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What it is and what it isn't
The word "dysgraphia" simply means difficulty expressing thoughts in writing. In other words, it just means "writing difficulty". And generally it is used to refer to extremely poor handwriting. As with dyslexia, confusion often arises when we start dealing with the term "dysgraphia" as it relates to "special education services".
Each State has its own criteria (based upon the Federal definition of LD) which determine if a student has a learning disability as it is defined by special education rules. When a student's writing difficulties are severe enough to meet this criteria, special education services are indicated. On the other hand, "dysgraphia" has no clearly defined criteria. A student with any degree of handwriting difficulty may be considered "dysgraphic" by some educational specialists. This frequently occurs when a student receives an educational evaluation outside of the public school system.
So, being labeled as "dysgraphic" may or may not indicate the need for special education services. It should be noted that most learning disabled students experience difficulty with handwriting and probably could be considered "dysgraphic". However, the term is seldom used within public schools because of the lack of any strict or measurable criteria.
Underlying causes of dysgraphia:
Sequencing Problems - As with dyslexia, written language difficulty is often believed to be the result of underlying visual or perceptual processing weakness. However, research on brain functioning has not found much evidence to support the notion of a visual basis for dysgraphia. In fact, what usually appears to be a perceptual problem (reversing letters/numbers, writing words backwards, writing letters out of order, and very sloppy handwriting) usually seems to be directly related to sequential/rational information processing. In other words, when students experience difficulty sequencing and organizing detailed information, they often have difficulty with the sequence of letters and words as they write. As a result, the student either needs to slow way down in order to write correctly or experiences rather extreme difficulty with the "mechanics" of writing (spelling, punctuation, etc.). Usually they have difficulty even when they do slow down. And by slowing down or getting "stuck" with the details of writing they often lose the great thoughts that they are trying to write about. Sometimes the creative writing skills of such a student are surprisingly strong when the mechanics of writing don't get in the way. This is because their "conceptual" processing skills are often quite strong enabling them to express "deeper meaning" in spite of difficulty with the details.
Attention Deficit hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) - Students with an attention deficit disorder (especially with hyperactivity) often experience rather significant difficulty with writing in general and handwriting in particular. This is because ADHD students also have difficulty organizing and sequencing detailed information. In addition, ADHD students are often processing information at a very rapid rate and simply don't have the fine-motor coordination needed to "keep up" with their thoughts.
Auditory Processing Weakness - Other students experience writing difficulty because of a general auditory or language processing weakness. Because of their difficulty learning and understanding language in general, they obviously have difficulty with language expression. And written language is the most difficult form of language expression. A generalized auditory processing weakness is frequently referred to as a verbal or language-based learning disability and typically affects the areas of reading and writing. Math may be a relative strength.
Visual Processing Weakness - Although most writing disabled or "dysgraphic" students do not have visual or perceptual processing problems, some students with a visual processing weakness will experience difficulty with writing speed and clarity simply because they aren't able to fully process the visual information as they are placing it on the page. Again, this is probably the least likely cause of a written language problem. A visual processing weakness is sometimes referred to as a nonverbal learning disability and typically affects the areas of spelling and math much more than reading. See also dyscalculia.
Writing strategies for "dysgraphic" students:
1. Outline your thoughts. It is very important to get the main ideas down on paper without having to struggle with the details of spelling, punctuation, etc. Try writing just one key word or phrase for each paragraph, then go back later to fill in the details.
2. Draw a picture of a thought for each paragraph.
3. Dictate your ideas into a tape recorder then listen and write them down later.
4. Really practice keyboarding skills! It may be difficult at first, but after you have learned the pattern of the keys, typing will be faster and clearer than handwriting.
5. Use a computer to organize information and check spelling. Even if your keyboarding skills aren't great, a computer can sure help with the details.
6. Continue practicing handwriting. As frustrating as it may be, there will be times throughout your life that you will need to be able to write things down and maybe even share your handwriting with others. It will continue to improve as long as you keep working at it.
7. Talk to yourself as you write. This may provide valuable auditory feedback.
If spelling lists are a problem, try the following:
8. Look at each word, then close your eyes and visualize how it looks, letter by letter. Stay with one word until you can clearly visualize it.
9. Spell each word out loud while looking at it, then look away and spell it out loud again several times before writing it down.
10. Try spelling with scrabble tiles so that you can keep rearranging the letters until they look right.
11. Break the spelling list down into manageable sections of only 3 to 5 words. Then take a break after mastering each section.
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