The first cases of dyslexia were written about in the 1880s, around the time both Samuel Orton and Anna Gillingham were both born. In the 1920s, the two had started working toward what is now known as the Orton-Gillingham approach, which laid the foundation for educating students with dyslexia and which is still being used today.
Since that time, several other large programs have been founded, namely, the Wilson Reading System, which was directly built on the Orton-Gillingham foundation, and Take Flight.
Dyslexia is much more widely known now. Most schools in the public arena across the U.S. have adopted one of the above-mentioned programs, found smaller-scale and lesser-known programs, or created their own in order to support students with dyslexia.
A large portion of the advancements in understanding dyslexia and what we currently consider neurotypical reading behaviors have been made thanks to advancements in technology, which has enhanced neuroscience, which gives us a clearer picture of the human brain and its functions. As we learn more about neurotypical brains and how they respond to processing various types of information, we are also learning about other “divergent” ways of thinking.
Dyslexia was once an umbrella that covered any perceived disorder related to reading and writing. Now that we are able to more narrowly define what we are observing, we are defining more precisely the issues with different areas of reading and writing difficulty. One of the differences is dysgraphia.
Comparing Dyslexia and Dysgraphia
Whereas dyslexia is considered more of a reading difference, dysgraphia refers to skills centered around writing. Dysgraphia is not as well known and has been studied far less than dyslexia, but more research is being conducted.
Both dyslexia and dysgraphia appear to have important language processing differences. People with either may have a difficult time thinking through responses and expressing thoughts verbally as a side issue. This difficulty with oral expression seems particularly profound in those with dysgraphia.
While the hallmarks for dysgraphia lie mostly in writing, students whose minds work with this thinking process often substitute words that are similar in meaning when speaking. This is one thing dyslexic students also do significantly with reading, so it helps us to see that the processing these students are doing is different. It’s not just confined to reading the thoughts of others aloud or writing thoughts on paper.
Dysgraphia is also a complicated difference. There seem to be two main components: the motor skill and function of marking words on paper in any way, and the word/language output processing skill.
Students with dysgraphia tend to have very messy writing. They struggle with directionality and writing in a straight line. This struggle is not limited to letters and words. Dysgraphia affects a student’s ability to line math problems up, record details of science investigations, and create linear history timelines.
A worksheet may literally take a dysgraphic student all day to complete. Sometimes working on a computer helps, but often the difficulty isn’t only with fine motor skills or writing one’s thoughts.
As mentioned above, processing those thoughts and communicating them in any way can be affected. Word recall, organizational patterns of speech, and sentence structure (both spoken and written) can be difficult for these students. Some are stronger in one area than they are in the other, and some have significant challenges in both.
Just as dyslexia is more than just a reading issue, dysgraphia is more than messy writing. A student with dysgraphia won’t be able to keep up with notetaking in a class. Their processing time will take much longer for output than it will to understand and remember the information. Most students need to write things down to remember. Most students need to write to show understanding.
Students with dysgraphia need the opportunity to just listen. Many of them have strengths to offset their difficulties. They may have excellent long-term memory. They are likely to remember details and facts about things that no other student has heard because they don’t have the luxury of writing things down to help them remember.
Although they can’t quickly write what they know, they are often able to answer questions in depth when given the opportunity. Their flexibility with words gives them the opportunity to creatively retell things as they see them. Rather than using words, they may use pictures in their minds, or even on paper, to convey what they know and keep a map of the information they are working on.
Similarly, students with dysgraphia tend to be very intelligent, which is also typical of dyslexic students. A high IQ combined with self-made strategies creatively made so the student can conform to the expectations of the academic environment sometimes keeps students from diagnoses. They are often able to maintain an average just above detection so they don’t seem to need any help.
Unfortunately, these students have to work so much harder to accomplish the norm and average that they may be mentally and physically exhausted much of the time.
Helping Students with Dysgraphia
Because so little is known about dysgraphia, there are few interventions widely known, although more research is currently being done. Dysgraphia is not currently recognized in its own right in the DSM 5 (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, which is used among medical, psychological, and diagnostic fields to identify a variety of disorders that happen due to neurological differences), which only highlights learning differences and disorders in a general way.
However, it is obvious to those of us working with these students that they are in need of intervention. In earlier days, those studying dysgraphia separated the difference into three distinct categories (some use five, but we’ll stick to three since it is more widely known and relevant to this article).
The name is misleading, first of all. This merely means that spontaneously written material is illegible. Students may not always write illegibly, and when given the time and opportunity to work out their thoughts and plan their writing, they may be able to communicate fairly effectively. Copied text and text that does not require original thought is usually legible.
Students with dyslexic dysgraphia find that spelling and writing words can be challenging, letter and word reversals are abundant, and recall of letter formation and copying from either the board or even a book can be challenging.
Grammar and syntax are likely to be a struggle, while speed and fluency are usually the biggest areas of need.
Writing paragraphs is nearly impossible without assistance, but with help, paragraph writing can be done. Try providing modified graphic organizers (dysgraphic students need more space for their writing), support with planning out details in much more intricacy than other students, and a lot of editing support to check for spelling, grammar, transition usage, and focus of ideas.
These students may do well when copying another’s handwritten information, such as notes written out by the teacher and placed directly in front of them.
The students often are able to be helped with the attention of a speech-language pathologist. They may benefit from occasional assistance from an occupational therapist, as well.
Motor Dysgraphia and Dyspraxia
The name for this is more accurate as it defines difficulties with fine motor skills as well as gross motor skills. They struggle with hand cramping, writing too lightly or too hard, and sitting correctly in their chairs.
They likely have low muscle tone, struggle with writing either all lowercase or all uppercase letters (they often mix the two), and can’t “cross the midline” (teachers of young students usually understand this more than others because it’s a developmental motor skill - it means that you are able to touch or move things on one side of your body and move them to the opposite - left to right or vice versa).
Motor dysgraphia is considered as such because it affects placing marks on paper;l however, there is another term for this in a broader sense: dyspraxia. Dyspraxia deals with the difficulty in developing all these mentioned motor behaviors and skills, and occupational therapists are best at addressing the needs of these students.
If the child is unable to develop, and these skills continue to persist, the physical issues may be classified as developmental coordination disorder or DCD.
Students with motor dysgraphia often struggle less with the cognitive aspects of dysgraphia and focusing on the physical aspects that relate to writing, although it is possible to have both.
This type of dysgraphia doesn’t hinder motor skills or cognitive function, rather it presents challenges with visual-spatial skills. Students struggle with visual perception and spatial awareness, so they are likely able to form the letters well, understand, and remember what to write, but have no idea where on the paper to begin (or continue).
Although they are able to form and recall letters, words, grammar, and syntax elements, their handwriting may be nearly impossible to read because they may write all their sentences on top of each other or without any spaces. They tend to write off the side of the paper and make “unique” designs with the letters and words spilling into margins, writing from top to bottom or sideways on the paper, and even backward.
They write very slowly and are not able to write fluently. Drawing, painting, coloring and anything involving space on paper are challenging, and these students will attempt to avoid these activities at all costs.
Occupational therapy, as well as providing visual cues for where to begin letter formation and sentence writing can be helpful for these students.
We used the book Handwriting Brain-Body Disconnect by Cheri L. Dotterer, MS, OTR/L in some of our research for this article.
We really liked the accurate, concise explanations in Dysgraphia: A Parent’s Guide to Understanding Dysgraphia and Helping a Dysgraphic Child.
One of our all-time favorites, which we’ve mentioned in the past, was helpful when we were first learning about Dysgraphia: Teaching Students with Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, OWL LD, and Dyscalculia Second Edition
Here are a couple of the links we also found that may help if you want further information: