What is Dysgraphia?

Kelly Thompson, Monmouth County Project Coordinator and WPS Teacher

Dysgraphia is a condition that affects a child’s ability to effectively acquire writing skills. Although dysgraphia is primarily linked to poor handwriting, its scope is actually much wider and more complex. Similar to a child learning to read, the process of writing and learning to write incorporates many steps including forming individual letters, recognizing and spelling simple words, transcribing ideas into sentences, correctly applying grammatical and mechanical rules, and maintaining organization and clarity throughout a written piece. Struggles in any of these areas can translate, or point to, dysgraphia.
Symptoms of Dysgraphia

If you see your child struggling with one or a few of the following, it could be a sign that she/he is struggling with dysgraphia:
 
  • forming letters
  • spacing letters correctly on a page
  • writing in a straight line
  • making letters the correct size
  • putting the right amount of pressure on paper with writing tool

It’s Not Just Bad Handwriting

Many people automatically assume that dysgraphia is the occurence of poor handwriting. However, dysgraphia is distinct from weak fine motor skills. Similar to dyslexia, dysgraphia is connected to weaknesses in working memory. Children with dysgraphia struggle with orthographic coding, which is the ability to store and manipulate written words while translating them onto a page. Due to weaknesses in orthographic coding, these children experience difficulty planning sequential finger movements to effectively form words while writing. Anticipating these hand and finger movements during the act of writing is a challenge as students with dysgraphia have a harder time predicting the next physical movement needed to create a letter or word without a visual guide. For comparison, students without dysgraphia are able to easily make sound to symbol connections and visualize and manipulate a selected word, which makes writing it much easier. A breakdown in orthographic coding is different than a developmental fine motor disorder, another cause of poor handwriting, though the two are often confused.

Dysgraphia And Dyslexia

As with everything that we do at Winston Prep, our understanding of our students’ learning disabilities comes from a clinical perspective. It is important to note that dysgraphia is closely related to dyslexia. Both disorders are connected to acquiring language skills and are linked to weaknesses in working memory. However, dysgraphia has not gained the type of attention that dyslexia has in recent years. This has led to a gap in research between the two disorders— dysgraphia is often overlooked.

In comparing the disorders, it has been noted and argued that writing is a more rigorous skill to learn and acquire than reading. This understanding is important to keep in mind as so many of our children, including those diagnosed with dysgraphia, find writing to be a challenging, and often anxiety-provoking, exercise. According to Dohla and Heim’s “Developmental Dyslexia and Dysgraphia,” there are a few main reasons for this difference:
 
  1. While reading, the words are visually represented, which makes it easier to recognize phonological relationships. Writing is more challenging as students are required to recall those relationships independently.
  2. Context helps students who struggle to read to navigate and understand meaning. With writing, context is not provided.
  3. Exposure and practice helps students to master any skill. For the most part, students read more than they write.

Can Dysgraphia Occur With Other Learning Disabilities?

Although dysgraphia can occur independent of other disorders, it is common to see dyslexia and dysgraphia diagnosed together, as previously discussed. Students with dysgraphia may also experience weak executive functioning skills. As focus, self-monitoring skills, and organization have an impact when learning to write, especially for children with dysgraphia who need to sustain attention longer to overcome deficits, this comorbidity can be particularly frustrating. Dysgraphia can also occur with expressive and receptive language processing disorders. Language processing disorders are also linked to weaknesses in phonological processing, which affect a child’s ability to recognize and organize language. These disorders often affect writing, as well.

How to Help Your Child with Dysgraphia

First and foremost, when symptoms of dysgraphia or any learning challenges surface, is it important to have your child evaluated and officially diagnosed. This is crucial for many reasons, but an official diagnosis allows you and your child to work with professionals to come up with an appropriate plan to address deficits. It is important to note that “dysgraphia” does not appear on the DSM-5 or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5. Instead, an evaluator may provide the diagnosis of specific learning disorder with impairment in written expression.

In collaboration with your child’s teacher, it may be helpful to reinforce some of the exercises that they are using in school to address writing weaknesses. These may include tracing letters with index fingers, copying letters from visual models, and writing letters from dictation.

As cliche as it may sound, it is also important to remember to be patient with your child’s writing progress and to assure your child that there are many effective ways to address their writing struggles. Frustration connected to writing struggles might make your student writing avoidant, so it is important to remain positive, especially at home. Modeling writing through low-stakes projects, like updating a family calendar, writing a thank you note, or creating a comic strip, are good ways to encourage your child’s participation. Allowing your child to dictate a writing activity is also useful and productive as it allows a child to practice organizing, expressing, and self-correcting complex thoughts. Lastly, modeling your own struggles with writing—showing your child that writing is a process for everyone and that it always requires editing—is a good tool to make writing feel accessible.

References:

Dohla, Diana, and Stefan Heim. “Developmental Dyslexia and Dysgraphia: What Can We Learn from the One about the Other?” Frontiers in Psychology, 2016,
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4726782/#B61
“Understanding Dysgraphia.” Dyslexia IDA. International Dyslexia Association.
https://dyslexiaida.org/understanding-dysgraphia/. Feb. 18, 2020.
Franklin, Daniel. Helping Your Child with Language-Based Learning Disabilities: Strategies to Succeed in School and Life with Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Dyscalculia, ADHD, and Processing Disorders. Oakland, New Harbinger Publication, Inc., 2018.
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Winston Preparatory School is a leading school for students with learning disabilities, including dyslexia, executive functioning difficulties (ADHD) and non-verbal learning disorders (NVLD).

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