Dyslexia & Dysgraphia
Universal Design for Learning
Learning is For Life
by Mary Pembleton
Kati McIlroy had a hunch about what was happening with her first-grade daughter Graci. “She just was not getting the formation of the letters down as quickly as her peers,” says Kati.
As Graci advanced in school, she would arrive home in tears every day. In addition to her regular homework, she had to spend an extra hour or two on the classwork she hadn’t completed during school hours. And her work was often unreadable, so she was asked to redo it. “She was exhausted. She had to work 50 times harder than her peers to do any writing tasks,” says Kati. “She was frustrated and beat down and always comparing her work to that of other students. She HATED school.”
Graci’s academic hardship was due to her eventual diagnosis of dysgraphia, a neurologically-based learning difference that impedes a person’s writing abilities. Kati had suspected this possibility early in Graci’s schooling, not just because she’s Graci’s mom, but because she’s an occupational therapist and assistive technology specialist by trade. OTs and ATs often work with learners with dysgraphia to offer evidence-based interventions and accommodations that can help. Kati was uniquely positioned not only to identify her daughter’s dysgraphia, but to equip her with the right tools to navigate it.
Kati’s opportunity arrived just as Graci began to really struggle towards the end of her third-grade year when a pandemic forced schools across the globe into a virtual learning format. “I preach to all of the assistive technology specialists, occupational therapists, and teachers that the second semester of third grade is when learning differences really come to the surface and things start to fall apart,” Kati says.
Just when Graci needed it the most, technology empowered her as a student. Her mother installed the assistive technology Co:Writer on her Chromebook. Working with Co:Writer, learning and writing online, typing practice, and self-paced assignments changed everything for Graci. Co:Writer is like a virtual writing assistant built for people who have trouble writing independently, with features like finely-tuned predictive text, themed topic dictionaries, and advanced speech-to-text capabilities. As Kati put it in a recent email that she wrote to her coworkers:
Graci was able to use Co:Writer to compose her book reports, summaries, short answer questions—it was life-changing for her. Graci became an independent learner. It was amazing!! She finished 3rd grade better than she started. Success!!
Graci thrived during virtual school in the last few months of the 2019-2020 school year. And even now in 2021, after a year of in-person learning in the classroom, she’s transformed from a student with dysgraphia who hated school to a student with dysgraphia whose writing earned her the school-wide honor of Writer of the Week. But it was a bumpy road to arrive here, even after virtual school offered a glimmer of what academic success could look and feel like for Graci.
Kati’s email to her coworkers told of what happened once Graci returned to in-person learning:
But then fall came and we had to go back to school. We were now in the dreaded fourth grade. As an OT in the school districts, this is where I always got the new referrals. Lots and lots of reading and writing requirements in the fourth grade. Not more than three weeks into the new school year, Graci was in tears almost daily when she came home and it was harder and harder to get her out of bed.
Dysgraphia impacts legibility, word spacing, spelling, and a writer’s ability to express their thoughts in writing. Memory recall is also affected. “A student has to put so much thought process into remembering just how letters are formed, where to start writing on a page, how to spell, that once they have put all their thoughts and efforts into just these components, they have forgotten what they were going to write about,” Kati says.
A student with dysgraphia will often produce handwritten work that doesn’t form complete thoughts, contains many misspellings, and appears very messy. “These students are helped by typing, or even better, they can use speech-to-text,” Kati says. “They are able to compose a beautiful sentence or paragraph out loud, but they just can’t write it. Sometimes even typing is not enough to help them get their thoughts onto paper.”
And that’s where assistive technology bridges the gap for struggling learners. It’s not that they can’t write, it’s just that they often have to find a different way to go about it. Co:Writer illuminated Graci’s path to confidence and achievement as a learner and writer. But returning to in-person learning presented another obstacle on that path. Despite the several months they spent learning on Chromebooks, students in Graci’s class didn’t have access to 1:1 devices. This was problematic because Graci didn’t want to be the only student in her classroom using a device to complete her work. She didn’t want to look different.
But, as Kati put it in her email, “With an amazing teacher, amazing things CAN happen.”
Graci’s teacher was open to learning all about dysgraphia and how technology can benefit those who have it. And once she did, she realized how technology can benefit any learner with writing challenges, not just those who have dysgraphia. She made Chromebooks available in the classroom for those who want to complete assignments on them. Graci, along with several of her peers, use the Chromebooks daily.
Graci specifically utilizes the Chromebook’s speech-to-text capacity to complete reports and worksheets in school, and then uses Co:Writer for her homework. The situation is so much better for Graci, though Kati is still trying to convince the school to incorporate Co:Writer, along with its reading counterpart Snap&Read, into the classroom. And this is where Graci’s honor of Writer of the Week came in.
Kati’s email to her coworkers ended on a happy note:
With a teacher who gets her and pushes her at the same time, Graci’s self-esteem is back! Her teacher enjoyed Graci’s last free writing report and sent it to the Vice Principal to recommend her for the Writer of the Week and she won! Never in my wildest dreams would my daughter with a writing disability get her picture and writing up on the wall at school for all to see. The teacher sees her look at it every time she walks by it, with the biggest smile. Yes, her output is better, she is still “learning” how to write, but she knows what makes her successful, and what can bridge her gap to success, and that is her Co:Writer!!
So why is it that Kati was so eager to share Graci’s story with her fellow coworkers?
Kati is an employee of Don Johnston, Inc, the education tech company that makes Co:Writer. A long-time school-based occupational therapist, Kati chose to transition into a role as an educational support specialist for the company whose software she’d admired as an OT and AT for its capacity to transform student experiences.
Kati was inspired by the enormous gains her students were able to achieve with tools like Co:Writer and Snap&Read, and wanted to spend her time trying to get those tools into the hands of as many learners as possible. But she hadn’t anticipated that her biggest triumph would be getting them into the hands of her daughter, who is now thriving not only in the classroom but on-stage as an actress and singer. Graci particularly enjoyed playing Pepper in the musical Annie during her fourth-grade year and is looking forward to acting in more roles next year. And, incredibly, she is also looking forward to returning to school after the summer break.
As Kati wrote in that same email:
With some confidence paired with opportunity, a kid will go far and achieve amazing things!
See what Co:Writer can do for your students