Dysgraphia: The Learning Disability You Need To Know About

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Teresa Short / Getty Images

It starts this way. Your child has trouble with a proper grip on his spoon or fork. Later, a proper pencil grip becomes a problem, as does cutting with scissors. While all kids reverse letters and numbers, at some point, they stop — but your child doesn’t. He has difficulty with basic punctuation, with forming his letters.

Often, he will hand you a paper with every word misspelled, including “the” and “is”. Yet he reads fluently, sometimes several grade levels above average. But his letters run into the margins, spill off the lines, climb up onto the top of the paper. Spelling makes him cry. He’s embarrassed that he can’t write the way his peers can — they can dash off three, five sentences in no time, while he has to labor, painfully labor, and still will misspell most of the words, reverse letters, omit punctuation.

He will tell you he is stupid and dumb and hates to write. Then he may run to his bedroom and easily read a book that should be way beyond his abilities.

This is what it’s like to have a child with dysgraphia. It’s hard. It sucks.

It’s difficult to diagnose — everyone wants to label your child lazy, a creative speller, tell you that they just have fine motor difficulties. But that isn’t the case. Dysgraphia, according to Understood, is “a condition that causes difficulty with written expression.” The International Dyslexia Foundation calls it “disabled handwriting […] impaired handwriting can interfere with learning to spell words in writing and speed of writing text. Children with dysgraphia may have only impaired handwriting, only impaired spelling (without reading problems), or both impaired handwriting and impaired spelling.”

Most of them feel a deep sense of shame at what they perceive as their inadequacies. According to Special Needs, there aren’t a lot of studies about dysgraphia, so its exact prevalence isn’t known. But “the prevalence of dysgraphia is estimated at 5–20% of all students having some type of writing deficit.” Its incidence also seems to decrease with age.

So dysgraphia is more serious than having “doctor handwriting.” It is, as DSF Literacy and Clinical Services says, a neurological condition that only comes to light when children are first learning to write. We didn’t know anything was amiss with my son, who shows all the signs but who is yet undiagnosed, until he was in first grade, reading The BFG but still reversing his letters and numbers, totally ignorant of punctuation, and actually unable to spell his own last name. He couldn’t spell basic words, or even sound them out in ways that made logical sense. We realized, finally, that this wasn’t a learn-at-your-own-pace thing. This was pathological. He needed help.

There are several treatments for dysgraphia. The International Dyslexia Foundation recommends first activities that help kids learn to form letters: playing with clay, doing mazes, connecting the dots, and copying letters from models. Once they can form legible letters (which is where my son is, mostly, though he still does several reversals), they recommend explicit instruction in letter formation and strokes. They also recommend spelling instruction, which we’re starting.

One I’ve seen come up over and over is to learn cursive: It decreases the amount of fine motor control required, makes the spacing between words consistent, and limits the number of reversals, says Judy Hanning on Learning Success. Teachers can also reduce the amount of writing a child has to do without changing the effect that has on the outcome or the content of the assignment, says LDOnline. They can modify the assignments to decrease the amount of writing required. And they can provide help and instruction in writing. This may mean that they are flexible in the kind of paper used — raised lines can help kids stay within the lines — or the writing implement, or the kind of writing (manuscript or cursive). They can also allow the student to use a computer with a spellcheck function or a voice-to-text recorder. What remediation is needed should be spelled out in a child’s IEP.

Right now, we are taking some steps. My son writes every single day, and every single day, we go over his writing and talk about what he spelled wrong and how he could have spelled it correctly. I make sure to praise him effusively for anything he did correctly, even if it’s the word “the”. We have restarted a spelling book, which is incredibly easy in my eyes, but which is hopefully right on his level.

We’ve also ordered the most-recommended cursive book for children with dysgraphia, The Rhythm of Handwriting’s cursive edition. As soon as it’s delivered, we’ll add that into our day. It’s a lot to add: the spelling and the writing instruction together add a substantial chunk of time to our homeschooling. But they’re necessary for him to learn. We may also start a simple typing class. This is all in addition to waiting for the school district to officially evaluate him.

With the right remediation and accommodations, the outlook for children with dysgraphia is quite good, especially if they are diagnosed early. While dysgraphia often occurs with other conditions, including dyslexia and ADHD (like my son), that doesn’t mean that the outcome is any worse; it just means that the remediation may need to take place in several areas. In any case, once children grow up, they are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prevents them from being fired because of their disability (though it’s a little more complicated than that).

If you suspect your child has issues with written expression, get them help as soon as possible. Encourage them, and support them. It may be nothing. But it may be everything, and the help and support will prove invaluable.