Jeremiah is a student in my second-grade intervention classroom. He’s verbally expressive, full of positive energy, and eager to please. He’s been sent to me because benchmark assessments reveal he’s below grade level in reading.
Once he’s in my classroom, a more pressing issue comes to light. If Jeremiah is slightly below grade level in reading, he is significantly below it in writing. He’s nearly 8 years old, and his letters are not uniform, his spelling is inaccurate, and written tasks are laborious for him. I also note the social-emotional effects when he’s writing: This energetic, social boy melts into a quiet anxiety, twisting his hair and not making eye contact.
I ask Jeremiah’s teacher about his writing skills. She has seen the same things I have, and explains that his writing is difficult to decipher and his assignments are never complete. She also reports that previous teachers have also aired similar concerns. She and I suspect that Jeremiah is struggling with dysgraphia.
If you feel uncertain about what dysgraphia is, you’re not alone. Michael McCloskey and Brenda Rapp, researchers at Johns Hopkins University, explain that dysgraphias are “common and have significant consequences for those who suffer from them, yet these deficits have received relatively little attention from researchers.”
Currently it’s estimated that students with dysgraphia make up 7 to 15 percent of students in general ed classrooms. In order to support all our students, it’s critical that teachers better understand what dysgraphia is, what it looks like, and how to support students who struggle with it in the classroom.
According to McCloskey and Rapp, dysgraphia is unexpected difficulty with acquisition and production of spelling and writing skills. The word unexpected is an important part of this description because dysgraphia—like dyslexia—is not related to intelligence and persists despite adequate learning opportunities.
Studies show that students with dysgraphia have a core deficit in phonological processing, which means that these students have difficulty manipulating the sounds of language. Recent research shows that students with dysgraphia also have deficits in two other cognitive abilities: auditory processing and visual processing.
This does not mean that students with dysgraphia have difficulty hearing or seeing. Rather, due to natural variations in their cognitive abilities, students with dysgraphia have difficulty processing what they hear and see.
How Does Dysgraphia Affect Students?
Effective writing depends upon the complex process of manipulating speech sounds (phonemes), pairing them with written images (graphemes), and then producing those learned images from memory. And with multiple cognitive variations at play, dysgraphia, like dyslexia and developmental language delay, occurs on a spectrum.
To better understand the processing differences that students with dysgraphia struggle with, consider this analogy: You enter a destination into Google Maps, but instead of being directed onto the wide-open highway, you find yourself on windy back roads, and the trip takes three times longer than it should. You still get to the destination, but you have to focus harder because of the roads taken.
This is what happens when a student with dysgraphia works on a writing assignment. While their neurotypical peers take the wide-open highway and quickly complete the task, students with dysgraphia default to back-road navigation. When they arrive at their destination, their work, compared with that of their peers, looks sloppy, misspelled, and incomplete—a poor reflection of the effort it took them to get there.
How do you know if a student has dysgraphia? Keep an eye out for these red flags:
- Poor phonological awareness
- Poor pencil grip
- Persistent inconsistent letter formation
- Illegible writing
- Slow writing fluency
- Difficulty copying visual information accurately
- Inaccurate spelling
If you suspect that a student is struggling with dysgraphia, refer them to your school’s child study team for evaluation.
Remediation and Accommodations
There are quite a few recommendations to support remediation of dysgraphia. Systematic phonological awareness and spelling instruction speeds up processing and improves spelling accuracy. The book The Intensive Phonological Awareness Program is an easy-to-use, evidence-based phonological awareness intervention that teachers can use in their classroom.
Systematic handwriting instruction improves writing legibility and fluency, and Arizona State University Professor Steve Graham has written a handy guide for teachers looking to implement systematic handwriting instruction in their classroom; it includes a checklist of best practices.
Classroom accommodations are critical for students with dysgraphia because they provide an on-ramp that allows these students to access the highway and produce work more in line with their intellectual ability. Because of the cognitive variations that contribute to dysgraphia, accommodations should be student specific. A comprehensive list of classroom accommodations can be found at Understood.org—here are just a few helpful options:
- Allow extra time on written assignments
- Allow speech-to-text tools, or teacher or peer scribes for written assignments
- Allow students to write numeric formulas as opposed to math word problems
- Provide a written copy of whiteboard notes
- Create an inclusive classroom that allows all students to use accommodations, not just the students who need them
My student Jeremiah continues to make solid progress with intensive phonological awareness, spelling, and handwriting instruction. He was also found eligible for both occupational therapy and special education services—he’s now getting the support he needs. Hopefully, with increased awareness other students with dysgraphia will too.