What the heck is dysgraphia?
Think of it as "writing dyslexia"
I describe dyscalculia (mathematics learning disability) as "the Jermaine Jackson of the dyslexia family". To continue the metaphor, dysgraphia (writing disability) is kind of like LaToya. She keeps popping up on all those magazines in the grocery store check out line, and she looks familiar, but you have no idea why.
Dysgraphia is a learning disorder that affects a person's ability to write. It is better known than dyscalculia (having 150,000 google listings to dyscalculia's 44,000) but nowhere near as well-known as dyslexia (with 3.5 million google listings). I suspect this is because many dyslexics have trouble with symbol manipulation in general, providing substantial overlap between those with dyslexia and the other two disorders.
I was diagnosed with dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and ADD while in college. The dyscalculia and ADD were no surprise -- I'd struggled with math and attention all my life. But writing? I'd always thought I was good at that. But the more I learned, the more the diagnosis made perfect sense.
Read on to learn symptoms of dysgraphia, how it is defined, and how it can be remediated. If you or somebody you know has dysgraphia, I hope you will find helpful information here. If dsygraphia does not affect your life, I hope you'll come away knowing a little more about the strange workings of the human brain.
Dysgraphia, or Disorder of Written Expression, is defined under the DSM IV 315.2 as "writing skills [that] are significantly below what is normal considering the [person's] age, intelligence, and education".
The writing difficulties must interfere with a person's daily living and academic achievement. If sensory deficiencies are also present, the writing difficulties must be substantially worse than one would expect given that deficiency.
As with other learning disabilities, people with dysgraphia have intelilgence in the normal, above average, or gifted ranges. People with dysgraphia are not stupid or lazy. They will not "get over it" if they just "try harder". Dysgraphia is a neurologically based cognitive difference that makes it difficult to learn to write as it's normally taught in school.
Researcher RK Deuel has broken dysgraphia into three subcategories, depending on where the writing difficulty lies. Someone with dysgraphia may have one, two, or three of these subtypes.
1: Dyslexic Dysgraphia. This subtype characterized by unusual spelling and poor legibility in spontaneous written work. If the work is copied, legibility improves dramatically. Finger tapping speed (measured by neuropsychological testing) is normal. A person can have dyslexic dysgraphia without actually being dyslexic.
2: Motor Dysgraphia. The second type is motor dysgraphia. People with this subtype often spell reasonably well, but still have poor legibility in spontaneous as well as copied written work. With extreme effort, writing may be OK in short samples; but in longer samples, problems with letter formation, letter size, and letter or word omission become increasingly worse. Writing is very time consuming for those with motor dysgraphia, and becomes unsustainably painful after a short period of time. Finger tapping speed is below normal.
3: Spatial Dysgraphia. This subtype is characterized by difficulties with the space allotted for writing. Spontaneous and copied written samples are poor or illegible, spelling is normal, and tapping speed is normal.
Dysgraphia is about much more than having bad handwriting. Here is a list of common symptoms of dysgraphia, broken down by age, from the National Center for Learning Disabilities:.
* Tight, awkward pencil grip and body position
* Avoiding writing or drawing tasks
* Difficulty forming letters shapes
* Inconsistent spacing between letters/words
* Poor understanding of upper and lowercase letters
* Inability to write or draw in a line or within margins
* Tire quickly while writing
* Illegible handwriting
* Mixture of cursive and print writing
* Saying words out loud while writing
* Concentrate on writing so much that they don't comprehend what they've written
* Difficulty thinking of words to write
* Unfinished or omitted words in sentences
Teenagers & Adults
* Difficulty organizing thoughts on paper
* Trouble keeping track of thoughts already written down
* Difficulty with syntax structure and grammar
* Large gap between written ideas and understanding demonstrated through speech
If a person continues to display difficulty over time in the areas outlined above, testing for dysgraphia should be considered.
A Dysgraphic Writing Sample - This is why I love the internet!
Here's an writing sample by a twelve-year-old with dyslexia and dysgraphia. It's an excellent illustration of the difference between what a dysgraphic means to say and what she or he actually can say in writing. The sample appears is taken from the article A Look At Dysgraphia: What Dysgraphia Looks Like On The Outside (http://www.peas-ink.com/ann/folio/hgse/t560/dysgraphia/outside.htm) .
When I took was diagnosed with learning disabilities back in college, I was not at all surprised to find that I had math disorder or attention deficit disorder. But the diagnosis of "written expression disorder" was shocking.
Since I was in sixth grade, people had been telling me that I write pretty well. In fact, my college stressed writing very heavily, to the point where a well-written admissions essay could be a significant counterweight to a wonky GPA that was, say, brought down by poor math scores. Just to pick a random example.
Then I started to remember my life before sixth grade.
I remembered all the poor marks in handwriting, the complaints that my writing was illegible, being told that I pressed too hard on the paper and couldn't stay in the lines.
I remembered the teacher who told me, "your problem is that by the time you've written anything down, your brain is so far ahead of what you're writing, that you've already forgotten what you wrote".
I remembered all the times I'd nearly finished an assignment, only to realize I'd made a mistake at the beginning. I would try to squeeze in whatever word or sentence or phrase I'd forgotten, and get scolded for my messy, careless work.
I remembered that before sixth grade, I hated writing, my teachers all told me I was no good at it, and I had concluded that they were right -- I could never be a good writer.
I believe that the reason my dysgraphia caught me so much by surprise is that I only have one subtype -- motor dysgraphia.
By the time I came of age, handwriting was on the way out, and word processing was on the way in. Since my difficulties are solely with handwriting, and not with writing per se, it pretty much stopped being an issue by the time I finished elementary school.
That's not to say that dysgraphia had no impact on my life. In seventh grade, I got B plusses instead of A's in English because my overall grade in that class (and therefore my GPA) was dragged down by my spelling test scores. My ability to spell is fine -- but dysgraphia causes me to omit and transpose letters, so I don't spell well on a timed test. The spelling tests ended with seventh grade, but after that I started taking French, where I would get dinged for omitting diacritics. My dysgraphia did me no favors in math class, where I was already plagued by dyscalculia. By the time I got to college, dysgraphia caused me problems in music theory classes, as I unable to observe various rules regarding the spellings of accidentals and key signatures.
With my dysgraphia diagnosis, my school provided me with accommodations that pretty much eliminated its impact on my academic life. A fellow student in each of my classes was assigned to take their notes on carbon paper and give me a copy after each class, freeing me up to pay attention to the lecture instead of struggling to write down the important points. As for music, once I explained my situation to my instructors, they were willing to overlook my musical "spelling" mistakes.
My first five years of elementary school were an absolute misery due to my undiagnosed learning difficulties.
I was in constant trouble with my teachers for losing worksheets and permission slips, forgetting textbooks at home, and turning assignments in late (if at all). When I did turn in written work, I was marked down (and scolded and shamed) for the fact that my work was messy or barely legible. Mistakes in written work -- such as cross-outs or insertions -- were not tolerated. And since I could not (and still cannot) write anything out by hand without omissions and errors, I was penalized severely.
In sixth grade I was assigned to a truly gifted teacher. For the first time in my life, I felt like I hadn't been written off as lazy and careless by the end of the first week of school. For the first time in my life, I had a teacher who would grade me on what I had to say, not how neat my handwriting was in saying it.
By the time I reached junior high, we were expected to type all written work on the computer. Finally, I could correct misspellings, insert omitted words, delete mistakes, and even move entire sentences around if I needed to! Successive English teachers complimented me on my writing ability, eventually cementing the confidence that my sixth grade teacher had planted.
For me, dysgraphia is a simple handwriting disorder. I make a lot of errors, and writing anything out by hand is excruciating, but in this world of texting and word processing, I just don't have to do that very often. So for me, yes, dysgraphia is no big deal.
For others, however, it's another story.
I had an acquaintance who was a M.Div. candidate at a local seminary. He was a kind person, likable, well-spoken, and clearly very intelligent. I never heard him give a sermon but I have every confidence that he was an excellent, dynamic, and inspiring speaker.
He mentioned once that he had dysgraphia, and given our other similarities in ability and education, I assumed that his dysgraphia, like mine, was No Big Deal. I was therefore shocked when he sent me an essay he'd written to find that it was ... well, pretty badly written. There were numerous mistakes in grammar and syntax and misspellings that were beyond my ability to interpret. It was a kind of writing you would never connect with a passionate and articulate divinity candidate at a prestigious seminary.
Fortunately for my friend, he knew of his disability and knew how to work around it. He got academic accommodations when he needed to, and he wasn't afraid to ask for help and feedback when writing papers or job applications. Unfortunately, many people with dysgraphia are not as lucky as my friend; dysgraphia is often chalked up to carelessness, laziness, or unwillingness to learn. The shame of such labels, in addition to the frustration of being unable to express oneself in writing, can lead to lifelong mood problems.
As with any other learning disorder, dysgraphia can have long-term psychological consequences. As children, dysgraphics struggle with written exercises, spending more time and effort to complete them than any of their peers. I have many unhappy memories of being the last kid in my classroom to finish writing an answer to a test, mocked and scolded by my teacher for "taking my own sweet time" and "keeping everybody waiting".
The fact that my teachers often made my learning difficulties an object of ridicule signaled to my peers that I was fair game for bullying. Between the academic failure and the cruelty of my peers, elementary school was total hell, and the source of life-long self-doubt and depression.
But as I said, I was lucky -- my writing problems, at least, essentially vanish when I can type. For others, who labor even to type, the problems continue. As school continues, written expression becomes an ever more important skill. Writing is no longer just the province of English class, but is expected in social studies and the sciences as well. A student who cannot write well is seen as less intelligent, less capable, and less deserving of opportunity than her peers.
This is to say nothing of the frustration faced by an intelligent student who cannot express herself. This frustration alone can lead to low mood, anxiety, and self-destructive rebellion. When frustration is combined with a self-esteem worn down by years of academic failure, years of being labeled as "lazy" and "careless" by teachers, the results can be tragic.
Dysgraphia Poll - Have you heard of dysgraphia
I'm curious to know how many people have heard of dysgraphia before reading this lens. Help me out by taking this poll!
Had you heard of dysgraphia before reading this lens?
Are you parenting or teaching a child with dysgraphia? Do you have it yourself? - These books might help.
Learn more about writing difficulties. Because knowing is half the battle.
One of my many part-time jobs was teaching in an after school program in East Oakland. One of the boys in my class was always making trouble -- specifically, whenever I asked the class to write anything. Being dysgraphic myself, I suspected he was trying to avoid writing because he struggled with it. Sure enough, when I asked him to show me what he had written, I couldn't even read it. However, when he read it out loud to me, it was clear that he was an intelligent, articulate person. I made sure to let his teachers know that he might have dysgraphia.
You may have a child or a student in your class who acts out when asked to write something, consider that this child might simply be trying to avoid something that brings them pain and embarrassment. This child might have a writing disability.
If you have dysgraphia, your life will be easier if you avoid writing things out by hand. Fortunately this is a pretty easy thing to do in our modern technological society. Here are my favorite ways to avoid writing:
1. Word Processing
When I was in elementary school, laboriously writing out assignments by hand and inevitably screwing them up, I used to wish there was a way to insert words when I forgot them, move sentences around, and erase my mistakes. A few years later, my family got a computer, and thanks to WordStar 2000 (old school, baby!), I could do just that.
Rather than write out your correspondence by hand, stick a stamp on it, and wait for DAYS before it gets to where it's supposed to go, keep in touch with your friends and family at the speed of electrons! In the days of e-mail and e-cards, there's no reason to kill yourself trying to write out birthday cards to all your cousins.
3. Camera phone
Before we got an unlimited text-messaging package, my partner wrote the week's menu grocery list on a white board that adhered to the fridge via one o' them newfangled magnets. If I was doing the shopping that week, I'd take a picture of the list with my phone's camera, and then put the phone in my pocket. This solved my problem of writing out lists by hand and inevitably omitting half a dozen vital ingredients for the week's meals.
Ask your friends and colleagues to give you dates, times, and directions via SMS instead of by phone. That way you'll have what you need in your phone without having to write it out on paper. Better yet, get a service package that allows you to send and forward e-mails to your SMS inbox. This has taken care of 99% of my meetings and invitations.
4. Google voice mail
This one is new, and there's a waiting list (yeah, I know) but it's totally worth it. Google now has a service that will send voice mail right to your inbox, in voice and transcribed form. The transcriptions aren't always 100% accurate, but they're pretty good, and the audio message can help fill in the gaps. No more scrambling to write down that phone number before the message ends, and no more listening to each phone message five times while you try to write everything down!
5. Google maps
Rather than taking directions over the phone, writing them out by hand, and getting them horribly wrong, put the address into google maps and print it out. If you have a fancy cell phone with a GPS, this is even easier, and saves paper too.
6. Other people
If you have dysgraphia, don't be ashamed to ask for help. If you can, have a friend or family member fill out household paperwork while you pick up other chores. Ask another person at that meeting to share their notes with you. Have someone proofread any writing you might be concerned about.
7. Music notation software
If you're a musician, music teacher, or student, consider investing in music notation software such as or Finale . These programs are sort of like word processing for sheet music. Both of them have MIDI interface, so if you have a keyboard with a USB MIDI drive you can have the program transcribe what you play. It saves all that cramped writing on tiny staff paper. If you have a student or faculty ID from an accredited institution, you're eligible for substantial discount prices on either software. My personal experience is with Finale, and it made my life as a music student MUCH easier. Sibelius
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After all, it's only neighborly.