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Dysgraphia and Handwriting Difficulties: A Case Study
May 2, 2008
Kennesaw State University
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This paper presents a case study of a fourth grade male student with handwriting
difficulties. The study involved a nine-year-old regular education student who performed
well on standardized tests, but generally performed poorly in the classroom due to
illegible handwriting. The student was given accommodations, modifications, and
remediation throughout the study. Several strategies and interventions were introduced to
address the handwriting issue. The student used a computer to complete some writing
assignments and the student was given additional time to complete assignments. A pencil
grip and raised line paper was utilized near the end of the study. Over a period of eight
weeks, work samples were collected and analyzed. The results indicated that the pencil
grip and raised line paper was not only effective in helping the student improve his
handwriting skills, but it also boosted his self-esteem in the process.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Introduction…………………………………………...............4
Chapter 2: Literature Review……………………………………………..8
Chapter 3: Methodology…………………………………………………14
Chapter 4: Results………………………………………………………..18
Chapter 5: Summary and Conclusions…………………………………...21
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Chapter 1: Introduction
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Statement of the Problem
As a fourth grade teacher, I was extremely surprised to notice the poor
handwriting skills of one of my male students. Oftentimes it was nearly impossible for
me to decipher anything the student had written. With so many demands on teachers to
ensure that students are learning skills to prepare them for standardized tests, so many
educators as well as students have trivialized handwriting or penmanship. I personally
feel that good handwriting is of the utmost importance for students because in a sense, it
is a form of discipline. Students must discipline themselves to form letters correctly.
Moreover, they must practice often to perfect the correct formation of their letters.
However, there is little time available for the extensive time needed for this essential
skill. It is imperative though, that students acquire proficient handwriting skills to affect
their ability to be successful academically.
I initially was prepared to conduct my research on improving reading
comprehension with graphic organizers, but after noticing my student’s poor penmanship,
I was curious to discover what effect, if any, it had on his learning abilities. I spoke with
several of my colleagues to discuss the angle in which I should take in my attempt to help
my student. All agreed that they had never seen a handwriting problem so severe in an
upper grade student before. Many of them offered suggestions to try for correcting or at
best improving his handwriting skills. As many educators feel, I felt that I had a limited
amount of time to devote to one particular child with handwriting issues when there are at
least twenty others that all deserved every opportunity for me to help them grow
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Academic Knowledge Skills (AKS) are the paramount focus in fourth grade due
to promotion requirements; therefore, handwriting is no longer deemed a fundamental
skill. Nonetheless, it is crucial that students are able to write legibly in order for them to
be successful in school. I felt researching this topic would be beneficial not only to me,
but to the student at hand and other students who may have similar problems. I wanted to
discover various strategies that for helping my student because previous attempts from
others to help him had been unsuccessful.
School and Classroom Demographics
I teach fourth grade at a public school located in Duluth, Georgia. The school has
an enrollment of about 750 students in grades kindergarten through fifth grade. 30% of
the students are Caucasian, 18% African American, 19% Asian, 29% Hispanic, and 4%
are Multicultural. The population of my school is as diverse as the community in which it
is located. Family incomes range from one end of the spectrum to the other. Some
families are well off whereas others struggle are on free/reduced lunch.
There are twenty-three students in my classroom. Eleven of them are boys are
twelve are girls. There are five Asian boys; two Asian girls, two Hispanic boys; two
Hispanic girls, three Caucasian boys; five Caucasian girls, one African-American boy;
two African-American girls, and one Multi-racial girl. Ninety- five percent of the children
reside in a two parent home. The other five percent live in households that are headed by
one parent. Six out of the twenty-three students in my class are in the gifted or FOCUS
program. One student is in Resource, one student is in both the Speech and ESOL
(English to Students of Other Languages) programs and two students are in EIP (Early
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I will attempt to find the answers to several questions while conducting my
1. Are handwriting issues a red flag for more deep seeded issues?
2. Is good handwriting or penmanship important to teachers?
3. What strategies can teachers use to help students with illegible handwriting?
I am looking forward to finding answers to these questions during my research
and by studying one of my students. I became aware of the handwriting problem that one
of my male students, whom I will refer to as Ryan, had during the first week of school.
The mixture of upper/lowercase letters, the many spelling mistakes, inconsistent spaces
between words and letters, and the irregular size and shapes of his letters puzzled me.
Initially I simply reprimanded him and demanded that he rewrite his work to improve the
poor quality. Oftentimes I noticed that it took him a long time to produce any work.
Many assignments were either illegibly written or never completed and turned in.
I held a conference with Ryan’s mother because I was extremely concerned with
this persisting problem with his handwriting and his failing grades due to his incomplete
assignments. Ryan’s mother agreed to help him at home to make sure he completed and
returned all assignments. She was very receptive to any ideas that I might have as to
helping her son as well. I assured her that I would continue to provide him with
opportunities to improve his handwriting by providing instruction and extended time to
complete assignments. I was prepared to take whatever measures necessary to assist Ryan
in improving his poor handwriting skills and discover what caused them.
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Chapter 2: Review of the Literature
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Accommodations and Modifications for Students with Handwriting Problems and/or
Why do students with learning disabilities typically have difficulties with
handwriting and spelling? Can such difficulties interfere with the execution of other
composing processes? Do those difficulties also hamper writing development, and mark a
child as a poor writer? According to Jones (1998), many students struggle to produce
neat, expressive written work, whether or not they have accompanying physical or
cognitive difficulties. Because students spend more time on an assignment, they may
understand the material even less then their peers do. These students begin to lack
confidence in their own learning abilities. Once the task of writing becomes the primary
barrier to learning or demonstration of knowledge, then modifications, remediation, and
accommodations for these problems are necessary.
Writing is a complex task that requires years of practice. The effects of poor
handwriting and spelling are typically more pronounced for those just learning to write
(Graham, 1999). Difficulty mastering transcription skills can result in unwanted
consequences such as illegible writing and misspellings that influence perceptions of how
well a child writes. Difficulties spelling words or writing the letters in them can also
interfere with the execution of other composing processes while writing. Difficulties with
handwriting can hamper a child’s development as a writer. As Berninger, Mizokawa, and
Bragg (1991) noted, difficulties acquiring handwriting and spelling may lead children to
avoid writing and develop a mind set that they cannot write, leading to arrested writing
development. According to Graham (1999), the difficulties with text production skills
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that many children with learning disabilities experience may affect not only how they
write, but the pace and course of their writing development as well.
Effective writing allows people to organize, process, and remember information.
For some students, writing can be frustrating and accomplish none of the before
mentioned things. To determine when if a student needs accommodations, a teacher
should conference with the parent as well as the student to express concern regarding the
student’s writing and get feedback from the student. The teacher should emphasize that
the concern is not that the student cannot learn nor do the work, but that the writing issues
with their writing might interfere with their learning. Discussions should occur about how
a student can make up for what writing may not provide. The discussion should raise
several questions: How can the writing assignments be altered to help the student learn
the most from the assignment? Are there other ways the student can be sure to learn? Are
there ways to write better? From these discussions, accommodations, modifications, and
remediation plans can be made to help the student reach his maximum learning potential.
To accommodate a student, a teacher must reduce the impact writing has on
learning or expressing knowledge without significantly changing the process or product.
Modification should be done by changing the assignments or expectations to meet the
student’s individual needs or learning. To remediate, the teacher must provide instruction
and opportunity for improving handwriting. The following table will list signs to look for
when determining if a student has handwriting problems and/or Dysgraphia (see table 1)
SIGNS OF DYSGRAPHIA
Generally illegible writing (despite appropriate time and attention given the task)
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Inconsistencies: mixture of print and cursive, upper and lower case, or irregular
sizes, shapes, or slant of letters
Unfinished words or letters, omitted words
Inconsistent position on page with respect to lines and margins
Inconsistent spaces between words and letters
Cramped or unusual grip, especially
1. holding the writing instrument very close to the paper, or
2. holding thumb over two fingers and writing from the wrist
Strange wrist, body, or paper position
Talking to self while writing, or carefully watching
Slow or labored copying or writing – even if it is neat and legible
Content which does not reflect the student’s other language skills
According to Jones (1998), five steps should be taken when considering
accommodating or modifying expectations to deal with Dysgraphia. The first step is to
consider changing the rate of producing written work. To do this, teachers should allow
students with handwriting and/or Dysgraphia more time for written tasks including note
taking, copying and tests. Teachers should allow students to begin projects or
assignments early. Time should be included in the student’s schedule for being a ‘library
assistant’ or ‘office assistant’ that could also be used for catching up or getting ahead on
written work, or doing alternative activities relate to material being learned. Jones also
feels that teachers should encourage students learning keyboarding skills to increase the
speed and legibility of written work.
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The second step is to consider changing the volume of the work to be produced.
Instead having the student write completes, the teacher should provide an outline so that
the student can fill in important details under major headings. Teachers should remove
‘neatness’ or ‘spelling’ (or both) as grading criteria for some assignments. The teacher
should consider reducing copying aspects of work. For instance, in Math, provide a
worksheet with the problems already on it instead of making the student copy the
The third step to consider is to change the complexity of an assignment by having
a ‘writing binder’ option. This 3-ring binder may include a model of print or cursive
letters on the inside cover so that it will be easier for the student to refer to instead of
relying on one that is on the blackboard or a wall. Include a laminated template of the
required format for written work, made with a cutout where the name, date, and
assignment would go, and modeled next to the cutout. Writing should be broken down
into stages. If writing is laborious for the student, they should be allowed to make editing
marks instead of rewriting the entire paper. Students can use a computer to make a rough
draft, copy it, and then revise the copy, so that both the rough draft and the final copy can
be evaluated without extra typing.
The fourth step to consider is changing the tools. To do this, allow students use
either cursive or manuscript, whichever one is legible. Encourage primary grade students
to use paper with raised lines to ensure that writing stays on the line. Permit students to
use graph paper for math, or turn lined paper sideways, to help with lining up columns of
numbers. Allow the student to use a writing instrument that is most comfortable and
make available fun grips to use. The final step is to consider changing the format of the
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product by modifying or altering the assignment without sacrificing the learning aspect.
The student could present the assignment orally or make a visual presentation. Students
should be provided extra structure and intermittent deadlines for long-term assignments.
For remediation, consider several options, such as, offering occupational therapy
or special education services if a student has a severe writing problem. Build handwriting
instruction into the student’s schedule. The details and degree of independence should
depend on the student’s age and attitude. Lastly, even if a student employs
accommodations for writing, and uses a word processor for most work, it is still crucial to
develop and maintain legible handwriting.
Shore (1998) lists several ways to identify a handwriting problem. He states that
some children may exhibit the following characteristics:
Expends much effort writing
Produces papers that are messy and difficult to read
Has poor pencil grip
Uses too little or too much pencil pressure
Writes letters incorrectly (particularly a, e, r, and t)
Forms letters that are too small or too large
Uses upper- and/or lower-case letters incorrectly
Allows too little space between words or letters
Has trouble copying from the board or a book
Shore further writes that dysgraphia may reflect problems with visual perception and
memory, spatial relations, or fine- motor control.
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Chapter 3: Methodology
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Selection and Description of Participants
Method of selection was determined because the researcher realized through
grading regular classroom assignments, a student had a handwriting problem and was a
terrible speller. The researcher felt the case study would provide a closer look into the
handwriting issues of this particular student. The participant of this case study is a nine-
year-old fourth grader referred to as Ryan .The researcher decided to study this student
because of the handwriting issue and because of a conference the researcher had with
Ryan’s mother. The mother stated that she noticed that her son’s handwriting had worsen
over the past few years and she was not sure why. The researcher hoped to discover the
underline problem as to why this student’s handwriting had progressively gotten worse
over the past few years and find strategies to help him correct the problem. The mother,
Ryan, and the researcher met and set goals for Ryan to accomplish for his handwriting for
the next nine weeks. The research took place in the researcher’s fourth grade elementary
classroom over a course of eight weeks.
For this action research, the researcher observed Ryan on a day-to-day basis and
collected sample work from every subject. Ryan was given assignments to complete in
class as well as assignments and projects to complete at home. Ryan used regular wide
ruled paper to complete assignments. He used worksheets and standard writing
instruments during most assignments. When time permitted in class, Ryan was
encouraged to use the computer to type writing assignments instead using a journal as he
had previously done. See Appendix A and B.
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The study was done over an eight-week period. It was conducted throughout the
regular school day. The teacher taught AKS to the entire class and assigned independent
practice to each student including Ryan on a daily basis. As needed, Ryan received
further instructions or clarifications on any assignment that he did not understand.
Throughout the day, the teacher would redirect Ryan when he was not staying focused in
class. When Ryan turned in assignments that were illegible, he was instructed to redo the
work. Many of his letters were simply strung together and made little or no sense. He
often used capital letters within words. See Appendix C and D. On some occasions, the
teacher sat next to Ryan as he completed his work to model the correct way to hold a
pencil and to encourage him to space his words and letters appropriately. Ryan would
sometimes become frustrated with himself because of his poor handwriting when others
could not read what he had written. Other times he would noncha lantly state that ‘he’
could read it.
Over the next weeks, much of Ryan’s work was collected and analyzed, and due
to much of it being illegible, a Student Support Team meeting occurred to determine
what over measures to take to help him achieve academic ally. Ryan never completed
many of the assignments and therefore began receiving failing grades. He was placed on
an Academic Contract because of his grades. In addition to the SST, another
parent/teacher conference took place, and Ryan’s mother chose not to attend either one.
The teacher contacted the Occupational Therapist at school and did not get any positive
results there either.
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Near the end of study, after trying reducing assignments, allowing extra time to
complete assignments and having the student redo class work; the student was no closer
to legible handwriting than he was when he was in preschool. When time permitted, Ryan
used the computer to type his writing assignments, but his spelling was still an issue.
Upon visiting a store, the teacher purchased a pencil grip and a tablet of raised line paper
to try with Ryan for his assignments. When the teacher presented the items to Ryan, his
remark was that teachers had given him grips to use before and it would not work. The
researcher encouraged him to try the grip and the raised line paper to anyway. The
teacher folded the raised line paper in half and instructed Ryan to use only a section at a
time. As the teacher walked around to monitor the class’ independent work after a lesson,
she noticed a remarkable improvement in the spacing, sizing and overall formation of
Ryan’s letters. His spelling was still not good, but his writing was miraculously legible.
See Appendix E and F.
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Chapter 4: Results
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Analysis of the data was generated from the notes taken and work samples
collected during the eight weeks of research study. Ryan was provided some
accommodations, modifications, and remediation for his handwriting difficulties. He
worked on most assignments with little or no modifications made to them. The first day
of the study, the researcher noted that Ryan often slouched in his chair with his knees
against his desk. He would hold his paper on his lap to write. This of course, did not help
his writing any. He was instructed to place his paper on his desk and sit up straight in his
Upon observation, it was noted that Ryan had a problem keeping his desk and
backpack and organized. Many of his incomplete assignments were discovered crammed
in his messy desk and/or backpack. See Appendix G. The researcher wondered if Ryan’s
disorganization played a role in his handwriting issue. The eight-week period was
definitely not long enough to provide reliable evidence, and the researcher was not
qualified to make diagnosis as to whether Ryan suffered from Dysgraphia. At the end of
the study, Ryan had made an incredible turnaround with his handwriting but continued to
struggle with his spelling.
This action research study on handwriting difficulties and Dysgraphia was
conducted with the regards to finding an effective strategy for improving illegible
handwriting. Even though the study was limited, it brought attention to a student who
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may have otherwise fallen between the cracks due to his poo r handwriting skills. Ryan
was ecstatic when he used the pencil grip and raised paper and was able to complete work
that was legible. His mother sent an email to the teacher to thank her for all of her help
with Ryan. She stated that she had never seen him as excited over anything before as he
was about his grip and ‘special’ paper.
This study contains several limitations. The sample size was a factor to consider
concerning reliability. The subject, however, represents a specific population, and the
results are not meant for generalization. The length of study, of course, presents a major
limitation. Preferably, a participant would be observed for a much longer period with
professional intervention occurring for effectiveness of curtailing the handwriting
problem and discovering what other issues are at play. As with any student with a
learning disability, someone with training in special needs should intervene and be a part
Implications for Future Research and Classroom Practice
The restricted sample and qualitative aspect of this study does not permit
generalizations based on the researcher’s findings. The results do suggest that further
study and earlier interventions should occur for students with handwriting difficulties.
Teachers sometimes blame a student with poor handwriting for being lazy and not trying
hard enough and attribute underachievement to motivational factors. As discovered
through this research, that is not always the case.
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Chapter 5: Summary and Conclusions
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Summary and Conclusions
According to Wikipedia, Dysgraphia (or agraphia) is defined as a deficiency in
the ability to write, regardless of the ability to read, not due to intellectual impairment.
People with dysgraphia often can write on some level, but often lack co-ordination, and
may find other fine motor tasks such as tying shoes difficult. It often does not affect all
fine motor skills. They can also lack basic spelling skills (having difficulties with
p,q,b,d), and often will write the wrong word when trying to formulate thoughts (on
paper). In childhood, the disorder generally emerges when they are first introduced to
writing. They make inappropriately sized and spaced letters, or write wrong or misspelled
words despite thorough instruction. Children with the disorder may have other learning
disabilities; however, they usually have no social or other academic problems.
In conclusion, even though Ryan scored Level 3 on his third grade Reading and
Math CRCT, as noted, his illegible handwriting had an effect on his daily grades, but had
marginal effect on his overall academics. Ryan is an extremely bright child who might
have a learning disability known as Dysgraphia because he displays many of the
symptoms. For proper diagnosis however, further observations and testing will need to
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Berninger,V.W., Mizokawa, D.T., Bragg, R. (1991). Theory-based diagnosis and
remediation of writing disabilities. Journal of School Psychology, 29, 57-79.
Graham, S. (1999). Handwriting and spelling instruction for students with learning
disabilities: a review. Learning Disability Quarterly, 22, 78-95.
Jones, S. (1998). Accommodations and modifications for students with handwriting
problems and/or dysgraphia. Retrieved March 29, 2008 from LexisNexis
Shore, K. (1998). Special kids problem solver. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass A Wiley
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