Dysgraphia is a learning disability that can impact children and adults of all ages. It impacts an individual's ability to write fluently. According to clinical research, between five and twenty percent of children may have some kind of writing deficit. Because dysgraphia and other related conditions are relatively common, teachers need to know how to help a student with dysgraphia succeed in a school environment. Although dysgraphia can be challenging, numerous forms of support can make a big difference for students with dysgraphia. Many of the strategies that can help students with dysgraphia can also be helpful for those with other learning disabilities, including dyslexia, dyscalculia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Creating a classroom environment that destigmatizes learning disabilities and celebrates students' diversity can make school a better experience for all students and teachers.
What Is Dysgraphia?
Dysgraphia is an umbrella term for several different disabilities, each of which manifests as difficulty with writing. The three primary types of dysgraphia have different causes but similar effects. First, some individuals have linguistic dysgraphia, where the brain's language centers struggle to process writing. With this kind of dysgraphia, students tend to find it challenging to organize their thoughts into sentences but may find dictation or copying easier. Motor dysgraphia is a term for motor control conditions that make it challenging for students to form letter shapes. Lack of muscle control or coordination is usually part of motor dysgraphia. However, students' understanding of language and the writing process are usually unaffected. Finally, spatial dysgraphia is a neurological condition that makes it difficult for students to understand where to place words on a page. Again, linguistic understanding is unaffected, but students' writing may still be very disorganized.
Students may find dysgraphia very frustrating as it can slow them down as they attempt to participate in school activities. Having the appropriate accommodations for each type of dysgraphia can make a big difference. Dysgraphia is often compared to dyslexia as both conditions impact students' ability to engage with reading and writing activities. Although there are similarities between the two, the conditions are distinct. A student can have both dyslexia and dysgraphia, or dysgraphia and another learning disability. There is some evidence that students with ADHD may be more likely to have linguistic dysgraphia.
Dysgraphia Causes and Diagnosis
There are several different causes of dysgraphia, as there are three primary subtypes of the disorder. Linguistic dysgraphia does not have a known cause; as with dyslexia and ADHD, it may have hereditary components, or it may simply be a natural variation among individuals. Traumatic brain injuries or developmental disorders sometimes cause motor control disorders that cause motor dysgraphia. Spatial dysgraphia is uncommon but may be caused by various neurological conditions or even diseases like encephalitis. Typically, children have dysgraphia from early childhood. When adults have late-onset dysgraphia, it is usually caused by a stroke, a disease, or a traumatic brain injury. Dysgraphia must be formally diagnosed by a medical professional, but some parents might suspect that their child has a form of dysgraphia before a diagnosis.
Whether a student has a formal diagnosis or not, any student struggling with writing can benefit from a teacher's assistance and classroom accommodations. Teachers who suspect that a student has dysgraphia or is otherwise struggling with writing should try to communicate with parents about potential strategies to make the classroom experience easier for that student. It is also vital for teachers to have an open dialogue with their class so that students know they can speak to their teacher if they are struggling with a particular subject or task. When developing accommodations, it is essential to get regular feedback from the student to understand their needs and concerns about the learning process.
Disability accommodations are strategies, assistive devices, and adapted classroom environments and expectations that create an inclusive environment for people with various disabilities. Students with learning disabilities like dysgraphia can often benefit from a variety of dysgraphia accommodations that make the class environment better suited to their needs. Not all students with dysgraphia will present their symptoms and needs the same way, particularly because of the various causes and types of dysgraphia. As such, the accommodations that work for one student may not be effective for others. For instance, assistive technology for students with dysgraphia may be particularly useful for students with motor dysgraphia, but less useful for those with linguistic dysgraphia. Finding the right accommodations is a practice of trial and error that can take time and patience on the part of students and teachers. The following potential accommodations are broken up by dysgraphia subtype, but they are by no means an exhaustive list of the strategies that might prove helpful for individual students.
Students with linguistic dysgraphia often find it challenging to spell words correctly and may omit words from their sentences or write them in the wrong order. It is difficult for students with linguistic dysgraphia to write spontaneously, as it is the process of turning thoughts into words on a page that is challenging. In many cases, the accommodations for students with dysgraphia of this kind are similar to the accommodations for dyslexia. Students might benefit from being able to dictate what they want to write instead of writing it by hand to get their ideas across without getting stuck on the details of writing. While dictation can be a great tool, students with linguistic dysgraphia will still need to write on some occasions. To help them build their writing skills, the teacher may want to implement extra practice with spelling for these students. Additionally, helping students learn how to edit their own writing can allow them to catch some mistakes before handing work in.
Another option for students with linguistic dysgraphia is spell-check software. Allowing students to use typing software that will check their spelling and grammar can help them feel more confident and less overwhelmed when completing writing assignments. However, this kind of software is unhelpful for assignments that specifically aim to test students' spelling abilities, so teachers should use their judgment when determining which accommodations are useful at which times. It is important to note that students with all forms of dysgraphia are likely to have permanent difficulties with writing and spelling. However, dedicated support can help students with dysgraphia improve their skills and find ways to manage their learning disability in the educational environment.
Motor dysgraphia occurs when students have low muscle tone or poor motor coordination. It can be challenging for these students to hold and control a pen to form letters, often resulting in messy or illegible handwriting. Students with motor dysgraphia are unlikely to struggle with spelling or word order, so the accommodations that they need differ from those with linguistic dysgraphia. Typically, students with motor dysgraphia need physical accommodations. Some might find weighted pencils helpful as they provide more sensory feedback and greater control. Keyboards, including adapted keyboards, can sometimes make it faster for students to type their assignments than to write them by hand. When typing is not possible or practical for a given writing-based assignment, students with motor dysgraphia may need more time to complete assignments. Students with motor dysgraphia may find their experience at school to be frustrating because it might take them longer than their peers to express their thoughts in writing despite knowing what they want to say. Dictation can also be helpful for these students.
Spatial dysgraphia is the least common form of dysgraphia. When it does occur, it is usually the result of neurological issues that can impact many areas of an individual's life. Although it is unlikely to cause students to struggle with spelling, spatial dysgraphia can cause illegible or seemingly disorganized writing as students may overlap letters, struggle with writing in a straight line, or only use part of the page. Students with spatial dysgraphia may need dedicated therapy outside of school to help them with spatial perception. Although teachers may have limited resources to support students with spatial dysgraphia, some classroom accommodations can make a difference. As with motor and linguistic dysgraphia, students with spatial dysgraphia may benefit from being able to dictate their written assignments instead of writing by hand. Using a keyboard can also be suitable for students with spatial dysgraphia, as it places letters and words in the correct spaces on a page without overlap. Students with spatial dysgraphia may also benefit from paper with raised lines to help guide them writing letters and words.
Dysgraphia Teaching Strategies
The accommodations listed above are primarily strategies that students can employ individually with teacher support. In addition to these accommodations, there are also dysgraphia teaching strategies that can help teachers provide better holistic instruction to all of their students, including those with dysgraphia and other learning disabilities. Creating a classroom structure and environment that is inclusive of students' experiences and needs benefits; not just for students with specific learning disabilities but for all students, giving them more freedom to learn in the ways that work best for them. These teaching strategies can also benefit teachers as they aim to create a more cohesive and positive class atmosphere that can reduce instances of behavioral issues, bullying, and other challenging social situations. Some of these strategies work best for supporting students with dysgraphia in high school, while others are better suited to younger students. Teachers may find, as with accommodations, that some strategies are more effective than others.
Varying Project Styles
Certain kinds of projects, namely those that require a lot of writing by hand, can be particularly challenging for students with dysgraphia. Needless to say, it is frequently important for teachers to incorporate written components into the projects that they assign to meet learning objectives. However, to make learning less arduous for students with dysgraphia, teachers may want to sometimes change tactics and assign projects requiring less writing. Video projects, dioramas, skits, group work where not all students have to include written components, posters, and oral presentations are all potential projects that might be helpful to incorporate from time to time. Providing a variety of different projects throughout the school year can allow all students to play to their strengths. This kind of variety can help students with dysgraphia feel more confident when going into a project and can also help other students with a variety of learning disabilities and learning differences do projects that fit their unique skillset.
Student-Led Learning Initiatives
When trying to create a classroom setup that works for all students, it can be particularly helpful for teachers to ask students for their opinions. Teachers may want to create class discussions and ask students to open up about what is working, what could be different, and what they would like to do more of or learn more about. While students cannot entirely lead the educational process, their thoughts and opinions are valuable, and teachers should incorporate student suggestions into their teaching plans whenever possible. When it comes to students with dysgraphia, teachers should ask for feedback about what kinds of projects and what kinds of accommodations are most helpful. In some cases, a teacher might be able to provide several different ways for students to complete a given project, like writing a play about a subject, creating a comic book, or writing an essay. These different project ideas should not sacrifice learning outcomes, so the process of creating student-led initiatives may require some trial and error. Although not all experiments might go well, it is still worth including students in the educational process to feel a sense of control over their educational journeys.
Creating an Inclusive Classroom
Perhaps the most important thing that teachers can do to support their students is create an inclusive classroom. There are many ways to make a classroom space that is welcoming to all students, and one of those ways is to destigmatize learning disabilities. Teachers should have open discussions with students about the fact that everyone is different and everyone learns in their own ways, but all of those ways are equally good. Promoting a culture of respect among students can also make it easier for those who are struggling with a particular subject to ask for help when they need it. Teachers might also want to introduce the idea of different learning styles, explaining that some students prefer to learn visually, others through audio, and others again through kinesthetic activities.
The benefits of an inclusive classroom go beyond learning disabilities, though students with dysgraphia can absolutely benefit from them. Teaching students to have an inclusive mindset toward others can help make elementary and high school a safer and more positive experience for all students. That includes those who are neurodivergent, those from a variety of racial, ethnic, linguistic, religious, and national backgrounds, those who are:
Part of the LGBT community.
Students from low-income families.
Students with other disabilities or other experiences that might make a school environment more challenging.
Teachers should work with students on how to talk about differences respectfully inside and outside of the classroom.
Considering Learning Outcomes
Writing is a highly prevalent activity in the lives of most students; virtually all assignments require some amount of writing. For students with dysgraphia, this can mean that virtually all school assignments are more challenging and frustrating than they are for their peers. One strategy that teachers can use when determining what assignments to give out and how to accommodate students with dysgraphia is to consider the learning outcomes of a particular activity. Is this specific assignment about teaching students to write or spell, or is it about something else? If writing is incidental to other learning outcomes, it may be appropriate for teachers to create alternatives for students with dysgraphia as needed. It is certainly not the case that students with dysgraphia should never focus on their writing, but they should get the opportunity to explore and learn in other areas as well, particularly if writing is a source of stress or frustration for them. Dysgraphia is not something that can be cured, even with diligent study, so teachers may need to adjust their learning outcomes for students with dysgraphia to give them a fair assessment compared to other students.
Individual Education Plans
One specific strategy that may be helpful for students with dysgraphia and their teachers is an IEP (individual education plan). IEPs are formal documents that teachers can write for students with various unique learning needs. Dysgraphia and other learning disabilities are considered valid reasons for creating an IEP, which can guide teachers and students to create a better learning environment. IEPs are written by teachers and administrators, usually with substantial input from parents, students, and sometimes medical professionals. These documents outline students' experiences, current educational struggles, and strategies for support moving forward. IEPs must be updated and maintained regularly to make sure that they continue to align with students' needs. One of the benefits of creating an IEP is that everyone involved in a given student's educational journey is on the same page about how best to support that student, so students are less frustrated and teachers are less likely to feel that they are making guesses. IEPs are not for everyone, but they can make a big difference for the right student.
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I help students with dysgraphia and dyslexia?
Dysgraphia and dyslexia are two different but sometimes similar learning disabilities. Here's how to help a student with dysgraphia: teachers can create an inclusive classroom, help students access the relevant accommodations, and potentially create an IEP.
What are some accommodations for dysgraphia?
Accommodations for students with dysgraphia largely depend on which type of dysgraphia an individual has. However, things like dictation and using a keyboard are generally useful for all three kinds.
Does dysgraphia count as a disability?
Yes, dysgraphia counts as a learning disability. Linguistic, motor, and spatial dysgraphia can all be formally diagnosed by a medical professional.