assistive technology for writing disabilities

It’s no secret here these days that Luke has a writing disability in addition to ADHD. I have become obsessed with focused on how to teach him the skills he’s lacking to organize his thoughts, be descriptive, and get it all on paper, as well as how to best accommodate for this disability in school.
I’ve known Luke has handwriting problems since first grade in 2008-09. Everyone in his life knew. But it wasn’t until February of his second grade year, just 9 months ago, that I realized his struggles are much deeper than handwriting.
Margaret J. Kay, Ed.D. Psychologist says on her website about Dysgraphia, “Writing represents a highly complex neurodevelopmental process, which involves multiple brain mechanisms. It requires the simultaneous and sequential integration of attention, multiple information sources, memory, motor skill, language, and higher cognition. Gross and fine-motor coordination, motor memory, and “kinetic melody”, a term coined by Luria, requires balancing, flexing, and contracting movements as well as simultaneously stimulating some muscle groups while inhibiting other muscle groups.In order to self-monitor writing output, visual, proprio-kinesthetic, automatic motor memory, and re-visualization feedback mechanisms must be engaged.”

Wow! That’s a lot for our brains to manage at one time. And it’s too much for some, like Luke.

So how is dysgraphia treated?

That’s a good question and one I’ve been diligently seeking an answer to. I am reaching the conclusion that dysgraphia/written output disorder is more accommodated than treated. I think there are some skills that can be taught/improved, and motor-coordination can be worked on through occupational therapy, but there isn’t any “curing” dysgraphia.
I don’t know exactly how to teach the lacking skills in written expression; I’m not sure I could even pinpoint the specific skills Luke needs to improve. I know poor executive functioning and thought organization are a key component, but I don’t know how to improve those things (I’m hoping the school and our OT will). Since that is not knowledge I have, I am going to focus on accommodations and assistive technologies for writing disabilities right now.
There are a few key classroom accommodations that can help with handwriting problems and making that particular element of the disability less of an issue:
  • Dictation: The student can do the assignment orally and have the teacher or parent capture it in writing. (Software can also do this and I’ll cover that in the next section on Assistive Technologies below.)
  • Make it visual: Allow the student to first create a visual of their story. They could bring a photo from home that they want to write about, create a picture collage with clip-art on the computer, or choose images of different objects from an image library (See PECS for image banks that you can print to create an image library; maybe print and cut out a few dozen or so and then file them in an index card box in categories where it would be easy for them to find what they’re looking for.) and put them on a storyboard for inspiration and organization of thoughts.
  • Shorten Assignments/Expectations: ADHD children really need this accommodation regardless of whether or not they have a writing disability. Their attention span is not great and requiring them to to do as much as everyone else in the same amount of time usually leads to poor self-esteem when they can’t keep up with their neuro-typical peers. Adding in a writing disorder only magnifies the need for shorter assignments or extended time to complete assignments (I think the shorter assignment is usually a better choice).
Talk to your child’s teacher if you think some of these accommodations would benefit them. Most teachers are open to doing what is best for each student as an individual. It’s a good idea to request a 504 Plan and get these (and other) accommodations official and in writing.
Assistive Technologies
Assistive Technology for children with learning disabilities is defined as any device, piece of equipment or system that helps bypass, work around or compensate for an individual’s specific learning deficits. Assistive Technology doesn’t cure or eliminate learning difficulties, but it can help your child reach their potential because it allows them to capitalize on their strengths and bypass areas of difficulty.
While there are hundreds of assistive technologies for special needs, I am going to focus only on those for writing disabilities right now. I plan to compile these same sort of resources for dyslexia and other learning disabilities in future articles. As well, in December I’ll be posting an article on Apps and Education, examining how the ipad, ipod touch, and iphone are changing the face of special education.
Allowing a student who struggles with handwriting to type their assignments is a tried and true method to work around a handwriting issue. This could be done on a regular classroom computer or on a classroom portable word processor like the AlphaSmart or Neo. Luke is currently using an AlphaSmart for any written assignments he’d be doing on notebook paper and it is helping him (and his teacher) tremendously with getting work done and legibly.
This particular product does not have the capability to scan in worksheets to be completed on the computer though. To complete all assignments on the computer, the student and/or teacher needs access to a scanner and software that can create a form out of the scan, like PaperPort.
There are three ways in which software can help a child with a writing disability:
  1. graphic organizersResearch shows that visual learning is one of the best methods for teaching thinking skills. Visual learning techniques – graphical ways of working with ideas and presenting information – teach students to clarify their thinking and to process, organize and prioritize new information. Graphic organizer software provides an interactive and visual guide to plan, organize, and create written output.
    Example: Kidspiration for K-5 and Inspiration for upper grades or (a free, online, automated information organization program)
  2. word-prediction programs As you type, word-prediction software interprets spelling and grammar mistakes and offers word suggestions in real time. As a student starts to type a word, the software presents a list of predicted words from which the student can choose. This is a great tool for students with poor typing skills and frequent spelling and grammar mistakes.
    Example: CoWriter
  3. speech-to-text programs
    Many children with dysgraphia/written output disorders can tell a story orally but are confused and lost when asked to then put it down on paper. With speech-to-text software, students dictate into a microphone and their words appear on the computer screen.
    Example: Dragon Naturally Speaking Preferred provides an inclusive list of many technology tools for writing disabilities on their website as well.


There is a whole new world for special education in the form of Apps. “Apps” is just an abbreviation for computer/technology applications. Applications have, of course, been around for a long time, but the term “Apps” became popular with the release of the iphone two years ago. Now there are thousands of Apps for portable technology. For this purpose, I am going to use the term “Apps” to mean apps for the iphone, ipod touch, and ipad, as these are the most widespread.

Apps have been created for just about every purpose imaginable, from finding the nearest sushi restaurant to playing games, to time management, to special education. If you can imagine it, it probably already exists. I plan to write a full article on Apps and ADHD and Learning Disabilities in the coming weeks so I am going to focus solely on Apps for writing disabilities now.

  1. Sentence Builder and Question Builder– is designed to help elementary-aged children learn how to build grammatically correct sentences. Explicit attention is paid to the connector words that make up over 80% of the english language. Sentence Builder offers a rich and fun environment for improving the grammer of all children.
  2. Idea Sketch lets you easily draw a diagram – mind map, concept map, or flow chart – and convert it to a text outline, and vice versa. You can use Idea Sketch for anything, such as brainstorming new ideas, illustrating concepts, making lists and outlines, planning presentations, creating organizational charts, and more!
  3. IWriteWords is an excellent app that allows the child to practice writing letters, numbers and words. The child traces the letter on the iPod or iPad with his/her finger. This program is very well designed with excellent results; some schools in the US have reported implementing them in Kindergarten classes for all students. The progression is based on current research in teaching pre-writing skills, and the hands-on interactive activities are excellent for students who have difficulty writing with a pencil. Originally designed for the iPod Touch, the iPad makes the application even more effective by allowing for more movement when tracing. Kinesthetic and tactile writing activities are especially effective for students with special needs.
  4. Dragon Dictation (remember, we looked at this software for mainstream computers above) is the premiere app in this area. Originally designed as a business tool, it will transfer spoken language into text on any of the Apple hardware, and it allows you to then e-mail your text or send it as a text message. It is a very versatile tool that can be used on a laptop computer or mobile device.

That’s what I’ve discovered so far to help Luke with his dysgraphia/written expression disorder. I am hoping that he’ll be granted special education inclusion in the next couple months and I’m hoping that they have some of this software available to Luke so that he can finally write a story.

Do you know of other ways to help a child with dysgraphia? Please share them in the comments.

COVER3D_400sq_bestsellAward-Winning Blogger. Freelance Writer. Author. Warrior Mom.
A self-described “veteran” parent of a son with ADHD, Penny Williams is the author of the Amazon best-seller about her parenthood in the trenches, Boy Without Instructions: Surviving the Learning Curve of Parenting a Child with ADHD. She is also the creator of the award-winning website, {a mom’s view of ADHD}, a frequent contributor on parenting a child with ADHD for ADDitude Magazine and other parenting and special needs publications, and co-founder of the annual Happy Mama Conference & Retreat, a weekend away for moms of kids with neurobehavioral disorders. Look for her second book, What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting ADHD, in late 2014. Follow Penny at

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adhd and school, CO-MORBIDITIES, dysgraphia, learning disabilities, Penny Williams, written output disorder ·

About the author

COVER3D_400sq_bestsellAward-Winning Blogger. Freelance Writer. Author. Warrior Mom. A self-described “veteran” parent of a son with ADHD, Penny Williams is the author of the Amazon best-seller about her parenthood in the trenches, Boy Without Instructions: Surviving the Learning Curve of Parenting a Child with ADHD. She is also the creator of the award-winning website, {a mom's view of ADHD}, a frequent contributor on parenting a child with ADHD for ADDitude Magazine and other parenting and special needs publications, and co-founder of the annual Happy Mama Conference & Retreat, a weekend away for moms of kids with neurobehavioral disorders. Look for her second book, What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting ADHD, in late 2014. Follow Penny at


  1. LittleJ hasn't been diagnosed with dysgraphia, but he definitely has issues with handwriting. His OT has used the iphone app with him and he loves it! His teacher also allows him to dictate to her – she writes it as he says and then he copies what she's written. I like this accommodation b/c he gets out what he wants to say AND has writing practice, but they're separate tasks.
    If LittleJ doesn't get an IEP this year then I'm definitely having them include this in his 504 plan, although whether or not he stays where he is for 3rd grade is a whole 'nother story…
    Anyway, great resource list Penny!

  2. Jenn says:

    I agree, great list! I teach primary and you certainly hit all the major accommodations we would use. Personally, my girls (FASDx2) both found a variety of uses for their ipod touch's in class: calendar, agenda app, dictionary, music to block distractions, and we've just discovered the Dragon app! I can't wait to read your article on the apps. I know that we have barely scratched the surface on that one.

  3. Anonymous says:

    after dealing with this disgraphia thing for years, here is what we know and do–it's been a process…Elementary school's opinion was that it was a matter of will. He wrote only when HE wanted to…I think we finally have a more astute observation of what is going on.

    We did the OT privately which helped tremendously with handwriting. It was very late (5th grade) but helped. We do notice that when he is tired, handwriting becomes very difficult, so we rely on dictation.

    Now that he is in 7th grade, we have had some insight into the 'only when he wants to'. I think it is related to executive function or a need for extra 'think time' for higher level thought organization to write a paragraph response, but the amount of 'think time' is variable. It's not quite what is defined as processing speed as he does simple things like math facts at lightning speed, it's higher level organizing thoughts which is slow.

    We have extra time for writing on his 504 and are in the middle of figuring out how to allow for the 'think time'. this may just be a matter of educating his teachers that he may take a long time to get started but this should not be considered a sign of his not willing to do the work. He has gotten in trouble for just sitting and not writing but hasn't been able to explain that he's thinking except after the fact.

    For us a lot of the assistive technologies have not been a first line of help. This is sort of related to his handwriting issues which were remembering letter shapes (so remembering where keys on a keyboard are is difficult, etc). We have Inspiration and he has a computer. He has turned down the offer of dragon speak. Now in 7th grade he is beginning to write using the computer (yeah), so maybe by high school he'll be ready to use Inspiration for higher level organization.

    We also had a tutor for a while, but the writing of short essays came along so well that it was hard to justify a weekly session. He needs occasional assistance for the paragraph writing. Lots for longer papers, but they don't do to much of that in our middle school.'s been a long process of figuring out the writing issue which was an issue back in 1st grade. It has been gradually getting better but yes he still has writing issues now that he's in 7th grade, but they are on a different level than pure handwriting.

    I hope our experiences help.

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  5. Amberlynn says:

    Hi!!! I am currently a second year OT student and I’ve created an iPad app for children. SnapType is an iPad app that helps students who have difficulty writing. Students can take pictures of their worksheets in class and use the iPad keyboard to type in answers.

    During my level 1 fieldwork, I found that many of the students were having trouble reading their own handwriting. So I created an app for them. It is currently in the app store for free. I am hoping that this can help many students with the same problem!

    Here is the link:

    I hope this is helpful!!

    -OT Student


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The "ADHD Mommas" are not medical or mental health professionals, nor an ADHD coach. Any opinions shared here are just that, opinions. I, and the other "ADHD Mommas," are sharing our experiences with our own ADHD children. Please do not re-post or publish any content or photos without a link back to {a mom's view of ADHD}. Have the courtesy to give credit where credit is due. Copyright protected. All rights reserved.

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