About this talk: Fionna Pilgrim outlines the seven causes of dysgraphia (problems with handwriting) as outlined in Ronald D. Davis's book, The Gift of Learning. She also considers the relationship between dysgraphia and dyslexia.
About the speaker: Fionna Pilgrim is a Davis facilitator working in West Yorkshire. She is the mother of a 25 year old daughter who was a non-reader until the age of 15, but who now has a 2:2 in Music, and a 15 year old son who is autonomously home educated. Her background is originally in nursing and she is also Montessori trained.
Brain damage: Can occur because the brain is starved of oxygen at birth or through near drowning, sustained high temperature, head injury or stroke. You would know about it if this was the cause of poor handwriting. The body is designed to heal itself, and can do much given time. Development may be much delayed but love, a stimulating but not overwhelming atmosphere and faith in the child, or adult can gradually achieve much.
Handwriting would probably be a long way to the end of any list of goals for such a person.
Physical illness or deformity: could also be due to a birth defect, an illness or an accident. If nerve damage leads to paralysis the normal routes to handwriting will not be open, but I had a brother who broke his neck when he was 15, leaving him with no control over his hands. He learned to use trick movements of his upper arm to write using a pen bound to his hand.
Intentionally poor penmanship: This is not necessarily related to dyslexia, but many, if not most, people who do this are likely to be dyslexic. People with poor spelling, punctuation or grammar may intentionally use poor handwriting in an effort to hide these facts. Poor spelling, punctuation and grammar can frequently be side effects of dyslexia. Give the student the opportunity to correct their dyslexia and they can address these issues; in which case the need for poor handwriting is gone. You may suspect that this is the cause of poor handwriting if the quality of handwriting varies, being good when words can be spelled easily but poor when there are words consistently mis-spelled. There may be cases, however, when such symptoms are not intentional but are connected with disorientation connected with confusion. This will be considered in a minute.
No or inadequate instruction: If a student has never been given any instruction in penmanship, this may lead to dysgraphia. However, as a home educator I know many children who have no problem teaching themselves how to write once they are ready to do so. This, though, may be at a later age than is required for school. Inadequate instruction is frequently related to dyslexia. The problem is not that they have not been in a situation to receive instruction, simply that disorientation has meant that they were unable to engage with the instructions being given to the class and take onboard the necessary information, thus their instruction has been inadequate because the teacher either did not recognise that the child was disorientated, or did not understand the confusion causing disorientation so could not help the child resolve that confusion. Once the child is able to be in an orientated state when writing, it is easy to show how to hold the writing implement properly and draw the letters correctly.
Disorientation: The ability to disorientate, or actively alter your focus, in order to include the imagination in the thinking process is one of the advantages of the thinking and learning style of the dyslexic individual. However, it can create distortions of perception when used with symbols, such as letters or words. Disorientation as a cause of poor handwriting is linked to dyslexia; it follows the same stimulus response model as reading dyslexia. The individual in an orientated state meets a stimulus that causes him to disorientate, perhaps only for a split second, but this causes the handwriting to go awry. The disorientation can occur in response to a line or shape or to a movement, but lines, shapes and movements on their own do not cause disorientation. The thing that triggers disorientation is an emotion. This emotion could be confusion, as is the case with reading dyslexia. Dyslexics find symbols confusing, hence they can trigger into disorientation when they see letters. Most find a way round this once the letters are part of a word with a picture, such as cat, tree or table, but words without a picture, such as and, but, the or of will still cause confusion that triggers disorientation because dyslexics think with the meaning, not the sound, of words or groups of words. Confusion over letters and words can trigger disorientation when writing as well, leading to dysgraphia; because, when disorientated, the individual will not perceive accurately so will not see that the letters he is drawing are malformed. This letter F, drawn large, clearly reveals the glitch caused, in this case, by a line trigger. This glitch is not caused by a disorientation due to confusion but by an emotion from the student's past life experience which is brought into the present when the student meets the stimulus of this line. Somehow an emotion from the past life experience of the student has become subconsciously linked to a line drawn in a particular direction or a certain shape or a particular motion.
Multiple mental images: Some dyslexics have an amazing ability to reproduce almost exactly what they see. Even if they cannot actually achieve the perfection they see in their mind's eye, they have an exact picture that they are trying to copy. Problems arise if the teacher helping the child learn to write does not understand what can happen when a visual model is given to a picture thinker. A reception class student named John is learning to write his name. Here it is -not quite perfect... The teacher draws the name, John, next to the student's attempt, showing how the letters should reach up to the correct lines. John tries again. As you can see, it is still not perfect. The teacher draws another example. This seems perfectly reasonable, but if we look ... As you will see here, the teacher's 2 examples are not the same. John is now trying to copy both examples at once. As John is given more and more minutely different pictures to copy. Ultimately John ends up with a mental image that looks something like this. The more instruction he receives, the harder it gets. He will grip the pencil tighter, until his fingers are fatigued. And press harder until the lead breaks or the paper tears. His whole body will become more tense and he may come to a point where he is no longer able to hold or use a pen or pencil and the mere thought of writing may lead to anxiety. Multiple mental images need to be addressed by removing all pictures that a student may have of how writing should look.
Inadequate natural orientation otherwise known as dyspraxia: This means that at some time very early in a person's life, much earlier than might happen with most dyslexics, they began to disorientate. This led to the individual never being totally sure of where physical reality is found. Their own natural orientation will be in an unfavourable place. This person has poor co-ordination, may have perceptual or speech difficulties, will have difficulty telling left from right and with crossing the midline of the body with hand or foot. They will also be unable to scan across the midline with their eyes. Not only is visual perception affected, sound will also be affected. They may hear sounds as garbled, too loud or soft or coming from the wrong direction. If we look straight at a letter A we can see the line of symmetry. A dyspraxic child cannot see this. Because of his midline barrier, if he looked straight at it he would only see half of it. To see the whole letter he has to shift his point of focus in order to see it on one side of the midline. In doing this he loses the symmetry and the shape distorts. Straight lines will become curvy, as in a distorting mirror at the funfair. No matter how much instruction he gets he will never see the letters accurately so his writing will always be a problem. Identifying the problem is easy. If the problem is dyspraxia the lines will not be straight and there will be no symmetry in any of the letters.
So these are the 7 causes of handwriting problems. And what is the point of knowing all this? Well...if you know the cause you are a step further down the road to finding a solution. So if you have a problem with dysgraphia, look at the 7 causes and see if you can work out which is yours, always remembering that there could be more than one. Then you have a chance of resolving the problem.
Practical Advice to Help Improve Handwriting: Amanda McLeod gives tips to parents who want to help support their children with handwriting at home, covering lighting, sitting position, pencil position, paper position, and an overview of the common errors that can be found in writing.