What is like to homeschool a dysgraphic child? What if your child can’t learn to write the way the other kids or the school thinks they should? Every child is different, but reading the stories of what others did, can help other parents. So, I present a true story of educating a dysgraphic child. Names and identifiers have been changed.
Preschool Was Not Fun.
When Rae was four, she had her first experience with group education. The tiny preschool she attended was a miserable experience for her. She’d seen other students get in trouble for talking when they weren’t supposed to. So she never talked. Not to the teacher, or anyone else during class. She found the lessons boring, generally. And each day they tried to teach her to write by forcing her hand to hold the pencil and make the marks.
Rae knew all the letters by name. She knew most of their sounds. But her little hand couldn’t grip the pencil “right”. She couldn’t even draw a good circle or square, much less a letter. The teachers didn’t try anything that would help a child with a delay though. They didn’t present her with blocks, play dough, or coloring activities. They just kept forcing her to do what they wanted, even when she refused. The teachers took her hand and made her write her name over and over. But she couldn’t do it on her own.
Just before Christmas I realized how miserable she was at this preschool, and pulled her out. For a while, I was able to intentionally ignore how bad it was for her. I justified it with thoughts that it was only 2 days a week. And those were the days I worked. I needed affordable childcare.
Thankfully, a friend agreed to keep her instead. The preschool told me she wasn’t ready for kindergarten. But we’d already decided to homeschool for the fall.
Kindergarten At Home.
As a 5-year-old kindergartner at home, Rae didn’t miraculously start writing. And I didn’t care. I read her great books and we talked about them. We did science experiments, went to the zoo, and the local Children’s Museum. We built with blocks, sang songs and made art. She already knew her colors and body parts in English, so I taught them to her in Spanish. She went on playdates and made friends.
I also put Rae in a preschool gymnastics class that year. She never did learn to do a cartwheel, but the class made her stronger and more coordinated, which was my real goal.
It was a great year of kindergarten. We had fun and learned so much. And she didn’t learn to write anything.
Starting First Grade, But Still Not Writing.
When Rae turned 6, we started first grade-level work. She could read various easy reader books. However, she still couldn’t hold a pencil in a tripod grip. So, I swallowed all my pride and took her to see a private occupational therapist. She loved therapy, and would happily do things for the therapist that she refused to do for me. I had all the right toys and knew all the right games to play. But Rae just didn’t want to do those difficult fine motor tasks for me. The praise of her therapist and a sticker at the end of the session worked wonders though. It took nearly the whole school year for Rae to develop that tripod grip and become ready to write.
So, what did first grade look like while I waited on her to be ready? I read out loud to Rae from a wide variety of books. I read her a history program, and we did hands-on projects that went with it. We did more science experiments and took more field trips. We had long conversations about all the things she thought about.
Because writing for math wasn’t going well either, we did alternative math and practical math. She counted money using real money. She got a watch that taught her to tell time. And we made an abacus from string, beads and a small box. She took that tiny abacus everywhere for a while and taught herself adding and subtracting with it. She took lessons and learned to swim. Meanwhile, we continued to work on reading short books with easy words. So, Rae’s education continued, without doing any writing that year either.
Slow and Steady, Our Path Towards Writing.
When second grade started, Rae was finally able to hold a pencil. At 7-year-old, she learned to write her name.
Did we jump right into writing? No. We spent months just working on copying and writing each letter so that it was the right shape and size. At one point, we took a break from writing letters and learned numbers, so that she could use a math workbook.
Learning to write was a slow and difficult process for her. So, I kept lessons short. We’d do only about 5 minutes of handwriting a day. We spent time playing with making letters in other ways or doing mazes for pencil skills. That didn’t count towards the 5 minutes a day, but Rae didn’t think of that as writing so she didn’t mind.
We added a math workbook that year, but all her other subjects continued to be done orally. There was no reason to make her write more than she was capable of, so I didn’t.
By third grade, Rae could write all her letters and later that year I even introduced cursive. She learned to sign her first name in cursive, but that was about all that stuck with her from it that year. Most of her writing that year, was just copy work. Writing was still a real struggle. It wasn’t something she did for fun. But I didn’t let that hold her back from the subjects she liked most: science and history. Much of her copy work was taken from one of those subjects. The goal was generally to copy a sentence once or twice a week correctly with good form. In the meantime, her reading skills blossomed and she started reading chapter books to herself.
In fourth grade, we started working on spelling and grammar as subjects for the first time. Those were the next steps towards writing on her own, but they were skills that were slow to develop. We used a spelling program that was multi-sensory and went at her pace. I didn’t push to move fast, I just plugged away at a lesson each week. Despite being a strong reader now, she had no natural ability to remember what words looked like and spell them.
Middle School: When Things Started Coming Together.
By 8th grade, spelling had finally clicked for Rae. I know some kids don’t do spelling in middle school, but for her it was important. Although she understood grammar rules, Rae’s writing often lacked punctuation. That continued through high school. I suspect the dysgraphia was to blame, her brain just didn’t click with punctuation at all. We also kept doing copy work and working on handwriting all through middle school. We came back to cursive in 6th and 7th grade, and it made more sense to her then. Working on cursive helped her print handwriting too.
Sometime in middle school, she wrote her first story that wasn’t assigned. She wrote on paper and then learned to type her stories into the computer. She had a blog for a while and I was her editor. But despite this, I didn’t give long writing assignments to her for school. I kept her assignments short because writing was still such a struggle. I didn’t want to kill the joy she was having in expressing herself through writing with making it a chore.
High School Writing Was Still at a Different Pace Than the Typical School Program.
In 9th grade, she took a course on how to write a good sentence and focused on grammar some more. In 10th grade, she took a course in writing good paragraphs. We finally did a program in 11th grade that was designed to teach her to write an essay. So, as an 11th grader, she wrote her first essay. At the end of that school year, she tested into Honors English at our local community college. Instead of taking that course her senior year, she took a psychology course that required a three-page essay each week. She got a 10/10 on all but one of those. Her writing skills were on college-level during her senior year of high school, even though it all happed so late.
Dysgraphia Didn’t Stop Her!
What I want you to know from this story, dear reader, is that she made it! She got there. Rae hit every writing “milestone” late. She didn’t write a million essays, but she talked about those ideas. All those years of oral reports and discussions with me turned out to be good practice for college essays. She didn’t need to write research papers as a child to be ready to write them as an adult. What she did need was to be pushed to keep trying at her own pace. To keep working on laying the foundation year after year.
To summarize, Rae couldn’t write her name until she was 7. She did every single writing lesson “late.” She didn’t write an essay until she was 16. But that year, she was able to make A’s on her college writing assignments. A public school never would have given her the chance to get where she is now. That’s why homeschooling is so important for children who need to learn at their own pace. There is nothing developmentally appropriate about the pace that schools set for children to learn reading, writing, and math. So, if your child isn’t “on-track” by that time table, just keep going. It doesn’t mean anything.
About the Author
Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.