National Handwriting Day: A Spotlight on Dysgraphia

Contrary to the common misconception, dysgraphia is a learning disability that signifies a more serious problem than a simple inability to write neatly or color inside the lines. Yes, dysgraphia often manifests itself in the form of “sloppy” or illegible handwriting; however, the difficulty arises before the pencil hits the paper. Dysgraphia is actually a processing disorder, meaning that the deficiency comes from the inability to receive input or construct output of information from the senses.

Each learner is different, so dysgraphia can present as a struggle to perform the physical, motor-controlled aspect of writing, or the mental, expressive aspect of synthesizing thoughts and organizing them on paper. It may help parents or educators to think of dysgraphia in terms of a quarterback on a football field—the disability might cause the QB to physically struggle to grip, hold, pass, or hand off the ball. However, he might also struggle with the mental or decision-making aspect of when to throw a pass versus make a run. Either way, the deficiency in sensory input or output can disrupt his success on the field, much like a student’s academic success in class.

Here are a few suggestions for addressing the physical aspect of dysgraphia:

For young writers with dysgraphia, the physical act of writing can be cumbersome. The deficiency does not come from a lack or care or effort. In fact, many students with dysgraphia are putting extra effort into their handwriting, but may still be coming up short. To help those who struggle with their motor skills when it comes to letter legibility, spacing, size, etc., parents, teachers and therapists can employ multiple strategies or best practices to help the child’s writing.

Some young learners may benefit from using paper with raised or perforated lines to assist with letter size and spacing. The tactile element helps to make children aware of the physical boundary lines between which their letters should remain. Similarly, tracing practices with raised outlines are also available. When students practice tracing either on paper or in the air using “imaginary letters,” encourage them to form letters the same way every time. For instance, when practicing the letter C, make sure that children start with their pencil at the top, arching counter-clockwise and down to form the letter. Repetition of movement is key when strengthening muscle memory to improve writing, so remind them to construct the letter C the same way every time.

Consider providing multiple shapes and styles of pencils or pens. Sometimes rubber pencil grips can help with the discomfort that children with dysgraphia experience. Some students find that hexagonal or three-sided pencils feel more stable than perfectly round pencils, or vice-versa.

Writing can be extremely frustrating, so motivate children by keeping writing practices or tasks brief and to the point. When hands and fingers become tired or cramped, writing can range from uncomfortable to painful—take a break long before any discomfort sets in to maintain effort and motivation. Encourage students to focus on one aspect of their handwriting at a time. Perhaps for one assignment, this means that a child will work primarily on his/her letter spacing within and between words. Next time, he/she might focus his attention on the sizing of capital letters and lowercase letters. Breaking up the writer’s goal can help make handwriting less daunting.

Handwriting Day: Helpful Hints for Parents of Struggling Writers

Sloppy handwriting can be frustrating for students, parents, and teachers alike. The writing is difficult to read and appears to exhibit a lack of effort on behalf of the “scribe” or writer. Dysgraphia, however, is much more complex than just a careless or sloppy writer. Dysgraphia is a neurological disorder or learning disability in which the person’s written expression is affected or compromised. Dysgraphia is characterized by difficulties with putting thoughts to paper in both an expressive sense and a physical sense. This means that children with dysgraphia may struggle with the thought process behind written spelling and sentence-writing or with the fine motor skills required to physically compose words on paper.

Obviously, this learning disability can be greatly frustrating due to its negative impact on children as learners. No matter the class, a child is going to need to write clearly, correctly, and somewhat quickly. Signs that a struggling writer may have more going on than simple sloppiness are below. Of course, when identified and treated, children are better able to achieve academic success. With the help of psychologists for language-based dysgraphia, and the assistance of an occupational therapist for mechanical or motor skills difficulties, children are far more likely to succeed academically.

Signs to be aware of:

Is your child’s writing not only illegible, but inconsistent as well? If letters are “sloppy” but also varied in terms of size, shape, upper/lower case, cursive/print, etc., this may be an indication of dysgraphia.

Does your child ignore lines or margins on the paper? This is likely more than just a “rebel” move to disregard neatness. Children who regularly neglect the designated lines and margins are likely exhibiting an issue with spatial recognition—which accompanies the handwriting issues aligned with dysgraphia. Another observation to note is if your child begins writing in the middle or bottom of a clean sheet of paper. Again, failing to start at the top left of the paper could be a spatial recognition issue.

Does your child’s grip seem exceptionally strange or labored? This could mean anything from gripping way down on the pencil, almost touching the paper, to strained or slanted wrist positioning. These types of grips and hand positioning are not only uncomfortable, but they can also further discourage a young writer. If children do not correct their grip, muscle memory will become more challenging during occupational therapy. Children with dysgraphia may also slant or position their paper oddly while writing.

Is your child’s writing speed painfully slow? This could also be an indication of a larger issue. Because of the physical and expressive difficulty, children may write exceptionally slowly. The motor skills, combined with the difficulty with representing thoughts in written form, makes writing or copying a sentence extremely arduous. A child with dysgraphia may also lean very closely to the paper or watch the hand that is writing.