Understanding Dysgraphia


DysgraphiaDysgraphia is a relatively unknown learning difference that doesn’t get as many headlines at ADHD and dyslexia. However, many students, especially those with ADHD and/or dyslexia suffer from dysgraphia and may not even know they have it. It’s important to understand exactly what dysgraphia is and how it affects students in the classroom.

The use of term “dysgraphia” is not very common and sometimes confusing. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM-V), which is the most widely used manual for assigning learning differences, does not contain that specific word. Instead, the DSM-V describes this particular diagnosis as a “Specific Learning Disorder, With impairment in written expression”.

In order to obtain such a diagnosis, a student must demonstrate an unexpected deficiency in writing and meet 4 basic criteria, including:

1.  Symptoms for at least 6 months

2.  Significant interference with academic performance

3.  Begin during school-aged years

4.  Are not accounted for by other disorders

So What is Dysgraphia?

The term “dysgraphia” is essentially a short-hand for of the DSM-V diagnosis. Psychologists, and especially learning specialists, will use the term “dysgraphia” to mean the same thing as the DSM-V diagnosis. Consequently, in order to receive accommodations for dysgraphia, a student will typically have to meet the above 4 criteria.

Dysgraphia manifests itself in many ways. Most assume it means a student has trouble with handwriting or that handwriting is sloppy. This is not always the case. Poor handwriting and/or fine-motor skills may be a symptom of a different deficiency entirely, such as dyspraxia. Nevertheless, dysgraphia can affect one’s ability to write neatly. This symptom will be present early on as the student learns to write in elementary school.

The most common symptom of dysgraphia that I see in students is difficulty in gathering one’s thoughts, organizing them in a clear, coherent fashion, and actually getting those thoughts onto paper. Students with dysgraphia often:

  • Stare at the computer or paper wondering what to write
  • Write long run-on sentences with poor punctuation
  • Jump from one idea to another without any clear transition
  • Leave out important information in a story
  • Fail to make a point in their writing
  • Use poor grammar

For students with dysgraphia, writing is a slow and painful process that students try to avoid. If you notice that your student struggles with writing or complains about it frequently, you may want to consider having him evaluated by a psychologist.

How to “Fix” It?

Students with dysgraphia will always have a challenge with writing; there simply is no way to make it disappear. However, with the right tools and techniques, students can certainly learn to compensate and actually become very effective writers.

The most important exercise a student can do to help with their writing is to write more. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to brainstorm on a piece of paper. I like to have students select a topic and then write down as many ideas as they can think of about that topic. Once we have a bunch of ideas written on paper, we can then start grouping the ideas according to their commonalities. I like to highlight similar ideas in similar colors. This gives the student a way to see how they relate. Once the student has ideas grouped together, it’s much easier to write an organized story or essay.

I also strongly suggest that students who have dysgraphia use computers to do as much of their academic work as possible. This is an accommodation frequently given by schools as part of a 504 plan. The use of a computer can help with neatness as well as grammar, punctuation, and spelling. It would be ideal if a student could learn to write effectively without a computer, but in the grand scheme of things, most writing these days is on a computer anyway.

Again, the best thing a student with dysgraphia can do is to read and write more, even if it is difficult. Journaling, writing creative stories, writing letters to friends and family, or even just making lists of things to do on the weekend can all help students gain confidence. Reading books, magazines, websites, and any other well-written material will also help shape their brains and reinforce what good writing looks like.

If you suspect your student has exceptional trouble specifically with writing, I strongly suggest you look at having him evaluated by a psychologist. The first step to fixing the problem is identifying the what exactly is going on.