I have an 11 year-old daughter who will be entering seventh grade next year. She was diagnosed with learning disabilities in first grade and is severely dysgraphic. While she has learned to write fairly well, it is still a struggle for her and her writing is hard to read. I’ve asked her special education teacher to work with her on handwriting because I want her to be able to write clearly. Her teacher thinks that we should just let her use the computer because handwriting is too difficult and frustrating. But I think it is important for my daughter to be able to write with pen and paper too. If she always uses a computer, won’t that make things more difficult for her later when she has to write things out? You can’t always use a computer for writing, and I’m worried about what she’ll do when she’s not in school anymore and her job might not make accommodations for her.
This is a sticky question and one that causes a fair bit of disagreement in special education. Many teachers wonder the same thing — they want students to develop legible handwriting to ease their way in the world outside of school, but they also want students to be able to write and express themselves without being hindered by their physical difficulties with writing. And many parents and teachers worry that a student’s hard-to-read handwriting will affect their ability to perform basic functions like writing down information on job applications, or filling out forms at the doctor’s office. After all, while many things can be done with a computer, much of the world is still dominated by pen and paper tasks.
There isn’t an easy answer to any of these questions. As with any technology tool used to assist students with disabilities, there is a concern that an ‘assistive” tool may be used as a crutch . If a student always uses a calculator for math tasks, will they ever understand the underlying math? In the case of a dysgraphic student, it might be helpful to look at the tasks your daughter is being asked to do and what the goal is. If the goal is simply for your daughter to be able to write basic information as clearly as she can (her name and address for example), then handwriting instruction may be beneficial. However, if the goal is for your daughter to be able to use writing to express her ideas, demonstrate knowledge, or tell a story, then her difficulties with handwriting are making the writing process unnecessarily difficult. Perhaps a balanced approach will work best for your daughter. Try to find simple ways to eliminate the need for some handwriting tasks. Portable keyboards/laptops like the AlphaSmart can also be a good solution.
Such products are small and light and easy to take from class to class. Other options might include speech-to-text software to allow your daughter to more easily commit her thoughts and ideas to ‘paper”. Check out the Tech Matrix to search for different speech-to-text programs and possibly word prediction programs, depending on your daughter’s needs.
You may want to check out this article on writing with technology by Richard Wanderman about his experiences with dyslexia and dysgraphia and how computers have affected his writing.