It was his third broken pencil of the week and it was only Tuesday. Chaim’s mother flinched as she heard the point snap.
“Uh oh,” he sighed. Breaking pencils was the least of Chaim’s problems. Every time he sat down to write, he struggled. He just couldn’t seem to get his brain and his hand to work in unison. Once he thought of what he wanted to say and began to write, he would freeze. That’s why he spent the first hour after dinner doing anything he could to avoid his homework. “Mommy, can I help you wash the dishes? Maybe it’s time for me to shower? Rebbe said I needed to learn some more mishnayos for tomorrow.”
Chaim’s mother couldn’t figure out why her smart, highly-verbal son just couldn’t put any of his thoughts on paper. He read voraciously, aced mental math tests, and was at the top of his class in all of his Judaic subjects. He just refused to write. When he did write, his writing was barely legible.
It’s hard for people to understand that children can have a learning disability that only affects their writing. Most people assume that if you are able to read, then writing should be a cinch. Or parents assume that trouble with writing is a physical impediment rather than a mental one. Dysgraphia, a learning disability that affects writing abilities, debunks these myths.
Dysgraphia can manifest itself as difficulties with spelling, poor handwriting and trouble putting thoughts on paper. However, children who suffer from dysgraphia often have reading skills that are on par with other children their age. Dysgraphia is not simply a motor problem, but also involves information processing skills (transferring thoughts from the mind through the hand onto the paper).
Dysgraphia is a biological disorder with genetic and neural bases. In fact, dysgraphia deals with a working memory problem. Working memory refers to the system in your brain that processes transitory pieces of information that you are in the midst of manipulating. In dysgraphia, people fail to develop connections between the brain regions necessary for writing. Therefore, they have trouble automatically remembering and completing the sequence of physical movements needed to write letters or numbers. Dysgraphia also involves a disconnect between the finger movement input and feedback from the eye.
In other words, those with dysgraphia feel that they are writing letters for the first time each time they write them. If you think about kindergarteners struggling to write each individual letter, you can realize how difficult this can make the task of writing for children as they go through the system. It also helps explain why dysgraphia inhibits coherent expression of thoughts in writing. After all, how can you concentrate on what you have to say if you are constantly learning how to make the shape of the letter?
If your child has trouble in any of the areas below, additional help may be beneficial:
- Tight, awkward pencil grip and body position
- Illegible handwriting
- Avoiding writing and drawing tasks
- Tiring quickly while writing
- Saying words out loud while writing
- Unfinished or omitted words in sentences
In teenagers and adults, dysgraphia manifests as:
- Difficulty organizing thoughts on paper
- Trouble keeping track of thoughts already written down
- Difficulty with syntax structure and grammar
- Large gap between written ideas and speech
Depending on your child’s age, there are different strategies that are effective. For young children who are just learning how to write, here are some suggestions:
- Play with clay in order to strengthen hand muscles.
- Use paper with raised lines so that children can feel the lines on the paper, allowing them to stay on track.
- Experiment with different pens and pencils.
- Practice writing letters with exaggerated arm movements. This will help improve the motor memory without the pressure of the paper.
- Consider introducing a word processor (through a computer) earlier than with other children, but do not eliminate writing on paper.
- Encourage proper grip, posture, and paper positioning. If you aren’t sure how to help your child with this – don’t push it off too long! The later you correct these concerns, the harder it is to unlearn the bad habits.
For children in elementary school, consider these modifications:
- Alternate the focus of writing assignments. For some assignments, put the emphasis on neatness and spelling and for others put the emphasis on grammar and style.
- Encourage the use of print or cursive, whichever is more comfortable for your child.
- Help make a checklist for editing written work based on: spelling, neatness, grammar, syntax, clear progression of ideas, and organization.
- Encourage writing through low-stress opportunities for writing such as letters, journals, and making shopping lists.
- Create a step-by-step plan that breaks writing assignments into small tasks.
For high school students, the following modification can be helpful:
- Provide a tape recorder or smart board notepad to facilitate note taking.
- Create a step by step plan that breaks writing assignments into small tasks. For instance, (a) come up with an argument or thesis; (b) create an outline with major points; (c) write the introduction; (d) use quotes to support the body paragraphs; (e) pull it together in the conclusion; (f) edit paper for grammar and spelling; (g) edit paper for content and analysis.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember, when dealing with children who suffer from dysgraphia is that they are not “lazy” or “sloppy.” In reality, they are struggling mightily to do what most other children can do with little effort. Recognize that they are suffering from a learning disability and then take the necessary steps to mitigate their issues. This is the most beneficial way to address the problem.
About the Author: An acclaimed educator and education consultant, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation,, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her on the web at rifkaschonfeldsos.com.
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