Shifra and Sara were neighbors, and their mothers had been getting together before they could even roll over. Now the girls are in second grade.

Once, as they were doing their homework together, Sara looked at Shifra’s work and began to giggle

“Shifra, your ‘d’ is so funny!” she said. “It looks like a banana.”

“It’s not a ‘d,’ Sara,” Shifra replied. “It’s a ‘b.’ And I can’t help it. It just comes out like that!”

“What do you mean it’s a ‘b’?” Sara asked, blushing. “It looks like a ‘d’ to me. But anyway Morah says I keep making those mistakes.”

“And she keeps telling me I need to write neatly,” Shifra replied, sounding just as frustrated as her friend. “I try, but I can’t do it. Maybe we can trade. I’ll read for you, and you’ll write for me!” Shifra eagerly hands over her pencil to Sara.

While Shifra and Shana could just be two ordinary girls who are experiencing normal struggles learning to read and write, if these issues continue, it is possible that they each suffer from a different learning disability: dyslexia or dysgraphia.

Dyslexia

The National Institute of Health defines dyslexia as a disorder characterized by difficulties with accurate or fluent word recognition, poor spelling and decoding. Dyslexia is a learning disability that is neurological in origin and often runs in the family. Children with dyslexia experience trouble reading when taught through traditional instruction.

Though the symptoms of dyslexia manifest in different ways, some common symptoms in dyslexic kids from kindergarten through fourth grade are:

Difficulty reading single words that are not surrounded by others.

Difficulty learning connections between letters and sounds.

Confusion between small words such as “at” and “to,” or “does” and “goes.”

Consistent reading and spelling errors, including:

• Letter reversals such as “d” for “b.”

• Word reversals such as “tip” for “pit.”

• Inversions such as “m” and “w,” and “u” and “n.”

• Transpositions such as “felt” and “left.”

• Substitutions such as “house” and “home.”

Children with dyslexia are often well-adjusted and happy preschoolers. Research shows they begin to experience emotional problems during early reading instruction. Over the years, their frustration mounts as classmates surpass them, and they often feel they fail to meet expectations. Teachers and parents see a bright child who is failing to learn to read and assume he’s “not trying hard enough.” This can cause children to feel inadequate.

Children with dyslexia frequently have problems in social relationships. This is because they have difficulty reading social cues, or because their condition affects oral language functioning.

Without proper intervention, these children will fall farther behind their peers, exacerbating their frustration and low self-esteem.

Dysgraphia

It’s hard for people to understand that children can have a learning disability that affects only writing. Most people assume if you have no trouble reading, then writing should be a cinch. Or, parents assume that trouble with writing is a physical impediment rather than a mental one. Dysgraphia, a learning disability that affects writing abilities, debunks these myths.

Children who suffer from dysgraphia often have reading skills on par with other children their age, but they experience difficulties with skills such as spelling, handwriting and putting thoughts on paper. Dysgraphia is not simply a motor problem, but also involves information processing skills (transferring thoughts from the mind through the hand onto the paper). If your child has trouble in any of the areas below, additional help may be beneficial:

Awkward pencil grip and body position

Illegible handwriting

Tiring quickly while writing

Saying words out loud while writing

Unfinished or omitted words in sentences

Difficulty organizing thoughts on paper

Large gap between written ideas and speech

There are different effective strategies that could be implemented to help children struggling with dysgraphia.

For young children:

Use paper with raised lines so children can feel the lines on the paper, allowing them to stay on track.

Experiment with different pens and pencils.

Practice writing letters with exaggerated arm movements. This will help improve the motor memory without the pressure of the paper.

Encourage proper grip, posture, and paper positioning. If you aren’t sure how to help your child with this, seek professional help, and the sooner the better. The later you correct these concerns, the harder it will be for your child to unlearn the bad habits.

For children in elementary school:

Alternate the writing assignments. For some assignments, put the emphasis on neatness and spelling, and for others, emphasize grammar and style.

Help make a checklist for editing written work based on: spelling, neatness, grammar, syntax, clear progression of ideas, and organization.

Encourage writing through low-stress opportunities for writing such as letters, journals, and making shopping lists.

Create a step-by-step plan that breaks down writing assignments into easily manageable stages.

The most important thing to remember is that children with dysgraphia are not “lazy” or “sloppy.” They are simply struggling mightily to do what most other children can do easily. Recognizing the root cause of their troubles is the first crucial step toward solving them.

Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld, founder and director of the SOS program, is an educator and educational consultant with specialization as a keriah and reading coach. Serving the Jewish community for close to 30 years, she has experience providing evaluations, G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness