By Sue Ramin-Hutchison, Handwriting Problem Solutions, LLC
Sue is a Special Education Teacher Consultant for Physically & Otherwise Health Impaired Students, an Assistive Technology Support Specialist who specializes in working with kids with Dysgraphia, and a Special Education/Section 504 Advocate specializing in obtaining FAPE for students with written output disorders. She has over 20 years of experience and has worked with over 1,000 students with Dysgraphia related to Physical impairments, Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADD/ADHD, Learning Disabilities (including Dyslexia) and Dysgraphia of unknown cause.
Does a Dysgraphic student need assistive technology (AT)?
In deciding if a student with Dysgraphia needs to use assistive technology (AT) for schoolwork completion, three things should be considered. They are legibility, timeliness, and stress.
If one or more of these is a significant problem, best practice AT should be taught and implemented. One of the biggest mistakes that parents and professionals make in working with students with Dysgraphia is waiting too long to make the switch to AT while they continue to work on improving handwriting skills. This being said, it is also important to know that the use of AT for schoolwork completion is often not about abandoning handwriting skills altogether. Some students can do things like fill-in-the-blank worksheets, very short written compositions or math assignments with a pencil and then do the rest of their work using AT.
As a general rule, if a student has received handwriting therapy on a regular basis for 12-18 months with minimal to no improvement, it is time to switch to AT. Some kids need to learn how to use AT as early as kindergarten. In almost all cases, the switch to AT for written schoolwork completion should be made no later than mid-third grade to meet the increasing written demands in 4th grade and beyond and to avoid the development of anxiety disorders and other behavioral problems that often develop in kids with Dysgraphia if this is not done. For students who have been diagnosed later (4th grade and above), AT should be taught and implemented even if handwriting therapy is being provided at the same time. Research demonstrates, in most cases, students with Dysgraphia may be able to learn to improve their letters and words in isolation and for very short assignments through handwriting therapy but that their handwriting will tend to continue to “fall apart” when they are asked to complete actual class assignments.
How does assistive technology work?
Successful use of AT in the classroom for students with written output disorders/Dysgraphia is not just about a device, is not just about keyboarding and is not just about finding the correct apps/software/extensions to complete assignments and teaching students and staff how to use them. It is about ALL of these things put together. It is especially important that ALL classes are considered where a student needs to write so they have AT to complete not only compositions but also things such as worksheets, basic math, graphic organizing, advanced math and science, etc. Once all of these things have been accomplished, an Assistive Technology Implementation Plan needs to be completed to bring school staff on board with what AT a student is using, why they are using it and when they should be using it. Without all these components in place, there can be a high degree of failure of the use of AT in the classroom for students with Dysgraphia. When all of these things are in place, however, the GOOD NEWS is that the “playing field” can be totally leveled for these students in the classroom as they are able to complete the same assignments as their peers, often in the same timeframe, as independently as possible.
What about speech-to-text?
It is especially important to understand that speech-to-text is almost never preferable to learning keyboarding skills. Speech-to-text is suggested many times by school staff for students with Dysgraphia because they view it as being quick and easy to teach and use. While speech-to-text can be wonderful for students who are unable to learn keyboarding skills due to physical disabilities and for older students who have more lengthy assignments to complete, it should almost never be the “first line of defense” in finding solutions for students with Dysgraphia.
The reasons for this are that speech-to text-cannot be used in all environments. Students also often cannot use this in the classroom and need to leave the classroom to dictate. This is almost never preferable as students can miss class instruction and class discussion and often need to have an adult go with them. Many schools in the United States do not allow speech-to-text to be used on tests where spelling counts and/or on standardized testing. Speech-to-text does not support the development of spelling skills for kids who struggle in this area and also requires the student to read what they have written and edit their work as it is not often 100% accurate. It can also be difficult to use for a student with any type of articulation problem or a problem with attention/focus. Instead of speech-to-text, I teach a method of typing instruction that is called “Adapted Keyboarding” that can be learned very quickly by students of all ages, even very young children. Traditional touch typing can be extremely difficult for many students with Dysgraphia to learn due to their problems with fine motor skills and motor planning. Adapted Keyboarding bypasses these issues and allows these kids to learn to type quickly and successfully.
Can assistive technology help with spelling? Many students with Dysgraphia have trouble with spelling skills. One of the best ways to help them improve their spelling skills and give them almost immediate “spelling relief” is to have them use word prediction programs to complete assignments. Some of these programs help kids to become better spellers over time and I have found that many students no longer need spelling supports in the future if they are trained in using all the features of these programs and they are used consistently. My favorite word prediction program is Co:Writer as it is designed to catch even the most severe spelling errors. I have seen this program literally change kids’ lives very quickly in allowing them to complete more age-appropriate spelling in their written work. A student should have approximately a late 2nd to beginning 3rd grade reading level to use word prediction successfully.
Handwriting Problem Solutions, LLC offers two Assistive Technology Resource Guides available for purchase that are written for parents, OTs and other professionals - Assistive Technology, Classroom Implementation Strategies & Resource Recommendations for Kids Who Struggle to Write - and the Special Edition for Kids with ASD. Included are the latest AT Sue uses with students, the best ways to implement this AT in the classroom, her method of Adapted Keyboarding Instruction, her Assistive Technology Implementation Plan – and much more. Both PDF and wire bound versions of these guides can be purchased on the website. Sue also provides private Assistive Technology Consultations no matter where families are located which you can read about on the website. You can email Sue at email@example.com or connect with her on Facebook at Handwriting Problem Solutions, LLC for more information. She welcomes your inquiries!