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Understanding Dysgraphia: Reading the Research

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In today’s tap-and-click culture, where even toddlers seem to be device-savvy, how important is handwriting?

Very, if recent research is any indication.

Learning is complicated. It involves multiple neural pathways that interact, overlap, and support each other. As we now know, when those pathways are disrupted, a student may have difficulty processing spoken and written words. With appropriate testing, problems such as dyslexia, listening comprehension disorder, and dysgraphia can be diagnosed and a treatment plan developed.

With a classroom emphasis on printed capital letters and a growing emphasis on keyboards, some students may be missing an important step in the development of the brain’s literacy network. The hand’s movement as a student forms lowercase letters is an important part of a complex process that includes letter-sound awareness, word recognition, and spelling.

A letter or a word is an object that can be seen, heard, spoken, and written. Neuroscience research increasingly supports the interdependence of those processes as a student learns to read. Studies conclude, for example, that “handwriting is important for the early recruitment in letter processing of brain regions known to underlie successful reading” (James & Engelhardt, 2012) and “literacy training establishes a tight functional link between the visual and motor systems for reading and writing” (Pegado, Nakamura, & Hannagan, 2014). If you want more details, Dr. Stanislas Dehaene, cognitive neuroscientist, explains the current research in his lecture, “Reading the Brain”.

With growing evidence of the connection between handwriting and literacy, it is important to address a student’s challenges with letter formation sooner rather than later. The first step is to answer the questions on the free Lexercise dysgraphia test.

If you have questions about dysgraphia, dyslexia, or other brain-based learning disorders, please review the many Lexercise online reading and writing therapy resources or contact Lexercise today.

What is Dysgraphia?

Does your child have bad handwriting? It could be caused by a larger underlying problem: dysgraphia. Problems with developmental skills are often difficult to identify. A skill like handwriting is second-nature to most adults but new to a child first learning it; so it is not unusual for them to have some troubles when starting out. It is estimated that 10%-30% of school-aged children have handwriting difficulties (Karlsdottir & Stefansson, 2002). That being the case, how can a parent distinguish between bad handwriting and an underlying cause like dysgraphia?

Dysgraphia is a brain based condition that causes trouble with writing and spelling. Dysgraphia is often overlooked or attributed to laziness, lack of motivation, carelessness, or delayed visual and motor processing (Berninger and Wolf 2009). According to Berninger and Wolf (2009), a diagnosis of dysgraphia is made when the child exhibits “a cluster”, but not necessarily all, of the following symptoms:

  • Cramping of fingers and/or pain while writing short entries
  • Odd wrist, arm, body, or paper orientations such as bending an arm into an L shape
  • Excessive erasures
  • Mixed upper-case and lower-case lettersfile791271781089
  • Inconsistent form and size of letters, or unfinished letters
  • Misuse of lines and margins
  • Inefficient speed of copying
  • Inattentiveness over details when writing
  • Frequent need of verbal cues
  • Referring heavily on vision to write (e.g., needing to copy rather than formulate)
  • Poor legibility
  • Handwriting patterns that interfere with spelling and written composition
  • Difficulty translating ideas to writing, possibly including difficulty with word-finding

Handwriting is a complex task involving both central (e.g., cognitive, linguistic and psychosocial) and peripheral (e.g., motor and visual) abilities (Purcell, et al., 2011). Individual assessment should begin with a clear description of the individual’s difficulties, with as much descriptive data as possible and using a sample that, as closely as possible, replicates naturalistic (e.g., classroom) demands, such as a written composition task (i.e., a writing sample). The descriptive analysis should include accuracy (letter formation, spelling, word spacing, sentence formulation and punctuation, paragraph formulation, discourse formulation) and writing efficiency (i.e., accuracy plus speed).  This type of focused  description may lead to additional assessments, including standardized assessments (e.g., of spelling, copying speed, etc.).

While a number of standardized instruments exist (see Rosenblum, Weiss, & Parush, 2003, for a review), each tends to focus on only a single task, usually copying or sentence composition, so they are typically insufficient to capture the demands of naturalistic handwriting performance (Schneck & Amundson, 2010; Feder & Majnemer, 2003).  For example, pediatric occupational therapists tend to use standardized tests to evaluate underlying (mostly motor) components of handwriting as opposed to the cognitive and linguistic demands of handwriting such as spelling and sentence formulation (Crowe, 1989; Feder, Majnemer, & Synnes, 2000; Rodger, 1994). The Lexercise Writing Scale is designed to rate diverse aspects of a child’s writing, based on a 15 minute naturalistic writing sample elicited using a picture or situational prompt.

If you have observed your child displaying a cluster of dysgraphia symptoms you may want to seek clinical help and possibly an official diagnosis. Thankfully, structured literacy therapy is typically very successful in addressing dysgraphia symptoms and in improving overall written communication.



Credits to Marie Lunney for her consultation on this Blog Post.

Live Broadcast 39: In Appreciation of Handwriting

handwriting example

The Real Spelling team presented a film prepared especially for Lexercise. This film, like all of the Real Spelling Tool Box 2 resources, offers a deep understanding, not a methodology. Educators will be interested in the script’s crucial relationship with meaning and how this understanding can inform the teaching and learning of handwriting.

picture of Dan AllenAfter this, Dan Allen of Zurich International School and his 5th-grade students joined us from Switzerland to describe and demonstrate their study of English script and how it has changed the way they look at words.

Dan’s 18-year teaching career has spanned the globe, from inner-city Houston to Norway, and from Singapore to Switzerland.

For much of that time he could be heard saying things like, “Sound it out,”” or “i before e except after c,” or “It’s irregular, so you just have to memorize it.” Real Spelling and Real Script changed all that. Dan now incorporates genuine word inquiry into his classroom/language lab. He and his students love nothing more than discovering the story they know every word has to tell and then sharing that story with the world. 

picture of 5th graders






If you are interested in reading more about the importance of handwriting, check out additional blog posts below. And if you are interested in finding out more about how Lexercise can help your child overcome their learning challenges, you can check our services here or email us at