If your child has illegible handwriting well into elementary school, struggles with spacing, has an awkward pencil grip, can’t seem to put his thoughts down on paper, and shuts down when you put a worksheet in front of him even though he may know all the answers, there’s a good chance his struggles with writing may be caused by dysgraphia, a lesser known learning disability.
When people ask me why we chose to homeschool, I often site the heavy emphasis on writing in public school that made learning drudgery and homework overwhelming for my son, since he couldn’t keep up with all the worksheets (in first grade – how sad). With my son’s permission, I’m going to share with you our journey over the past 5 years of homeschooling, what a typical school day looks like for the writing-averse, and how he’s gone from hating writing to loving it.
It was actually a relief when I figured out that dysgraphia was the root of my son’s resistance to doing worksheets, not belligerence or laziness. He naturally loves to learn, and since we made developing a love of learning one of our top priorities for elementary school, it quickly became obvious that we needed to separate learning from writing. I made accommodations for him in his other subjects by:
- limiting worksheets to one a day, for grammar practice only
- switching to oral spelling tests (using lists from The Natural Speller)
- allowing him to dictate his math work to me, meaning he would solve problems aloud while I wrote down what he said
- using vocabulary flash cards, games (like Bananagrams, Great States Jr., Math Bingo) and computer programs (like Spelling City, online math games) instead of worksheets for extra practice
- testing his comprehension of what he read by letting him give oral reports or simply discussing what he learned
Handwriting During the Elementary Years
When he did do writing, our focus was on the mechanics of writing. Since his printing was atrocious, I gave up on trying to correct the damage that was done during his public school years and turned my attention toward teaching him to correctly form letters in cursive (since it’s easier to train the brain to do something new than to undo patterns that have become entrenched). We waited to learn cursive until 4th grade, and used the Handwriting Without Tears book. I tried to make it fun by emphasizing the artistic aspect of cursive, showing him various ways to form the letters and letting him choose what worked for him. For the most part, we skipped capitols since I prefer printing capitols anyway. His daily worksheet was done in cursive and required to be legible, but learning took place in other courses through the means outlined above. We also used special graph paper for math to help him keep his numbers properly lined up in columns, since dysgraphic kids also have trouble with letter and number spacing.
As for creative writing, we did very little unless initiated by him. I used the book, Draw Then Write, to encourage writing practice in a fun and interesting way, since he liked how-to-draw books. He would follow the directions for how to draw an object (animal, car, etc.), fill in the background to make it a picture, then write a few sentences about his picture. He was allowed to do creative writing in printing, and I didn’t bug him about his lettering, but did require him to use proper capitalization and punctuation.
Because writing was so uncomfortable for him during his elementary years, we just focused on practicing cursive and writing grammatically correct sentences. My husband and I both love writing, and we wanted our kids to share our love of writing, so it was difficult for me to keep writing on the back burner for so many years, but our patience has paid off. My only regret is that I stopped letting him dictate stories to me to type (like he did when he was little) because I wanted to encourage him to write them himself, which he never did.
Writing During the Middle School Years
In 6th grade, I had him go through the keyboarding lessons on the Free Typing Games website. (There are also really fun games for practice, if you don’t mind all the ads.) Learning how to type, with proper fingering to speed up the process, was a game changer last year. All of a sudden, writing was about getting his thoughts down on paper, instead of physical torture. Experts don’t know why keyboarding is easier for kids with dysgraphia, but it is. We still focus on one handwriting assignment each day, but are finally free to explore longer writing projects by using the computer to type them.
I’ll admit, waiting until middle school to start teaching writing can make you feel a little anxious and behind the curve, but Julie Bogart, author of the Brave Writer program for homeschoolers, has helped put my fears to rest. She points out that writing should first and foremost be about putting your thoughts on paper (not trying to figure out what your teacher wants you to write), and emphasizes creative writing before teaching expository (essay) writing. I also read The Little Book of Talent, which emphasizes mastering foundational skills before moving on to more advanced skills. So my writing goals for 6th grade were to simply master writing interesting, grammatically correct sentences. I let my son choose 10 of his vocabulary words to type into sentences, which he loved since he’s naturally creative and expressive.
Our Current Homeschool Day/Week for 7th Grade
Here’s roughly what our regular studies look like right now, with a continued emphasis on learning through non-written means (mostly on the computer), handwriting practice, and beginning to explore creative writing.
- Spanish through the Rosetta Stone program on the computer
- Pre-Algebra through the Teaching Textbooks program on the computer
- Spelling lists from the Natural Speller, with mostly oral tests and occasional written tests (writing the spelling word only, but using it in a sentence orally)
- Grammar/proofreading practice on IXL.com (where you can do up to 20 questions on their language arts program a day for free)
- Independent study on various science and history topics of interest through reading library books and watching educational videos on Discovery Education Streaming (including favorites like Mythbusters!)
- Family Read Aloud (he sometimes reads, sometimes follows along while I read from our family’s favorite series, The Heroes of Olympus, a continuation of the Percy Jackson series)
- One writing exercise/project per day
- Weekly classes (P.E. through our city’s Rec Center, science lab on various STEM topics, and cooking class with Mom!)
Weekly Writing Activities
- Monday Copywork: Julie Bogart helped me see the value of doing copywork once a week with the sole purpose of focusing on the mechanics of writing. I did not do copywork in the early elementary years because it would have felt like torture, but now that most writing is done through typing, copywork is doable. This is mainly when we practice cursive now. I have him copy down a Bible verse that has been helpful to me each Monday in a special journal just for recording verses (which I hope will become a valuable keepsake). I also encourage him to memorize his verse each week, and share with him why this verse is meaningful to me.
- Tuesday Word(s) of the Day: He loves our Word of the Day vocabulary practice because this is when he gets to focus on writing an interesting sentence. I copy two new vocabulary cards from a workbook I found at the thrift store, and challenge him to use it in an interesting sentence on the back and illustrate it. He’s allowed to print, so the focus is on correct grammar and punctuation, as well as proper use of the word in as creative a way as possible. When he’s finished, he files his words alphabetically in a file box. When we finish this book, we’ll move on to the SAT vocabulary words.
- Wednesday Family Free Write: Since my husband works from home on Wednesdays, we do this as a family after breakfast. We set a timer for 5 minutes, announce the topic, then everyone writes. Afterward, we take turns sharing, with my daughter (the youngest) going first and my husband (the funniest writer) going last. By allowing them to read their work, I get to enjoy hearing their story without the distraction of getting hung up on proofreading mistakes, so this has been really enjoyable for all of us. Once again, it was Julie Bogart who introduced me to the concept and importance of the 5 min. free write, and she’ll even send you daily writing tips if you sign up on her website! Sometimes I use her writing prompts, and sometimes I pull ideas from Rip The Page: Adventures in Creative Writing. The benefit of the free write is that it allows you to develop your unique writing voice and try different techniques without the burden of having to polish every story. Sometimes the kids want to finish a story they started, and so I try to allow extra time for creative writing. But sometimes they don’t want to, and that’s fine. The benefit of doing it as a family is that they get to hear more advanced writers (in a non-competitive way) as an example of the kind of writing they’re working toward. I’m already seeing my son’s unique writing voice develop, which is exciting.
- Thursday Note-Taking or Writing Project: This day is flexible, depending on what we’re studying. Sometimes, the kids will spend time typing a story they’re working on. Last fall, my son spent 2 months working on an 8-page Lego Christmas story for his cousins, complete with pictures of Lego creations he created to illustrate it! It was a huge accomplishment for him. I helped with some proofreading, but did not make any rewrite suggestions (also on the advice of Julie Bogart). When the kids work on their own stories, my focus is on proper sentence structure – the foundation of writing – and breaking it up into logical paragraphs (the next step). However, since Christmas we’ve also begun preparing to take notes through the use of listening guides that accompany some of the videos on Discovery Streaming. I basically just give them a worksheet to jot down answers on as they listen to the video (and reward them with M&Ms). Because it’s a video, not a lecture, we can control the speed of delivery of the information, so we can pause it if the kids need more time to write before moving on. I’ve also let them choose a topic to study through reading and watching a video, and encourage them to jot down notes before giving an oral report later. I don’t look at their notes, but try to encourage them to see note-taking as something of value to them, not me.
- Friday Dictation: This is also new this semester, on the advice of – you guessed it – Julie Bogart (who is, apparently, my mentor). However, I’m primarily focusing on the listening aspect of dictation, and keeping it light and fun through the use of mad libs. The kids each fill out half of the list of words needed (which has the added bonus of reviewing the parts of speech) and are required to write legibly in either in printing or cursive. Then I give them a copy of the story with blanks for them to fill in as I read the story with their words. They love this and have no idea that it’s practice for filling in listening guides!
You may have noticed that I switched to “they” partway through my list. Yes, I have a daughter who is in 5th grade. She does the same work as her brother (because she can, not because I’m pushing her to do advanced work), although she does a little more writing for spelling because it helps her learn. She is not dysgraphic, and does lots of extracurricular writing because she loves to write.
Next year, we will begin essay writing on topics of interest to the kids. There will be plenty of opportunities to develop their research and report writing skills in high school.
Love of Learning Is the Key
If you have a dysgraphic child, I just want to encourage you to relax. The “standards” and benchmarks imposed on kids in public school are not indicators of what your child has to do at each age. When you step back and take the long view, there is plenty of time to prepare your kids for essay writing before they leave for college. What matters most is that they develop a love of learning. In fact, by not requiring my kids to write a report on every book they ever read, they fell in love with reading. By not requiring endless science worksheets or reports on field trips to children’s museums, my kids fell in love with science. By spending lots of time engaged in discussion instead of doing reading comprehension worksheets, my kids have become articulate speakers (based on comments from their Sunday School teachers, orthodontist, strangers at the dollar store…). Just because the public school system relies on worksheets to measure knowledge doesn’t mean that’s the best way to learn.
So don’t push your child to write everything if he’s resistant or give up hope that he’ll ever want to write. Yes, it’s hard to be patient and not compare our kids to others, but all kids have strengths and weaknesses. Don’t let one weakness become the focal point of your child’s education, whether it’s writing, math, reading, or whatever. Just focus on helping your child enjoy learning, stretch himself a little each day in his areas of weakness, and celebrate each little milestone. That’s really what this post is about; I’m celebrating a child who previously hated writing and now begs to do creative writing before school.
Just keep loving, hoping, and asking God for guidance and patience. (Oh, how I’ve prayed for guidance and patience every day!) I give all glory to God for helping me find the resources mentioned above at just the right time for just the right price, and for giving me patience beyond what I thought I was capable of before I started homeschooling. He will help you, too!