Dysgraphia is a learning disability that affects writing. Most of us write without putting much conscious thought into the process.

But writing involves a complex set of procedures that draws upon vision to determine spacing and placement of pencils and letters, fine motor skills to move the pencil across paper, an understanding of the relationship between letters and the various sounds they make, and new thinking skills required to communicate thoughts and ideas on paper.

If you or your child don’t suffer from dysgraphia, do you think you would know very much about it? We hear more about dyslexia than dysgraphia, but could you imagine if you were unable to put your thoughts into written form? Could you do your present job if you were an undiagnosed dysgraphic?

When I used to walk to school in the snow, uphill both ways, with no shoes...

Here’s a thought. When I was in elementary school, teachers actually taught us to write. They taught us the mechanics, spacing, upper and lower case, the movement of the pen to form certain letters, how to hold a pencil, how to sit, how to position the paper, and penmanship in general. I have memories of how much time we spent learning the “process” of how to write. I guess it worked since I have no problems putting thoughts to paper.

Some schools aren’t spending as much time as they used to on the process of writing. Talk to teachers and ask them how much class time is spent on teaching children to write. You may be surprised.

Some experts believe the mechanics of writing will work themselves out over time, but a stronger case can be made for providing adequate instructions in writing to help all children (not just dysgraphic children) develop better skills.

The Warning Signs

Early Writers:

  1. Tight, awkward pencil grip and body position
  2. Avoiding writing or drawing tasks
  3. Trouble forming letter shapes
  4. Inconsistent spacing between letters or words
  5. Poor understanding of uppercase and lowercase letters
  6. Inability to write or draw in a line or within margins
  7. Tiring quickly while writing

Young Students:

  1. Illegible handwriting
  2. Mixture of cursive and print writing
  3. Saying words out loud while writing
  4. Concentrating so hard on writing that comprehension of what’s written is missed
  5. Trouble thinking of words to write
  6. omitting or not finishing words in sentences

Teenagers and Adults:

  1. Trouble organizing thoughts on paper
  2. Trouble keeping track of thoughts already written down
  3. Difficulty with syntax structure and grammar
  4. Large gap between written ideas and understanding demonstrated through speech

Again, a word of caution. These are only signs of dysgraphia. You can’t diagnose dysgraphia just by observing these signs. Some signs can be indicative of poor writing instructions, so get a professional opinion.

What Can You Do?

If you haven’t already done so, you should become familiar with laws that help learning disabled children.

As with all learning disabilities, it’s always best to get an early diagnosis. Early intervention means an early start addressing the needs of your child. And as always, you need to be patient, and use positive reinforcement instead of punishment.

New or early writers should experiment with different types and sizes of pens and pencils. One of my tutors uses the thicker pencils for all young writers, since they are usually easier to hold, and easier to teach proper grip.

The same tutor will also spend time writing letters and numbers in the air, using big arm movements. When I first saw this, I wondered what she was doing. My tutor explained that these large movements help improve motor memory. She then proceeded to do the same air numbers and letters using smaller motions using her hand and fingers. Admittedly this looked strange, but after the explanation, it made perfect sense.

All of my early writing tutors use raised line paper. You can find it at most WalMarts or school supply stores. The raised lines help the writer keep their writing straight, and helps with recognition of different sizes for uppercase and lowercase letters. The raised lines are a physical reminder of the proper size and orientation of their letters.

Along the same lines of using the raised line paper, some tutors use the wide lined graph paper when working on math problems. The graph paper gives the kids a visual alignment of both vertical and horizontal lines to help keep their numbers straight in both directions. The blocks also helps with their spacing of numbers.

If your kids haven’t received proper writing instruction, you will often see them using crazy looking pencil grips, contorted posture, and strange paper placement. It’s important to correct these types of problems early, since it’s difficult to break bad habits.

As your child progresses, determine if they are more comfortable using print or cursive writing. Experiment with a tape or digital voice recorders to capture ideas before putting them onto paper. Older kids may want to tape record lectures and class instructions.

My tutoring business also tutors kids in keyboarding, with a special emphasis on dysgraphic kids, since many dysgraphic kids seem to benefit from word processing instead of handwriting.

Nobody like to do things they aren’t good at. This is no different for dysgraphic kids. They may shy away from writing or try to avoid it altogether. But, practice is essential. As a parent, try to make writing as pleasant as possible. This may mean allowing for accommodations (such as word processing), but mostly it means encouraging writing. Encourage them to write as often as possible, and in as many different ways as possible. Encourage creative writing and other low stress writing assignments that aren’t done for a grade, but for their own pleasure.

And as any good writer will tell you, writing is a process of re-writing. This is especially true for kids with dysgraphia. Writing a draft, editing, re-writing, it’s a process that must be developed and practiced so it becomes second nature.

For Older Students, Beware of the SAT

Parents naturally assume that if their child is on a 504 plan or has an IEP, that this qualifies their child for accommodation on the SAT. Wrong! The SAT requires specific documentation when requesting accommodation on their test. And if you’re requesting the use of a computer due to dysgraphia for the writing portion of the test, you must qualify under their standards. Simply forwarding your child’s 504 plan may not be enough.

Computer Accommodation on the SAT (in a nutshell)

Poor handwriting is not considered a disability. The College Board website mentions this on various occasions. Neither does the use of a computers in school testing automatically qualify you for a computer accommodation. It appears that the College Board’s Student Eligibility Form (for accommodation) seeks information on two interrelated areas, a diagnosis of the disability by a qualified professional, and how this diagnosed disability negatively impacts the ability of the student to take the SAT without the accommodation.

When requesting the use of a computer for the written section of the SAT, College Board recognizes three primary disabilities: physical, dysgraphia (fine motor) and learning disability (severe).

Under dysgraphia, the student must submit documentation from a professional such as a occupational therapist, psychologist, learning specialist or a medical doctor that documents a fine motor problem, and an academic test of writing that demonstrates that the fine motor problem presents enough problems to justify the accommodation. These tests are usually administered by the school, clinical psychologist or educational diagnostician.

Make sure that the documentation submitted doesn’t just state conclusions (i.e. “This student has dysgraphia and needs a computer for his SAT”) but instead relates how the diagnosis of dysgraphia will negatively impact the student’s ability to perform on the test itself. The College Board will further ask you to describe the functional limitation of the disability (more on this next).

To guide you in the submission of documentation, the College Board has the “Seven Guidelines for Documentation”. You can find this on the College Board website, but briefly the seven guidelines are:

  1. State the specific disability, as diagnosed.
  2. Be current in the evaluations and diagnosis that you submit (generally no older than five years).
  3. Provide relevant educational, developmental, and medical history.
  4. Describe the comprehensive testing and techniques used to arrive at the diagnosis
  5. .
  6. Describe the functional limitations.
  7. Describe the specific accommodations being requested.
  8. Establish the professional credentials of the evaluator (the person who did the diagnosis or evaluation in # 2 above).

College Board has a non-comprehensive list of tests that they accept and don’t accept, so make sure that the evaluator is using the correct test.

Although the College Board still accepts the paper version of the Student Eligibility Form, if you have access to the internet, I would recommend using the online submission. The online version is much faster (no using snail mail), and allows you to submit all information online or by fax. Furthermore, it allows you to instantly track your submissions, determine whether you are missing documents, indicates when they received your request, and whether there has been a decision on your request.

College Board has a demo on their website, and I think it’s faster, thus allowing to track your request in a more timely manner.

Also, be aware that the SAT has a special panel who review accommodation requests, and this review process isn’t very speedy. Although I have heard of some unusually long delays in the past, College Board on their website generally states that the review process will take 5-7 weeks.

In any event, accommodations are available, but only if you specifically meet their requirements and provide the appropriate documentation.

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