+ Dysgraphia – When Handwriting is Illegible

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“Dysgraphia” means difficulty with handwriting.  It can show up in several different ways.  Below is a description of dysgraphia and the ways it manifests, as well as some strategies for dealing with it as a teacher or a student.

About Dysgraphia 

Some writers’ handwriting is just unreadable; letters are formed irregularly and inconsistently.  Others write legibly, although writing is slow and painful.  Some students write in a microscopically small hand, often to mask errors.  Some people, when they print, create random mixtures of upper and lower case letters.

But in all cases of dysgraphia, writing requires inordinate amounts of energy, stamina and time.

These problems can interfere with a student’s ability to express ideas.  According to  an IDA Fact Sheet

expressive writing requires a student to synchronize many mental functions at once: organization, memory, attention, motor skill, and various aspects of language ability.  Automatic accurate handwriting is the foundation for this juggling act.  In the complexity of remembering where to put the pencil and how to form each letter, a dysgraphic student forgets what he or she meant to express.  Dysgraphia can cause slow classroom productivity, incomplete homework assignments, and difficulty focusing attention

In addition, there is the emotional dimension: frustration, shame, anger at not being able to perform as well as classmates.  When these students are bright, even perhaps good at reading, their failure to produce good written work is often blamed on laziness or carelessness.

Although a few people just lack fine motor coordination, in most cases several brain systems are involved.  “Some experts believe that dysgraphia involves a dysfunction in the interaction between the two main brain systems that allow a person to translate mental into written language (sound to symbol, as well as mental word to written word).  Other studies have shown that split attention, memory load, and familiarity of graphic material affect writing ability.” [IDA Fact Sheet]

Typically, a person with unreadable handwriting has a combination of fine-motor difficulty, inability to revisualize letters, and inability to remember the motor patterns of letter forms.

This is the reason Orton-Gillingham instruction is multisensory, involving the fingertips or large arm movements when learning and reciting letters and their sounds.     

There are two types of dysgraphia:  

Dyslexic dysgraphia, where spontaneously written text is illegible, especially if the text is complex.  Oral spelling is poor.   However drawing, and copying of written text pose no problems.  The measure of fine motor speed, finger-tapping speed, is found to be normal. 

Motor dysgraphia  means both spontaneously written and copied text are illegible, and there are usually problems with drawing a s well.  Finger-tapping speed is slow.        

Characteristics of dysgraphia:

  • Cramped fingers on writing tool
  • Odd wrist, body and paper positions
  • Excessive erasures
  • Mixture of upper and lower case letters
  • Mixture of printed and cursive letters
  • Inconsistent letter formations and shapes
  • Unfinished cursive letter formation
  • Inefficient speed in copying
  • General illegibility

 Some strategies to use  

At the earliest level, teach and reinforce individual letters by deskwriting (or sand or sandpaper writing) with fingertips; or by “sky-writing” using a straight arm and pointed finger.  Every time the letter is practiced, make sure this sensory experience is associated.

Once a pencil is introduced, model the correct grip: the pencil should rest on the first joint of the middle finger, with the thumb and index fingers holding it in place.  There are colorful rubber pencil grips that slide on pencils, which make it easy for a beginning writer to  get into the right habit.

Weighted pencils are available, to assist with the amount of pressure required to create  evenly written letters.  In addition, textured paper can be used: the lines to be written on are minimally raised, so the writer can really feel the “base line” where letters should be settled. 

For older students, learning “keyboarding” skills and using a computer is highly recommended.  If taking notes in class is impossible, borrow and copy someone else’s notes.  Classes and lectures  can be recorded; one of the best things you can do for yourself is get a recording device and become comfortable with it!  Record your own essays, if you think best without worrying about getting your thoughts onto paper; then you can transcribe them later at a comfortable pace.  See if it is possible for some written work to be graded on content rather than on form.       source: IDA Fact Sheet on Dysgraphia; COLE Training materials; “Overcoming Dyslexia”, by Sally Shaywitz

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or          aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com

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