Assistive technology for students with dysgraphia

This post was created by PGCert participants in Team Neptune as part of their assessment for Unit 1 of the course. The brief was to evaluate technologies that could help students with specific learning needs to learn more effectively.

Dysgraphia is a learning difference defined by five areas. The first three here are the most common variables:

  1. Dyslexic dysgraphia creates issues in writing (apart from copied words), resulting in incorrect spelling and an indecipherable scrawl
  2. The motor dysgraphic student often experiences pain in the hand when writing due to poor dexterity and muscle weakness. Their writing is often illegible even when words are copied
  3. Spatial dysgraphia results in illegible handwriting and difficulty writing within lines and finger spaces
  4. Students with lexical dysgraphia misspell irregular words
  5. The phonological dysgraphic student is prone to misspelling phonic sounds and uncommon words

Relatively little is known about dysgraphia compared to other neurodiverse conditions such as dyslexia, dyscalculia and dyspraxia. There are descriptions of similar conditions sourced back to the 19th century, but dysgraphia comes across as poorly understood in that different sources provide slightly different definitions, causes and scope. While, there is evidence that this particular learning difficulty (in adults) could be related to damage of the graphic buffer within the brain (NINDS, 2021), the general lack of information may be partly why it has taken years for learners with dysgraphia to be supported in higher education.
Researchers mention, often in passing, that the frustrations learners with dysgraphia experience often result in anxiety, high levels of stress and low self-esteem (Drotár and Dobeš, 2020). In addition to the physical challenges associated with dysgraphia, students who cannot or are prevented from demonstrating their knowledge and ideas face psychological challenges (Tal-Saban and Weintraub, 2019).

There are some easily available technologies that could alleviate anxiety and stress through reducing the challenges of dysgraphia, enabling students to participate fully in their chosen discipline. Technologies that address aspects of the five types of dysgraphia mentioned earlier include Google and Microsoft voice to text. These allow learners to put their ideas into writing from the beginning of the writing process, while also giving some help in later editing. They provide learners with a written text that demonstrates the learner’s knowledge and competence within their discipline and requires only limited proof-reading, if this is required by the task.

There are some drawbacks that may increase the challenge of using voice-to-text. Some variations of spoken English are not recognised by these systems and this can result in difficult to understand text. Google has a comprehensive range of voice commands that include punctuation and formatting. This is very useful, but the number of commands in the help section is overwhelming and may increase anxiety in the user. Both systems require users to familiarise themselves and practice using the technologies. Lack of familiarity with technologies may increase stress for a learner who already faces the challenges of dysgraphia. Universities must build training into study programmes, rather than providing add-ons that eat into already tight schedules.

References

Drotár, P. and Dobeš, M. (2020) Dysgraphia detection through machine learning, Scientific Reports, 10(1). DOI:10.1038/s41598-020-78611-9

NINDS (National Institute of neurological disorders and stroke) (2021) Dysgraphia Information Page. Available at: https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/All-Disorders/Dysgraphia-Information-Page (Accessed 25/01/2021).

Tal-Saban, M. and Weintraub, N. (2019) Motor functions of higher education students with dysgraphia, Research in Developmental Disabilities, 94: 103479

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