So What, Exactly, is Dysgraphia?

Jan 25, 2019 | Posted by Jennifer


As a wielder of words, I recognize that they hold a great deal of power. Words can buoy a person up or, conversely, tear them down. Words have the potential to paint vibrant pictures in our minds and convey poignant meaning and substantive facts. It is a beautiful thing to be able to capture a thought, a question, or an image with precise words and share it with another. But sometimes a breakdown in communication occurs. This happens for a variety of reasons. Occasionally it’s caused simply by our method of transmission. Written words can’t convey tone as well as words delivered in person, and even when we do speak aloud, our tone can be misinterpreted. Another way miscommunication happens is when people use the same word but mean something entirely different when they do.

This hiccough in understanding causes mild amusement or slight confusion at its most benign. For instance, where I grew up in Kansas, a fizzy drink that tasted sweet was ubiquitously called a “pop.” My cousins in Missouri, though, were confused the first time they heard my sister and I use the word. For them, that same fizzy drink was called a “soda.” The only thing that happened as a result of our miscommunication was a giggle or two, and then we promptly returned to our play.

But sometimes the miscommunication creates much larger problems. This is true for the field of education. For instance, one of the words that I hear frequently discussed in my special education circles is the term “dysgraphia.” Regularly I encounter discussions between people who use this word, only to eventually discover that each party meant something different by the term. In this case, though, the stakes are much higher than a soft drink.

So what, exactly, is dysgraphia? Let’s take a look at the various parts of the word for a hint at its meaning. Originating from the Greek language, dys means difficulty, and graph means to draw or write by hand. The ending, ia, means “condition of.” Taken together, then, dysgraphia means the condition of having physical difficulty with writing. Using this definition, students who have dysgraphia will exhibit their symptoms with uncomfortable, illegible, and/or cramped handwriting. Spelling challenges may also exist, in part because students are not writing comfortably or legibly.

Of late, some people have come to use the term to mean something slightly different—difficulty with transferring ideas from the brain onto paper through writing in a logical manner. The reason for the variant uses of the term may simply be that the word’s meaning is evolving in our culture. After all, difficulties with written expression often accompany dysgraphia. The result, however, is the same. It doesn’t take much guessing to recognize that two people using the same term but each one meaning something different will suffer a breakdown in understanding along with a potentially long and expensive delay in appropriate intervention.

What is the key takeaway from all this? Define your terms. Rather than relying on a single word to convey your meaning, instead describe exactly what you are seeing that concerns you about your student. In lieu of saying, “My child has dysgraphia,” when you are seeking guidance, say “When my son tries to write, he complains that his hand is aching, and I can barely make out his handwriting.” Or, “My student can’t seem to write a paragraph that makes sense. She struggles so much with getting her thoughts out of her head and onto her paper.” Expressing your concerns to your student’s teacher, tutor, or to a fellow educator using descriptive words and sentences will open up a clearer path to communication and the potential solution. It has the added benefits of potentially saving you hundreds if not thousands of dollars on the wrong treatment, getting the student on a quicker path to success, and saving the student’s self-esteem as well. And that is something worth celebrating.

The International Dyslexia Association is an excellent source for information related to dyslexia, dysgraphia, and written expression. To learn even more about dysgraphia, consult this link.


Jennifer Mauser has always loved reading and writing and received a B.A. in English from the University of Kansas in 1991. Once she and her husband had children, they decided to homeschool, and she put all her training to use in the home. In addition to homeschooling her children, Jennifer teaches IEW classes out of her home, coaches budding writers via email, and tutors students who struggle with dyslexia.

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