Learning Differences: Dysgraphia

That evil blank sheet of paper. It should be filled with great sentences, colorful descriptive words and personal thoughts. Too often, students of all ages avoid writing for any number of reasons, and many have described it as the most challenging skill to learn. Yes, it takes years of education, practice, and trial-and-error for a writer to feel comfortable expressing himself through words. For some, it comes with a learning difficulty called “dysgraphia.” This begins with the inability to think of the letters that need to be written. Add in the rules of spelling, punctuation, and writing, a child will feel both exhausted and frustrated by processing all the needed components together.

Like many mothers, Sarah Williams had a grasp of ADD and ADHD, and dyslexia; however, she was unaware of the term “dysgraphia.” Sarah writes, “When my son was a preschooler, he did not like to draw or write, because he couldn’t find a comfortable way to hold a pencil. As he entered elementary school, his handwriting was very inconsistent. In writing words, he often combined upper- and lower-case letters without spaces between the words. While his peers could write three paragraphs, my son struggled to get a complete sentences on a page. He knew what he wanted to say, but he became frustrated and confused when he could not get his thoughts on paper.”

The “signs” for dysgraphia are not a textbook “diagnosis.” Too often, a child can have several learning differences blended together. While Sarah presented many examples, here is an extended listing:  

  • difficulty forming letters;
  • inability to write or draw in a line or within the margins;
  • illegible handwriting;
  • verbalizing words while writing;
  • omitting or not completing letters in a word;
  • trouble thinking of words to write;
  • difficulty understanding the rules of a game or instructions.

Not all doctors or psychologists will use the term “dysgraphia” when diagnosing a child; instead, the problem may be termed “an impairment with written expression.” While it affects issues of understanding or using speech, the umbrella term extends to listening, thinking, speaking, reading, writing, spelling and completing mathematical calculations. Similar to many learning differences, the process to determine what each child needs takes time, trial-and-error, guidance from teachers and sometimes professionals, and constant practice. Sarah continues to share, “Over the years, we found a number of different approaches that have ultimately helped my son.  Every child is different; so, what worked for my son may not be a great fit for another child. It took time, patience and a good bit of work to begin to understand what we were dealing with. I knew I couldn’t do it on my own, and needed to reach out to professionals. Vision and language therapy helped, but a school psychologist identified what my son needed to improve as a writer.   All these things coupled together made a difference, and helped my son feel more confident as a student.”     

Tips for writing are always valuable. While the following suggestions may be exactly what a child who has difficulties with written expression needs, they may also be a great strategy for any child.

  • Practice writing letters and numbers in the air to improve memory, or designing letters with crayons, markers, or individual pieces of string.
  • Whether ideas are drawn or spoken through a tape recorder, a child needs time to brainstorm in a comfortable way.
  • Use paper with raised lines to guide a child to stay within the lines.   Try relating the lines to a concept your child can understand, such as the sky (top line), the mountains (dotted line), the ground (bottom line) and underground (dotted line). Color-coding may also help.
  • Try to determine which pencil or pencil grip is the most comfortable.
  • While handwriting still needs to be practiced daily, children would also benefit from learning how to type.
  • By reading sentences or paragraphs out loud, a child can build confidence by finding errors, self-correcting and improving readability. A checklist may help a child focus on specific areas, but the facilitator should introduce only one area at a time.

Being a student in today’s world has its challenges; yet, a child with learning disabilities needs your genuine praise. So, remind your child that he or she is one smart cookie, and with practice and time, writing will become easier. In fact, research the educational history of your child’s favorite author or even a musician or scientist. Often, the most popular names in history found education challenging, had to practice, brainstorm, start again, proofread, rewrite and write again. Yes, anything is possible!


Forsyth Family offers this column as a way to bring awareness to various learning differences and empower parents and families for whom these differences are formally diagnosed. This is not intended to be a diagnostic tool. Concerned parents should consult a professional to determine if their child has any type of learning disabilities or challenges. See full disclaimer in bylines of this publication.

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