New ideas about literacy learning

What is dysgraphia?


I would like to tell you something about dysgraphia, a difficulty that hindered me for years. Many people do not have a good understanding of dysgraphia.  Here is my overview based on both research and my personal journey.

Dysgraphia is a learning disability that is also known as a specific learning disorder (difficulties with written expression) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  Basically, dysgraphia means that children have difficulties in writing.  Dysgraphia is often confused with dyslexia, which means reading difficulties.  In an early definition, dyslexia was considered to represent both reading and the writing difficulties.  However, writing difficulties by themselves were separated from reading difficulties in the late 80’s due to the discovery of their unique features.  The prevalence of dysgraphia has been estimated to vary between 5% to 33%; this wide range of variance is due to a lack of standardized assessment methods for tapping dysgraphia.


There are two main types of dysgraphia.  These are dysgraphia with handwriting difficulties and dysgraphia with spelling difficulties.  They can be co-occurring or stand-alone problems.   Dysgraphia with handwriting difficulties is characterized by poor motor control and poor perception of space.  Children with this type of dysgraphia will easily feel tired when writing. They write very slowly with poor legibility.  In addition to their writing problem, others often perceive these children as clumsy.


Children with dysgraphia with spelling difficulties usually have problems in recalling how to spell the words.  However, recent research has shown that there might be possibilities that they are either better at recalling Chinese or English, instead of performing poorly on both scripts.  Psychologists believe that we have two separate mechanisms when spelling and reading words, the lexical route and the  non-lexical route , which can be considered to represent more the direct visual matching route and the phonetic transcribing route (Jobard, Crivello, & Tzourio-Mazoyer, 2003 ; Tainturier & Rapp, 2001).  Japanese agraphia patients show difficulties in writing either Kana or Kanji, which correspond to the lexical route or the non-lexical route (Furumoto, 2001; Sakurai, Matsumura, Iwatsubo, & Momose, 1997).


Chinese students with writing difficulties perform poorly on Chinese character dictation, but they have high accuracy in using pinyin, a phonetic transcription system of Chinese (Li, 2004).  These research findings lead to a theory that dysgraphia in Chinese is separate from dysgraphia in alphabetical language (Tin, Chia, & Wong, 2008).  Children with spelling dysgraphia may have impairments in only one of the processing routes rather than both. That is to say, they either have difficulties in visualizing the words, or they have difficulties with phonetic spelling.  English is an alphabetic orthography, so recalling an English word usually demands more in terms of phoneme grapheme conversion. In contrast, Chinese places a larger demand on retrieving the features and the structure of words.  Therefore, children with impairment in the non-lexical route usually have greater difficulties with English and perform better with Chinese, and vice versa.  For my case, I am better at spelling English regular words than in writing Chinese words.


If children show the symptoms mentioned above, parents should seek help from professionals to provide suitable assistance for children.  Meanwhile, parents can support their children by providing adaptations and some simple practice.  Note that adaptation, instead of training, should always have the priority, so that children’s development in other aspects can be less severely affected (O’Hare & Brown, 1989).  For example, parents can request teachers to use oral presentations or computer tasks to replace traditional written assessments.  That could be a possible measure to alleviate the adverse effect of dysgraphia on other aspects of education (Lie, O’Hare, & Denwood, 2000).  For practice, handwriting training, such as letter formation practice and composition writing, are elpful in improving handwriting legibility, but do not have a significant effect on writing speed (Howe, Roston, Sheu, & Hinojosa, 2013).  Teaching children phonetics spelling rules is also helpful for children with dysgraphia (Kohnen, Nickels, & Coltheart, 2010).



Furumoto, H. (2001). 漢字書字と仮名書字の差異. 失語症研究, 21(2), 142-151.

Li, Y.T. (2004). Writing characteristics of Taiwanese students with handwriting difficulties. Journal of Taiwan normal university: education, 49(2), 43-64.

Howe, T. H., Roston, K. L., Sheu, C. F., & Hinojosa, J. (2013). Assessing handwriting intervention effectiveness in elementary school students: A two-group controlled study. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 67(1), 19-26.

Jobard, G., Crivello, F., & Tzourio-Mazoyer, N. (2003). Evaluation of the dual route theory of reading: a metanalysis of 35 neuroimaging studies. Neuroimage,20(2), 693-712.

Kohnen, S., Nickels, L., & Coltheart, M. (2010). Training ‘rule‐of‐〈 E〉’: further investigation of a previously successful intervention for a spelling rule in developmental mixed dysgraphia. Journal of Research in Reading, 33(4), 392-413.

Lie, K. G., O’Hare, A., & Denwood, S. (2000). Research Section: Multidisciplinary Support and the Management of Children with Specific Writing Difficulties. British Journal of Special Education, 27(2), 93-99.

O’Hare, A. E., & Brown, J. K. (1989). Childhood dysgraphia. Part 1. An illustrated clinical classification. Child: care, health and development, 15(2), 79-104.

Sakurai, Y., Matsumura, K., Iwatsubo, T., & Momose, T. (1997). Frontal pure agraphia for kanji or kana: dissociation between morphology and phonology.Neurology, 49(4), 946-952.

Tainturier, M. J., & Rapp, B. (2001). The spelling process. The handbook of cognitive neuropsychology: What deficits reveal about the human mind, 263-289.

Tin, Y. Y., Chia, N., & Wong, M. E. (2008). Understanding dyslographia (Chinese dysgraphia) and what is known about the disorder. Journal of the American Academy of Special Education Professionals (JAASEP), Summer 2008, 93


This article was written by our guest blogger Mr. CHEUNG, Hong Kei Edmond.  Mr. Cheung is currently a research assistant in the Life Span Development Laboratory of The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Our Guest Blogger

Mr. CHEUNG, Hong Kei Edmond, BSsc. (CUHK)

Research assistant, Life Span Development Laboratory

Department of Psychology, The Chinese University of Hong Kong