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What is Dysgraphia?

By: Dr. Kawthar Hameed Abdullah

Ed.D Educational Psychology and Special Education

Dysgraphia is a specific learning disability. It affects how children acquire written language and the use of writing to express thoughts and ideas. Many times, dysgraphia is overlooked; however, it is the cause of a lot of frustration for parents, students, and teachers. We often think of dyslexia and have a basic understanding of it. Other learning disorders, such as dysgraphia and dyscalculia, are commonly misunderstood or missed.

Dysgraphia affects about 10% of school-aged children. Dysgraphia symptoms are characterized by the inability to write correctly. This is often because they have poor ‘fine-motor’ skills, which impacts their spelling, writing, and getting their thoughts down on paper.

Fine-motor skills are essential for good writing. Children with dysgraphia symptoms may have problems with the simplest of writing tasks. Their handwriting will barely be readable and the writing will appear incorrect, inaccurate, have letters of different sizes, and different size spaces between letters. Students may have particular difficulties following a straight line and keeping to a margin. Students with dysgraphia find it particularly painful when writing by hand.

It is important to treat dysgraphia as soon as possible before it affects a child’s self-esteem. Just as there is no single set of signs that characterize dyslexia, there is no one cause of dysgraphia. The earlier dysgraphia is diagnosed, the easier it is to ensure the student receives the correct support at home and school. Although there is no cure, the problems can be improved with the proper special education services.

Know the Difference Between Dysgraphia and Handwriting Coordination Problems and Dyslexia

Dysgraphia is NOT a coordination problem (or problem with weak or muscle movement). It is a processing disorder that affects spelling, handwriting, and/or information processing skills.

The signs of dysgraphia vary by age because processing ability changes as children grow and develop.

Dyslexia is an impaired reading disability. Children with dyslexia often find it difficult to match sounds to letters and blend sounds into words. BOTH dysgraphia and dyslexia are types of learning disorders and require a specialized treatment plan to ensure your student succeeds.

Signs and Symptoms of Dysgraphia

Here are some basic signs and symptoms of dysgraphia. If you see a number of these symptoms in your child, an educational psychologist should be consulted.

Does the child:

  • Grip the pen too tight and/or with a ‘fist grip’?

  • Appear to have difficulty with the physical part of writing?

  • Have poor motor control?

  • Repeatedly say his hand hurts when he writes?

  • Watch his hand intently whilst writing?

  • Start to write letters from the bottom upwards?

  • Write in all directions, i.e. right slant then left slant?

  • Use big and small spaces between words?

  • Use different sized letters on the same line?

  • Forget to dot the ‘i’s or cross the ‘t’s?

  • Have written words which are often not sitting on or are below the line?

  • Mix up capital-letters and lower-case letters on the same line?

  • Use a mixture of printing and cursive on the same line?

  • Have abnormal and irregular formation of letters?

  • Have writing that is almost impossible to read?

  • Say the word out loud whilst he is writing?

  • Have very slow writing?

  • Use punctuation and paragraphs in the wrong place?

  • Ignore margins?

  • Write sentences that do not make any sense?

  • Have difficulty copying symbols, i.e. circles, squares, triangles?

  • Have great difficulty copying from the whiteboard?

Ideas to Help Children with Dysgraphia:

When younger children are learning to write help them with letter reversals. ALWAYS provide a correct model when teaching letter formation. Highlight the left side of the paper. Use a sticker on the left side of the paper to encourage them to understand the right from left sides; use graphic organizers and graph paper to help with spacing; and use raised line paper to help with proper letter height.

1. Provide Alternatives to Written Expression.

When handwriting interferes with learning and children are writing to take notes in class, there should be accommodations in place for the student with dysgraphia. Keyboarding and use of recording devices to take in information should be built into the student’s IEP. Allow children with dysgraphia to give verbal responses vs. written ones.

2. Use a Multi-Sensory Approach.

Cut letters out of sandpaper and other textured items and allow children to trace them with their fingers. Try using large muscle groups and write huge letters in the air using the entire arm. Use sand, foam soap, and sensory boxes to trace letters. Draw big letters with sidewalk chalk and encourage kids to walk over and jump on them.

Remember: the earlier dysgraphia is diagnosed, the easier it is to ensure the child receives the right support at home and school.

Dr. Kawthar Hameed Abdullah is an educational psychologist and special educational specialist. She holds a Ed.D in both educational psychology and special education. She has over 25 years experience working with children with different educational, intellectual and emotional challenges.

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