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Math Whiz Until He's Handed a Pencil

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My DS12 has always been great with math since we started homeschooling him in 1st grade.  He seems to grasp concepts quickly, does math well in his head, and I often have to slow him down in his thinking to make sure he is understanding a new process.  (Meanwhile he looks at me impatiently and says, "Mom, the answer is _____.  I'm telling you, the answer is ______." And it usually is...)  Math makes sense to him.  He just gets it.


Until I put a pencil in his hand.  I swear, it is the weirdest thing.  He will sit with me and a white board and tell me what to write and what to do with ease.  But if I make HIM write, he has this almost instant block.  When he works independently, he shows none of his work, just the answer.  The act of writing seems to cause his brain to stutter on the math.


He doesn't have very good handwriting for a 12 year old.  Now that I think about it, he has this with spelling too.  He took a spelling class at a tutorial that did all oral spelling, and he was the top student.  When we do spelling at home and he has to write the words, he struggles.  


Is this a thing?  I've read a little about dysgraphia, but I don't know if this falls under that umbrella or not.   Or is this an efficiency thing?  Maybe he doesn't want to waste time writing when he can do it in his head faster.   How would I know the difference?


Thanks for any insight...this mama is stumped.

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Yes it could be a form of dysgraphia.  Dysgraphia really just means writing is much harder than it should be.  That could mean that the physical act is super hard or the process of getting thoughts onto paper is super hard or a combination or even other issues.  There are many potential underlying causes, too.  It depends on what is causing him to resist writing as to whether this is truly a dysgraphia scenario and what to do about it.

Edited by OneStepAtATime
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My oldest dd is similarish, in that physically writing was a challenge for several years (and maybe still is, but overall she's vastly improved, so that it's not an obvious issue anymore), which caused problems with writing math down. *And* she had problems putting her thinking into words even orally - she could intuitively get the answer, but it was the work of several years to teach how to *explain* her thinking to me (whether orally or written). So telling me her thinking orally was also hard. Aka writing down her math work was hard for both handwriting reasons and thinking reasons. But the handwriting difficulty definitely motivated her to not want to write anything more than necessary. I think half of our getting-math-done difficulties deal with focus issues stemming from her avoiding the *writing* part of math. (Turned out a major factor in her difficulties with SM's intensive practice was the *lack of sufficient room to write her answers* (part of her difficulties meant that she couldn't write small). I got her a graph paper notebook to use to show her work whenever she needed more room, and things got a lot easier.)


Anyway, if your ds can dictate a thorough explanation of his work (in our house, "showing your work" wrt word problems means all relevant equations, a diagram when needed, and an answer in a complete sentence; her computations can be done in her head or on paper), where you're pretty sure you aren't giving unintentional hints or clues via body language that he wouldn't have if he wrote them on his own - then it does seem like more of a physical writing issue. He *can* fully communicate his thinking in words/equations in understandable-to-others ways - he just can't do it via *writing*. (Does he have just as much difficulty writing his math on the whiteboard as he does on paper? I know for my dd, writing on the whiteboard went much better, because there was a lot more room and she could write bigger.)


A book I have on dyslexia, dysgraphia, and oral and written learning disorder defines dysgraphia as impairment in letter writing skills. It can include impairments in legibility (how well others can read their writing), automaticity (how many legible letters they can form in 15sec), and speed (how long it takes to complete a writing task). It's fairly common for dysgraphic children to have difficulties in learning to spell written words. So, yeah, researching dysgraphia sounds like a reasonable starting point.



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My daughter also does much better with mental math than written. She recently hit long division in Beast Academy and I thought, "How fascinating! They teach doing in on paper the same way I know my kid has already been doing it in her head for the last year or two. This should be easy!" Instead, she locked up so much with it that now it's like she's forgotten how to even do it in her head. *sigh*


On a recent psych eval, her writing was flagged as being far below her other skills. The psych recommended an eval with an OT to sort out what is going on.

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My kid like that began to write some math when he got to calculus, but still just bare notes. He is capable of showing his work, but generally only writes it out for high level proofs. He has diagnosed dysgraphia and has received accommodations though school and next year in college.

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And sometimes kids who are very bright and have areas of extreme strength just cannot keep up with their brains. By the time they have written something down, their brain is 1000 miles ahead and they have forgotten the middle parts. Makes it really hard.

Yes this, with my oldest, in math, and spelling, and writing in general. And she has horrible penmanship. This is the girl that in 2nd and 3rd failed her daily timed drill (in public school) EVERY time (shed only write answers for 3-4 of the 20), but could solve Singapore CWP in her head. She began to hate math because of it. But we adjusted what we expected in written output and she thrived.


It was a bit painful but I had start by showing work for ONE problem per assignment. This was at age 10. We upped the requirements for shown work a little at a time. When she got into AOPS books I think she began to see good ways of explaining her work and the difficulty of the math slowed her down enough her brain could catch up a little. Then with AOPS online classes with weekly full written solution she became even better at explaining her work.


I am in the middle of helping DS learn to show his work. Same process. Having graph paper, and showing them how to organize work on the page helped too (i.e. Using columns instead of writing across the page like you would for sentences).

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