Stubborn, willful, or something else? What’s the difference between “won’t write” and “can’t write,” and how are you to know which describes your child?

A teacher whose gifted students were referred to my Resource Room Language Arts program once said, “They just won’t write anything for me … they just stare into space with their pencil in their hands, or their laptops in front of them.”

My job as a Resource Room teacher was to diagnose and fix the problem. As I worked with these bright, hard-working, yet reluctant students, I found all of them were struggling from an undiagnosed dysgraphia. I describe dysgraphia as having a “2×4 (board) between your head and your hands.” They know what they want to say, but cannot think and write at the same time. They often appear to be “sloppy, lazy, and unmotivated.” But they actually have a disability that is causing this writing meltdown.

Too Much Energy Required

Think back to when you were learning to drive. You needed all your concentration to think about staying in your lane, engaging the turn signal, braking before a turn, accelerating through it, and watching surrounding cars. This took so much effort, you didn’t engage in conversation, or even sing. Eventually, the processes of driving transferred from your “concentrating” brain, to your “automatic” brain hemisphere. Now, you could drive and think at the same time. But what if you still had to think about all those steps? You likely would avoid driving, since it would be stressful. The same goes for writing. When a child first learns to write, it requires all his concentration. After a time, the act of writing (or typing) is transferred into the student’s automatic hemisphere. Now, he can think and write simultaneously.

For my students, this process of pencil to paper, or thoughts to keyboard had not transferred to their “automatic” hemisphere. As a result, writing took so much effort that they avoided it.

Step One: Getting Rid of the Dysgraphia

I was excited to work with these kids, because in graduate school, I had learned a simple exercise that eliminated dysgraphia. It’s designed to help internalize their midline, while transferring the act of writing (head to hand communication) to the right, “automatic hemisphere.” Each day, at the beginning of class, we took ten to fifteen minutes to do the “writing eight” exercise, so named because part of the exercise was placing an eight horizontally on paper, representing right brain activity, and then placing the letters of the alphabet on the correct side of the eight, representing left brain activity. This integrated both sides of the brain, and in a few months, opened their writing learning gate. Now they could take notes while hearing a lecture with ease. The pencil (or keyboard) was no longer their enemy!

Step Two: Organizing Loose Thought Patterns

Another hallmark of these struggling writers is that they had “loose thought patterns.” They could not think in an organized manner, and therefore, could not write in an organized manner, no matter how much practice they had. I needed to teach them step by step how to think about their writing, and then how to organize it. Since all these students had symptoms of dysgraphia, we did not use paper. Instead, we did the pre-writing together on the white board. Once a week, we “wrote” a paper together. I would use the white board as our “thinking platform.” We used what I call the “Universal Writing Method,” which is visualizing our whole paragraph or paper before writing it. I used “bubbles” for each part of our paragraph—intro, supporting statements, conclusion—with only a “trigger word” in each one, to remind us of what we were going to write. Using these visual cues helped them organize their thoughts as they wrote.

Then, we did the all-important “zany corrections.” We put their papers on the overhead projector, and together gave “points” for all the good things in the paper—capital letters, periods, adjectives, etc. The points equaled a reward—bubble gum, more computer time, etc. No rewrites were done. We just rolled any mistakes or new concepts into our next lesson. After they had mastered this method, and were writing papers effortlessly, they were transferred into regular Language Arts classrooms. In homeschool, the student would then be able to use any regular Language Arts writing program.

This method also worked for my younger “non-writers.” They first learned how to write a sentence, using the phonetic and sight words they knew. (I always kept my right-brain sight word cards out, to trigger their memory.) After they were writing three sentences, I started them on the white board method of writing simple five sentence paragraphs.

Copyright 2019, The Old Schoolhouse®. Used with permission. All rights reserved by the Author. Originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade publication for homeschool moms.

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Dianne Craft has a master’s degree in special education. She has twenty-five years of experience teaching bright, hardworking children and teens who have to work too hard to learn.