Take the Pencil Out of the Process

By Leslie Broun, Educational Consultant, ASD

As we have learned more about how we learn, both through observation and study, a critically important fact has emerged: many students have difficulty with the physical printing and writing process  – difficulty which is significant enough to interfere with their academic performance.

Note that I am not saying “difficulty with fine motor tasks.” Many individuals who are not able to print efficiently are able to do other things very well with their hands and fingers, such as play the piano, guitar, draw, etc.  The inability to form letters correctly and quickly is called dysgraphia (printing) or dyscriptia (writing).

In our classrooms, we often see children struggling to produce a legible piece of print. In this labour-intensive process, a student with dysgraphia may:

* focus more energy on the printing process than on thinking about the content and quality of her/his response.

* write as few words as possible to answer a question, e.g. if a sentence is asked for, a few words may be given; if a paragraph is requested, the student may produce a sentence or two.

In the writing or composition process, intellectual or cognitive processing takes a backseat to the difficulty and effort involved in the physical processing that must go on in order to put pencil to paper. Thus, the student’s quality and quantity of response is reduced.

Another significant difficulty that can ensue as a result of creating minimal responses, is that, over time the student will become habituated to thinking in as few words as possible  – also significantly limiting the thinking process. By having to create printed or written responses, the student’s energies are directed 1) to avoiding the printing process by limiting responses to as few words as possible* and 2) to thinking about how to say things with minimum of words, thus diverting intellectual energy and thought away from the actual task – which is to produce a reasoned response to a question or to prepare a composition.

Very often, the visual presentation of work influences how a student’s ability is perceived. In actuality, how one prints or writes is completely irrelevant to learning and intelligence. As teachers, we must carefully attend to how we evaluate these students who are not able to print – this includes students with learning disabilities, developmental disabilities and autism spectrum disorder.

We are now at a point in our development as a technological society where we can provide an alternative to the pencil: the KEYBOARD.

Keyboarding, in this day and age, is a critical life skill. There are several engaging and entertaining keyboarding programs available, both commercially** and in schools. This is a critical life skill which should be begun as early as possible. Starting with good old “hunt and peck” for the child’s name and other family names can be done with visual referents. Even access to an unsophisticated computer that has only basic word processing capacity is an acceptable alternative to the pencil. The important thing is to recognize when a student’s struggles with the pencil are interfering with her/his intellectual output and to provide the alternative of the keyboard. Instead of practicing printing “longer, harder and louder,” provide a sensible and do-able alternative. Instead of printing practice, allow keyboarding practice. It is also a skill that, in most situations, can be practiced at home.

As a member of the ASD IPRC Committee, over and over again, I hear about students with ASD whose tremendous difficulty with printing and writing affects their ability to participate in classroom work and tests efficiently, with confidence or evidence of considered response. Having to produce printed responses may even cause significant emotional upset, particularly at the intermediate level. Take the pencil out of the process and see what happens – it will take a bit of time to change habituated performance patterns and self-expectations, but with time and practice at the keyboard, there may be a significant improvement in a student’s ability to compose answers and respond to other “writing” tasks.

* while economy of words is often a desirable literary trait, in the case of dysgraphic students, it goes beyond economy to a paucity of words

** a personal favourite is Disney”s “Adventures in Typing with Timon and Pumbaa.”

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