Help! My Child Won’t Write!

Linda Silverman's picture
“He struggles with written work.” 
“His handwriting is disastrous!”
A frustrated, profoundly gifted 8 year old, with below average handwriting speed, tried to explain his “writing dilemma” to his teacher:
“One of the largest worries about homework is writing. Not just writing, but writing slowly. If I write a paragraph it takes 20 minutes. My mom says to hurry up, but I say, “I can’t write quickly. Because of my slow writing it takes me longer to get my homework done and to be able to play.”
When we ask in our Developmental Questionnaire, “What activities during the school day does your child enjoy the least?” the answer is often, HANDWRITING. Why is handwriting such an issue for so many gifted children?  Let me count the ways… 
Giftedness is advanced reasoning ability, not writing speed. Gifted children are asynchronous. Their minds develop faster than their hands and feet. A six year old with a 9-year-old mind still has 6-year-old physical development. His mind generates expectations that his hands cannot possibly meet. The perfect storm for frustration! Asynchrony must be taken into account when teaching the gifted. To be properly challenged, they need to be taught at the level of their advanced minds, but given more time to write and shorter written assignments.
It is important to note that writing speed bears very little relationship to abstract reasoning.* (More on this in the Appendix of the article.) I used to joke, “If your child’s handwriting is illegible, encourage him to become a doctor; that appears to be a prerequisite for getting a medical degree!” 
Gifted boys seem to suffer with writing woes more than gifted girls. The problem has been documented cross-culturally. A French psychologist, Jean Charles Terrassier (1985), coined the term “dyssynchrony” to refer to the uneven development of gifted children.  One of the most frequent imbalances occurs in the rates at which gifted children master writing as opposed to reading. Many gifted children read before school age. Terrassier contends, “the concomitant problem with children who read so easily is their exceptional difficulty in learning to write” (p. 267). Terrassier found the discrepancy between reading and writing more prevalent in males. 
Given that all gifted children are asynchronous, handwriting speed is always slower than thinking speed, Coding (eye-hand coordination and speed) is usually the lowest subtest score for the gifted and is unrelated to general intelligence, and that cross-cultural research with the gifted finds the same pattern of strengths and weaknesses—particularly for boys, it follows that gifted children favor thinking about abstract ideas much more than writing those ideas.
But wait. There’s more. Visual-spatial learners, those who have stronger right-hemispheric gifts, have a harder time expressing themselves in writing than orally. They may dominate class discussions with brilliant ideas and then turn in weak written assignments. They do better when given alternate assignments, such as creating photographic essays, maps, PowerPoint presentations and other visual representations to demonstrate mastery of concepts.
And then there are the twice-exceptional children who are both gifted and learning disabled. The most frequent difficulty of 2e children that we have seen at GDC is handwriting. Speed is just one factor. Some cannot form letters fluidly. Some cannot remember the direction of certain letters. Some, like the boy quoted at the beginning, have such poor eye-hand coordination that it uses up all their energy to write a simple sentence. Some cannot organize a paragraph. Some cannot spell or punctuate or capitalize. Some are not able to translate their ideas into words. Some panic when they see a blank sheet of paper and go blank themselves. And many become chronic underachievers as a means of avoiding the emotionally and, sometimes, physically painful act of handwriting.  
Causes for these difficulties are complex. Birthing issues, such as very long labor, a cord wrapped around part of the body, emergency C-sections, the need for oxygen at birth, and, perhaps, prolonged use of Pitocin (artificial oxytocin) during delivery, can cause delays in sensory integration. Early detection and intervention are strongly recommended. A pediatric occupational therapist should be contacted to evaluate any signs of clumsiness, switching hands when engaging in activities, establishing handedness, inability to cross the midline of the body, or difficulties with writing, drawing, holding a pencil or cutting.
Chronic ear infections can also cause handwriting problems. Fine motor control and sequencing are often related to auditory processing. If a child had more than 9 ear infections in the first three years of life, a central auditory processing evaluation is recommended. 
Difficulty with handwriting has many labels. Special educators call it Dysgraphia; occupational therapists call it Sensory Processing Disorder; psychologists call it Developmental Coordination Disorder. I call it Writing Disability. No matter which label you use, you are looking at a real disability. Here is a checklist I developed for parents and teachers to recognize Writing Disability (Silverman, 1991, 2002).
Diagnostic Checklist of Writing Disability
Linda Kreger Silverman
  1. Is his posture awkward?
  2. Does he hold his pencil strangely?
  3. Can you see the tension run though his hand, arm, furrowed brow?
  4. Does it take him much longer to write than anyone else his age?
  5. Does he fatigue easily and want to quit?
  6. Does he space his letters on the paper in an unusual way?
  7. Does he form his letters oddly?
  8. Does he mix upper and lower case letters?
  9. Does he mix cursive and manuscript?
  10. Are his cursive letters disconnected?
  11. Does he prefer manuscript to cursive after others have switched to cursive?
  12. Does his lettering lack fluidity? (looks like chicken-scratching)
  13. Does he still reverse letters after age 7?
  14. Is his handwriting illegible?
  15. Is his spelling terrible?
  16. Does he avoid writing words he can’t spell?
  17. Does he leave off the endings of words?
  18. Does he confuse singulars and plurals?
  19. Does he mix up small words, like “the” and “they”?
  20. Does he leave out soft sounds, like the “d” in gardener?
  21. Is his grasp of phonics weak? (Is it difficult to decipher what he was trying to spell?)
I use the generic “he” because this disability strikes many more males. If you see half or more of these symptoms, your child needs comprehensive assessment and modifications in the classroom. Here are the classroom accommodations we usually recommend in our GDC reports:
Accommodations Needed for Writing Disability
Linda Kreger Silverman
  1. Reduce writing assignments.
  2. Let the student use a computer for written assignments.
  3. If the student cannot master a keyboard, allow him or her to use voice-activated technology, such as Dragon Naturally Speaking. (It takes time to train your Dragon.)
  4. Allow the student more time for in-class tests and assignments.
  5. Encourage the student to use a tape recorder for note-taking.
  6. Ask another student to act as a recorder and take notes during lectures.
  7. Have the student dictate assignments to an aide or parent.
  8. Give the student oral tests.
  9. Enable the student to demonstrate mastery of material by other means besides written tests (e.g., making a videotape, diorama, mural, etc.).
  10. Grade on content separate from mechanics, with more emphasis on content.
  11. Try calligraphy! This sometimes works, particularly if the child is artistic.
Be sure to record all accommodations in a student’s permanent record, so that he or she can use that documentation to apply for accommodations on College Board examinations. The small adaptation of more time or use of a computer can dramatically change a student’s life path. And the paper trail can assist the student in gaining acceptance to a challenging college.
Once upon a time, handwriting was the only means of preserving knowledge. Now, in the 21st century, keyboarding and dictation skills are surpassing handwriting in importance in adult lives. Computer skills are essential to college success, and are increasingly becoming central in high schools and middle schools. Some executives use handwriting only for writing checks. 
I still believe handwriting is valuable as an integrative activity, but only if it is taught as an art form, and children are taught to write slowly, the way your grandparents were instructed. Do you have anything that was written in your grandmother’s or great grandmother’s hand? Did you ever have the pleasure of watching her write? Your great grandmother was told that her signature was a window into her Soul. She wrote very slowly and carefully. When she had to take notes quickly, she used shorthand. You know what can be a modern form of shorthand? Text messaging! 
Children should not be punished for poor handwriting. Their grades should not be lowered. Instead, we should see poor handwriting as a Writing Disability, and provide the technological accommodations available to us today to enable a disabled child to be successful.
Silverman, L. K. (1991, Spring). Help for the hidden handicapped. Highly Gifted Children, 7(2), 10-11.
Silverman, L. K. (2002).  Upside-down brilliance: The visual-spatial learner. Denver: DeLeon.
Terrassier, J-C.  (1985).  Dyssynchrony-uneven development.  In J. Freeman (Ed.).  The psychology of gifted children (pp. 265-274).  New York:  John Wiley.
*On g-loadings
The g-loadings of subtests on standardized IQ tests demonstrate the lack of correlation between thinking and speed of handwriting. The degree to which a subtest measures general intelligence (abstract reasoning) is symbolized by its “g-loading.” A g-loading is considered good if it is at least .70. When a g-loading is less than .50, it is considered poor. Vocabulary consistently ranks highest in g-loading on both the WISC-IV (.82) and the WISC-V (.72), as well as in other tests of intelligence. Coding, a measure of eye-hand coordination and speed, consistently ranks close to the bottom of the heap (.48 on the WISC-IV and .36 on the WISC-V). The distinction for worst g-loading goes to Cancellation, a measure of Processing Speed (.25 on the WISC-IV and .21 on the WISC-V). Thankfully, Cancellation is not included in the calculation of the Full Scale IQ score. Our research at GDC shows that Coding is often the lowest score obtained by gifted children. (We don’t administer Cancellation.)