Have you ever had a student who battled against the written word every time you asked them to put pen to paper? A student who just can’t come up with ideas for their writing or who takes foreeeeeever to record their thinking? Have you trialled numerous strategies with this student and found that few of them seemed to make a difference?
As a teacher, I always did my best to help these students but I never really felt like I’d put my finger on the problem or the right solution for them. It wasn’t until one of my own nieces struggled with this writing battle that I sought out more research to learn about the potential reasons and suggested supports. I wanted to know why she struggled and what us teachers could do to help her and all the other students like her.
And that’s how I learned about dysgraphia.
The more I’ve learned about dysgraphia, the more I wish I’d known about it when I was a classroom teacher. (It would’ve saved many sleepless nights worrying about how I could help my struggling writers and caused a lot less teacher guilt!)
I have to say, the real ‘aha’ moment for me when thinking about my niece and reading about dysgraphia was this comment:
“Dysgraphia is NOT linked to ability, many highly capable individuals have dysgraphia. You can have dysgraphia and have many strengths in other areas. Dysgraphia can be exceedingly frustrating in a school and academic environment where the written word becomes the way you are continually assessed for what you know”.(Australian Dyslexia Association, 2021)
I recently spoke with educational researcher Elly Kalenjuk on this topic. Elly was an Australian primary school teacher for over 20 years before lecturing in Bachelor of Education and Master of Teaching programs. She’s now a researcher focused on dysgraphia (or writing disorder). Elly is passionate about supporting children with writing challenges largely because, like me, she has a family member with a writing disability, and she’s experienced firsthand how difficult this condition can be for children, parents and teachers.
I took the opportunity to ask Elly a few questions about dysgraphia to help others learn about it and be better equipped to support any students they have with this learning disorder.
What is Dysgraphia?
Dysgraphia is an umbrella term used to describe a range of significant writing challenges. It’s also referred to as a specific learning disorder because it’s particular (specific) to an area of the curriculum (learning to write) and where other areas of the curriculum may not be impacted.
Dysgraphia is a neurodevelopmental disorder. That means that during childhood development, an underlying neurological deficit is the cause of the writing dysfunction.
Australia defines dysgraphia as a specific learning disorder with impairment in written expression. This is a definition that comes from the diagnostic manual (DSM-V) that is used to diagnose dysgraphia.
It includes difficulties with:
- transcription skills e.g.,spelling, handwriting or typing
- composition skills e.g., generating ideas, organising ideas logically and coherently, understanding and adhering to consistent genre structures, using grammar punctuation and syntax correctly
There’s a lot of confusion about the exact definition of dysgraphia. This is mostly due to the way different countries and fields of study have defined it. For example, in the field of occupational therapy, dysgraphia refers to motor-based types (e.g., handwriting), whereas in psychology, it refers to language-based writing disorders (e.g., spelling or paragraph structure). In the USA, the term dysgraphia is only used to describe poor handwriting, whereas in other countries, it’s more aligned with compositional writing skill dysfunction. Be mindful when searching for information on dysgraphia as the meaning is not always consistent.
What does dysgraphia look like in the classroom?
Dysgraphia is a very common classroom disorder. Children with dysgraphia produce illegible writing because their spelling is so bad, their handwriting is very poor, or the ideas don’t quite make sense. Sometimes children themselves can’t read back their own work. However, dysgraphia is sometimes known as a “hidden” disability because it can be tricky to detect. That’s because children with dysgraphia have good intellect and seem to do well across most subjects.
However, when they tackle a writing task, their handwriting might be:
- painful or
- untidy and
- writing performance seems at odds with the developmental age.
These are the hallmark signs of dysgraphia.
For other children, they may have very neat writing but take a very long time to write their ideas on paper. In some instances, children do not know what to write and will sit at their desk for a long time and they may not even have a pencil because they do not know how to start.
Most children with dysgraphia avoid writing.
As children get older, by year 2 onwards, they generally only produce short sentences or perhaps 1-2 paragraphs (when their peers can write pages and pages of text).
Some types of dysgraphia include spelling difficulties, however this might be a sign of dyslexia (reading disorder) rather than dysgraphia.
What can teachers do if they think a student has dysgraphia?
Classroom writing assessments can indicate whether there are children who may have a writing disorder. Some children have difficulties with handwriting, spelling or grammar but these may be due to other factors, for example intellectual disability, ineffective teaching, school truancy, trauma. These cases might NOT be dysgraphia.
One way to tell if children have suspected dysgraphia is for teachers to implement a remediation program and see if the child improves. If the child doesn’t make significant gains or improvement after 6 months of intervention, they may have an underlying neurological deficit and may need to be assessed for dysgraphia. Teachers who suspect they have a child with dysgraphia can refer the child to an educational psychologist for assessment.
How can teachers help students with dysgraphia?
Finding the right classroom support to help a child with dysgraphia will usually be very customised to the child. (This is because the underlying deficits are different). Another thing to consider is that dysgraphia often presents with other neurodevelopmental conditions, for example:
- autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
- developmental coordination disorder (DCD)
- cerebral palsy or
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Dysgraphia is, therefore, a very nuanced condition and it presents differently for individuals. Identifying the cause for the underlying difficulties will help to develop an appropriate remediation strategy.
Take the problem of poor handwriting for example, the underlying difficulty affecting the handwriting may differ and therefore suitable remediation strategies will differ as well.
Here are three case study examples:
|Example||Underlying difficulty||Presentation||Remediation Strategy|
|1.||Awkward pen grip||Messy handwriting||Pincer grip strengthening |
Customized rubber pencil grip
|2.||Heavy pen pressure||Messy handwriting||Weighted pencil topper |
|3.||Low motor control||Messy handwriting||Core strength training, e.g., crab crawls, monkey bars |
Fine motor skill development
As you can see with these 3 examples, the result of the difficulty is messy handwriting, but the way to remediate it will be different, depending on the underlying cause. In all cases, teaching keyboarding skills may be an effective classroom strategy.
What else should teachers do to support students with dysgraphia?
Children who are diagnosed with dysgraphia will have a specific learning disability in written expression. This means they will be entitled to reasonable adjustments. (A reasonable adjustment is an action or measure taken to enable access to education on the same footing as peers).
The most common classroom adjustment is an accommodation. Assistive technology plays an important part in supporting children with specific learning disorders. Some of the more common accommodations include:
- Extra time to complete tasks
- Tasks broken down into smaller chunks
- Keyboarding rather than handwriting (or laptop, iPad, other device)
- Spelling checkers
- Stylus or pen
- Erasable pen
- Pencil grips
- Weighted pens
- Slanted boards
- Lined paper (dotted thirds, straight lines or graph paper)
- Raised line paper
Another type of reasonable adjustment is remediation. It’s important to note that most children with dysgraphia will improve with early intervention. The remediation will depend on the writing deficit. For example, difficulties with spelling might be remediated with an intensive, systematic phonics instruction, or for handwriting, explicit handwriting practice.
As a guide, the most effective remediation programs will be run for several intensive sessions (3-5) over the week (10-30 minutes) for a minimum 6–8-week period.
Some children with dysgraphia (5-25%) will not make gains despite excellent instruction and tuition. For most children, external support (for example a tutor or occupational therapist) may be needed to supplement the school program.
It’s important to know that children with dysgraphia are not lazy. Usually, they have to work much harder than the other children to produce a small amount of writing product. This causes daily frustration and fatigue.
Unsurprisingly, children with specific learning disorders often have anxiety and sometimes depression. Children can benefit from extra support and compassion in the classroom and home.
Where can teachers find more information on dysgraphia?
You can learn more about dysgraphia from:
- AUSPELD https://auspeld.org.au
- DSF https://dsf.net.au/what-is-dysgraphia/
- NCCD https://www.nccd.edu.au/professional-learning/classroom-adjustments-specific-learning-needs-dysgraphia
- Understood https://www.understood.org/articles/en/understanding-dysgraphia
- Smart Kids https://www.smartkidswithld.org/
Knowing about the existence and presentations of dysgraphia can be the difference between thinking a struggling writer is lazy or easily distracted and knowing that there’s potentially a neurodevelopmental disorder that can help explain the student’s challenges.
I want to thank Elly Kalenjuk for taking the time to share her knowledge and research on dysgraphia. I think the more us teachers know about this learning disorder (and other literacy related disorders), the better we’ll be able to support the struggling learners in our classrooms. (And that will be a win-win for both us and our learners!)
Related blog posts:
Australian Dyslexia Association, 2021. Dyslexia, Dysgraphia and Dyscalculia?. [online] Dyslexiaassociation.org.au. Available at: https://dyslexiaassociation.org.au/support/dyslexiadysgraphia-and-dyscalculia/.