Dysgraphia: Messy Handwriting or Much More?

08/23/2022

What is dysgraphia? How does it relate to dyslexia? Are dysgraphia identification and remediation similar to dyslexia identification and remediation? Here are the similarities and differences between dyslexia and dysgraphia, and what dysgraphia remediation could look like.

 

Dysgraphia is a term that refers to the difficulties some students may have with writing.

The origin of the word Dysgraphia is in the Greek language. “Dys” means “wrong” or “bad” and “graph” means “to write”. According to Virginia Berninger, “the writing skills most related to students with dysgraphia is automatic retrieval and production of legible letters”. 

Like dyslexia, it is also a “language literacy” disability. It not only encompasses small motor skills but the difficulty with getting the written words on paper. It impacts orthographic coding. 

The International Dyslexia Association defines orthographic memory as “the ability to store written words in working memory while the letters in the word are analyzed or the ability to create a permanent memory of written words linked to their pronunciation and meaning.” If a student labors in orthographic coding, the ability to get written symbols on paper can be greatly impacted.

What areas can dysgraphia impact?

Dysgraphia can manifest itself in the following areas. The following list can help you identify possible signs of dysgraphia in your student:

    • Illegible handwriting
    • Slow, labored writing
    • Mixing print and cursive or capital/lower case letters
    • Odd spacing between words and letters
    • Cramped illegible writing
    • Poor pencil grip
    • Lack of punctuation/capitalization in writing
    • Problems with written organization
    • Unsure of right or left-handedness
    • Messy and unorganized papers
    • Difficulty copying
    • Poor fine motor skills

Please keep in mind that this list is not an exhaustive checklist, but areas you could see dysgraphia manifest in your student. And much like dyslexia identification, dysgraphia is unexpected – meaning the student is able to learn in the absence of writing.

Additional areas dysgraphia impacts

Dysgraphia can impede not only letter formation but spelling and composition. When there is a breakdown in any of these areas, the speed or automaticity in which a person gets his thoughts on paper can be impacted. Writing automaticity refers to the retrieval and production needed for automatic, or fast, efficient writing. Much like dyslexia therapy, there are some instructional strategies involved to achieve automatic writing. This could include instruction in: 

    • phonological awareness 
    • sound to grapheme (letter or letter combinations) correspondence 
    • spelling/writing dictation practice
    • irregular word spelling

You may notice these instructional components are also covered in dyslexia instruction. Whereas dyslexia instruction does focus some on writing, it also covers all aspects of reading language including alphabet, reading, and verbal expression. Students who are identified as dysgraphic only would not need explicit, and systematic instruction in reading.

Can a person be both dyslexic and dysgraphic?

The short answer? Yes. 

Dyslexia is a learning difference that could have several comorbidities, including dysgraphia. If a student is identified as both dyslexic and dysgraphic, a multisensory dyslexia curriculum could address some of the dysgraphic tendencies. It is considered a spectrum disorder, so additional accommodations and instruction specific to dysgraphia may be needed. And much like dyslexia, the approach for the remediation of writing skills is similar to dyslexia, as the instructional approach is:

    • Explicit – directly teaches skills for spelling, and writing
    • Systematic and Cumulative – has a definite, logical sequence of concept introduction
    • Structured – has procedures for introducing, reviewing, and practicing concepts
    • Multisensory – engages the visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile channels simultaneously 

Accommodations vs. Modifications:

When a student is identified as dysgraphic, in addition to possible therapeutic instruction, accommodations and modifications may be needed. 

Accommodations allow a student to learn the same material with classroom peers but in a different way. 

Modifications change the content of what a student is taught or expected to learn. 

Let’s look at some suggestions for accommodations and modifications from understood.org:

Accommodations

Possible accommodations for dysgraphia could include:

    • Extended time on tests that involve writing
    • Access to the teacher’s lesson notes
    • Sentence starters showing for written responses
    • Providing additional opportunities to respond in other ways besides writing
    • Breaking writing assignments into smaller steps or chunks
    • Instruction in keyboarding

Modifications

Possible modifications for dysgraphia could include:

grading written work mainly on content (not grammar or writing production)

    • providing correct spellings and limiting edits to a reasonable amount
    • providing proofreading support
    • encourage students to dictate their thoughts before writing 
    • Provide students with the spellings of key content words for writing
    • allowing students in intermediate grades and higher to type exams and papers 
    • use a speech to print support
    • encourage students to hand in early drafts of research papers and essays to allow for teacher revision/guidance before grading.
Dysgraphia: Messy Handwriting or Much More?

If a student is identified as both dyslexic and dysgraphic, a multisensory dyslexia curriculum could address some of the dysgraphic tendencies. It is considered a spectrum disorder, so additional accommodations and instruction specific to dysgraphia may be needed. 

How can you support the student identified with dysgraphia – outside of the classroom?

The International Dyslexia Association advises that parents and educators can support their students in the following ways:

    • Provide opportunities for keyboarding practice
    • Speech-to-text apps 
    • Use textured/tactile surfaces to practice writing like sandpaper, shaving cream, sandboxes, etc.
    • Playing with clay to strengthen hand muscles
    • Keeping lines within mazes to develop motor control;
    • Connecting dots or dashes to create complete letter forms;
    • Tracing letters with index finger or eraser end of a pencil
    • Copying letters from models.

Summary

Dysgraphia is a difficulty that extends far beyond messy writing. It impacts the automaticity of writing, which becomes crucial for students as they progress through the grades. Every student and their personal course for remediation is different. It could range from using just accommodations and writing tools to modifications and a specialized curriculum to help with writing. Some students identified with dyslexia could be dysgraphic, but not all are. It is up to the informed parent or educator to understand the differences each student displays and what supports need to be in place to help in remediation.

What do you think? How can dysgraphia achieve a deeper understanding? Educate your family members, friends, and school personnel on typical signs, and then find out what you can do to hasten identification and remediation. 

Reach out to the experts at Amplio to help guide you through this process.

Aimee Rodenroth

Aimee Rodenroth

Aimee Rodenroth is the Subject Matter Expert on Dyslexia for Amplio. She has 30 years of experience in public education in Texas, 27 of those years were spent in some form of dyslexia education. She received her CALT (Certified Academic Language Therapist) certification in 2006 from LEAD, and later obtained her QI (Qualified Instructor) certification in 2018 from Southern Methodist University. Aimee is trained in multiple dyslexia curricula.

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