Dysgraphia: Understanding the Learning Disorder that Affects Writing Ability
Among the Specific Learning Disorders (SLD) we find dysgraphia, which is a difficulty in writing, prejudiced at various levels (mild, moderate, severe) and sometimes accompanied by other SLDs. Depending on the subject, whether they are numbers or words, the student's writing is difficult to understand, poorly organized, and at times illegible.
In this article, we will examine:
The learning disability that affects handwriting and motor skills in students
Often, some teachers notice that one of their students holds the pen incorrectly while writing, presents an illegible or even incomprehensible handwriting during class essay writing. During math tests, the student cannot write numbers or the teacher's proposed traces correctly. The size of the letters is incorrect, one smaller, the others larger. The distance between the words is enormous. All these elements subsequently lead to a diagnosis of dysgraphia. However, it is important to make a distinction from the beginning:
dysgraphia is not dysorthography and vice versa.
The former does not involve the verbal apparatus but only the graphic processes and some motor aspects of the student. The latter involves the linguistic field. In the acquisition of writing, the student must use different elements in a combined way:
- Set of movements to learn how to write, i.e., motor skills;
- hand-eye coordination;
- ability to visually orient oneself in space (sheet space, blackboard space).
In dysgraphic students, the lack of these elements leads to a gap in the learning system. Children with dysgraphia are often referred to as "wrong writers" or "bad copiers," cannot write under dictation, do not respect margins, and do not copy well on the blackboard. In reality, there is much more, as with other learning disabilities (LD), comorbidity of the disorder is often discussed.
Dysgraphic students sometimes present other traits of an additional learning disorder (dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysorthography), and the combination of these makes the learning process slower and more difficult. According to the latest data from the Italian Ministry of Education (MIUR), dysgraphic students represent 1.5% of the total number of students, about 90,000 in absolute terms, although the data may be underestimated.
Understanding the challenges faced by children with writing difficulties
Just like in the case of a dyscalculic child, a dysgraphic child also presents specific characteristics:
- Cannot respect the lines;
- cannot respect the margins;
- writes big and small letters on the same line;
- cannot write under dictation;
- writes slowly;
- does not hold colors, pencils, and pens well.
Reducing everything to the fact that a dysgraphic child does not write in an orderly manner is not correct. Dysgraphia presupposes that the student has difficulties in recognizing space and moving within it; some children may not even have full awareness of their own body within a circumscribed dimension, such as the chair they are sitting on. There is also a difficulty in managing homework, many cannot be completely autonomous and this aspect persists even when they are in class.
Symptoms, diagnosis, and intervention for students with specific learning disorders
Let's take a closer look at this Specific Learning Disorder from its manifestations to the achievement of the diagnosis. The dysgraphic student writes irregularly, the cause being the incorrect grip of the pen. This produces a greater or lesser pressure on the sheet, making the stroke marked or sometimes almost imperceptible.
The writing, not respecting the spaces and the margin, seems to go up and down, without regularity. Right and left are inverted and, in copying as well as in producing texts or exercises alone, things do not go better. When copying from the blackboard, he often gets distracted and loses the thread. It will not be difficult to notice huge white spaces between one paragraph and another on the notebook. During the attempt to copy or in the performance of a dictation, the writing speed varies, very fast, then very slow.
Who makes the diagnosis? A group consisting of a psychologist, a pedagogue and a pediatrician establishes the diagnosis of dysgraphia. After careful observation and the consequent administration of tests, a specific intervention is studied for the student, involving activities carried out both at home and at school. It is essential, when we are faced with Specific Learning Disorders, to have synergy between school, family and educational agencies involved in the child's education. It should always be remembered that as with all other SLDS, in this case too we are dealing with a condition of absence of deficit. In addition, for an accurate diagnosis, specialists tend to wait until the end of the second grade.
Strategies for supporting children with dysgraphia in primary school
Since nursery school, many exercises of a motor type are proposed to the child so that they can develop their coordination. Performing courses with small obstacles, following a direction, gradually learning to distinguish right from left will allow the child to learn how to orient themselves and become aware of their body in space.
Moving from general to specific, once the child reaches primary school with sufficient awareness, they will have no problem sitting, settling into their place, managing the space of their desk and later their sheet. Ensuring that they learn how to manage their graphic space is fundamental. The student can perform strengthening exercises to make the gesture of writing smoother, and the teacher can suggest the correct grip of the pen and colors, while at home the child must be supported by their parents.
Let's see what law 170/10 provides for all students with dysgraphia:
- Specific notebooks for dysgraphia;
- Ergonomic pens, which facilitate grip and pressure on the sheet;
- Educational software;
- Concept maps.
Among the compensatory tools mentioned, special notebooks for dysgraphia are valid and interesting. These notebooks, designed with colored lines, colored margins, and specific spaces for teacher notes, allow the student to better organize the space of the sheet, either under dictation or while copying from the board.
In case of comorbidity, it is important to remember the use of concept maps. Thanks to their characteristics, combining images and little text, they allow the child to memorize topics more easily according to the fundamental principle of sequentiality. All activities proposed by the teacher and the group of experts must be gradual and engaging for the child. It should never be forgotten that this, like all other Learning Disorders, causes a high level of frustration in the student, with consequent discomfort on their self-esteem.
Article by Mariana Ciaglia, pedagogue.