A six years old girl is practicing writing in a notebook.

Does your child have messy handwriting? Does s/he seem unmotivated or uncooperative when asked to complete written assignments? Does your child have great ideas, but seems to compromise creative ideas by writing in concrete or simplistic sentences.? Many children with these concerns are diagnosed with Dysgraphia, or a Disorder of Written Expression. The National Center for Learning Disabilities has published the following table regarding signs and symptoms of Dysgraphia:

Dysgraphia: Warning Signs By Age

Young Children

  • Tight, awkward pencil grip and body position
  • Avoiding writing or drawing tasks
  • Trouble forming letter shapes
  • Inconsistent spacing between letters or words
  • Poor understanding of uppercase and lowercase letters
  • Inability to write or draw in a line or within margins
  • Tiring quickly while writing

School-Age Children

  • Illegible handwriting
  • Mixture of cursive and print writing
  • Saying words out loud while writing
  • Concentrating so hard on writing that comprehension of what’s written is missed
  • Trouble thinking of words to write
  • Omitting or not finishing words in sentences

Teenagers and Adults

  • Trouble 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

What causes Dysgraphia?

  1. Sometimes, children fail to develop motor coordination skills. Children with this disorder often have difficulties tying their shoelaces or buttoning and zipping their clothes. When older, they may struggle with Lego-building, puzzle assembly, or other fine motor skills. It may take these children longer to finish tasks with fine motor skills, and they may make more mistakes, particularly towards the end of assignments. They may reverse letters or words, and miss punctuation.
  2. Other times, children have processing problems that result in Dysgraphia. These types of problems with written tasks are often seen in children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. These children are distractible, have difficulty sustaining attention to tasks, and are inconsistent in the quality of their schoolwork. Their problems with written assignments are often due to distractibility that interferes with task completion on writing assignments.
  3. Finally, children with Dyslexia or Expressive Language concerns can struggle with hand-writing. They may have difficulty accessing the words they need to express themselves, or have difficulty with spelling the words that they need in their written task.

How are these concerns diagnosed?

Difficulties with handwriting or expressive writing can be diagnosed based on a sample of typical written work from school, tasks that assess visual/fine motor representational abilities, or standardized tests of writing skills. Oftentimes, this diagnosis is made from a Child Psychologist, Occupational Therapist, or Educational Specialist.

What challenges to teachers and schools face?

  1. A major challenge that teachers face with such children is to modify academic demands to facilitate success without causing undue frustration. Providing alternative ways for these children to express their knowledge is essential.
  2. Sometimes, it is difficult for schools and teachers to identify these concerns in children, particularly if they are bright or not causing problems in the school setting. It is important for parents and teachers to work closely together to identify the areas AT SCHOOL where the child has impairment. Sometimes, this impairment is depression and anxiety surrounding school work, decreased academic performance (on measures other than standardized testing), avoidance of academic tasks, or homework refusal.

The following recommendations may be useful for children with Dysgraphia at School:

  1. Examine each assignment or test carefully. If writing is only the VEHICLE to assess competence, use an alternative form of expression. For example, allowing a child to take oral spelling tests, or type the words on the computer may be helpful.
  2. Work with parents about homework issues. Have them record length of time the child spends on assignments, so you can modify quantity accordingly.
  3. Avoid writing repetition as a learning tool. For example, when learning new spelling words, allow verbal repetition rather than written repetition. Another way to practice spelling is to have sheets for which the children circle the correct spelling out of several alternative incorrect spellings.
  4. Construct tests or quizzes to allow short answers or fill in the blanks. Permit these children to write down the answer rather than writing out the full questions.
  5. Avoid timed tests. They do not accurately assess knowledge and can produce frustration or anxiety. Allow extra time . Do not penalize a child for difficulties on timed tests. Children should not be kept from enrichment programs on basis on standardized timed tests.
  6. Provide the child with a copy of any material that must be copied from the blackboard. Since note taking is very difficult, allow the child to have an outline of the lecture in advance or provide them with a copy of another child’s notes.
  7. Messiness or variability in the quality of printing or cursive is common, and children often leave out words or letters, fail to cross a “t” or dot an “I”, or fail to properly punctuate sentences. Do not penalize for such messiness or errors by requiring the child to write an entire paper or by taking off points; instead, simply request that the child correct any illegible word that you have circled or underlined, and add any missing punctuation. Using wide lined paper is often helpful, as it allows extra space for such corrections. Use graph paper to help children who have trouble maintaining proper columns during math calculations.
  8. Provide early training in keyboard and word processing so that the children become proficient at typing long assignments. There are some fun computer programs that teach touch-typing through a game format which are suitable for younger children.
  9. Use the technology available. Dragon software is a verbal dictation program, which often offers student discounts. The student trains their voice to match the program. It does take some time and practice for the student to feel proficient in using this software. The Smartpen has a voice recorder, and transcribes handwritten notes to a person’s computer. There are also apps on Smartphones or I-pads which may be helpful.

Here are some things that parents can do to help their child with Dysgraphia:

  1. Be patient and positive, encourage practice and praise effort.
  2. Have student complete work in small steps instead of all at once.
  3. Use paper with raised lines for a sensory guide to staying within the lines.
  4. Try different pens and pencils to find one that’s most comfortable. There are several kinds of grips available as well
  5. Encourage proper grip, posture and paper positioning for writing.
  6. Introduce computer use early; however do not eliminate handwriting for the child. While typing can make it easier to write, handwriting is a very important part of a person’s ability to function in the world. (Please see our previous Handwriting Issues Article for more information).
  7. Encourage practice throughout the day, such as making household lists, or keeping track of scores in a game or sports. Make your child the “note-taker.”
  8. Use large graph paper for math calculation to keep columns and rows organized. You can download free graph paper from the internet. Just google “graph paper.”
  9. Begin writing assignments creatively with drawing, with concept maps or speaking ideas into an audio recorder (often on i-pods and i-pads as a “voice recorder.”).
  10. Have students proofread work by reading aloud, and after a delay-it’s easier to see mistakes after a break.


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