Navigating Dysgraphia—6 Strategies to Help Struggling Writers

by Kati McIlroy and Mary Pembleton

When a student constantly turns in unreadable work, it can be immensely frustrating for both parties. As an educator, you feel frustrated because nothing seems to be improving their writing. As a learner, you feel frustrated because you’re working your hardest and it isn’t getting better, and you may feel like just giving up.

Though often underdiagnosed, 5-20% of students have a learning disability that impacts their ability to write. This shows up in the classroom as illegible handwriting, an atypical pencil grip, lack of sentence structure, or difficulty getting thoughts onto paper.

Employee, Kati McIlroy, smiling.

Kati McIlroy is all too familiar with these struggles. Kati is an occupational therapist and assistive technology specialist with many years of classroom experience working with children with dysgraphia, the neurologically-based learning difference that impacts a person’s writing abilities. But she’s also a parent to a daughter with dysgraphia, so she understands how deeply learners with dysgraphia struggle to complete their work.

“Graci was frustrated and beat down and always comparing her work to that of other students,” Kati says. “She HATED school.”

With Kati’s help and the right support in place, Kati’s daughter Graci went from a struggling writer who hated school to a writer whose work earned her the school-wide honor of writer of the week.

Read Graci’s Story.

Successful written work isn’t out of reach for students with dysgraphia and other writing difficulties. Kati recommends these tips and tools to help learners with the writing process:

Introduce typing to all students, in conjunction with handwriting, in the early grades

Both are important, and technology and letter handwriting aren’t mutually exclusive skills. That is to say, teaching typing to students won’t detract from their handwriting experience.

“Still practice letter formation, but don’t let kids fall behind, especially if they can speak to you in those beautiful sentences,” Kati says. “Students don’t want to fail and not feel successful. They can see their writing does not look as pretty as their peers. They already know. Find ways to make them feel successful. Embrace technology!!!”

Young Student working on a laptop

Kati emphasizes how important typing and technology are for students that struggle with writing, especially for students with dysgraphia. Introducing typing early ensures that they won’t be racing to catch up in the later grades. Kati recommends trying for guided typing practice.

“Talking with parents as an AT/OT, some think that typing is “screen time” and feel they should not have a screen in front of them too young and too often. I get that. BUT, they need to be exposed to “learning” technology at a younger age. That way,  if and when they find they are having a hard time keeping up, they need to see that they can actually be independent and maybe excel in some cases. Students who don’t need the technology won’t use it, as it will slow them down. Those that do need it will see that it is helpful and makes them successful.”

Experience how Co:Writer helped Graci.

Introduce assistive technology, ideally by second grade

When a learner is already far behind their peers in their writing abilities, assistive technology like Co:Writer, our toolkit for struggling writers, offers a solution to help learners complete their schoolwork, improve their writing, and access grade-level curriculum right away.

But though tools like Co:Writer can serve middle-grade learners who’ve fallen behind, Kati says it’s even better to introduce it by second grade, so learners with dysgraphia can navigate school work successfully as early as possible. With dysgraphia, there is an executive function breakdown and the student isn’t fully able to express their thoughts in handwriting.

“By the time a student with dysgraphia has exhausted all means of writing in fourth or fifth grade, they are often referred to an OT. At this point, they can’t write complete sentences, can’t form letters, can’t spell anything, and a teacher just does not know what to do. All writing curriculum caps off at fourth grade, so an OT needs to think outside the box.”

and index card with illegible handwriting next to the same text typed on a screen using Co:Writer

Kati says that by the middle grades, an occupational therapist has the child practice letter formation because the gap between their writing skills and that of their peers is too great. “They can no longer keep up with handwriting, so they MUST move to typing or speech to text,” Kati says.

“Using Co:Writer is a good start to getting the student independent and successful in writing.”

Utilize predictive text

Word prediction is a great tool for dysgraphic students to remember what they’re writing about. They can think of the right words to use, but then the words quickly disappear from their minds, and they have no memory of them.

“Having the list of predicted words that are relevant to the writing topic, like with Co:Writer’s predictive text feature, is key. This also helps with spelling.”

Animated Co:Writer word prediction example

Dysgraphic students often have trouble with spelling because they’re too preoccupied with trying to remember what they want to talk about. Speech-to-text is also helpful in this capacity. 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.

Use Speech-to-Text features

Co:Writer word processing animation

“The best feature for a student with dysgraphia is speech to text, and Co:Writer’s speech recognition is excellent. They can type, but it is still not as efficient as if they could just speak their words. This is not feasible in the classroom sometimes, so getting students early access to typing programs is key, but when at home or when they can speak their words, they can actually keep up with their peers!”

Kati says that as a parent, she loves the confidence and self-esteem all of these tools have given Graci. “Graci was always in tears when she got home and had to start homework. She never finished her classwork so it would always come home and add an extra hour or two to her night. She had to redo most things as well because you couldn’t read it.”

Help your students access grade-level curriculum.

 Teach cursive writing

“When you’re writing cursive, it’s easier to remember how to form letters because it’s a constant movement,” Kati says.

“When the kiddo lifts up their pencil, the brain has to remember to go back and remember what it was. That’s one more step for a learner with dysgraphia. Recall is so hard, so a fluid motion keeps them going. And it keeps the syntax firing smoothly. As soon as that pencil lifts, they have to remember, okay, I’ve got to go back up to the top, or I have to go to the bottom.”

Two young girl students writing

Look for signs of dysgraphia in first and second grade

Kati says educators should watch for “beyond messy writing” in first and second grade, and learners who struggle to learn letter formation. Early identification is important in preserving a student’s self-esteem, accessing services like occupational therapy and remediation, and finding the right classroom accommodations. Dysgraphia may appear to limit a learner’s ability to write, but often, given the right resources, educators, parents, providers, and students can find a way to work around perceived limitations and help them thrive.

See how Co:Writer can support your students with Dysgraphia

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