The Intersection of Reading & Writing
by Ashley Roberts
We as parents tend to get lost on the road to remediation because there is so much to learn, and with various and possibly multiple diagnoses for our children, sometimes it becomes a juggling act of where to start, how much can I afford, what is the school willing to do, and more.
I know for my family, we had a diagnosis of both dyslexia and dysgraphia, but we did not deal with our son's dysgraphia, not when we should have, and now we are playing catch up. The facts of our story are:
At the point of diagnosis my son could not read at all. We thought the dysgraphia diagnosis was simply an explanation for his messy handwriting, and dismissed the need to remediate as we dove head first into a full schedule of private reading remediation, all the while trying to protect enough of his life where we could allow him to be a child.
I asked a lot of questions, but never received a full understanding of what dysgraphia was and what the diagnosis really meant. Without a full understanding, we continued to ignore his dysgraphia.
There isn't as much information readily available on dysgraphia, and since it is a broader "bucket" than dyslexia, with various and possibly co-existing components, it is difficult to know where to start.
Fast forward to 5th grade and my child hits another wall - this time it's the dysgraphia wall, and boy did he hit it hard.
There is a lot of talk about the 3rd grade wall, but my personal opinion on this "second wall" is that the child is either diagnosed late or isn't receiving proper remediation. There's a secondary component too - incomplete diagnoses.
The downside of a school evaluation is that, at least around where I live, the evaluator will only take into account what is documented by the parent, and maybe the teacher, but will not extend possible evaluations beyond what is requested, despite the possible appearance of additional SLD's and co-morbid conditions during the evaluation process. The sad truth, and boy am I going to get some hate for this statement, is that the district already does not want to diagnosis the child, so why on Earth are they going to go above and beyond to diagnose based on additional observation during the evaluation? The answer is, most won't, even though I can argue there is an ethical obligation to do so, but then again we are dealing with a governmental entity so we won't discuss ethics here.
So, with a possibly limited request, a child's additional SLD's and comorbid conditions can remain undiagnosed.
The problem is this creates an incomplete picture of the child and then the remediation will falter, be a struggle, because the whole child is not being remediated. The full educational equation of the child is not understood, so the remediation is not targeted, is not specific enough, to address the child's needs. That's what I think the so-called "3rd grade wall" really is.
With an absence of proper information, or an apparent difficulty in finding relevant studies, published works, etc., parents can be left to struggle, trying to figure out what to do. Maybe you're like me too, which many of my friends with dysgraphic children have done as well, is to ignore it until it stands taller than the dyslexia and screams "DEAL WITH ME NOW!"
Because here is the problem - we have lost the understanding that to write is an art, a skill of it's own that requires even more instruction than how to read. Speaking is not the same thing as writing. Grammar and syntax are not simple things to grasp and master, and mastery is required to be an even moderate writer.
No, I'm not talking about composing the next great American novel, I'm talking about the ability to shape proper papers for school.
See, Lucy Calkins got it all wrong. The Writers Workshop, which is a college level concept to hone creative writing skills, cannot be applied to children. Don't get me wrong, the idea is nice and all, but wholly unrealistic. Teaching a child with limited life experience and even less knowledge to "write from what they know" is insanity at best. The child will not be able to stretch into greater writing ability by writing about picking flowers this past weekend while their older brother played baseball. There's only so much a child will be able to say on the subject, yet the vocabulary of writing, e.g. narrative, expository, elaborate, dialog, deconstruction, analysis, etc. is utterly meaningless. Why? A lack of contextual understanding.
To create great prose or poetry, with a truly verbose vocabulary, requires a strong writing foundation. Syntax is best taught through content rich curricula. Period. Any other approach is simply putting the cart before the horse and hoping the horse doesn't run away to go graze off in pastures while you try to figure out what you did wrong.
I consider myself a writer through and through. I was taught via content rich curricula the HOW TO of writing. I was always a good student, but I have to say that truly learning to write had some major barriers in my life where teachers and professors pushed me well beyond what I thought I knew into realms I hadn't fathomed within my writing. By the time I was a senior in college I didn't even re-read my papers. My 1st drafts were good enough that I didn't need to. I understood the challenge and I rose to meet it every time.
Additionally, my major was Creative Writing and I was genuinely participating in what Lucy would later adopt as a curriculum for children - The Writer's Workshop. A true Writer's Workshop is a difficult thing to get through too. It's emotional because you're exposed and raw in front of your classmates. Some professors made the workshops a very brutal experience too where you were lashed heavily over your writing in order to "make you a stronger and superior writer." What I can tell you is I'm definitely not a poet. I even learned to hate poetry through that experience. Also note I went to college in the 1990's so the second "beatnik" poetry movement was underway, and I never understood the first movement, much less the farcical angst of the second one. I also couldn't stomach the idea of going to The Brazil (coffee house in town) and snapping at my favorite poetry.
What I did become though was a better fiction writer. Again I was challenged beyond my comfort zone, sometimes brutally, into a relationship with my writing that has given me comfort across my life; but I was able to become that, to stretch into that because I had a VERY solid foundation in my writing skills.
So, back to my point. We ignored dysgraphia because we didn't understand, but I have come to clearly comprehend where the mistake was.
READING AND WRITING NEED TO BE TAUGHT AT THE SAME TIME, SYSTEMATICALLY, EXPLICITLY BECAUSE WHILE THEY ARE DIFFERENT SKILLS, THEY GO HAND IN HAND.
We become better readers in our comprehension AND our fluency when we can write, yet we cannot write without knowing how to read. This is more than printing our letters, or learning cursive. This means learning the parts of speech, how they fit together and form syntactical expression i.e. sentences; how sentences form paragraphs; how paragraphs build and augment ideas.
And, because of the nature of some forms of dysgraphia, the child may need Occupational Therapy (OT) too because of grapho-motor skill deficiencies. For example, my son's sequencing is backwards meaning think of how you write this letter - m - you start at the left with the stick from the top to bottom and in one fluid pen stroke you rise and make the two humps of the m. Well, my son starts at the right at the bottom of the second hump and writes to the left. The stick is a completely separate pen stroke that he makes from the bottom to the top. See? Backwards.
The tragedy is we have not collectively taught proper writing instruction for so long within our educational system that we have collectively forgotten how to teach it. I cannot help but envision my high school junior year English teacher dropping dead if she knew this was actually happening. She was an absolute stickler on writing ability.
This means we are at a crossroads where not only are we not teaching written expression when it should be taught (beginning in Kinder), and doing it properly; not only do we not have enough readily available information on dysgraphia and the impact is has on a child's ability to perform in the classroom; not only have we collectively forgotten how to teach writing; but now we are losing the art altogether.
But in the paraphrased words of Martin Puncher, from his book The Written World (which by the way is a phenomenal read and I highly recommend it), across history when the art of writing has waned for whatever reason, it refuses to die. It reemerges with force by voices who need to cry out and make themselves heard, to impact their time, their place, their history, or for no other reason than to express the beauty around them.
We invented writing. We also cannot let it die. I at least refuse to do so.
For more information on dysgraphia and on how to teach written expression, I recommend the following resources:
Dysgraphia Is More Than Messy Handwriting by Dr. Brenda Taylor: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4oy18h5Ta0g
What Does Dysgraphia Mean: https://www.thedyslexiainitiative.org/post/what-does-dysgraphia-mean
Dyslexia Coffee Talk with guest William Van Cleave: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e-uFJkWusWM&t=385s
The Writing Revolution by Judith Hochman and Natalie Wexler, which also has a website and a training course which I understand from friends who have taken it is really excellent: https://www.thewritingrevolution.org/
Speech to Print by Dr. Louisa Moats
From Talking to Writing: Strategies for Supporting Narrative and Expository Writing by Terrill M. Jennings and Charles W. Haynes from The Landmark School. Landmark also offers a writing course which uses this text. I'm about to take the class myself with some friends and cannot wait! The link for the course is: https://www.landmarkoutreach.org/writing-description/.