Technology and Dysgraphia

 

Technology Assistance for Students with Dysgraphia

 

Derrel V. Fincher

July 11 , 1997

SPED 501 – Learning And Behavior Problems Of Children And Youth With Disabilities

The College of New Jersey, Mallorca Summer Program

Table of Contents

Introduction

Possible causes and symptoms

How word processors help with the writing process

Spelling Checkers

Issues

Additional word processing aids

Summary

Bibliography

Appendix

Introduction

Dysgraphia is a learning disorder that affects the ability to write. This paper will discuss the possible causes and symptoms of dysgraphia, and how word processing supports students with dysgraphia.

Many students with dyslexia also have dysgraphia, although dysgraphia can occur by itself. Hardman, Drew, and Egan (1996) note that teachers often remark on the poor handwriting abilities of the learning disabled and that they have difficulties staying on the lines and spacing letters. Niemann (1996) talks of a letter written by a young teenager to his parents. She notes “the illegible words were not even written on any lines. They zigzagged up and down the page. They looked as if they were not organized in any logical fashion whatsoever.” In short, indecipherable.

These problems can be pretty striking and yet give a lot of humor to others. A graduate teaching assistant in a freshman political science class held up a report that she found humorous because, as she said, “it looked like a chicken wrote it.” She was right; the letters, although on the line, tilted every which way. We all laughed. She hid the name, but I’m sure the student who turned it in died of embarrassment. I almost did as at first I thought it was my paper!

Possible causes and symptoms

Although no single cause has been implicated, Hardman et. al. (1996) note that haptic perception contributes to the fundamental process of holding a pen or pencil and controlling the kinesthetic movements of the hand and arm in a fashion that results in legible writing on a page. Haptic perception deficits or spatial relationship perception problems may be contributing factors in spacing problems, poor formation of letters, inability to stay on the line, etc.

However, dysgraphia is more than “sloppy” handwriting. Hardman et. al. (1996) note that frequently students with learning disabilities have spelling and writing difficulties. This may manifest as poor spelling, letters frequently omitted or unnecessary ones added, or slow writing. They cite further research that the spelling of such students shows evidence of letter-order confusion and reflects developmentally immature pronunciation. Hardman et. al. further note that the developmental patterns for spelling skills for such students seem to follow the normal order, but are delayed relative to their peers. However, they also observe that relatively little research has been done on spelling problems and that teaching has been based primarily on opinion.

These poor spelling skills may be caused by an auditory processing problem. Niemann (1996) continues on to reveal that the teenager with the poor handwriting also had difficulty understanding the connection between sounds and letters. My son, Aiden*, also has an auditory processing problem that contributes to his spelling difficulties. As a young child, Aiden’s ability to properly articulate some consonants was delayed, which made it difficult for non-family members to understand him. Testing did not show any loss of hearing. We decided not to place him in speech therapy because a) the therapist did not seem confident that therapy would provide any benefit beyond normal maturation and b) my parents reported that I had had a similar problem at the same age.

However, even in fifth grade, Aiden continued to have acute spelling difficulties although his articulation problems essentially disappeared. One particular problem was the “tr” sound in words, which, to him, sounds like “chr.” He consequently spelled words such as “train” as “chrane.” His learning resource teacher used drill along with reinforced understanding that, as the “chr” phoneme does not occur naturally in English, anything that sounds like it has a “chr” should be spelled with a “tr.”

Beyond spelling is the issue of writing practice. Wanderman (1997) notes that people with learning disabilities that make it hard for them to write don’t do enough writing to learn from their own experience with writing. Writing is so difficult that they do it awkwardly, and definitely don’t enjoy it. They will do almost anything to avoid it. Yet, because they don’t get the practice, they don’t improve. Furthermore, as both Wanderman (1997) and MacArthur (1996) note, when people with dysgraphia do write something, it can be totally illegible, not only to others, but also to themselves. In the end, the student only remembers the long struggle to get something on paper that he ultimately couldn’t read.

How word processors help with the writing process

Wanderman (1997) asserts that without a computer, composing and printing are wed – there is no separation between recording ideas, working with them to improve them, and printing them for saving and sharing.  He also refers to the fact that many people see a word written on paper as immutable. The word becomes de facto permanent because any change results in either disfiguring the current written piece, or recopying. This means the first attempt at recording ideas has to be clear enough to stand on its own because it will not be changed. He also notes that people with writing problems do not see writing as an extension of memory.

 MacArthur (1996) notes four capabilities of word processing that influence the writing process: editing; neat, printed work; visibility of text on the screen; and keyboarding.

First, the editing features of the word processor allow writers to make frequent revisions without tedious recopying. MacArthur (1996) notes that students with learning disabilities, in particular, don’t view revision as an opportunity to correct errors.  Wanderman (1997) contrasts the ability to change things on a word processor with the immutability of pen and paper. He notes that with a word processor, the writer can focus on getting the ideas down. There is less emphasis on getting the ideas in the right order the first time, more emphasis on content, more emphasis on just capturing ideas, and expanded vocabulary. Expanded vocabulary comes because writers can now use words from their spoken vocabulary that they don’t know how to spell. Before, they would only use words they knew how to spell because looking up words in a standard dictionary is time consuming and an exercise in frustration for those with spelling problems. The writer can now share her thoughts on paper using all of the vocabulary that she hears in her head.

However, as MacArthur (1996) points out, merely having access to a word processor has little impact for students with learning disabilities. They don’t know how to revise. He points to studies that show a word processor alone had no effect on the number and type of revisions such students made compared to writing they had done with paper and pencil, and there were no differences in story quality or length, although the revisions were done at different points in the writing process. With handwriting, students made more deletions and made most of their revisions while writing the second draft. With the word processor, the students made more revisions in the first draft. Yet, instructing the students in writing strategy in combination with word processing significantly increased the amount and quality of the revisions and in the overall quality of the writing. Wanderman (1997) points out that with ease of editing and less fear of mistakes comes less fear of writing, hence more writing. And with more writing comes more skill, merely from practice, not from further direct instruction.

Second, word processors give students the power to produce neat, printed work and to correct errors without messy erasures. With this power, the students now have the ability to produce work that they, and others, can at least read without struggling to decode almost indecipherable handwriting. However, neat printing alone does not mean the item is worth reading. Wanderman (1997) asserts that “the quality of ideas does not necessarily go up as the clarity of type improves.” We have all had the experience of reading reports that were flawlessly formatted and printed, yet contained little content.

Third, the visibility of the text on the screen can ease collaborative writing and allow teachers to more easily observe student’s writing processes and intervene when appropriate. I found this to be immensely helpful when I was tutoring a fifth grade student with writing difficulties. Matt* had an extremely vivid imagination, but writing was almost painful for him. He, however, had to do a story for Writers Workshop. As we worked on it, I could sit next to him as he entered it into the computer.

His story, “Nick’s New Shorts,” was extremely complex because of the amount of dialog, scenes, and sound effects. In one particular sentence, he had three different narrators interrupting the telling of the story. As he wrote it, I was able to immediately help him with the difficult elements. For example, he wrote one line of dialogue as, “hey, who said that.” I asked him to say the line as he thought the character would say it. Matt said, “Hey! Who said that!?” That provided one of the many opportunities to discuss how he could use punctuation to help his reader get the flavor for how the characters talk and think. 

We also talked about how sound effects could be written on paper. In one instance, Shorts (yes, an animated pair of underwear – Matt was a fifth grader) is trying out his magic powers, one of which is the ability to run at five hundred miles an hour. To show that Shorts ran away, then back, Matt wrote “Zoom. Zoom. Zoom.” After talking about what he was trying to show, and after I was able to show him several options, Matt ended up using,

“Zoom! Zoom! ZOOOOOoMMMMMM!

to express the idea of Shorts running away and returning. This “picture” is something that would have been ineffective in his handwriting because a reader would not be able to separate his intended effect from his normal irregularities. He and I also decided on the convention that he would italicize all sound effects, another ability that the word processor gave compared to handwriting.

Fourth, keyboarding is substantially different from handwriting. Wanderman (1997) notes that even hunt-and-peck keyboarding eliminates the hand-encoding process that many with dyslexia and all with dysgraphia find so hard to do. Furthermore, when using a pen on paper, not only does the writer have the haptic perception difficulties noted earlier, but he also has to remember the spelling. Once a writer becomes proficient at keyboarding, spelling is no longer a conscious memory exercise so much as a kinesthetic sequence that the fingers “remember”.

However, in a survey reported by Zimmerman and Conant (1994), more than fifty percent of the teachers responding reported that keyboarding skills were a major drawback for a student to become efficient at the computer. Matt had received very little instruction in keyboarding as he entered the school after keyboarding had been taught to the students, and his next formal opportunity was to be in sixth grade. Matt had some instruction, but he had not practiced it.  When he began working with me, he actually found it easier to write on paper, even with his difficulties, then keyboard it into the computer. However, as time went on, he came to realize the benefits of working directly on the computer, and after a couple of months he no longer worked from a handwritten copy.

A. Cohen (personal communication, July 10, 1997) noted that word processing is also beneficial for some people with autism as they related better to objects than people. D. Williams (personal communication, “NPR Interview”, July 9, 1997), an autistic adult, also noted that using a word processor helped her; her thinking flowed better, and she had less emotional overload while writing. She specifically mentioned that handwriting was harder. She also made the observation that when she is thinking at the word processor, she is not conscious of pressing the keys; she doesn’t even realize she is thinking until the words appear on the screen in front of her. 

Spelling Checkers

One of the features users like most about their word processor is the spelling checker. Although spelling checkers can be an advantage they have several drawbacks. First, most commercial spelling checkers have far too many words. The spelling checker with Microsoft Word has between 60,000 and 70,000 words. Yet, the average student will use less than 5,000. Consequently, suggestions for the words can overwhelm the student or, more likely, the student will choose the incorrect word. MacArthur (1996) cites studies that show that approximately 40% of spelling errors made by fourth grade students were not identified by spelling checkers because they were homonyms or otherwise correct words. As an example, Matt kept using “herd” for “heard,” yet the spelling checker showed no spelling errors in the sentence. Every time I saw that error while going over his work, I drew a picture of a herd of stick-art antelope (or maybe horses – who could tell?) to show what that spelling meant. He eventually learned to correctly spell “heard.”

Second, it can be too easy to select the correct word. With the word processor that I’m writing this paper on, misspelled words are underlined in red. The students like this because they can immediately correct the word by merely clicking on it with the right mouse button and selecting the correct word from the list that pops up, assuming they can recognize the correct spelling. Does the student learn the correct spelling? I don’t know. It’s one thing to know how to spell a word, and quite another to recognize it.

On the one hand, for example, I can recognize many printed words in Japanese that use kanji. However, I could not, for the life of me, reproduce the “spelling” of most of them. (Japanese, in itself, potentially has several interesting points related to dyslexia and dysgraphia. See the appendix for a brief presentation of some of the points.) On the other hand, a student who keeps getting immediate feedback (because of the red underlining) about the same misspelling may, over time, learn that the word is one that he misspells, then he may begin to remember the correct spelling. I however, find it to be too easy to select a word from a list rather than just correct the spelling of words that I mistype.

One benefit that immediately underlining an unrecognized word in red brings is it gives the student an opportunity to immediately correct the spelling. As a result, his first attempt will have fewer spelling errors and will be much easier for him to decipher. In spite of it being much easier to revise writing on a word processor, I have seen students struggle when they had an excess amount of spelling correction they needed to do.

Edly and Morgenstern (1991) report on a spelling checker that not only offers a limited number of possible correct choices, geared to the grade level of the student, but that also requires the students to type the correct word from the list exactly as it appears. Although this at first appears time consuming, it reinforces the correct spelling of the word and helps the student build it into the kinesthetic memory.

Issues

Although word processors can provide help, other issues must still be studied. Herr and Asencio (1989) reported on one mother who independently came up with the idea of enrolling her learning disabled son in a typing course. She thought that since writing was such an obstacle for him, that typing would come in handy in junior high school. Then, in seventh grade, a teacher introduced the student to a computer. At that point his keyboarding skills were far superior to his handwriting skills, and he became convinced that a computer was the answer. His first computers were essentially text-based and command line driven. However, in college, when he had to use a Macintosh, he had trouble making the mouse do what he wanted it to do, and he found the use of icons and windows confusing. The authors, however, did not note if his visual-motor coordination problems with the mouse and the graphical user interface were manifestations of his disability or the complaints of a text based power user suddenly finding himself immersed in the point-and-click world of the Macintosh.

Merely making computers accessible to the learning disabled has little benefit. As MacArthur (1996) notes, simply having access to word processing has little impact on the revising behavior of students with learning disabilities. Wanderman (1997) goes on to note that in visiting with numerous school systems, “few really ‘get it’ and are using that knowledge to rework their core curricula. Many are using computers only for the delivery of content, drill and practice, and final editing and printing of writing.” I have seen this last phenomenon where fifth grade teachers have their students write their papers by hand. They then bring them into the computer lab where the students keyboard their papers into the computer. Students who have trouble writing derive no benefit from this practice.

Zimmerman and Conant (1994) report a study which investigated the prevalence of computer technology used with students with learning disabilities. They found disturbing results. Only fifty-five percent of the respondents reported the use of word processing programs in the classroom and only forty-two percent reported the use of hand spell checkers.  None of those surveyed used a speech synthesizer in the class room for reading text, yet seventy-five percent of those surveyed reported that reading difficulties prevented their students from using some programs.

My informal observations are that the students of teachers who integrate the computer into their curriculum (even to the point of using a computer with a large monitor to replace a conventional white board) are more apt to spend their free time on and with computers than students of the other teachers.

Additional word processing aids

Structured story writing is discussed by both Darvalics (1991) and MacArthur (1996). Structured story writing is essentially a program that provides a structure for composing a story. It can range from a list as simple as “fill-in-the-blank” to an entire set of queries that ask the writer appropriate questions to help her organize her thinking.

Outlining tools, as discussed by Zimmerman and Conant (1994), are valuable organizational tools that can help a writer, especially one with organizational difficulties, arrange his thoughts. For example, the first draft of this paper was created using an outlining program. Aiden’s fifth-grade teacher also taught several units where the students had to start their writing by using an outliner to organize their thoughts.

Word prediction programs, as discussed by Zimmerman and Conant (1994), MacArthur (1996), Niemann (1996), and Wanderman (1997) predict the word that the writer is looking for based on the first few keystrokes. When the correct word comes up, the writer can either select it by using the mouse or by keying the number beside the word. This technology can be used with those who have keyboarding problems due to lack of practice or physical disabilities.

Speech synthesis programs, also discussed by Zimmerman and Conant (1994), MacArthur (1996), and Niemann (1996), speak the students writing. Because the student can hear what he has actually written, he is much more likely to find errors that need correction. The speech synthesis can also support the reading of a student with dyslexia.

Summary

I can identify with those with dysgraphia. Although I don’t consider myself dysgraphic, I have always found it difficult to write with pen and paper, and my penmanship can generously be described as “awful.” Furthermore, composing has always been difficult for me. I find terrific ideas in my head, but as soon as I start to record them, they flee like wild horses on the plains. I have always envied those who seem to be able to just sit down and flow their thoughts coherently onto paper. Word processing has been a tremendous boon to me, so much so that I will do almost anything to keep from having to write more than a few notes by hand.

But what are the real results from the use of word processors along with proper programs of instruction? I had the good fortune of seeing Richard Murphy, my son’s fifth-grade teacher, use word processors with good instruction to develop his students’ writing. At the beginning of the year, Aiden avoided writing. Towards the end of the year, one of the most telling incidents occurred when my wife was commented on how good one of his stories was. He very matter-of-factly said, “Well, I like to write now.” This from a student who dreaded the thought of having to write.

*Names are pseudonyms and are not intended to reflect gender

 

Bibliography

Darvalics, J. (1991). A reason to write: newscasts & newsletters motivate LD students. TECH-NJ: Technology, Educators, & Children with Handicaps – New Jersey, 3(2), 10, 15.

Edly, M. & Morgenstern, T. (1991). Computers for writing and math in a South Brunswick resource room. TECH-NJ: Technology, Educators, & Children with Handicaps – New Jersey, 4(1), 3,13.

Hardman, M.L., Drew, C.J., & Egan, M.W. (1996). Human exceptionality: society, school, and family (pp.259-301). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Herr, J. & Asencio, K. (1989). A sophomore achieves his potential. TECH-NJ: Technology, Educators, & Children with Handicaps – New Jersey, 1(2), 4-5.

MacArthur, C.A. (1996). Using technology to enhance the writing processes of students with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 29(4), 344-354

Niemann, D. (1996). Word prediction makes the difference: learning disabilities in middle school. TECH-NJ: Technology, Educators, & CHildren with disabilities – New Jersey, 8(1). 4,8.

Wanderman, R. (1997). How computers change the writing process for people with learning disabilities.  (http://www.ldonline.org/ld_indepth/technology/poor_richard_article.html) LD OnLine: a service of The Learning Disabilities Project at WETA.

Zimmerman, B. & Conant, J. (1994). Powerful tools for students with learning disabilities. TECH-NJ: Technology, Educators, & CHildren with disabilities – New Jersey, 5(1), 14-15.

Appendix

Japanese writing consists of three native systems, kanji, hiragana, and katakana, and a fourth non-native system, romaji. Kanji literally means “Han character” and were appropriated from China about 1300 years ago. These are the ideograms used to represent ideas, and are what most people think of when they think of Japanese. Although there are theoretically some fifty-thousand kanji, the Japanese Ministry of Education has selected less than two thousand that it requires to be taught during  the twelve years of public school. Words that can be represented by kanji are typically represented by only one or two kanji. However, each kanji typically has from two to five different pronunciations, so if you see an unknown kanji, you won’t necessarily be able to relate it to a spoken word you know.

Hiragana and katakana, collectively referred to as kana, are two phonetic syllabaries, but both contain the same sounds. Although the concept isn’t quite equivalent, it is somewhat similar to the relationship between small letters and capital letters in the alphabet. Hiragana is used for Japanese words not represented by kanji, words for which the writer does not wish to use the kanji (e.g., children’s books or if the kanji is complex or unusual) and word endings. Katakana has a function similar to italics in English. It is used to represent foreign words or provide emphasis. Romaji is merely the use of Roman letters, that is, the English alphabet, to represent Japanese phonetics. It typically takes two romaji characters to represent the same sound that one kana will represent.

Most newspapers use only the recommend kanji, then use kana for the rest.  In the event that a writer wants to indicate the pronunciation of the kanji, he will use furigana, which is merely small kana placed above the kanji.

Interestingly enough, Japanese word processors work very similarly to word prediction software mentioned above. The writer keys in the phonetic pronunciation of a word, and as he progresses, the applicable kanji show up in a list. He then selects the appropriate kanji or elects to stay with the kana. Two interesting issues arise with the use of word processors in Japan.

First, I have heard Japanese complain about the fact that with the ubiquitous use of word processors, people are forgetting how to write the less common kanji even though they can read them with no trouble. Second, although the keyboard is the standard QWERTY keyboard, it also has the two different kana on the same keys. The writer selects which character set he will use by using special function keys on the keyboard. It is possible for the writer to write anything in Japanese without using romaji. Yet, almost exclusively, Japanese key only the phonetic pronunciation using the romaji keys, that is, the standard QWERTY keys.

Although I have not looked into the literature on this, Japanese, and I presume other character based languages, may provide some unique insight on learning disabilities. The kana are typically very simple characters, similar to our alphabet, and I assume that Japanese with dyslexia would have the same problems learning to read the kana as those with dyslexia do in reading English. Note, that Japanese is typically written without any spaces, so it can seem to run together. However, as the kanji tend to be much more complex, would readers with dyslexia have the same problem, or would they have a different problem? Kanji is usually composed of radicals, i.e., basic kanji, additional strokes tying the radicals together into a whole new character. Some insight may be gained by the way that I’ve seen Japanese try to recall the stroke order of the kanji. When they have trouble remembering, they will invariably hold their palm up and use their forefinger on the other hand to trace the kanji on the palm. Contrast this with English speakers, who try to recall spelling by sounding the word out.

With respect to haptic dysfunction causation of dysgraphia, interesting further research would be to see if such students in Japan would also have difficulties in learning to properly grasp and use hashi (chopsticks.)

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