By Deborah Reed
Disgraphia (sometimes spelled dysgraphia) is a learning disability whose primary symptom is the inability to write legibly. Because it is seldom recognized as a true disability, the child may suffer not only from the disability itself but also from the stigma associated with extremely poor handwriting. A child with this disorder often has low self-esteem because he cannot write as well as his peers no matter how hard he tries.
What few studies have been done on this subject indicate that the problem lies in the brain, that some “connection” is missing that prevents the child (or adult) from forming legible letters and words. Research indicates that these students have difficulty processing the sequencing involved in writing even if they slow down considerably and give their best effort.
The first clue that you as a homeschooling parent may have that your child suffers from this disability is, of course, illegible handwriting. This is the first red flag, but other symptoms must also be present for a true diagnosis, because many children have poor handwriting, as do some adults. Very young students, therefore, cannot be diagnosed, for their handwriting may very well improve with practice. If, however, your third-grader still has virtually illegible handwriting, you might want to consider having him tested for this disability.
Most children who suffer from disgraphia have very distinctive handwriting. If your child does, indeed, have this disability you many notice all or some of the symptoms below:
• The upper and lower case letters are intermixed, and the size of the letters is uneven.
• Sometimes a word is left uncompleted before going to the next word.
• The words and letters are not spaced correctly.
• The written page looks like a scrawl despite the child’s best effort to make it look neat.
• The child is reluctant to do written work and spends much more time than necessary to accomplish even the smallest writing task.
• Flexing of arms and fingers often (because writing causes pain)
• Odd movements when writing (perhaps holding the pencil differently for different letters)
• Excessive erasures
• Misuse of lines and margins
• Sometimes writing the wrong word altogether
Disgraphia extends far beyond an inability to write legibly. Spelling ability is also affected, and your child may take much longer than needed to learn a simple spelling list. Often the spelling words will be mastered one day, only to be forgotten the next.
And—the most alarming symptom of all—it seems that while the child is struggling with the mechanics of writing that he is unable to process the material he is trying to learn. Most students learn while they write; the child who has disgraphia has to make a choice—does he want to learn, or does he want to write? He can’t seem to do both at the same time. Perhaps you choose to give a writing assignment to introduce material you plan to cover—copying vocabulary words, for example. For the child with disgraphia, this is counterproductive. He concentrates so hard on the writing itself that the material takes a back seat. Writing is a large part of a child’s school life. If he is not learning while he is writing, whole chunks of the day are wasted.
Because disgraphia is a relatively unknown disability, the homeschooling parent may not recognize it for what it is. You may urge your child to just try harder or to slow down when writing or to pay more attention to what he is doing. None of these suggestions, of course, alleviates the problem, because the problem lies inside the brain, not in the child’s attitude. Thus, obtaining a true diagnosis (is this disgraphia or not?) is essential.
In many states, the law requires that homeschooled students have access to the same services as those who are in the school system. If this is the case in your area, a call to the district office would be the first step to take. If your school district employs diagnosticians, request a meeting with one, along with at least one special education teacher. Be prepared for the fact that you may be the only person in the room who is aware of this disability, and bring examples of your child’s handwriting and copies of any research you have done.
If you do not have access to (or cannot afford) these services, you are pretty much on your own, although several excellent articles have recently appeared on the Internet.1 Independent research is then needed both to make a diagnosis and to create special lesson plans. These plans take into account that your child has difficulty learning while writing and consist of certain modifications that address this problem.
I became interested in this disability when my grandson, Trey, was diagnosed with it, and I was able to create several modifications for his schoolwork. These are listed below, and while they may be helpful, you may need to create additional ones that pertain to your child.
Because this disability is not as well researched as many of the others, you are essentially on uncharted grounds when modifying your child’s schoolwork. You might want to play around with different modifications to determine which one works best for your particular situation. As with the dyslexic student, the modifications that your child needs are just that—necessities, not “shortcuts” that she is taking because she is lazy or sloppy.
Many modifications involve sidestepping the writing process. The skills involved in typing do not seem to be affected by this disorder, so today’s students, most of whom are fluent in keyboarding skills, have an advantage over students from earlier years. It is very important for the child who has been diagnosed with disgraphia to develop keyboarding skills if he does not already possess them. If he types poorly, he is no better off than if he writes poorly. Time spent practicing keyboarding is well worth the effort.
A tape recorder, too, is a valuable tool. Your child can record his thoughts and then write (or type) them later. This bypasses the “I can’t think while I write” problem. Do not insist that your child write her assignments in order to get more practice. Practice will help a little but should be done independently of schoolwork.
Below are some of the modifications that I adopted for Trey. They may or may not work for your child but will give you an idea where to start.
• You may choose to give your child an incomplete outline of certain assignments and let her fill in the blanks, rather than doing the entire assignment.
• Allow her to choose either cursive or manuscript writing—whichever comes easiest.
• Older students should be allowed to use wide-lined paper if they find this easier to write on and to use a writing instrument that they feel comfortable with.
• Because poor spelling ability goes hand in hand with disgraphia, it is best to give only a few spelling words at a time.
• Keep in mind that writing causes pain for your child, and allow him to stretch or shake his hands occasionally.
• Allow her, when possible, to talk about the lessons rather than write them.
• With some subjects, such as math, your student may do the work on a scrap sheet of paper and then ask someone else to copy his answers onto the worksheet.
• With other subjects, such as language arts or science, the student may “dictate” while the teacher writes.
Disgraphia, like all learning disabilities, is best addressed if diagnosed early, or the child will spend valuable learning time struggling to do something that she is simply not capable of doing—writing legibly. A correct diagnosis followed by modifications in lesson plans is therefore essential for the student with this disability.
Deborah Reed has had thirty-eight short articles/essays published, two of which are Pushcart Prize nominees. She is a retired science teacher who now lives in Central Texas. Her hobbies include ballroom dancing, weight lifting, and studying quantum physics.
1. The following articles provide helpful information about this topic from the National Center for Learning Disabilities: www.ncld.org/ldbasics/ld-aamplanguage/writing/dysgraphia
from Right Diagnosis: www.rightdiagnosis.com/d/dysgraphia/intro.htm , and from LD Online: www.ldonline.org/article/12770 .
Copyright 2013, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the Annual Print 2013 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.