Writing Difficulties in Children — Is it Dysgraphia?

Writing Difficulties in Children — Is it Dysgraphia?

- in 2022 Editions, December 2022
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For some children, writing or reading might be difficult. Children learning how to write might not be able to translate thoughts into written words. Others will have trouble decoding written words.

We break down the learning disability dysgraphia and how it can be similar and differs from a common learning disability dyslexia. 

What is dysgraphia?

According to the Cleveland Clinic, dysgraphia is a neurological condition and learning difference in which someone has difficulty with writing for their age level. 

“Dysgraphia is a neurological disorder most often seen by writing disabilities,” Elizabeth Lipinski, Lower School Academic Dean at Lawrence School says.

“There’s some differences of opinion on the exact definition of the term dysgraphia,” Jennifer Murphy, school psychologist and Director of Assessment at Achievement Advantage in Lyndhurst, says. “Some people look at dysgraphia as a difficulty with the physical act of writing. So, things like legibility and being able to write letters and numbers automatically. Others take a broader view and also include difficulty with expressing oneself through writing, and oftentimes we see students that have both of those concerns.”

“Students who have difficulties with dysgraphia tend to have trouble recalling letters and how they’re formed, which interferes with their writing, whereas students who are dyslexic often have trouble producing the sounds and getting those written words down on paper,” Lipinski says.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, dyslexia is a learning disability that makes it harder for people to learn to read. 

“Dyslexia is a neurological disorder that causes individuals to have difficulty gaining access and manipulating sound structure or spoken language,” Lipinski says.

“Dyslexia is characterized by difficulties with accurate or fluent word recognition for decoding and poor spelling skills,” Murphy says. “Oftentimes, we’ll see our clients with dyslexia also have deficits with phonological processing.”

“In both dyslexia and dysgraphia, we see issues with letter knowledge and spelling,” Greer Davis Cerveny, school psychologist and Director of Intervention Services at Achievement Advantage in Lyndhurst says. “Generally as an oversimplification to differentiate between the two we think of dyslexia as a difficulty with reading, and dysgraphia as having difficulty with writing.”

What are some signs/symptoms of dysgraphia?

“Children with dysgraphia have difficulty holding a writing tool such as a pencil, a pen, or a dry erase marker,” Lipinski says. 

“They have difficulty writing in a straight line, have trouble recalling how to shape things, shape the letter. Writing is often oversized compared to peers, and often you’ll see them tiresome so sometimes even the letters start to look like they’re shaking. You’ll see their hand shake because it actually becomes very tiresome for them to write.”

The Cleveland Clinic lists the following as signs/symptoms:

Difficulties with:

Letter formation and/or legibility.

Letter size and spacing.

Spelling.

Fine motor coordination.

Rate or speed of writing.

Grammar.

Composition.

Specific ways dysgraphia can present include:

Difficulties writing in a straight line.

Difficulties with holding and controlling a writing tool.

Writing letters in reverse.

Having trouble recalling how letters are formed.

Having trouble knowing when to use lower or upper case letters.

Struggling to form written sentences with correct grammar and punctuation.

Omitting words from sentences.

Incorrectly ordering words in sentences.

Using verbs and pronouns incorrectly.

What age group is most commonly diagnosed with dysgraphia?

“Definitely in elementary school,” Cerveny says. “It becomes more recognizable as students start engaging in writing activities at school. There will be some students with symptoms really early. For others, their dysgraphia can become more pronounced as the writing expectations become more challenging.”

Is dysgraphia common?

According to the Cleveland Clinic, researchers estimate that 5% to 20% of people have dysgraphia. The estimated range is large because dysgraphia often goes undiagnosed or misdiagnosed.

“It is pretty common,” Cerveny says. “The prevalence depends on the definition that we’re using, but anywhere between 10 to 30% of children can experience difficulties with writing.”

When should a child get tested for dysgraphia?

“The best point of defense is to work with your child’s school team to discuss any needs,” Murphy says. “Really being proactive and working collaboratively within the team is the best way to ensure that we’re intervening as early as possible.”

What tests/assessments do healthcare providers use to determine if a child has dysgraphia?

“If you’re focusing on the physical act of writing, a client will likely be provided a formalized handwriting assessment,” Murphy says. “When you consider written expression, we would give assessments that look at things like spelling, grammar, mechanics, the writing content, etc.”

According to the Cleveland Clinic, healthcare providers and education specialists carefully assess your child’s writing difficulties to make a diagnosis.

Healthcare providers may use the following assessments and tests in the diagnostic process:

Formalized handwriting assessments: These tests can help measure the speed and legibility of your child’s writing.

Beery Developmental Test of Visuomotor Integration (VMI): This test helps assess the extent to which your child can integrate their visual and motor skills, which is necessary for writing.

How does dysgraphia affect children in school? Are they required to have an IEP?

“Students who do have dysgraphia often do have IEP goals that are related to writing,” Lipinski says. “Being able to keep up with the work in the classroom and in comparison to their peers can be very challenging. It can affect what they write down on paper. They may have these really phenomenal ideas in their head but that’s not what gets down on paper.”

“Students with dysgraphia are going to have difficulties with storing and retrieving letters and numbers and that leads to problems with automatically producing legible writing,” Cerveny says. “They might have other challenges related to expressions of spelling, grammar, mechanics and creating meaningful expressions in writing. Just because a student has dysgraphia doesn’t mean they necessarily automatically qualify for special education services at school. Schools will have their own evaluation process to determine if a child needs an IEP.”

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