremely frustrated at not being able to express him or herself fully in the traditional classroom due to excessive difficulties with writing and laboured copying. Often a gifted child is a highly creative thinker yet processing the information to the written page can be a huge challenge. However a child or student that has difficulty with handwriting generally is not seen as a candidate for accelerated coursework. Often a teacher will dwell on the scribing difficulty and not comprehend how a child of high ability can have difficulty writing, consequently the child is not challenged, held back and becomes bored, frustrated, under achieves and eventually suffers from low self esteem and confidence. This can lead to negative behaviour in the classroom, changes in personality and a child who doesn't enjoy learning anymore.

Dysgraphia is a neurological disorder characterised by writing disabilities. Writing requires a complex set of motor and information processing skills. In children the disorder generally emerges when they are first learning to write. They tend to make inappropriately sized and spaced letters, tend to write wrong or misspelled words, intermix letters and numbers in formulas and have very sloppy handwriting despite thorough and competent instruction.

Saying a pupil has Dysgraphia is not sufficient, some of the following need to be present:

= Tight awkward pencil grip

= Awkward body position

= Illegible handwriting

= Inconsistencies, e.g. mixtures of print and cursive, upper and lower case, irregular sizes, unfinished words, omitted words, position on page, spaces between words

= Avoiding writing or drawing tasks

= Saying words out loud while writing

= Strong verbal but poor written skills

= Unfinished or omitted words in sentences

= Non-existent punctuation

= Difficulty organising thoughts on paper

= Difficulty with syntax structure and grammar

= Large gaps between written ideas and understanding demonstrated through speech

There are many ways you can help a pupil of student with Dysgraphia achieve success:

1. Provide alternatives to written expression

2. Change expectations or tasks to minimise the area of weakness

3. Provide extra help for improving handwriting and written skills

Specialist help and help from those closest to person suffering from the Dysgraphia are the most beneficial but it is vital to find the most beneficial type of support for the individual concerned and you may need to try various ideas and methods to find what works best.

Below are some ideas for how to teach different age groups suffering from Dysgraphia to overcome some of the difficulties they may be having with written work:

Early Years

= Use paper with raised lines for sensory guidance to staying on or within the lines

= Try different pencils and pens to find the one most comfortable

= Practice writing letters and numbers in the air with big arm movements

=Practice letters and number with small hand and finger movements

= Encourage the correct grip, posture and paper positioning. It is important to reinforce this early, as it is difficult to unlearn bad habits

= Use multi sensory techniques for learning letters, shapes and numbers, e.g. writing in sand, rice, sugar and salt. Talking through big motor movements, e.g. 'b' is 'big stick down circle to my right'

= Introduce a word processor/computer early but do not eliminate handwriting. A computer will make the writing process less frustrating but we still need handwriting to be able to function in the world

= Be patient and positive, encourage and praise

Young Students

= Allow the use of print or cursive whichever is more comfortable

= Use large graph paper for maths in order to keep columns and rows organised

= Allow extra time for writing assignments

= Begin writing assignments with drawing or speaking into a tape recorder

= Alternate focus on written assignments, e.g. some for neatness, some for spelling etc

=Teach different types of writing, e.g. essays, short stories, poems

= Do not judge or assess timed assignments on neatness and spelling

=Have student proof read own work at a later a date, its always easier to see mistakes after a break

= Help students create a checklist for editing their work, e.g. spelling, grammar, and neatness

=Encourage the use of a spell checker. Speaking spell checkers are available.

= Have student complete task in small chunks

= Find different ways of assessing knowledge, i.e. oral reports, visual projects

=Encourage small written tasks such as letters, diaries, and lists

Teenagers & Adults

= Provide a tape recorder to supplement note taking and assignment preparation

= Assist with an assignment plan that breaks writing into chunks

= Create a list of key words that will be useful in writing projects

= Ensure feedback is constructive and give both strengths an weaknesses and does not swell on the handwriting

=Use current technology such as voice activated software if the mechanics of handwriting are a major hurdle

Many of the above tips can be used in all age groups.

Students and pupils with Dysgraphia should be encouraged to tackle an assignment in a logical sequence and an easy way to remember this is to think of the word POWER

plan your paper pulling together ideas

O organise your thoughts and ideas; create an outline

W write your draft using key thoughts and ideas

E edit your work checking for spelling, grammar etc
revise your work and produce a final draft

Teachers and employers are required by law to make 'reasonable accommodations' for individuals with learning disabilities, they may not be aware of how they can help you so speak to them about your Dysgraphia and explain the difficulties and challenges you face and give constructive suggestions how they may help you.

Handwriting is an issue that can have a profound effect on the confidence and self esteem of children and students and the way they perceive and remember their school days. It also has effects on whether we see ourselves as successes or failures. It is important to remember not to judge a child solely on their handwriting skills.

Able children particularly dislike routine and repetitive work, so when combined with brains that work much faster than their hands can write, leads to a situation that is frustrating, demotivating and if not understood and acknowledged can lead to enormous underachievement. For these reasons some, if not all of the above, should be taken into account when teaching and assisting a child or young person who says 'I can't write?'

Elaine Hook

Helpline: 0845 450 0221

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