Does Your Child Have a Writing Disability?

Dysgraphia and Learning Disabilities in Writing

girl practicing writing
Teachers can support writing skills with a variety of activities. Getty Image News/Matt Cardy

Writing disabilities can be hard to diagnose, as writing involves so many processes. But just as some children suffer from dyslexia and struggle with reading, some children are neurologically impaired in ways that prevent them from communicating easily by writing. Dysgraphia describes this struggle with the written word. For some, just holding a pencil and organizing letters on a line is difficult.

Handwriting is challenging, as spelling or organizing their thoughts on paper may be. Note that dysgraphia is not a diagnosis recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5 (DSM-5). The term "impairment in written expression" is used instead as a specific learning disorder. Most doctors will use this terminology as well. Teachers and academic professionals may use the term "dysgraphia" as a shorthand for disabilities relating to the written word. 

Components of Dysgraphia

Writing is a complex process that involves memory, fine motor control, spelling, and organizational abilities. Children and adults who suffer from writing disabilities may have symptoms in one or more areas: visual-spatial ability, fine motor, language processing, spelling/handwriting, grammar, or organization of language.

Visual-Spatial Abilities

  • Has trouble with letter shapes and spacing
  • Has trouble writing words on the page from left to right
  • Writes letters in various directions, may write backwards
  • Difficulty writing within margins and on a line
  • Difficulty reading maps and drawing shapes
  • Copies text slowly

Fine Motor Difficulties

  • Weak in skills such as holding a pencil, tracing, cutting food, tying shoes, doing puzzles and keyboarding
  • Is unable to use scissors
  • Difficulty coloring within the lines
  • Holds hands or arms in awkward positions when writing

Language Processing Issues

  • Cannot get ideas down on paper quickly
  • Has trouble understanding the rules of games
  • Difficulty following directions
  • Frequently loses her train of thought

Spelling and Handwriting Issues

  • Cannot identify misspelled words
  • Can spell correctly orally but makes spelling errors in writing
  • Spells words inconsistently
  • Mixes upper- and lowercase letters
  • Blends printing and cursive letters
  • Can't read her own writing
  • Avoids writing
  • Gets a tired or cramped hands when writing
  • Frequent erasing and erasures

Grammar and Usage Problems

  • Poor punctuation
  • Overuses commas and mixes up verb tenses
  • Forgets to start sentences with a capital letter
  • Writes lists instead of sentences
  • Often writes run-on sentences

Organization of Written Language

  • Has trouble telling a story and may start in the middle
  • Leaves out important facts and details, or provides too much information
  • Assumes others know what he’s talking about
  • Uses vague descriptions
  • Writes jumbled sentences
  • Avoids the above when speaking

Warning Signs for Dysgraphia

  • Rarely enjoys writing and responds negatively to written activities
  • Written work is rarely legible
  • Experiences difficulty when copying instructions from the board, orally or chart paper
  • Rarely completes written assignments
  • Written work is poorly organized and difficult to follow
  • Punctuation and grammar is weak and often missing
  • Written ideas lack cohesion and sequence
  • Ideas are poorly written and expressed
  • Written work is often difficult to understand
  • Spelling is weak
  • Letters and/or words are often reversed

If your student can answer yes to too many of the above, it may be a good idea to discuss the possibility of a writing disability with his parents or caregivers.

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Watson, Sue. "Does Your Child Have a Writing Disability?" ThoughtCo, Mar. 6, 2016, Watson, Sue. (2016, March 6). Does Your Child Have a Writing Disability? Retrieved from Watson, Sue. "Does Your Child Have a Writing Disability?" ThoughtCo. (accessed November 19, 2017).