Dysgraphia is a Greek word: ‘dys’ meaning ‘impaired’, ‘graph’ meaning ‘to write’ and ‘ia’ meaning ‘the condition of’. Dysgraphia, therefore, is a specific learning disability that affects writing. It can include difficulties with handwriting, spelling and/or expressing thoughts in writing (i.e., it can a language based and/or a non-language based disorder).
Non-language based dysgraphia is related to difficulties writing letters. However, it is more than just poor handwriting. Children with dysgraphia have difficulty planning sequential finger movements (e.g., touching the thumb to successive fingers on the same hand without looking). Consequently, letters might be sized or spaced incorrectly, or reversed. Capital letters may be interspersed with lower case letters. The child’s hand, body or paper may be positioned unconventionally. People with dysgraphia can also find writing for any period of time quite painful.
Language based dysgraphia is characterised by having difficulties converting the sounds of language into the written form. This means people with language based dysgraphia often have poor spelling and may have difficulty recalling the correct alternative spelling to use for words that sound the same but have different spellings and meanings. They may also struggle to write sentences with correct grammar and punctuation, resulting in sentences with words omitted, incorrect word order, incorrect verbs and suffixes, and a lack of a logical sequencing of ideas. However, they can usually easily and fluently express their ideas verbally.
Experts are sure not of the causes of dysgraphia, but there is a general consensus that the earlier an intervention is put in place the greater the likelihood that the associated problems are reduced.
- Illegible writing (despite explicit teaching of letter formations).
- Inconsistent sizing, positioning, shape, slant or production of letters.
- Mixing print and cursive or upper and lower case letters.
- Unfinished or omitted words or letters in sentences.
- Inconsistent spaces between words and letters.
- Cramped or unconventional pencil grip, and/or body, wrist or paper position.
- Saying words out loud while writing.
- A need to watch the hand that is writing
- Slow or laboured copying or writing – even if it is neat and legible
- Difficulty organising thoughts on paper, especially if it doesn’t reflect the student’s oral language skills.
- Difficulty with syntax and grammar in written work.
- Tiring quickly while writing and/or avoiding writing/drawing tasks.
- Use paper with coloured lines indicating the halfway point and/or raised lines.
- Experiment with pens/pencils of different thickness to increase comfort.
- Explicitly teach each letter and then have the child practise writing the letter in a large format with a straight wrist so they develop motor memory for the action, before gradually reducing the size.
- Develop verbal memory cues associated with the formation of the letter for the child to say as the letter is being written (e.g., ‘o’ – start in the middle, go around to the left, sit on the line and join at the top).
- Encourage the child to hold the pencil correctly and consider using an appropriate pencil grip.
- Encourage correct posture and paper positioning for writing. The head should be a ruler length from the page, back straight, feet together and supported, paper slightly slanted.
- Have a laminated sheet showing each of the letters as a reference tool.
- Consider obtaining assistance from an occupational therapist.
- Teach touch typing. This will require a commitment to practise every day and to be able to know each letter position without looking (place a tea towel over the student’s hands to prevent looking).
- Explicitly teach cursive writing in addition to print and allow the child to choose the style that is the most comfortable.
- Allow extra time for handwriting assignments.
- Modify assignments depending on the outcome required. For example, in some subjects it may be acceptable to record a speech or develop a PowerPoint presentation or have someone scribe their ideas.
- Students should be judged separately for ideas versus spelling/grammar/neatness.
- Use graph paper for mathematics calculations to help keep numbers in correct alignment.
- Encourage students to set work aside before proofreading. Provide a checklist to assist in this process and explicitly teach how to check work for errors.
- Encourage the use of spell checkers.
- Reduce the amount of copying. Use photos, recording devices or even better teach students mind-mapping so they can record key information using a few words, pictures and symbols (the research shows that this is more effective for everyone in terms of learning). Alternatively, provide partially completed outlines of notes so the student can fill in the details under major headings (or provide the details and have the student provide the headings).
- Explicitly teach abbreviations and how they can be used in the note taking process.
- Break large writing tasks into smaller units.
- Encourage writing practice through low-stress activities (writing notes rather than letters, shopping lists, poems, etc.).
- Explicitly teach the steps in writing different types of genres. Start with persuasive writing as it is very structured and a more critical skill.
- Explicitly teach and allow students to use assistive technology. However, it is still important that students develop and maintain legible writing, so ensure continued handwriting opportunities are provided.