As school-based OTs, like it or not, we often are called to work with students with handwriting issues. There are pros and cons to this – of course, we want to help any student who is experiencing a deficit that is preventing them from accessing their education. I also find that students with handwriting difficulties often have other motor, executive function, and emotional needs that might not always be clear to other observers at first. But one of the major cons I’ve found is that when so much of our caseload is made up of handwriting students, it can be easy for OTs to get too in the weeds with this particular deficit.
Let me start by telling you a story about one of the first students I had as a school-based OT. Let’s call her Juniper.
Juniper was a fourth grader with a learning disability, ADHD, and a lisp that I found absolutely adorable. She was a rough ‘n’ tumble kind of kid and much preferred going outside and playing with snakes and lizards to sitting in class. She was witty, sarcastic, and a good friend to the younger students in her special ed class. But man, was school a struggle for her.
Juniper came to me with a handwriting goal. “By the next annual review, the student will write 2 sentences with correctly printed letters from memory with proper baseline composition, spacing, and letter formation with 85% accuracy.” Looking back through her files, it seemed she had been working on similar goals for years.
The problem? Juniper hated writing. And she wasn’t afraid to let you know it. Plus, she was clever. So when I prompted her to write, she would use the fewest and shortest words possible to still qualify as a complete sentence.
As a student with both attention deficits and a learning disability, writing was really hard for Juniper. Not only did she have to focus on the sentences she was trying to generate, she also had to think about spelling, capitalization, grammar, and syntax. On top of that, I was trying to get her to remember a whole separate set of rules related to handwriting – letter formation, sizing, spacing, and line adherence.
No wonder she hated writing! This went beyond a simple fine motor deficit – we were clearly asking Juniper to work at the top or even beyond her processing capabilities. And every time we did, she felt discouraged and ready to give up.
I knew there had to be something better for Juniper. So I started reading and researching everything I could about alternatives to handwriting.
I ended up finding a few things to trial. I wasn’t sure how she’d react to them – though we had a pretty good rapport, she had definitely begun to associate me with one of the tasks she hated most.
The first thing I tried with Juniper was predictive text. We pulled out a laptop, opened a document, and I gave her free reign to write about whatever she wanted. Of course, she chose wild animals. She quickly picked up on the process of selecting words via predictive text. I was tentatively excited.
Next, we tried speech-to-text. I was less sure about this feature because of Juniper’s articulation difficulties, but I wanted to at least give it a shot. Juniper, seeming more energized by the success with predictive text, eagerly trialed it.
At first, I thought I had made a mistake. The speech-to-text definitely had trouble understanding Juniper. When I saw how many words it entered inaccurately, I was worried that Juniper would become frustrated and want to quit altogether.
But instead, something magical happened. Juniper asked me how to stop recording, get rid of the words it had typed, and try again. Then, she spoke slowly and carefully, doing her very best to articulate as clearly as she could. This is something her speech therapist had been trying to get her to do independently for years.
And you know what? It worked! It still wasn’t perfect, but with the combination of checking for accuracy with the text-to-speech, and filling in the words it missed with predictive text, Juniper was able to create a real report.
It was hard to tell who was more proud. I seriously could’ve cried, but it wasn’t just a turning point for me. Things changed for Juniper. She started looking forward to our sessions. She started asking to write! She went on to write many more reports just like this one. She even felt brave enough to read them in front of her class – another huge amount of growth.
And I grew too. I stopped seeing my students just through the lens of handwriting deficits. I realized that there is so much more that goes into the occupation of writing besides just maintaining legibility. And I realized that handwriting was really just a means to an end – a way for students to participate in written expression tasks at school.
Handwriting isn’t the right tool for everyone. How could it be? We serve such diverse groups of learners with their own unique strengths and weaknesses. Juniper clearly had strengths in writing about preferred topics – but I never would’ve discovered them if I got stuck on making her write “Dogs can run,” over and over again.
Maybe you know a student like Juniper. Maybe you’ve noticed your students with complex learning needs struggling with handwriting but weren’t quite sure where to go next. Maybe you already realize that assistive technology is a powerful tool for our students, but don’t feel confident in implementing it.
I would love to connect more deeply about this topic at my Facebook group. And for now, I’ll start you with a freebie: The program I used with Juniper is called Read&Write, and all educators (that includes you!) can get a free copy for life by filling out this form. I’m not affiliated with this company and I receive no compensation if you download; it’s just truly a great program for our students with literacy support needs.