Dysgraphia: An Unforgiving Learning Disability

NOTE: The reader is asked to examine the writing sample following the text below. “Zooming” in will help in examining the errors cited below.

Dysgraphia is a Learning Disability characterized by deficits in handwriting and spelling. In the sample below, Nick executes a variety of errors  he incurred while trying to copy text. What you see is the amount of text he copied in 120 seconds, statistically, a second grade level equivalent…though Nick was 11 years old in the 5th grade. The numbered arrows identify malformations caused by poor grapho-motor coordination. For instance, Error # 1  illustrates a spontaneous reversal of direction, a leftward move as he began the letter “o” that Nick simply terminated AFTER he noticed it was wrong. Dysgraphics cannot depend upon the sense of touch or direction of motion that a functioning writer takes for granted. That is, even young writers know when they’ve made a mistake even BEFORE they see it because they unconsciously  compare what they INTEND to write against what they sense their hand is doing. This sort of “motor feedback” is what typists depend on as they type; they only occasionally check their work visually.

Estimating spatial constraints is clearly difficult for Nick. Err0r #14 reflects his mistake in estimating how much space he would need to use to write the word “brought” . Note how he “handles” this by splitting “brought” into broug and ht. Nick’s  spatial mis-estimates can also be observed in the inconsistent spacing of written lines. His erasure of the “n” in “an”, Error # 12, typifies an “anticipation” mistake. He knew he was going to follow the article “a” with the word “new”, but he executed the “n” of “new” ahead of time, ahead of the space that should have been there. Here, he simply erases the “n”, again AFTER he sees it.

While I could explicate several other sorts of Nick’s grapho-motor mistakes (e.g. his poor grasp of letter “bridging” :cf. Errors 4, 13, and 9), the major issue for Nick is the overwhelming frustration he must experience as he tries to write. Recall that his verbal intelligence EXCEEDS that of 90% of his age-peers and that such ability permits Nick to enjoy sophisticated abstract thought, rapid vocabulary growth and the oral language capacities of a 13 or 14-year-old. Recall also that here Nick is simply copying something. Imagine his frustration and demoralization when he attempts to communicate his own ideas in written form, in “neat”, “accurate” handwriting, correct spelling and punctuation, all legibly and automatically performed. To do the latter, he must work VERY slowly, very slowly, ever tracking, checking the “formal” features of his work, constantly miscuing, ever unsure of the spellings of words he so effortlessly uses in oral communication. That he says he “hates” writing is understandable; indeed, it is quite reasonable. For Nick, for all dysgraphics, this learning disability silences them even as it exposes them to relentless admonition, criticism and demeaning comments from teachers and insensitive, uninformed or mean-spirited parents.

After Nick could exploit computer technology and writing applications, he began to enjoy communicating his thoughts on paper. And as he finally displayed his intelligence in written form, others noticed, invited him into their academic communities and awarded him a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature some 12 years after he laboriously copied the above.



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