How to help students with dysgraphia or messy handwriting: Seven strategies from an OT

by Lindsey Biel and Mary Pembleton

Dysgraphia Writing Sample

Messy handwriting. Short, incomplete sentences. Undeveloped thoughts. Incomplete assignments. Shame and frustration.

When a learner is challenged by writing, it can make everything about their educational experience a bit messy. And sometimes it’s hard to know how to help.

Perhaps a specialist is called in. Perhaps there’s an IEP in place. Or perhaps a learner slips through the cracks for years. Now what?

This is often the case with dysgraphia, or a learning disability that interferes with the writing process (but not intellect!). Dysgraphia symptoms are not limited to messy handwriting, but include difficulty getting thoughts onto paper and poor spelling.

Lindsey Biel

Occupational therapist and author Lindsey Biel says writing challenges can also come from a lack of foundational writing skills like core strength and a good pencil grip.

The good news is that there are a LOT of simple interventions that can help learners with or without dysgraphia succeed with writing.

Check out Lindsey’s free webinar

Dysgraphia and Writing Challenges: Powerful Approaches that Improve Written Communication

Here are seven of Lindsey’s suggestions for supporting learners with writing challenges:

1. Have their vision checked

Student with glasses studying on a laptop.

Recommending that parents schedule an exam with a developmental optometrist can help identify vision problems that interfere with writing, including problems with visual processing.

These problems can be helped by vision exercises or eyeglasses if needed.

2. Eliminate potential sensory offenders

Young student covering their ears and squinting their eyes

Learners who struggle with writing sometimes need reduced sensory input.

With dysgraphia, differences in brain wiring mean that the feedback loops that typically inform the handwriting process aren’t working optimally.

For example, a proficient writer will look at their handwriting and recognize that they need to press harder or leave space between words. Learners with dysgraphia have trouble with that process.

Eliminating sensory distractions can help writers dedicate brain power to observing their writing.

Consider possible sensory discomfort from common classroom pitfalls such as fluorescent lighting, shiny tabletops, chatter from group work, uncomfortable seating.

Teachers and practitioners can try creating sensory-friendly work environments by introducing soft lighting, adding matte paper to work surfaces, offering sound-reducing earmuffs or having them sit in a quieter part of the room, or providing a comfortable seat cushion.

3. Keyboarding

Student with headphones and laptop sitting next to another student reading a book.

Introducing keyboarding in the early grades, in conjunction with intervention & remediation, can give students with writing issues a way to be understood on the page.

Keyboarding skills will serve struggling writers throughout their schooling, and on into their careers.

4. Try assistive technology for writing

Assistive technology is any tool or system that supports a person with a disability to communicate, learn, or function in their daily lives.

Assistive tools range from low-tech everyday aids like glasses all the way to high-tech augmentative communication devices that help users express themselves through speech. Certain assistive writing tools can be significant for students with dysgraphia.

Co:Writer is assistive toolkit of writing tools designed to support students with their writing through:

  • Word prediction
  • Speech recognition (speech-to-text) for students who can speak more fluently than they write
  • Topic Dictionaries that help students write on over 4 million topics
  • Phonetic and inventive spelling correction
  • Reading back writing aloud as learners type (while highlighting each word as it’s spoken)
  • Text-to-Speech that reads entire passages back to help students self-assess and edit

Check out this video to discover all that Co:Writer does to support writing.

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5. Focus on improving core strength

Young students in a gym doing pushups with a coach counting in the background.

Having a stable foundation is critical for sitting in a chair and writing. Lindsey often finds that students with poor handwriting also lack core strength.

Check out these great suggestions for fun ways to improve core strength in kids.

6. Try a slant board for writing

Setting a student up with a slant board can help with proper body positioning ideal for writing, improve ergonomics, and secure their paper in the right position.

Proper positioning can help students successfully get their writing out onto the page.

Sign up for a free trial to experience how Co:Writer can help your students write

7. Try a handwriting app

A person typing on a tablet as letters jump from the device.

Apps specifically made for handwriting practice by way of finger tracing are great multi-sensory learning tools that can help improve letter formation.

Try Googling “letter tracing apps” and a number of free resources will appear.

A combination of remediation (handwriting practice) and accommodations (slant boards, keyboarding, assistive technology, speech-to-text) gives struggling writers both the intervention they need to improve and the tools to start helping them immediately.

Accommodations are particularly important for students who need to keep up with the curriculum whose writing skills aren’t on par with grade level.

Research shows that 20% of students in intervention are largely unresponsive. For these students, accommodations aren’t just important, they are essential.

These are just seven suggestions, but there are a plethora of tools and strategies available to help struggling writers.

Discover more in Lindsey and Kati McIlroy’s free webinar

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