Why Dysgraphia Is About More than Just Messy Handwriting

Dysgraphia Is About More than Just Messy Handwriting

Takeaway: Dysgraphia is a learning difference that affects how a child writes. But it’s more than just that. It affects the way she processes information, thinks, and remembers, too. And these all subtly affect the way her classmates and teachers think of her. Luckily, educational psychologists and occupational therapists can help children work through these differences. Which is why making an early dysgraphia diagnosis is so important.

Even in this age of computers, it’s surprising how important writing by hand still is.

As adults, we inevitably jot down instructions on post-its, write out thank-you cards, and perhaps even journal. And while our kids might have access to iPads and laptops, writing skills are still so essential for them. In preschool, they’re developing finger control by colouring in shapes. They’ll then move on to ‘joining the dots’ or writing out alphabets. And later on they’ll hand-write assignments. Most children make these transitions easily. But not all.

Dysgraphia is a learning difference that affects how a child writes.

Sometimes it’s apparent right from when they pick up their first crayon. But for other children, it takes a bit longer. You’ll probably first notice your child’s handwriting is especially hard to read. Or that she writes really slowly. And as you pay more attention, you might notice that she mixes cursive and print. Or that her letter spacing is slightly off. Or maybe she says words out loud as she writes them? What’s happening is that her brain is developing slightly differently, which changes the way she processes words and letters.

But dysgraphia is about more than just having messy handwriting.

Hard-to-read script is a common sign of dysgraphia, but some children might learn to tidy up their writing (although they’ll still take a long time to write). What researchers have found is that dysgraphia can affect three sorts of skills.

  1. It can affect finger (and hand) control. For many children, motor control is the main challenge. So this is why we see messy handwriting and wonky sentences that stray from the page’s lines. But it’s also why they might struggle to tie their shoes (even after age 8) or find it awkward to use a knife and fork.
  2. It can affect language-learning. For other children, what’s remarkably different is the way they process words, sentence structure, and grammar. This could show up as poor spelling, wrongly ordered words in a sentence, mixing up verbs and pronouns, or meaning to write a particular word but writing something else instead.
  3. It can affect thinking and memory. Children with dysgraphia might also find it affects their memory and ability to structure their thinking. For example, they might struggle to follow a long and complex set of instructions.

So why does this happen? Why does a brain with dysgraphia struggle with these skills?

There are quite a few things at play in the brain of a child with dysgraphia. But let’s take a look at some of the more noticeable challenges.

For one, it has problems creating ‘mental images’ of words.

When you and I read, our brains try to match mental images of the words we’ve learnt, with the words we’re seeing in front of us. This matching is lightning-quick, which is why we can read at speeds of 500 words per minute and more. But we weren’t born with this ability. As kids, we had to ‘sound out’ the words as we read them, as a way of training our brains to recognise them on sight alone. But with enough practise, we’d be able to move past this ‘sounding out’ phase. Children with dysgraphia find it hard to create these mental images, so they get stuck sounding words out.

[Note: Dysgraphia has a close cousin: dyslexia. But they’re actually quite different.]

Both affect how a child deals with language, but they work through different mechanisms. With dysgraphia, the brain struggles to recognise mental word images. Whereas with dyslexia, it struggles to recognise word sounds. Also, with dysgraphia, the brain has trouble moving fingers in sequence. A dyslexic child has no problems with this. One thing they do have in common, though, is that they both affect working memory. And it’s quite common for a child to have both dysgraphia and dyslexia. (Learn more about dyslexia.)

A brain with dysgraphia might also have trouble moving fingers in sequence.

To write words on a page (or even draw or colour), we need to move our fingers in pretty complex sequences. And many children with dysgraphia struggle with these fine motor movements. Note: This aspect of dysgraphia seems similar to another condition called dyspraxia, which also affects motor movement. For example, a child with dyspraxia might have problems holding a pen. But dyspraxia isn’t connected primarily to language and writing like dysgraphia is. (Learn more about dyspraxia.)

Dysgraphia might also mean having poor spatial awareness.

Here, children might struggle particularly with drawing things in proportion. Or, later on, with spacing letters out properly on a page. They may have perfectly fine spelling and finger control, though.

So, how can we help? Do we just give children handwriting training? Will that make things better?

Like we’ve seen, the bad handwriting is a sign of a deeper mechanism at work. So, we’ll need to address the challenge a little more systematically.

What’s most important is to help your child learn, and express herself,

Even before we address the handwriting, we want to help her feel engaged in class and at home. So,

  • To explore ideas and organise her thoughts, she could learn to use tools like mind-maps.
  • To express these thoughts, she could record herself speaking them out loud before writing them down. This could save her a lot of editing and rewriting.
  • To tackle assignments, she can break tasks into more manageable chunks. Writing a dreaded essay becomes much easier when she thinks of it as (1) Brainstorming ideas, (2) Organising them, (3) Writing a first draft, (4) Editing the draft, (5) Fine-tuning the finished essay. Even editing can be broken down into stages like checking spelling, looking at punctuation, and then analysing flow. It’ll help simplify things to have a system like this in place.
  • To take notes, she can learn shorthand — which means less writing. And she can also use technology like computers (to type instead of write) and transcription software (to convert speech into text).
  • To learn better, she can explore multisensory learning and have a richer classroom experience.

Once she’s got these ‘learning systems’ in place, we can move on to her writing skills.

An occupational therapist can help here.

  • To develop strength and control of her hands and fingers, she could start playing with clay. Then she could move on to joining-the-dots to improve her hand-eye coordination. And finally, she can work on tracing letters and pictures. To improve writing endurance, she can also experiment with holding her pen differently and writing more softly.
  • To strengthen visual memory for alphabets and words, the therapist can show her cue cards with letters on them and get her to visualise the letters before writing them. And slowly the therapist increases the delay between showing the letters and asking for them to be written.

We can do a lot to help your child, but it’s so important that she gets diagnosed.

The thing with dysgraphia is that it seems simple enough (“Handwriting problems? Big deal!”), but it has all kinds of other effects. For example, if your child spends most of her time focussing on writing, she can’t give enough attention to spelling, punctuation, or even planning out what she’s going to write. And this means she’ll struggle in class, which can then make her feel less competent. Worse, because she’s so good at reading and speaking, her teachers may think she’s just lazy or careless when it comes to writing. So, dysgraphia can take a huge psychological and emotional toll on her, quite quickly.

Does your child show signs of dysgraphia? Consider consulting a specialist.

The Ed Psych Practice offers consultation, advice, and problem solving for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges, in London. We have psychologists and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support.

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