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Sudha Ganesh

Founder & Director at diksa learning centre

The story of Ram

Ram is in class III. His parents along with Ram came to meet me for an assessment. When parents come for an assessment, I insist that they bring all the class work notebooks along. As a part of my intake process, I asked Ram's parents the usual question - "What are the challenges Ram has been facing in school?"

Though the mother mentioned many, top of the list was "incomplete class work".

Ram's mother regularly received complaints from his teachers that he hardly paid attention in class, was very fidgety, always spoke out of turn, distracted other children, was careless with his belongings, (quite often his pencil box was empty), messy in his appearance as well as in his writing. In addition to all this, even if Ram managed to write whatever little he could, his hand writing would be illegible, there would be no attention to spacing or alignment, spellings would be bizarre and lots of empty pages in between for no obvious reasons.

Ram's notebooks reflected all these realities.

Ram's mother told me that she would spend at least one hour every evening just to complete the pending class work. Ram's mother went on to tell me how she had cultivated a group of supportive parents whom she could reach out to and check what had happened in the class each day, what notes were given and so on. One particular parent was kind enough to take a picture of her son's completed class work and regularly forward it to her.

Ram had been attending regular subject tuitions for the past two years. His mother also tried handwriting improvement classes but neither of these measures seemed to help.

Ram's story is the story of many children and parents who have to go through a lot of hardship, embarrassment and exasperation year after year.

After I heard all this from Ram's mother, I asked her about his reading fluency. Then she told me that he struggled to read even high frequency words like what, where etc. He had challenges in spellings. In his second language, Tamil, reading and spelling problems were even more severe.

Ram's situation is typical of many children with dyslexia. Quite often, the reading challenges may go unnoticed but what draws the attention of parents and teachers alike is the written work and it all starts with the inability to copy from the black board.

Why this difficulty

While copying from the board looks quite simple and straight forward, there are several pre-writing skills which should be in place for the child to be able to write.

The following specific factors are important to ensure writing readiness:

1. Attention - including sitting tolerance

2. Gross motor coordination - movement of bigger muscles

3. Fine motor coordination - movement of fingers and eye- hand coordination

4. Crossing the midline - eye movement from top left crossing over to the top right and then coming back to the left to track the next line. This is the scanning movement of the eye that is mandatory for reading and definitely for copying.

5. Reading - ability to decode and read fluently. When we copy from the blackboard, we generally read either a phrase or a sentence and then start writing what we read, and then automatically go back to where we left off. Whereas, a child with dyslexia, copies letter by letter and this is why his writing becomes painstakingly slow. The common complaint of the child is that the teacher erased the black board before he could finish copying!

6. Handwriting - when the child has handwriting problems (stroke order, punctuation, spacing, margin alignment, line alignment, pencil grip and pressure and so on) copying from the black board will be difficult.

Four ruled notebooks and blank pages add fuel to fire!

7. Spelling - even if the child is able to read what is there on the black board and carry it in his short term memory, it will become difficult to copy if he has problems with spelling, especially high frequency words like "there", "here", "where", "said" and so on.

Children like Ram are highly likely to face problems in construction geometry, graph work and maps.

Quite often dyslexia the hidden handicap is not really so well hidden. The written work of any child throws up enough visible evidence of underlying reading problems. I consider it of paramount importance to go through the child's written work even before we start testing for dyslexia.

What Parents can do

As a first step, parents should consult an eye doctor to rule out vision related problems.

A sensory integration / occupational therapy (OT) assessment might be required to rule out any deeper issues.

Based on the assessment, an intervention may be recommended by the therapist. This is especially important to improve attention span, gross and fine motor coordination, sitting tolerance and crossing the midline, pencil grip, pencil pressure and so on.

If the child has dysgraphia (a condition where the ability to read may be there but severe difficulties in the mechanics of writing may exist) the OT intervention is a must.

Assessment and systematic structured remedial intervention for dyslexia is mandatory if the child has challenges in reading. This happens to be true in most of the cases.

If the child is not able to read, he will definitely refuse to write. However, as the child progresses in his reading, copying skills will automatically improve.

Parents can help by encouraging the child to do some amount of board copying at home. They can do this by having a black board at home and let the child practise, beginning with single words, progressing to three or four word phrases, then sentences and finally short paragraphs.

The parent should first read out what she has written on the board, get the child to read it aloud, and then get the child to start copying. This will help the child to understand what he is writing, thereby keeping him attentive and on task.

Parents can also collect all the class work notebooks of students one or two years senior at the end of every academic year, proactively for reference.

Parents should actively encourage development of keyboard skills.

What Teachers can do

Given the various pressures that mainstream teachers face, giving personal attention and help to children with such difficulties is a big ask. However, small accommodations can make an immense difference to the child.

For example, teachers can help by giving the notes to the parents in advance.

They can help establish parent support groups which should include parents who are willing to help children like Ram.

Extra time can be given for the child to complete his classwork.

The teacher can try and erase the board line by line instead of erasing the board entirely.

They can also read aloud the contents of the black board.

It will help if the child is not pulled up for poor writing in front of the entire class.

Parents and Teachers need to be aware that the various Boards in our country are willing to allow scribes if the writing difficulty is too severe in spite of intervention.

In closing

Handwriting problems and incomplete, illegible class work note books should be seen as symptomatic of deeper issues such as dyslexia, sensory integration and so on and not as a problem in isolation.

Having said this, handwriting as a skill is important only during our academic years. It is therefore important that we address the underlying issues and not catastrophize the problem and ridicule the child.

Given the rapid technological strides, will neat hand writing remain relevant at all? I wonder?