The term Dysgraphia stems from two Greek words: Dys meaning “impaired” and graphia meaning “writing by hand.” When you search the web for Dysgraphia, there are several definitions, including the Merriam Webster Dictionary definition:
: impairment of the ability to write caused by brain damage
Then, there is the Wikipedia definition: Dysgraphia is a deficiency in the ability to write, primarily in terms of handwriting, but also in terms of coherence.
And, finally, the Learning Disabilities Association of America defines dysgraphia as “difficulty expressing thoughts in writing.”
Perhaps, there seem to be so many varying (albeit similar) definitions of dysgraphia because it is not a term used in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5 (DMS-5). Instead the DSM-5 uses the phrase “an impairment in written expression” under the category of “specific learning disorder.” And, the DMS is not clear whether writing includes only the motor skills in writing or if it also includes the orthographic skills and spelling.
The underlying causes of dysgraphia are thought to be both physical impairments in fine motor skills as well as brain-based dysfunction. They include:
- Sequencing problems – thought to be a result of underlying visual or perceptual processing weakness, but research does not support the notion of a visual basis as a cause; it is caused because the student has to slow down their writing in order to concentrate on the formation of letters and words and subsequently loses their train of thought
- ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) – students with ADHD often exhibit dysgraphia because they have trouble organizing their thoughts; and these students process information quickly and simply cannot write fast enough to get their thoughts onto the paper
- Auditory Processing Weakness – if a student has some difficulty learning or understanding language in general, he or she will have a weakness in the written expression of that language
- Visual Processing Weakness – this is considered to be a very unlikely cause as most students with dysgraphia usually do NOT have a visual processing weakness. But, people with this weakness can exhibit difficulties in writing speed and clarity because they cannot fully process what they are writing.
Ultimately, most people believe that dysgraphia is a biologically-based disorder with genetic and brain basis. Students with this learning difference usually do not develop the connections in their brain that are needed for writing.
Symptoms and Behaviors
The Learning Disabilities Association of America lists quite a few symptoms and/or behaviors for persons with dysgraphia. These include:
- Illegible printing/cursive writing
- Inconsistent style of writing (e.g., mixing up cursive and print, using upper and lower case letters)
- Unfinished words or letters, omitted words
- Inconsistent spacing between words and letters
- Strange writing, body or paper position
- Difficulty pre-visualizing letter formation
- Copying or writing is slow or labored
- Shows poor spatial planning on paper
- Has cramped/unusual grip and may complain of sore hand
- Great difficulty thinking and writing at the same time (creative writing)
Dividing these symptoms into age categories, we can look for the following behaviors:
- Preschool – child will be hesitant to write and draw and say they dislike coloring
- School-age – illegible handwriting; trouble writing on a line; uneven letter size; difficulty writing thoughts down on paper
- Teenagers – may write in simple sentences and make numerous grammatical mistakes
Although the signs of dysgraphia usually appear in a young child, they are often not diagnosed until later in the student’s academic career. This is probably due to the belief that the child will simply acquire the necessary writing skills as he or she grows.
Typically, a licensed psychologist will identify the specific learning disability of dysgraphia. It cannot be diagnosed with a simple writing sample. The psychologist will conduct many tests which measure motor skills and written expression. They will not only look at what the child writes but how he or she is writing, how they are holding the pencil and their posture. A finger tapping exercise is also commonly used to measure fine motor skills.
Because there is no cure for dysgraphia, it is important to identify this specific learning disorder (SLD) as early as possible and implement many different teaching strategies to determine which are successful. Because the potential causes of dysgraphia are both motor skills deficits and brain-based issues, a multi-sensory approach will be most effective. There are many activities that can help improve motor skills in children and aid in facilitating handwriting skills:
- Playing with clay or squeezing a ball to strengthen hand muscles
- Tracing a dot-to-dot figure and keeping within the lines on a maze
- Tracing letters with fingers or the end of a pencil
- Imitating a teacher modeling sequential strokes in letter formation
Once a student has learned how to form the letters, he or she may benefit from exercises developed to aid in writing from memory such as covering a letter and picturing it in the mind and writing letters from oral dictation.
For older students, some writing strategies include:
- Outlining thoughts
- Drawing a picture
- Dictating ideas into a tape recorder then listen and write them later
- Practicing keyboarding skills
- Using a computer to organize information and check spelling
- Continue to practice handwriting frequently
- Talking to self as you write to provide auditory feedback
Many students with a specific learning disability will have an Individualized Education Plan created by the school. This IEP will include modifications and/or accommodations for the student with dysgraphia.
- Change the rate for producing written work by allowing more time for tasks
- Change the volume of work produced which can include shortening the length of test answers or the number of pages in a written assignment
- Vary the complexity of the writing task by allowing the use of templates and organizers or changing the grading to "spelling doesn't count"
- Change the tools used to product the written work such as allowing cursive writing, different color paper and/or pencils, pencil grips, keyboarding software and speech recognition software
- Adjust the format by allowing an oral presentation or a visual project
Finally the best remediation techniques include building handwriting into a student’s regular schedule to allow for practice. If a student’s dysgraphia is severe enough it may be useful to incorporate occupational therapy to provide intensive remediation. Remember, it is important to balance accommodations and modifications in the student’s instruction while still allowing this student to develop the necessary skills for handwriting.
It is critical for families of students with leaning differences to connect with other families that have similar challenges. There are several community resources available:
Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Division of Special Education, Bobbi Pedrick, Director of Special Education, 2644 Riva Road, Annapolis, MD 21401 410-222-5410, www.aacps.org/specialed
Learning Disabilities Association of America, Local Maryland Chapter, PO Box 744, Dunkirk, MD 20754, 888-265-6459 http://www.ldamd.org
National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health, 9000 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, MD 20892, www.ninds.nih.gov
Understood for Learning and Attention Issues, 32 Laight Street, Floor 1, New York, NY 10013, 646-757-3135, www.understood.org
There are also many apps for both Apple and Android devices that provide help with spelling and writing. These include games, graphic organizers and occupational therapy tools. Most are free and others have a minimal cost.
Berninger, VW; May, MO (2011). "Evidence-based diagnosis and treatment for specific learning disabilities impairing written and/or oral language". J Learn Disabil 44 (2): 167–83. From: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dysgraphia
"Dysgraphia Info." Brainhe.com. BRAIN.HE. ] "Specific Language Impairment." NIDCD.nih.gov. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. From: http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/voice/pages/specific-language-impairment.aspx
International Dyslexia Association. "Understanding Dysgraphia."Wrightslaw.com. From: http://www.wrightslaw.com/info/read.dysgraphia.facts.htm
Merriam Webster Dictionary From: http://www.merriam-webster.com/medical/dysgraphia
Nicolson RI, Fawcett AJ (January 2011). “Dyslexic, dysgraphia procedural learning and the cerebellum”. Cortex 47 (1): 117-27 From: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dysgraphia
Susan Jones, Resource Room/Team Prairie, LLC From : www.resourceroom.net