A comparison of two case studies using the Detailed Assessment of Speed of Handwriting (DASH)
Two eleven year old boys from the same year group in the same secondary school, though not in the same class, were referred independently for a handwriting assessment. In both instances, their teachers reported that the boys, Alex* and Billy*, were bright and orally fluent but had unexpected difficulty with tasks which involved handwriting. They often produced work which was difficult to read and their teachers were concerned that school grades might be an underestimate of their true ability. Alex had been fully assessed by an educational psychologist who had recorded a verbal IQ of 132 and noted that his lack of motor coordination might be a factor worth exploring further. Billy, on the other hand, had not been assessed previously but had been referred on this occasion by the special needs coordinator at the school. Both boys were left-handed and their pen-grips were similarly awkward and unconventional.
(* not the boys’ real names)
Age: 11 years 8 months
Referred by: Educational Psychologist
Teacher comments about Alex: ‘Punctuation and spelling a little erratic but the chief concern is handwriting which is almost illegible, especially when the imagination is engaged’.
Age: 11 years 8 months
Referred by: Special Needs Coordinator
Teacher comments about Billy: ‘A quick and able boy whose handwriting is cramped, untidy and barely legible’.
Detailed Assessment of Speed of Handwriting (DASH) Findings:
Both boys were tested using the Detailed Assessment of Speed of Handwriting (DASH), following the instructions provided in the manual. Although the five tasks were administered in the required order, they are discussed out of order so that the differences between the boys can be highlighted.
Alphabet writing from memory at speed (Task 2).
Alex managed to write 64 letters in the one minute allowed, giving him a standard score of 12 which is just average for his age, whereas Billy scored 87, a standard score of 15, placing him 1 to 2 Standard Deviations (SDs) above the mean.
Difference between best and fastest copying (Tasks 1 and 3).
Images show the difference between the boys’ attempts to copy the sentence ‘The quick brown fox’ first in their best and then in their fastest handwriting.
Alex’s ‘best’ writing
Alex’s ‘fastest’ writing
Billy’s ‘best’ writing
Billy’s ‘fastest’ writing
The chart below illustrates the differences in their writing speeds in ‘words per minute’. When asked to produce his best handwriting, Alex produced 7 words per minute. This translates to a standard score of 3, which is on the 2nd percentile and 3 SDs below the mean. When asked to write quickly, he also scored 7 wpm, giving him a standard score of 3, also 3SDs below the mean. In contrast, Billy achieved 27 wpm when writing in his best handwriting, a standard score of 16 which is on the 98th percentile and 2SDs above the mean. He then increased his speed to 39.5 wpm, giving him a standard score of 17 which is on 98th percentile and 2 SDs above the mean. This indicates that Alex but not Billy has a problem with handwriting speed.
When the difference between the number of words in the ‘best’ and ‘fastest’ tasks were examined, the difference for Billy was 12.5 words, well above the mean for his age (Alex’s score difference was 0). Although accuracy and legibility are not measured objectively in the DASH, inspection of the writing shown above suggests that neither boy’s writing changed much, which was rather unusual. Normally, we find that responding to speed instructions leads to a deterioration in legibility but for these boys their writing was equally irregular and indecipherable (with a number of words difficult to decipher) on both versions of the task.
Free writing speed (Task 5):
Alex achieved 12.7 wpm on this task, a standard score of 7, which was on 16th percentile and 1 SD below the mean whilst Billy achieved 31 wpm, a standard score of 17 which is on the 98th percentile and 2 SDs above the mean. In contrast to the copying task, on this more complex task, legibility was severely compromised when the pressure to perform at speed was combined with the ‘creativity’ requirement. Planning the story, working out the grammar and spelling, etc led to a general loss of motor control, which in turn led to individual letters losing their integrity. In fact, looking at the samples, there was no improvement in H/W form in the free writing task either.
Graphic speed (Task 4).
On this task Alex made many errors and obtained a score of 17, giving him a standard score of 6 which was on the 10th percentile. Billy scored 33, giving him a standard score of 10 which was on the 50th percentile.
Alex and Billy were both boys who had difficulty with handwriting in school. In both cases, the DASH tasks provided data, which allow us to go further than simply saying their writing was cramped, untidy, illegible etc. In Alex’s case, the DASH showed that he wrote slowly for his age and was unable to increase handwriting speed on demand. There was evidence of this slowness across all of the DASH tasks, suggesting that he would have great difficulty in the classroom when copying home work, writing to dictation, writing essays and, of course, taking exams. In contrast, the DASH showed that Billy could write fast enough even when writing his best, could increase speed when required and could sustain this rate of writing in his free writing. Thus, while both boys need help with their handwriting, the marked difference in the DASH results of these two outwardly comparable boys led me to make quite different assessments of how best to move forward in each case. Clearly, a blanket approach to intervention would not be appropriate.
The next step.
As the educational psychologist’s report had suggested, Alex’s DASH results supported the idea that he had a more significant motor difficulty than Billy. To be sure of this, the boys were given three more tasks involving using a writing implement and Alex was tested on the Movement Assessment Battery for Children (Henderson and Sugden, 2007). During the ‘writing’ tasks, the possibility of altering their pencil grip was explored with both boys.
1 Writing the alphabet without time pressure. On this task, Alex demonstrated that his letter knowledge was good and that the formation of his letters was correct in all but one instance, despite performing slowly and using great effort to produce them. In contrast, Billy wrote several letters which were not clearly formed and the correct movement was not used in f, s, m and k. Again, he performed these at a consistently fast speed.
2 The ‘Lazy 8s’ task: This task is one commonly used by therapists and teachers in the field. The child is asked to produce a horizontal figure of 8 or ‘Lazy 8’, first with and then without an outline, continuously for 10 ‘laps’. Like the graphic speed task in the DASH, it is designed to assess the degree of motor control a child has when using a pen or pencil.
On this task, Alex had great difficulty. He could not perform controlled, smooth movements, particularly when crossing midline. Instead of the movement being confined to the arm and hand, his whole body swayed whilst he did it. Interestingly, Alex could not perform the exercise without the outline, being unable to coordinate the essential crossing movement characteristic of basic joining strokes in cursive writing. Lastly, the pressure which he used on the paper was variable and at times intense.
In contrast, Billy was able to perform these movements without difficulty, sustaining a steady flow of the pen whilst keeping the rest of his body controlled.
3 The ‘curly hair’ task. This is another coordination exercise in which the child is required to draw looping ‘e’s around the outer and inner circumference of a much larger circle without turning either the paper or the body.
Alex was quite unable to coordinate the looping movement around the circle, stopping several times and having to be redirected by the tester. Billy, on the other and, was able to complete this task without assistance.
During all these tasks, both Alex and Billy found it very difficult to adopt a different grip, and it was concluded that to make this change permanent would probably take an impracticable amount of time and commitment. The fact that while both boys used an irregular and seemingly uncomfortable grip, one was so much better able to vary his handwriting speed, suggests that perhaps the grip has little to do with the written outcome.
Alex’s sub-optimal performance on the motor exercises led me to conclude that there were developmental issues to be addressed in his general motor competence in both gross motor (with the excess movement of the body and discomfort crossing midline) and fine motor areas (with the lack of control in the circling and variable pressure). For this reason, it was suggested that an occupational or physiotherapy assessment might be a helpful next step. In addition, the fact that, by nearly 12 years of age, he wrote so much slower than the norm and was unable to increase the speed of handwriting when required, indicated that to improve his handwriting skills to a level at which they could effectively function to record his work might be a massive task, if in fact possible. This led to the confirmation of the recommendation made by the educational psychologist that learning to touch-type would be essential if this boy was to realise his considerable potential at school.
With Billy, several indicators led the tester to make completely different recommendations for this pupil. First, his DASH performance showed him to be someone who could write competently at speed and had the skill to vary his performance to meet specific task requirements. His ability to maintain speeds above the norm for his age when engaged in the free writing task meant that his handwriting was basically functional, albeit irregular. This suggested that there were no major motor developmental issues to be addressed. It was acknowledged that the writing lacked neatness and consistency but, because of the competent performance on the motor circling tasks, it was decided that it was worth tackling the handwriting itself, re-teaching the formation of certain letters and joins directly and working on targeted exercised to space the letters out for increased legibility. Four individual lessons were conducted with this boy working on these aspects of handwriting, which did indeed result in improved presentation.
Billy’s improved handwriting
The DASH provides teachers and therapists with a reliable tool to assess children’s handwriting speed against the norms expected for their age. It does, however, serve to provide more than simple speed results and, because of the differentiated nature of the tasks within the DASH, comparative performance on these tasks yields vital clues to the nature and severity of speed problems. The unique opportunity which appeared when these two boys of the same age and educational background presented for assessment, enabled us to evaluate the extent to which the DASH could be used in a wider context to provide information on handwriting difficulties beyond the parameters for which it was designed. Quite clearly, it has real potential in these ways, as was demonstrated by the way in which it was used for these cases.
Barnett, A, Henderson, S.E., Scheib, B. and Schulz. C. (2007). The Detailed Assessment of Speed of Handwriting. London: Pearson.
Henderson, S.E. and Sugden, D.A. (2007). Children: 2. London: Pearson.