Is this little known learning difference limiting your child’s academic success? Learn more about common dysgraphia symptoms you may be missing.
You may never have heard of dysgraphia, but it may very well effect your family or someone close to you. Researchers estimate that dysgraphia effects from 5% to 20% of school-age kids. Dysgraphia makes the communication of written language difficult. It can be hard to recognize dysgraphia symptoms because many of the most obvious dysgraphia signs track difficulties that you would commonly see in any child learning how to write.
But, when it continues unrecognized (and unaddressed), it can have a profound effect on a child’s progress and potential in school. It often requires that a child expend large amounts of effort and energy to come close to reaching the same destination as his peers. He’s operating at an unnecessary and significant disadvantage. But one that can be addressed effectively, if you know how to look for and recognize dysgraphia symptoms.
Dysgraphia: A Snapshot
Dysgraphia is a language based learning difference that affects learning how to write and the ability to use existing writing skills to express your thoughts.
Typically, when a child masters the skill of writing, he can write quickly and legibly without getting tired. And, he writes without consciously thinking about the process. The words essentially appear on the page without any meaningful effort devoted to figuring out how to form a lowercase k. Or, effort figuring out the basic rules of grammar and syntax.
But, for a child with dysgraphia impairments, this process can become slow, difficult and painful. The work product becomes illegible or incoherent. The effort to produce legible writing grossly is disproportionate to the resulting output. Or, the actual content of what’s written could be hard for the reader to understand.
Related Content: What is Dysgraphia?
The Writing Process
Writing involves multiple complex steps. For written expression, your mind translates its thoughts into a communicable language. And then projects those translated thoughts into a format that others can process. Transforming thoughts into letters, words, and sentences. And then placing those letters, words and sentences onto paper or screen.
Dysgraphia disrupts these processes. It creates a disconnect between a child’s thoughts and the ability to write them down. It can interfere with language processing. Scrambling the ability to translate thoughts into letters, words or sentences that make sense to another person. Or, it can interfere with the process of transmitting those thoughts to third parties. Impairing the physical ability of the hands to produce the letters and words. Or, interfering with how the writer visually represents the writing through ill formed or spaced letters and words, or alignment errors.
Look For Dysgraphia Symptoms Early
Writing is a critical academic skill that often occupies up to half the school day. Given the importance of written language at school, early diagnosis is critical. Unfortunately, dysgraphia can often be overlooked and dismissed as someone being sloppy or lazy.
Otherwise smart kids with dysgraphia have a particular risk of being overlooked. Many adults will mistakenly assume that a smart child who struggles to write just isn’t trying hard enough.
Because dysgraphia so often flies under the radar screen, parents or other primary caregivers can play a critical role in recognizing that a problem exists and seeking qualified help. Early diagnosis and intervention leads to improved results.
The Importance of Automaticity
Automaticity, or the ability to write by rote without having to think about it, usually clicks in by third grade and continues to improve over the following grades. Failure to develop writing automaticity by third grade interferes with the ability to move on to more difficult and complex writing projects because of the disproportionate focus on the mechanical requirements of basic letter formation.
Ultimately, automaticity leads to and supports the type of higher quality and more complex writing projects seen in high school and college. When kids fail to develop automaticity with their handwriting, they struggle with keeping up with the increasing demands of their schoolwork.
Types of Dysgraphia
Dysgraphia will often be categorized as either motor based or language based. And, some experts also include a category focused on visual-spatial based issues. Here’s a closer look at what you might see in those different situations.
Dysgraphia Symptoms: Problems With Writing Mechanics
The mechanical aspects of writing includes both visual skills and certain motor skills. For the visual aspects, you have visual-perception skills that provide the ability to accurately interpret what’s being seen. And, you have visual-motor coordination. The ability to match what your hands are doing with what your eyes are seeing. So, keeping the writing on the actual paper, on the lines and/or within the margins.
And, it also includes strong fine motor skills. Being able to use the muscles in your hands fairly easily. Using your hands to hold writing tools, and form strokes and lines. Dysgraphia can affect each of these areas.
Motor-Based Dysgraphia Symptoms
- Trouble with letter formation.
- Holds hand, body or paper in an awkward or strange position when writing.
- Experiences cramps or pains in hands.
- May have other fine motor difficulties like tying shoes, correctly holding a pencil, using scissors, and troubles with buttons and zippers.
- Tendency to hold writing tools in an unusual way.
Visual-Spatial Dysgraphia Symptoms
- Difficulty keeping writing on the line and within margins.
- Letters that are inconsistent in size, spacing, and distance from the line on which they’re written.
- Difficulty with spacing text. Either the spacing between letters and words, or also the spacing between sentences.
- Difficulty with the spacing of numbers and equations in math problems.
- Poor spatial planning on paper.
- Orienting letters wrong. Reversing or inverting letters. Mirror writing.
Signs Parents May Notice
- Messy and hard to read penmanship even with repeated practice.
- Routinely mixing upper and lower case letters.
- Tires quickly when writing.
- Slow, incomplete, or laborious note-taking or copying.
- Legible writing that is labor-intensive and slow to produce.
- Complains of hand or wrist hurting when writing.
- Pace of writing and copying is too slow to keep up with peers.
- Struggles to write in small boxes on charts and worksheets.
Dysgraphia Symptoms: Problems With Writing Content
If bad handwriting is a hallmark sign of dysgraphia, the profound disconnect between oral communication skills and written communication skills may be a close second.
We were both near tears as I stared in dismay at the “first draft” of my son’s 4th grade book report project. About an hour earlier, we sat down to discuss the key points of the story. He conveyed animated and compelling nuggets about an epic civil war naval battle involving the first metal submarine (or something like that). Lots of interesting stuff to work with. But now I sat staring at a page that had a grand total of 3 hard to follow sentences. And the first sentence was the name of the book. And worse, his prior animation and excitement had been replaced with frustration, irritation, and snappish anger.
Dysgraphia can disrupt the thought processes associated with knowing what to write and how to write it. This can result in trouble with spelling or writing structure, difficulties trying to form a paragraph, or knowing the mechanics of putting together a long story or essay. So, your child may be able to put words on paper, but others may have a hard time following what he means to say.
Content Issues to Watch For
- Doesn’t write complete sentences. Has unfinished or omitted words.
- Impaired ability to write and think at the same time.
- Difficulty conveying thoughts on paper in a coherent manner.
- Ideas not presented in a logical or sequential order.
- Jumbled or partial sentences. Trouble with sentence structure.
- Writing often contains run-on sentences that lack punctuation.
- Difficulty organizing thoughts on paper.
- Tendency to speak out loud while writing.
- Struggles recalling how to write a letter or a word on paper.
- Has trouble telling stories.
- Leaves out important facts and details of a story.
- Ungrammatical and disorganized writing.
- Routinely misuses punctuation or seems to ignore it completely.
- Struggles translating ideas to writing.
- Trouble finding the write words, and sometimes using the wrong words altogether.
Recognizing Dysgraphia Symptoms Change Across Ages
Dysgraphia-related problems usually appear in a noticeable degree by elementary school. But there will often be signs that pop up before then. Like, for instance, a preschool child who hates coloring.
And, while signs will often start to be noticed in elementary school, they may grow more pronounced and intrusive in middle school. The higher grades have increased academic demands, increased daily homework and writing assignments, and more note taking requirements. Thus, a kid who may seem to have been doing okay and treading water in elementary school, may struggle to keep up in middle school.
Dysgraphia Signs & Preschoolers
Does your preschool child cringe when you try to whip out those educational enrichment workbooks and activity books? Rejects coloring and coloring books as a fun activity? These signs could be the product of issues that are commonly seen with dysgraphia. Here are symptoms that you may start to see in a preschool child. But they come with a huge cautionary flag. Kids this age are still grasping the fundamentals of pre-writing skills and something that may seem like a flag may actually just be part of a kid’s typical developmental journey.
- Holds crayon with an awkward grip; even the big triangle ones.
- Struggles with connect-the-dot activities.
- Difficulty with tracing letters or figures.
- Dislikes and avoids coloring.
Dysgraphia Signs & Big Kids (Elementary School)
Typically kids in first and second grade have a firm handle on basic letter formation for printing, and may moving on to cursive around third grade. Around third and fourth grade kids will be working on basic compositions skills in form and content. Putting coherent sentences and paragraphs together with basic punctuation. And, by end of elementary school, the focus of writing rests more on content than mechanics. They are working on different types of writing such as exposition, narrative and persuasion. And, they start building their editing and proofreading skills.
- Poor spelling. Difficulty spelling known words after repeated practice. Spelling same words different ways in a short period of time. Continued phonetic spelling past the age when developmentally appropriate.
- Messy or illegible handwriting. Many erasures and cross-outs (perhaps holes in the paper from excessive attempts at correction).
- Difficulty completing composition assignments because can’t think of anything to say.
- Persistent misuse of capitalization. Mixing upper and lower case letters.
Dysgraphia Signs & Tweens (Middle School)
In middle school, kids focus on creation, composition and content. They’re expected to write independent essays and reports. Writing is a tool for acquiring and conveying their knowledge.
- Formal writing has incomplete words or sentences.
- Mixes cursive and print.
- Struggles to generate ideas for papers.
- Papers missing key facts or elements.
Dysgraphia Signs & Teens (High School)
Child can easily communicate through writing. It’s a background skill that should be fairly routine and automatic. They have mastered the mechanics. They are independent note takers, and their notes are a reliable method of recording and retrieving information.
- Frequent spelling and punctuation errors
- Missing words or parts of words from sentences
- Difficulty reading her own handwriting
- Struggles to complete writing projects in a timely fashion
- Ability to convey thoughts out loud far exceeds ability to communicate in writing
Dysgraphia Symptoms Often Mislabeled
Sometimes the problem with dysgraphia is not that it’s completely unrecognized, but that dysgraphia symptoms are mistakenly attributed to something else. This could be because a child also has other diagnosed conditions (like ADHD or autism) that effect a wider range of issues.
Or, it could be misidentified entirely. Many of the signs and symptoms of dysgraphia are similar to ones seen in other learning differences. But, correctly identifying the source of potential problems leads to appropriate interventions that can improve or resolve underlying problems more effectively.
Two learning challenges that can often be misdiagnosed for or overshadow dysgraphia symptoms are dyslexia and dyspraxia.
Dyslexia is much more widely known than dysgraphia. But the primary issue with dyslexia is impaired reading while the primary problem with dysgraphia is impaired writing. And, since in many ways reading and writing are different sides of the same coin, the signs for both can overlap. So, for instance, both can result in difficulty with spelling or with conveying thoughts in writing. But, there’s a scientific basis for distinguishing these two conditions. And they should each have their own tailored interventions.
Dyspraxia is a condition that impairs a child’s ability to plan and process motor tasks. Dysgraphia symptoms can easily be mistaken for dyspraxia because the latter condition can also impair fine motor skills which leads to writing difficulties. But typically, dyspraxia will effect a broader range of motor skills than only the ones relating to writing.
Dyspraxia can also involve broad difficulties with motor planning and organization. So, for instance, such a child may have a hard time participating in sports activities. For more information about dyspraxia, visit What Is Dyspraxia? at Medical News Today.
That said, it’s entirely possible for a child to have both dysgraphia and dyslexia, both dysgraphia and dyspraxia, or all three. To learn more about how all three of these conditions can contribute to a child’s writing difficulties, check out Understanding Your Child’s Trouble With Writing
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For students who have moved beyond the third grade, if you see dysgraphia symptoms, get an assessment as soon as possible. So that you can avoid your child falling further behind his or her peers. But even if your child has already reached middle school or high school, he can still receive great benefits from appropriate targeted interventions.