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What Is Dysgraphia?

What Is Dysgraphia - Writing DisabilityDysgraphia is a learning disability that affects writing, which requires a complex set of motor and information processing skills. Dysgraphia makes the act of writing difficult. It can lead to problems with spelling, poor handwriting and putting thoughts on paper. People with dysgraphia can have trouble organizing letters, numbers and words on a line or page. This can result partly from:

As with all learning disabilities (LD), dysgraphia is a lifelong challenge, although how it manifests may change over time. A student with this disorder can benefit from specific accommodations in the learning environment. Extra practice learning the skills required to be an accomplished writer can also help.

What Are the Warning Signs of Dysgraphia?

Just having bad handwriting doesn’t mean a person has dysgraphia. Since dysgraphia is a processing disorder, difficulties can change throughout a lifetime. However since writing is a developmental process—children learn the motor skills needed to write, while learning the thinking skills needed to communicate on paper—difficulties can also overlap.

Dysgraphia: Warning Signs By Age

Young Children

Trouble With:
  • Tight, awkward pencil grip and body position
  • Avoiding writing or drawing tasks
  • Trouble forming letter shapes
  • Inconsistent spacing between letters or words
  • Poor understanding of uppercase and lowercase letters
  • Inability to write or draw in a line or within margins
  • Tiring quickly while writing

School-Age Children

Trouble With:
  • Illegible handwriting
  • Mixture of cursive and print writing
  • Saying words out loud while writing
  • Concentrating so hard on writing that comprehension of what's written is missed
  • Trouble thinking of words to write
  • Omitting or not finishing words in sentences

Teenagers and Adults

Trouble With:
  • Trouble organizing thoughts on paper
  • Trouble keeping track of thoughts already written down
  • Difficulty with syntax structure and grammar
  • Large gap between written ideas and understanding demonstrated through speech

What Strategies Can Help?

There are many ways to help a person with dysgraphia achieve success. Generally strategies fall into three main categories:

  • Accommodations: providing alternatives to written expression
  • Modifications: changing expectations or tasks to minimize or avoid the area of weakness
  • Remediation: providing instruction for improving handwriting and writing skills

Each type of strategy should be considered when planning instruction and support. A person with dysgraphia will benefit from help from both specialists and those who are closest to the person. Finding the most beneficial type of support is a process of trying different ideas and openly exchanging thoughts on what works best.

Although teachers and employers are required by law to make “reasonable accommodations” for individuals with learning disabilities, they may not be aware of how to help. Speak to them about dysgraphia and explain the challenges faced as a result of this learning disability.

Here are examples of how to teach individuals with dysgraphia to overcome some of their difficulties with written expression.

Early Writers

Be patient and positive, encourage practice and praise effort. Becoming a good writer takes time and practice.

  • Use paper with raised lines for a sensory guide to staying within the lines.
  • Try different pens and pencils to find one that’s most comfortable.
  • Practice writing letters and numbers in the air with big arm movements to improve motor memory of these important shapes. Also practice letters and numbers with smaller hand or finger motions.
  • Encourage proper grip, posture and paper positioning for writing. It’s important to reinforce this early as it’s difficult for students to unlearn bad habits later on.
  • Use multi-sensory techniques for learning letters, shapes and numbers. For example, speaking through motor sequences, such as “b” is “big stick down, circle away from my body.”
  • Introduce a word processor on a computer early; however do not eliminate handwriting for the child. While typing can make it easier to write by alleviating the frustration of forming letters, handwriting is a vital part of a person's ability to function in the world.

Young Students

Encourage practice through low-stress opportunities for writing. This might include writing letters or in a diary, making household lists, or keeping track of sports teams.

  • Allow use of print or cursive—whichever is more comfortable.
  • Use large graph paper for math calculation to keep columns and rows organized.
  • Allow extra time for writing assignments.
  • Begin writing assignments creatively with drawing, or speaking ideas into a tape recorder.
  • Alternate focus of writing assignments—put the emphasis on some for neatness and spelling, others for grammar or organization of ideas.
  • Explicitly teach different types of writing—expository and personal essays, short stories, poems, etc.
  • Do not judge timed assignments on neatness and spelling.
  • Have students proofread work after a delay—it’s easier to see mistakes after a break.
  • Help students create a checklist for editing work—spelling, neatness, grammar, syntax, clear progression of ideas, etc.
  • Encourage use of a spell checker—speaking spell checkers are available for handwritten work.
  • Reduce amount of copying; instead, focus on writing original answers and ideas.
  • Have student complete tasks in small steps instead of all at once.
  • Find alternative means of assessing knowledge, such as oral reports or visual projects.

Teenagers and Adults

Many of these tips can be used by all age groups. It is never too early or too late to reinforce the skills needed to be a good writer.

  • Provide tape recorders to supplement note taking and to prepare for writing assignments.
  • Create a step-by-step plan that breaks writing assignments into small tasks (see below).
  • When organizing writing projects, create a list of keywords that will be useful.
  • Provide clear, constructive feedback on the quality of work, explaining both the strengths and weaknesses of the project, commenting on the structure as well as the information that is included.
  • Use assistive technology such as voice-activated software if the mechanical aspects of writing remain a major hurdle.
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