One of the most disheartening observations in my clinical practice is when I meet with students who have given up on school primarily because of their frustration with writing. The vast majority of these children are in fact capable students, able to express themselves readily across many areas of their life, and interested in learning. However, since school demands so much of them in the form of writing, and this is a task that they find to be incredibly arduous, they simply feel negatively about themselves and often report hating school. Dysgraphia treatment, in the form of alternatives to handwriting, is often a simple and long term solution.
These frustrations are voiced by first and second grade students who struggle with the fine motor skills that are a prerequisite for legible and efficient handwriting. Middle school students with writing fluency and handwriting issues bemoan the fact that it takes them hours to complete modest assignments such as book reports. High school students with these difficulties report a sense of inadequacy when they are unable to keep up with taking lecture notes, or are the last student in their class to complete a written test. If they could overcome the obstacles that they encounter when doing written assignments, many of these students would find school to be a far more engaging and fulfilling.
This impediment comes in two forms. The first group includes kids who simply have very poor handwriting skills. Often times, you will find a parent or close relative who also “writes like a doctor,” or that nobody can read their writing. As a result, these children have been criticized for their handwriting and find it to be very difficult to be able to write neatly. In all likelihood, these children never enjoyed coloring as preschoolers, and may dislike art and other activities that involve fine motor skills. While with great effort, they may be able to write legibly, they need to use so many of their cognitive resources to do so, that they may forget what they wanted to write in the first place.
The second group includes those for whom writing is a very slow and arduous process. They may have great ideas, but write so slowly that their working memory resources cannot keep their thoughts in mind long enough to get them onto paper. These children can often be identified by their low scores on neuropsychological tests of processing speed and writing fluency. They may need to spend two to three times the amount of time their peers would spend on the same assignment.
While we can teach these children to modestly improve their skills at writing more neatly and efficiently, I believe that would be a major waste of time, and that a better form of dysgraphia treatment is to substitute other skills for handwriting. They will never be using cursive handwriting in any type of work in their higher educational or vocational lives. Virtually, everything that needs to be produced in written form will be done on a screen. It is far better to preemptively teach these children to become excellent typists than expend hours of practice to achieve “readable handwriting.”
Unfortunately, some of the same fine motor skills that are required for writing fluency and legible handwriting are those that may be used in typing as well. Nonetheless, it is far better to spend the time encouraging these children to learn to type rather than to marginally improve their handwriting. We strongly suggest that typing training start early rather than forcing a child to spend more time learning cursive in their elementary school years. We recommend immediately taking these children (as young as the age of 7) and providing them with the technology and training to become excellent typists. Once struggling writers become competent typists, they may avoid many of the frustrations that they would encounter were held to the old standards of handwriting.
To get started, we recommended introducing your child to fun apps and games for handwriting, such as Burning Fingers or ControlShift, and then introducing a more regimented approach with applications such as Typing Instructor for Kids. Using resources like these not only help to get children interested in writing, but also gives them a good foundation for the way we write in the 21st century.