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What Is Dysgraphia? How to Identify and Support Students

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Updated on
Modified on November 14, 2023
Quick Takeaway
Dysgraphia is a neurological disorder affecting handwriting and fine-motor skills, which can often present challenges to learning. While it stands distinct from ADHD and dyslexia, the conditions can coexist. Early diagnosis, combined with tailored interventions like multisensory learning and occupational therapy, can significantly aid individuals with dysgraphia. With a combination of professional support and understanding from educators and peers, students with dysgraphia can navigate their educational journey with confidence and success.

Dysgraphia is a neurological disorder that often goes unnoticed in classroom settings. It is a complex condition that can have a significant impact on an individual's life, particularly when it comes to learning. Clear understanding, early diagnosis, and appropriate interventions are crucial for helping students with dysgraphia overcome writing challenges and reach their full potential. Understanding and support from educators play a vital role in helping students with dysgraphia thrive and succeed.

Because dysgraphia is classified as a specific learning disability (SLD), it often requires special education services and frequently goes with the need for reading intervention. While dysgraphia primarily affects writing skills, it can also impact reading comprehension due to its association with broader language processing difficulties. Special education programs can offer targeted support and individualized reading interventions to help individuals with dysgraphia strengthen their overall literacy skills, ensuring a more well-rounded educational experience. At Voyager Sopris Learning®, we are the reading, writing, and math intervention specialist for teachers and students. We provide tailored educational strategies and resources essential to giving students with dysgraphia the tools they need to overcome challenges and achieve educational goals.

Types of Dysgraphia

While dysgraphia primarily impacts written expression, it can also cause ripple effects in other academic areas. According to the National Library of Medicine, “Between 10% and 30% of children experience difficulty in writing, although the exact prevalence depends on the definition of dysgraphia.” Because dysgraphia is a neurological disorder, it can manifest in various ways, leading to different definitions or variations that become commonly confused or seemingly interchangeable. There are several different types of dysgraphia often seen in the classroom that, with the right information, can be more readily identified and addressed. While they all fall under the general category of “dysgraphia,” each has its own diverse distinctions that can be used for more tailored interventions. 

  • Dyslexic Dysgraphia: Individuals with this type of dysgraphia often have trouble with spelling and forming words correctly. They may write words with incorrect letter sequences or use incorrect letter shapes.

  • Motor Dysgraphia: This is characterized by difficulties with motor skills, making it challenging for individuals to produce legible and well-formed handwriting. Writing may appear messy, uneven, and difficult to read.

  • Spatial Dysgraphia: People with spatial dysgraphia struggle with maintaining proper spacing between words and letters, resulting in crowded or uneven writing. They may also have difficulty aligning their writing on the page.

In addition, there is also a type of dysgraphia called “developmental dysgraphia,” which is “impairment in acquisition of writing (spelling, handwriting, or both), despite adequate opportunity to learn, and absence of obvious neuropathology or gross sensory-motor dysfunction.”

What Are the 5 Symptoms of Dysgraphia?

There are five major symptoms often associated with dysgraphia. By understanding these symptoms, people can be better equipped to identify potential signs of dysgraphia and seek professional help. These are the five major symptoms of dysgraphia:

  • Poor Handwriting: Inconsistent letter formation, letter reversals, and illegible handwriting can be a sign of dysgraphia. This can also affect or be affected by a student’s letter recognition. Within letter recognition, students should be able to identify the formation (both uppercase and lowercase) of letters, but this is complicated by dysgraphia. For example, students may get the lowercase letters “b” and “d” confused. 

  • Difficulty with Spacing and Lines: Struggles with spacing between words and staying within margins are common symptoms of dysgraphia. These difficulties in spatial organization can make written work appear cluttered and challenging to read.

  • Slow Writing Speed: An unusually slow writing speed and physical or psychological fatigue from writing can be indicative of dysgraphia. These challenges can lead to frustration and avoidance of writing tasks, affecting both academic and everyday activities.

  • Spelling Errors: Students with dysgraphia often have difficulty spelling words correctly when writing, despite being able to do so orally. This can be tricky, especially given all the spelling rules in the English language. However, teachers who understand the logic of English and its seemingly complicated spelling are better equipped to pass that knowledge along to their students—especially those who may struggle with poor spelling due to dysgraphia.

  • Trouble Expressing Thoughts in Written Form: Students with dysgraphia often struggle to transcribe their thoughts onto paper, which can lead to incomplete sentences and disjointed ideas. These writing difficulties can significantly impact their ability to communicate effectively and express their knowledge.

It is vital to recognize these symptoms quickly, because early intervention can lead to more successful outcomes in managing and overcoming the challenges of dysgraphia. 

Dysgraphia vs. Dyslexia vs. Dyscalculia: What’s the difference?

There are three specific learning disorders that often get confused or discussed in related conversations: dysgraphia, dyslexia, and dyscalculia. While there is some potential overlap, they also have distinct differences. 

  • Dysgraphia: Dysgraphia involves impairments in the physical act of writing and the translation of thoughts to written words.

  • Dyslexia: Dyslexia is a reading disorder, characterized by difficulties with accurate or fluent word recognition, poor decoding abilities, and struggles with reading comprehension. 

  • Dyscalculia: Dyscalculia is a learning disorder involving difficulty in understanding numbers, learning how to manipulate numbers, and learning math facts. Common challenges often include difficulty with time, measurement, and spatial reasoning.

These conditions can overlap, and a student could be diagnosed with more than one of these learning disorders. Evaluations are important to accurately identify these disorders and the need for individualized intervention strategies for successful remediation.

Is Dysgraphia a Form of ADHD?

There is a common misconception that dysgraphia, or any of its previously discussed types, is a form of ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder). While they can coexist, one is not a form of the other. Dysgraphia is a specific learning disorder that affects writing abilities, and ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder. 

Dysgraphia and Its Impact on Learning

There are specific challenges dysgraphia can present within an educational setting, which increasingly highlight the importance of early recognition and intervention. Dysgraphia can affect a student's performance across various subjects, not just those directly related to reading and writing. For example, one study revealed “children with dysgraphia possibly suffer from cognitive difficulties that influence visual memory more than visuomotor skills.” The potential cognitive and socioemotional impacts of dysgraphia are necessary to understand to have a more comprehensive understanding of how dysgraphia impacts a student’s learning experience. 

There are also social and emotional impacts on students that can affect a student's school life. Students with dysgraphia often face other difficulties that extend beyond just the textbook diagnosis of illegible handwriting or poor pencil grip. Some students may have difficulty organizing thoughts. This can cause low self-esteem or frustration if persistent challenges with writing occur. Dysgraphia can even affect social interactions, as students may feel self-conscious about their handwriting.

Because of this, there are often negative stigmas associated with dysgraphia students may face. Students with dysgraphia may be seen as lazy, unmotivated, or unintelligent. Therefore, educators must be dedicated to knowing not only the definitions and signs of dysgraphia but also to leaning into strategies and supports to combat any stigmas. With early and appropriate interventions, students with dysgraphia can improve their writing skills and, consequently, their academic performance.

How Is Dysgraphia Diagnosed?

According to the Cleveland Clinic, “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th edition (DSM-5) includes dysgraphia under the “specific learning disorder” category but doesn’t define it as a separate disorder and doesn’t have specific criteria for diagnosis. This can make dysgraphia difficult—but not impossible—to diagnose.” Because of the potential difficulty of diagnosis, the process often involves an evaluation that may include an analysis of the child's written work, cognitive assessment, and fine-motor skills. Early observations from educators often play a vital role in triggering a formal evaluation. A professional assessment, often led by a school psychologist or a learning disabilities specialist, can provide a clear diagnosis. A diagnosis can set the stage for developing individualized intervention strategies.

Nine Strategies to Help Dysgraphia

Dysgraphia is complex and often requires a range of tailored strategies to support students diagnosed with it. These strategies may include teaching students techniques for consistent spacing in their written work, introducing cursive writing as an alternative, and strengthening their orthographic coding skills to improve spelling and word formation. Push-in and pull-out support may be employed, offering students assistance in the classroom and specialized instruction outside of it. 

Strategies to help students with dysgraphia encompass a range of approaches that address challenges in writing and other related areas. Specific, practical strategies can help students with dysgraphia improve their writing skills and overall learning experience. These strategies can also be tailored to an individual's needs, all aimed at fostering their literacy skills and enhancing reading comprehension despite obstacles posed by dysgraphia.

  1. Handwriting Practice: Structured, repetitive exercises are important to help improve letter formation and pencil grip. In fact, it is a beneficial activity for all students because it reinforces reading and spelling skills, is linked to reading and spelling achievement, and even supports the science of reading.

  2. Fine-Motor Skills Exercises: Strengthening fine-motor skills can enhance control over writing tools, suggesting activities like playing with clay or threading beads.

  3. Use of Assistive Technology: Tools like speech-to-text software or digital note-taking apps can alleviate some of the cognitive load of writing. For example, dictation or transcription tools can be used to aid in learning and assessing.

  4. Occupational Therapy: Working with an occupational therapist can help students improve their handwriting, enhance fine-motor skills, and learn strategies to cope with dysgraphia. In cases where there is a motor coordination disorder, occupational therapy may be integrated into an Individualized Education Program (IEP). 

  5. Multisensory Learning: Integrating sight, sound, movement, and touch into learning can reinforce memory and skill development. Voyager Sopris Learning offers a comprehensive, multisensory writing program, Step Up to Writing®, that enhances students’ skills in creating thoughtful, well-written compositions.

  6. Provision of Extra Time: Allowing extra time for writing assignments can help students with dysgraphia to complete tasks without feeling overwhelmed.

  7. Modified Assignments: Reducing the writing load can help students with dysgraphia focus on the quality of work rather than quantity.

  8. Organizational Aids: Graphic organizers or outlines can help students structure their thoughts before they start writing.

  9. Positive Reinforcement: Celebrating progress and effort, no matter how small, to boost the student's self-esteem and motivation is vital to any student’s success—especially those who may experience dysgraphia. 

Support from Voyager Sopris Learning

Voyager Sopris Learning offers programs to support students with dysgraphia or dyslexia through our reading and writing interventions. Learn more about Step Up to Writing, a program designed to provide an explicit, multisensory approach to writing instruction including handwriting, and support student success in all content areas.

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