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Strategies for Dealing with Dysgraphia

By: Regina G. Richards (1999)

A common teaching technique is to have the students write information to reinforce the material. For example, spelling programs often encourage students to write each spelling word five times or 20 times. For many students, the kinesthetic process of writing reinforces what is to be learned. However, for a small group of students, rather than reinforcing and consolidating information, the process of writing actually interferes with learning. These students struggle to write and consequently spend much more time than their peers on a writing assignment. Even so, they remember less: the act of writing greatly interferes with learning. Cognitively, so much of their energy is spent on the process that they often do not learn or some times even process the content of what they are working on. Some students with severe dysgraphia may actually complete a writing assignment and then have to reread it to determine what they wrote, especially in a copying task or if they are focusing on neatness.

Educators expect students to learn from the process of writing, yet these students find that the process of writing actually interferes with learning. How, then, can they adequately learn to use the process of writing to express their ideas?

Why does this occur?

Dysgraphia is a problem with the writing process. For these students, there is an underlying reason that their papers are messy or that their speed is excessively fast or extremely slow. It is unfair to label them as poorly motivated, careless, lazy, or impulsive. While these interpretations may be true on the surface, they are not the root of what is happening. The root for dysgraphia is actually found within the processing system involved with sequencing, especially the motor movements which should be sequential and very automatic.

Students with dysgraphia need to develop both compensations and remediation strategies. Compensations are techniques to bypass the problem and reduce the negative impact on learning. This is accomplished by avoiding the difficulty, changing the assignment expectations, or using strategies to aid a particular aspect of the task. Compensations can also be termed bypass strategies or accommodations, the latter term used more frequently in legal situations. Remediation provides additional structured practice or re-teaching of the skill or concept using specialized techniques to match the student's processing style and need.

The astute teacher or parent must first determine the point at which the student becomes confused or begins to struggle. Does it begin as soon as the student starts to write? Is it halfway through the paragraph? Is it when the student tries to think about more complex ideas rather than just write a sentence or perform a copying task? When these determinations are made, it is important to identify which components of the task cause the confusions and/or struggles. Is it the use of manuscript, or the use of cursive? Is it the process of dealing with mechanics while writing? Is it the process of trying to think and plan while writing?

Remedial strategies

It is critical that students do not totally avoid the process of writing, no matter how severe their dysgraphia. Writing is an important life skill necessary for signing documents, filling out forms, writing checks, taking telephone messages or writing a grocery list. Therefore, students need to be able to write, even if they cannot maintain writing for long periods of time.

Young students should receive remediation in letter form, automaticity, and fluency. They need specific multisensory techniques that encourage them to verbalize the motor sequences of the form of letters (for example, b is big stick down, circle away from my body). Students should also use large air writing to develop a more efficient motor memory for the sequence of steps necessary in making each letter. This is because air writing causes students to use many more muscles than they use when writing with a pencil. Multisensory techniques should be utilized for teaching both manuscript and cursive writing. The techniques need to be practiced substantially so that the letters are fairly automatic before the student is asked to use these skills to communicate ideas.

Some students may be able to copy and write single sentences with a fair degree of ease, but they struggle tremendously with paragraph writing. These students will need to be taught techniques that enable them to perform each subpart prior to pulling together all the parts. Substantial modeling will be necessary at each stage for the student to be successful. For example, when writing a paragraph students can be taught the following eight steps:

  1. Think about your ideas and elaborate on each part of the ideas.
  2. Organize the ideas you want to express. This type of organization is easily performed using visual graphic organizers. For example, you can create a mind map so that the main idea is placed in a circle in the center of the page and supporting facts are written on lines coming out of the main circle, similar to the arms of a spider or spokes on a wheel. Many visual organizer formats can be used, with different formats appropriate for different situations. mindmap
  3. Analyze your graphic organizer to determine if you included all of your ideas. If you have difficulty with spelling, make a list of the more difficult or important words you may want to include in your writing. Having this reference list will help your writing flow more because you will not have to stop to think of how to spell the big words.
  4. Now, write a draft of your paragraph (or paper), focusing on the content or ideas. If you have a computer, it is best if you type your draft directly on the keyboard. This will make it much easier to proofread and revise.
  5. Proof and editing: you will need specific techniques and strategies to proofread your paper, checking for appropriate use of punctuation, capitalization, and grammar. Then use a spell checker to fix your spelling.
  6. Revise your paragraph, incorporating the corrections you determined above.
  7. Proofread your paragraph again, editing and revising if necessary.
  8. Develop a final product, either in typed or written form.

An easy way to remember these steps is to think of the word POWER.

  • P - plan your paper (step 1)
  • O - organize your thoughts and ideas (steps 2 and 3)
  • W - write your draft (step 4)
  • E - edit your work (steps 5, 6, and 7)
  • R - revise your work, producing a final draft (step 8)

The student may need substantial modeling at each stage to be successful.

Some dysgraphic students have great difficulty with spelling, especially if sequencing is a major issue for them. Additionally, many dysgraphic students experience dyslexia, a sequential processing problem that affects reading and spelling. These students need very specific remedial assistance in learning to spell phonetically. It is critical that they are able to represent unknown words using good phonetic equivalences. If they are able to spell logically and phonetically, they will be able to use a phonetically-based spell checker, such as a spell checker in one of the Franklin resource products. These handheld devices recognize words using phonetic logic rather than relying on the orthographic sequence, as do most spell checkers on a computer word processing program. The sidebar below presents a poem this author found on the Internet which exemplifies why a computer spell checker may not be sufficient for some students with spelling struggles.

A little poem regarding computer spell checkers…

Eye halve a spelling chequer It came with my pea sea It plainly marques four my revue Miss steaks eye kin knot sea.
Eye strike a key and type a word And weight four it two say Weather eye am wrong oar write It shows me strait a weigh.
As soon as a mist ache is maid It nose bee fore two long And eye can put the error rite Its rare lea ever wrong.
Eye have run this poem threw it I am shore your pleased two no Its letter perfect awl the weigh My chequer tolled me sew.

(author unknown; obtained from Internet)

Another vital aspect of remedial assistance that is especially important for young children, involves the student's pencil grip. Students should be helped and encouraged to use a consistent and efficient pencil grip right from the beginning of their writing experience. The distance from the student's finger to the pencil point should consistently be between 3/4"-1". Pressure on the pencil should be moderate, not too heavy and not too light. The angle of the pencil should be approximately 45% with the page and slanted toward the student's writing arm. The long edge of the student's paper and his writing arm should be parallel, like railroad tracks. With some young students, pencil habits can be changed to a more appropriate form by using a plastic pencil grip (many of which are on the market in a variety of shapes and formats), It is much easier and more efficient to encourage students at the very beginning of their writing experience to develop these appropriate habits through frequent modeling and positive feedback. Older students who have developed firm habits, even if the habits are not efficient, find that it is very time consuming to make changes. Therefore, when making a decision on adapting a student's habits, it is extremely important to consider the time/energy ratio. Is it worth the amount of time necessary to make the change to help the student be more efficient? If not, it is critical to make sure the student has efficient and automatic compensatory strategies.

Many students with dysgraphia are extremely slow in their writing performances. When this is the case, it is critical to determine what is causing the slowness. Is it the formulation of ideas? or the organization of ideas? If so, more work needs to be done on pre-organization strategies and this student's language formulation skills need to be thoroughly assessed by a speech and language pathologist. Is the student's slowness a result of slowness in actually making the letters? If this is the case, the student needs much more remedial practice in forming letters independently, without having to think about content. This should be done using multisensory techniques, including saying the letter and/or the sequence of movements while writing the letter; using large air writing techniques (writing the letter in the air using two fingers, with wrist and elbow fairly straight, though not rigid); writing letters in texture, such as on fine sandpaper or in pudding; and writing large letters using a squirt bottle of colored water against an outside wall.

Some students struggle with writing and become readily fatigued with the process of writing because of their inefficient pencil grip and poor motor sequencing. Many times an occupational therapist, especially one using a sensory integration philosophy, can help in the remedial process with such students. There are also temporary remedial techniques a teacher or parent can use as warmups or as a writing break. Some suggestions for helping relieve stress and relaxing the writing hand follow. Students can perform any of these for about 10 seconds before writing or in the middle of writing.

  • Shake hands fast, but not violently.
  • Rub hands together and focus on the feeling of warmth.
  • Rub hands on the carpet in circles (or, if wearing clothing with some mild texture, rub hands on thighs, close to knees)
  • Use the thumb of the dominant hand to click the top of a ballpoint pen while holding it in that hand. Repeat using the index finger.
  • Perform sitting pushups by placing each palm on the chair with fingers facing forward. Students push down on their hands, lifting their body slightly off the chair.

Compensatory strategies

The overall goal of compensations is to help the student perform more automatically and still participate in and benefit from the writing task. The goal is to allow the student to go around the problem so that she can then focus more completely on the content. Some example strategies include:

  • Understanding-Understand the student's inconsistencies and performance variabilities.
  • Print or cursive-Allow the student to use either form. Many dysgraphic students are more comfortable with manuscript printing.
  • If getting started is a problem, encourage pre-organization strategies, such as use of graphic organizers.
  • Computer-Encourage student to become comfortable using a word processor on a computer. Students can be taught as early as 1st grade to type sentences directly on the keyboard. In doing so, do not eliminate handwriting for the child: handwriting is still important but computer skills will be invaluable for longer and important tasks.
  • For older students, encourage use of a speech recognition program combined with the word processor so the student can dictate his papers rather than type them. This increases speed and efficiency and allows the student to focus more completely on complex thoughts and ideas.
  • Encourage consistent use of spell checker to decrease the overall demands of the writing task and encourage students to wait until the end to worry about spelling.
  • Encourage use of an electronic resource such as the spell check component in a Franklin Language Master® to further decrease the demands. If student has concurrent reading problems, a Language Master® with a speaking component is most helpful because it will read/say the words. This author prefers the Language Master 6000 because of its large font size and speech clarity.
  • Do not count off for poor spelling on first drafts, in-class assignments, or on tests. However, depending on age, student may be held responsible for spelling in final drafts completed at home.
  • Have student proofread papers after a delay, using a checklist of the points to check. If students proofread immediately after writing, they may read what they intended rather than what was actually written.
  • If necessary, shorten writing assignments.
  • Allow extra time for writing activities.
  • Note taking: Provide student with copy of completed notes (perhaps through a note taking buddy who can use carbon paper) to fill in missing parts of his own notes.
  • Note taking: provide a partially completed outline so the student can fill in the details under major headings. As a variety, provide the details and have student fill in headings while listening.
  • Allow student to tape record important assignments and/or take oral tests.
  • Staging: have students complete tasks in logical steps or increments instead of all at once.
  • Prioritization: stress or de-emphasize certain task components during a complex activity. For example, students can focus on using descriptive words in one assignment, and in another, focus on using compound sentences. Also, design assignments to be evaluated on specific parts of the writing process (prioritization).
  • Remove neatness as a grading criteria, except on computer-generated papers.
  • Reduce copying aspects of tasks, such as providing a math worksheet rather than requiring student to copy problems from the book. A copying buddy can be helpful in copying the problems using carbon paper.
  • Have younger students use large graph paper for math calculation to keep columns and rows straight. Older student may use loose leaf paper turned sideways to help maintain straight columns.
  • Allow and encourage use of abbreviations for in-class writing assignments (such as b/4 for "before" or b/c for "because"). Have the student keep a list of appropriate abbreviations in his note book and taped to his desk for easy reference. Begin with only a few and increase as the first few become automatic.
  • Reinforce the positive aspects of student's efforts.
  • Be patient.
  • Encourage student to be patient with himself.

A note on creativity

Dysgraphia does not have to limit creativity, as identified by the sample below composed on a computer by a 12-year-old dyslexic and dysgraphic student.

  1. First draft of creative story as typed by 12-year-old student:

    the way I descride a bumby ride is like wothgan mowtsarts mowsek. eshe bumby rowd is like a song. Eshe bumb is the a note eche uncon at the sam time ste is. that was the mewstere to mowts mowsuk it was vare metereus and unperdekdable.So the next time you drive down a bumby theak of mowtsart.

  2. Same story. Student read to teacher using his draft:

    "The way I describe a bumpy ride is like Wolfgang Mozart's music. Each bumpy road is like a song. Each bump in the road is a note. Each bump is uncontrolled at the same time it still is controlled. That was the magic to Mozart's music. It was very mysterious and unpredictable. So the next time you drive down a bumpy road think of Mozart."

A note regarding development of word processing skills

Many dysgraphic students have difficulty with correct fingering in keyboarding skills. However, it is important to expose students to the correct fingering to develop quick visual locating skills for letters on the keyboard, ideally without having to look each time. One important strategy is to have the student practice keyboarding skills approximately 10 minutes a day (this can be part of a homework assignment). The student should use a variety of child-oriented typing tutor programs and work to develop appropriate skills to the best of her ability. At the same time, whenever the student types for ideas or content, whether a word, a sentence or a whole paragraph, she should be allowed to use whatever fingering she wants. Eventually, the goal is for the student to automatically incorporate at least some correct keyboard fingering when typing content. This author has seen dysgraphic students use a combination of correct keyboard fingering with their own style and reach typing speeds of 60 wpm. With this degree of speed and efficiency, it is unnecessary to force a student to use standard keyboarding techniques. However, many students do begin to use the correct techniques, as this is often much more efficient. However, if practice with correct fingering is avoided or not used frequently enough, the student will never have the opportunity to incorporate the correct skills.

Related articles

Many appropriate related articles can be found in the Spring 1998 issue of Perspectives, the magazine of the International Dyslexia Association (www.interdys.org). This issue focused on the theme of technology and learning disabilities and includes the following articles which relate to dysgraphia: Jerome Elkind (The Lexia Institute, Los Altos, CA) "Computer Reading Machines for Poor Readers." Charles A. MacArthur, Ph.D. (University of Delaware) "Assistive Technology for Writing." Marshall H. Raskind, Ph.D. (The Frostig Center, Pasadena, CA) "Assistive Technology for Individuals with Learning Disabilities: How Far Have We Come?" Thomas G. West (Visualization Research, Washington, D.C.) "Words to Images: Technological Change Redefines Educational Goals." Marshall H. Raskind, Ph.D. and Toby Shaw, M.A. (The Frostig Center, Pasadena, CA) "Assistive Technology for Persons with Learning Disabilities: Product Resource List."

Diagnosis of dyslexia and dysgraphia

Green, Jane Fell and Moats, Louisa Cook. "Testing: Critical Components in the Clinical Identification of Dyslexia," in The Emeritus Series, International Dyslexia Association.

Richards, Regina G. "The RET Assessment for Dyslexia," in The Source for Dyslexia and Dysgraphia. Linguisystems, Inc., 3100 4th Avenue, East Moline, IL 61244-9700, Ph. 1-800-PRO IDEA



Click the "References" link above to hide these references.


Acosta, Simone and Richards, Regina G. "Cursive Writing: A Multisensory Approach," in 1999 So. California Consortium Resource Directory, International Dyslexia Association, www.retctrpress.com

Franklin Electronic Publishers, 800/BOOKMAN

Levine, Melvin D. Developmental Variation and Learning Disorders, 2nd ed., www.epsbooks.com

Levine, Melvin D. Educational Care: A System for Understanding and Helping Children with Learning Problems at Home and in School, www.epsbooks.com

Levine, Melvin D. Keeping A Head in School, www.epsbooks.com

Richards, Regina G. When Writing's a Problem, Riverside, CA: RET Center Press, www.retctrpress.com, rev. 1999.

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