You’ve noticed your child has trouble with writing. Here’s what you need to know about dyslexia and dysgraphia so you can help your child.
At the beginning of the global pandemic, I started working with my first-grade daughter on her schoolwork at home. She struggled to get a single word down on the paper, bursting into tears and saying, “I can’t do it.”
Even with two master’s degrees in education, it took me a week before it finally dawned on me:
She needed to be evaluated for learning disabilities.
Her school was reluctant to evaluate and I knew we couldn’t waste time so we found a licensed neuropsychologist to evaluate her for learning disabilities. She did a comprehensive evaluation and discovered our daughter has dyslexia and dysgraphia.
So you’ve noticed your child has difficulty with reading and writing, too. You’re wondering what it could be. Well, you’re in the right place.
Here is what parents need to know about dyslexia and dysgraphia.
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Dyslexia and Dysgraphia
Dyslexia and dysgraphia are both specific learning disorders. Medical providers use the DSM, or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, to make diagnoses around learning disabilities. Dyslexia is listed as a separate disorder while dysgraphia is just listed under the umbrella of learning disabilities.
While dyslexia mostly impacts reading, dysgraphia mostly impacts writing. Since there can be overlap, it’s important to get the correct assessments used by a qualified provider.
Dyslexia and dysgraphia are diagnosed when the challenges with reading and writing are unexpected given a child’s intelligence and access to academic instruction.
Because children with dyslexia and dysgraphia are bright, they are often told they just need to try harder. The slow reading and writing speed are often ascribed to behavioral issues rather than underlying learning disabilities.
Dyslexia is most often defined as having trouble with reading that is unrelated to cognitive functioning. It is a language-based learning disability that impacts a person’s ability to connect the written word with the phonological memory (or the part of the brain that stores sounds).
Children with dyslexia can have difficulties with:
- learning alphabet, letter sounds, names of months, etc
- speech delay
- fluent word read
- substituting or switching sounds in words (like mazagine for magazine)
- recalling words in conversations (like saying “big fish with teeth “for shark)
- breaking words into individual sounds
- challenges with spelling
- trouble with sequencing – in reading, writing, speaking, and daily life
In contrast to dyslexia, dysgraphia is primarily a writing-based disability. In Greek, graph means writing and dys means not. So it is the inability (or difficulty) to write.
Dysgraphia does not impact reading ability or spelling out loud. Instead, it is a problem with orthographic coding. This means a child has difficulty keeping written spellings in their working memory as they try to write them with their hand.
Writing letters or words is not automatic and takes a lot of energy. Dysgraphia often includes challenges with:
- unusual spacing and margins on paper
- getting thoughts on paper
- writing in an organized way
- unusual pencil grip
- avoiding writing or drawing
- tiring quickly
Can you have both dyslexia and dysgraphia?
In short, yes dyslexia and dysgraphia can co-occur.
The co-occurrence of dyslexia and dysgraphia has not been well studied, but it appears that 30% of children with dyslexia have dysgraphia.
Dysgraphia co-occurs with ADHD and autism about 60% of the time. So if your child has one of those developmental disabilities, they are more likely to have dysgraphia.
Dysgraphia and dyslexia are both widely underdiagnosed and misunderstood by both medical and educational professionals. As a former teacher who is now dyslexia and dysgraphia mom, I was never taught about these disabilities in either of my master’s programs.
Dyslexia is present in about 20% of the population where dysgraphia has a prevalence of 10-30% depending on what criteria is used.
This is an example of a 2nd-grade child with dysgraphia’s writing
prior to getting effective handwriting or spelling instruction.
How Dyslexia Impacts Writing
Dyslexia and dysgraphia can both impact writing.
Dyslexia impacts a child’s ability to spell words. Since phonemic awareness skills are weak, a child cannot easily match sounds to spellings.
Since it is primarily a language-based learning disability, dyslexics can have a hard time recalling the correct words they want to use. Dyslexics use they use so much mental energy to spell and recall words, they have little working memory left for the other aspects of writing like grammar and organization.
There is one key difference with how writing impacts children with dysgraphia differently: children with dyslexia will struggle with both oral and written spelling.
How Dysgraphia Impacts Writing
Dyslexia impacts writing because of the language demands. Dysgraphia impacts writing because a child cannot physically get his or her ideas down on paper.
A child with dysgraphia struggles with spatial, fine motor, orthographic, and cognitive skills. Because a child is putting so much energy into just the act of writing, they don’t have much mental energy (i.e. working memory) left to do higher-level thinking.
The child lacks automaticity with their handwriting and spelling so their written expression is much below their cognitive level based on their intelligence.
When children with dysgraphia are asked to copy from the board to take notes, it often isn’t an effective way to learn. Too much of the cognitive load is on the physical act to actually learn the content.
If you need more information about dysgraphia, particularly to share with teachers or medical professionals, check out this fact sheet.
Supporting Dysgraphia at Home
You can read all about how parents can help your child with dyslexia at home. But there is a good chance you’ve never heard of dysgraphia.
There is also a good chance your child won’t get the support they need in school in order to remediate dysgraphia. Your child will likely need consistent, systematic, and sequential practice with:
- organizing ideas
Children with dysgraphia need a lot of systematic instruction in handwriting. One of the best commercial programs is Handwriting Without Tears.
It provides children and parents with a lot of support and practice to build automaticity with handwriting. It uses simple language and a multisensory approach to make handwriting stick.
Your child with dysgraphia will need explicit teaching in order to spell words with less effort. A lot of schools push writing without having taught children how to spell. Children don’t just learn how to spell without consistent teaching.
So plan to work on spelling in a systematic way at home.
The best way I’ve found to teach spelling is with word mapping. Check out the post dyslexia spelling worksheets for resources on working on spelling at home.
Children with dysgraphia cannot keep ideas in their hand while they write. So you will need to help your child plan their ideas at home.
To organize ideas for a paragraph you can:
- Grab a whiteboard.
- Write the number from 1-6 (or whatever the sentence requirement is).
- Talk to your child about ideas for this paragraph.
- Write down one keyword for your sentence to trigger your child’s memory.
To organize ideas for a story you can:
- Grab three post-it notes
- write the beginning, middle, and end on the top of the notes.a
- brainstorm with your child who the characters and setting are
- write those keywords for the beginning
- discuss what the problem is for the story
- write that on the middle post-it note
- talk about how the problem can be solved
- record that on the end post-it
Over time you can release this planning process and have your child write their ideas down like this on their own.
Accommodations for Dysgraphia at Home
You need to teach your child the underlying skills that are weak due to dysgraphia. But you’ll also make some accommodations. This means you won’t require them to do everything exactly the same as their non-disabled peers. You can make some slight tweaks that help them get to the end result with less effort.
These are accommodations you can make for a child with dysgraphia at home:
- Reduce the amount of writing
- Scribe for your child
- Use assistive technology
Reduce the amount of writing
In children with dysgraphia, writing is very hard. Think about a child with a physical disability like cerebral palsy. Could that child walk upstairs? Often time, yes. Does it require considerable effort? Yes!
Dysgraphia is the same. Your child can write but it is much more fatiguing than non-disabled peers.
So does the child really need to write a full sentence to answer a math problem? No, they don’t. So reduce the amount of writing that is required.
These conversations need to be had with members of your child’s school team especially if homework is graded.
Scribe for your child
You can write for your child with dysgraphia from time to time. When your child is writing in a content area like science, you can write their answers down for them.
Discuss this with your child’s school team. Writing for language arts can be graded, but it doesn’t need to be graded in other content areas.
Don’t withhold this accommodation out of fear that your child will abuse it. You wouldn’t withhold glasses if they had a vision impairment or a wheelchair for a physical disability.
So offer it to your child and trust that you will work through it if your child starts to abuse it.
Use Assistive Technology
Assistive technology is a real life-saver for people with dysgraphia.
What once required special software and expensive hardware is now available to all of us. Your child can use speech to text to transcribe some of their writing.
Your child simply opens up a Google doc and uses the built-in microphone on your computer to draft their writing. Teach your child to just go ahead and get all their thoughts down.
Then you can sit with your child and reread their work aloud to correct errors. While autocorrect can be really helpful for spelling errors, make sure you are remediating spelling as discussed above. They need a strong enough sound-letter pattern recall to get close enough for autocorrect to have good suggestions.
Recapping Dyslexia and Dysgraphia
Here’s the summary for all busy parents:
- Dyslexia and dysgraphia are both specific learning disorders.
- Dyslexia primarily impacts reading and dysgraphia primarily impact writing.
- Dysgraphia signs included a forced or awkward pencil grip, poor handwriting, difficulty with written but not oral spelling, trouble organizing ideas on paper, and problems with grammar and syntax.
- Dyslexia and dysgraphia co-occur around 30% of the time. Dysgraphia co-occurs with autism and ADHD around 60%.
- Dyslexia impacts writing primarily with poor spelling and difficulty with ideas.
- Dysgraphia makes it hard for children to physically get their ideas on paper. Children struggle with orthographic coding which means the spelling to writing connection is weak.
- Because the physical act of writing is so hard, children write much below their cognitive level.
- You can support your child with dysgraphia at home by working on handwriting, spelling, and planning ideas.
- You can accommodate your child through reducing writing demands, scribing for them, and using assistive technology.
If your child with dyslexia also has dysgraphia, there are ways you can help them at home. We are fortunate to live at time when using keyboards and speech-to-text is so widely available.
So make sure your child understands that dysgraphia has nothing to do with their intelligence. It’s merely a little breakdown in how their brain speaks to their hands.
Agatha Christie had dysgraphia and dictated her novels. Many of those are best-selling books. So dysgraphia doesn’t need to hold back your child either.