What Does Dysgraphia Mean?
Updated: May 20
by Ashley Roberts
"Yes, his handwriting is messy, but he holds his pen perfectly!"
"I'm not concerned about his handwriting. I can read it so it's fine. There is worse handwriting in his class."
Parent: "He NEEDS a goal for grammar and syntax." IEP Team response: "Well, we don't teach those things so we won't agree to a goal. Besides, he's doing fine and making a B in Language Arts so I don't understand your concern."
The dysgraphia journey has been far harder than the dyslexia journey. As a parent advocate I couldn't find any real answers, didn't know what questions to ask or where to turn. The reading issues were so overwhelming for our child, dysgraphia seemed to be something we could just deal with later.
Boy, were we wrong.
After a year of diving into what dysgraphia is and seeking help for my child, I have such a deeper understanding of written expression and how it relates to reading.
"Reading is breathing in. Writing is breathing out."
This quote from Pam Allyn is spot on. Why? Because reading does not exist in a bubble. We live in a society where one must be able to express themselves in writing as well as be able to read.
Reading and writing instruction are two different yet conjoined concepts. One can learn to read without necessarily understanding the art of grammar and syntax, but reading comprehension and fluency are enhanced by gaining that understanding. Writing however cannot exist without reading, after all, how can one express what they cannot read themselves.
Yet, writing is not the same as speaking. It is a different skill set entirely, and like reading, it must be taught explicitly. All children need a firm grasp of grammar, and beyond grammar, how to construct first a sentence, then a paragraph, aka syntax, in order to shape more elaborate writings.
For a dysgraphic child, they struggle with written expression and handwriting. One of the varied definitions of dysgraphia says it is a "deficiency in the ability to write, primarily handwriting, but also coherence." The definition I prefer is one that was given by the first private diagnostician we had seen when I asked what she meant when she said my child had dysgraphia. She said, "some children struggle with handwriting while some with expressing their ideas on paper. For the latter set, they have the idea in their head plain as day, but seem to have a disconnect with their hand in being able to get their idea onto paper."
Sometimes the struggle is difficult to see. In the lower grades there doesn't seem to be too much emphasis on written content, even though they're writing all of the time. It's easy to dismiss the idea in one's head that they've just not been provided the skill set yet to generate writing, but the truth is that the groundwork needs to start being laid in the early grades. In my state, like most others, the educational standards have grammar beginning in first and second grade. By the end of 2nd a strong understanding of nouns, verbs, and other parts of speech needs to be rooted, but as with all things the instruction of parts of speech needs to continue for several years.
Spelling is critical too. Don't let someone write an accommodation that "student will use a dictionary to look up unknown words" and not also teach the six rules of spelling. Siri and Alexa can only do so much, and to the angst of the #BalancedIlliteracy camp, it is a fact that spelling contributes to comprehension and fluency.
But, there's an important component that cannot be ignored...SYNTAX.
A word few people understand, syntax means, "the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language." To reframe the definition in a slightly different way, syntax is how one puts a sentence together, builds a paragraph, and constructs larger, more elaborate writings. Without an understanding of syntax one cannot write well.
Yes, handwriting is a part of dysgraphia. There can be motor skill issues which may require Occupational Therapy to treat properly. There are also numerous handwriting programs (print and cursive) one can do at home with your own child, and handwriting specialists exist in the remediation space that can work privately with your child. Thanks to COVID, the availability of the limited number of professionals in this space has widened thanks to Zoom.
And, just to throw this in there, my child is an amazing artist, but his handwriting is deplorable.
Like dyslexia, there are numerous forms of dysgraphia.
In dyslexic dysgraphia, spontaneously written text is illegible, especially when the text is complex. Oral spelling is poor, but drawing and copying of written text are relatively normal. Finger-tapping speed (a measure of fine-motor speed) is normal.
In motor dysgraphia, both spontaneously written and copied text may be illegible, oral spelling is normal, and drawing is usually problematic. Finger-tapping speed is abnormal.
In spatial dysgraphia, people display illegible writing, whether spontaneously produced or copied. Oral spelling is normal. Finger-tapping speed is normal, but drawing is very problematic
Dr. Brenda Taylor, Ph.D., CALT, LDT, NCED also talks about orthographic dysgraphia. Specifically she talks about the orthographic loop which links the orthographic codes in the mind's eye with the sequential finger movements to form the letters (working memory component). "At risk" characteristics include excessive erasures, mixture of upper and lowercase letters, inconsistent letter formations and slant, irregular letter sizes and shapes, unfinished cursive letters.
Where I'm going with this information is to make a point that like reading, writing IS NOT natural. It is yet another human invention and the components of written expression must be taught explicitly to all students, but most especially our dysgraphic students in order to help them succeed in this world where access to society is gained by the ability to read and write.
As we've said before, literacy is the key to self determination. Literacy means both the ability to read AND to write.
I hope this small table will also help guide you on your journey. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to reach out to DI either through our website or our Facebook page.