Wednesday, September 14, 2016

What is Dyscalculia and Dysgraphia?

So what exactly is a Specific Learning Disability (SLD) in Math or Writing? The Office of Special Education for the U.S. Department of Education is encouraging schools to use the words Dyscalculia and Dysgraphia in Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and 504s. The excerpt from the letter below contains the link to the whole document.

The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services (OSERS) has received communications from stakeholders, including parents, advocacy groups, and national disability organizations, who believe that State and local educational agencies (SEAs and LEAs) are reluctant to reference or use dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia in evaluations, eligibility determinations, or in developing the individualized education program (IEP) under the IDEA. The purpose of this letter is to clarify that there is nothing in the IDEA that would prohibit the use of the terms dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia in IDEA evaluation, eligibility determinations, or IEP documents.

So now that the terms Dyscalculia and Dysgraphia have been sanctioned for use lets looks at what exactly are these little-known disabilities.


Dyscalculia is defined as difficulty acquiring basic arithmetic skills that is not explained by low intelligence or inadequate schooling. About 5% of children in primary schools are affected. Dyscalculia does not improve without treatment. Many people with dyscalculia have associated cognitive impairment (e.g., impairment of working memory and visuospatial skills), and 20% to 60% of those affected have other diagnosed conditions such as dyslexia or attention deficit disorder.

Currently (January 2015) a search for ‘dyscalculia’ on the Department for Education’s website gives 0 results as compared to 44 for dyslexia, so the definition below comes from the American Psychiatric Association (2013):

Developmental Dyscalculia (DD) is a specific learning disorder that is characterized by impairments in learning basic arithmetic facts, processing numerical magnitude and performing accurate and fluent calculations. These difficulties must be quantifiably below what is expected for an individual’s chronological age, and must not be caused by poor educational or daily activities or by intellectual impairments.

Because definitions and diagnoses of dyscalculia are in their infancy and sometimes contradictory, it is difficult to suggest a prevalence, but research suggests it is around 5%. However, ‘mathematical learning difficulties’ are certainly not in their infancy and are very prevalent and often devastating in their impact on schooling, further and higher education and jobs. Prevalence in the UK is at least 25%.

Developmental Dyscalculia often occurs in association with other developmental disorders such as dyslexia or ADHD/ADD. Co-occurrence of learning disorders appears to be the rule rather than the exception. Co-occurrence is generally assumed to be a consequence of risk factors that are shared between disorders, for example, working memory. However, it should not be assumed that all dyslexics have problems with mathematics, although the percentage may be very high, or that all dyscalculics have problems with reading and writing. This latter rate of co-occurrence may well be a much lower percentage.

Typical symptoms of dyscalculia/mathematical learning difficulties:
  • Has difficulty when counting backwards.
  • Has a poor sense of number and estimation.
  • Has difficulty in remembering ‘basic’ facts, despite many hours of practice/rote learning.
  • Has no strategies to compensate for lack of recall, other than to use counting.
  • Has difficulty in understanding place value and the role of zero in the Arabic/Hindu number system.
  • Has no sense of whether any answers that are obtained are right or nearly right.
  • Tends to be slower to perform calculations. (Therefore give less examples, rather than more time).
  • Forgets mathematical procedures, especially as they become more complex, for example ‘long’ division.
  • Addition is often the default operation. The other operations are usually very poorly executed (or avoided altogether).
  • Avoids tasks that are perceived as difficult and likely to result in a wrong answer.
  • Weak mental arithmetic skills.
  • High levels of mathematics anxiety.
  • When writing, reading, and recalling numbers, may make mistakes: number additions, substitutions, transpositions, omissions, and reversals
  • Difficulty with abstract concepts of time and direction
  • Inability to recall schedules and sequences of past or future events
  • May be chronically early or late
  • Inconsistent results in addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division
  • Inability to visualize, appear absent-minded, or lost in thought
  • Inconsistent mastery of math facts
  • Difficulty with left and right orientation
  • Difficulty following sequential procedures and directions in math steps
  • Slow in understanding math concepts in word problems
  • Confuse operations signs or perform them in the wrong order
  • Confuse part to whole relationships
  • Difficulty keeping score during games 
  • Limited strategic planning ability
Since mathematics is very developmental, any insecurity or uncertainty in early topics will impact on later topics, hence to need to take intervention back to basics.

So what can be done to help a child with Dyscalculia?

There aren’t specific therapies for kids with dyscalculia. But you may want to explore educational therapy. This type of therapy helps kids with different kinds of learning and attention issues develop strategies for working around their issues and dealing with frustration. An educational therapist may be able to help your child get better at working with numbers.

Kids with dyscalculia may have trouble reading and articulating the language of math. In these cases, speech therapy could be helpful.

Kids with dyscalculia may also have trouble with visual-spatial skills. For example, they may struggle to judge distances between objects. If this is the case for your child, you might want to explore occupational therapy and/or vision therapy.

Children with dyscalculia may be dealing with other issues that emotional therapy can help with. For example, ADHD and dyscalculia often co-occur. So it may be recommended that your child try therapies to address aspects of his ADHD.

These kinds of therapies may lessen some of your child’s anxiety about school and make it easier for him to perform in class. The same may be said for psychological counseling if dyscalculia takes a toll on your child’s self-esteem or causes anxiety or stress.

Classroom Accommodations and Modifications

  • Allow extra time on tests. Children with dyscalculia will often feel rushed during standard-length math tests. If possible, avoid timed tests of basic facts like multiplication tables, which can be a roadblock for LD kids.
  • Provide frequent checks during classwork. It can be especially heartbreaking for an LD student to finish an entire worksheet, only to be told that every answer is wrong and he’ll need to do it again. Instead, teachers should check after every problem, or every three or four. This way, children can learn from mistakes before moving forward.
  • List the steps for multi-step problems and algorithms. Post clearly numbered step-by-step instructions on the board, or give students a copy they can keep at their desk.
  • Keep sample problems on the board. Students should also copy them down in a notebook for reference.
  • Use individual dry-erase boards for students to work at their desks. Students can complete one step of a problem at a time, erasing any mistakes they may make.
  • Use plenty of brightly colored, uncluttered reference charts and diagrams.Children with dyscalculia benefit from visual representations of math problems whenever possible.
  • Whenever possible, allow calculator use. When testing more complex concepts than addition or subtraction, allow students to use calculators to make these basic steps quicker and more accessible. Then, students can focus on showing what they know — not how good they can add in their head.
  • Reduce the number of assigned problems. Assigning ten problems, rather than a full page, is enough to assess students’ understanding.
  • Avoid memory overload by assigning manageable amounts of practice work as skills are learned.
  • Build retention by providing review within a day or two of the initial learning of difficult skills.
  • Provide supervised practice to prevent students from practicing misconceptions and "misrules."
  • Reduce interference between concepts or applications of rules and strategies by separating practice opportunities until the discriminations between them are learned.
  • Make new learning meaningful by relating practice of subskills to the performance of the whole task, and by relating what the student has learned about mathematical relationships to what the student will learn next.
  • Reduce processing demands by preteaching component skills of algorithms and strategies.
  • Teach easier knowledge and skills before difficult ones.
  • Ensure that skills to be practiced can be completed independently with high levels of success.
  • Help students to visualize math problems by drawing.
  • Give extra time for students to process any visual information in a picture, chart, or graph.
  • Use visual and auditory examples.
  • Use real-life situations that make problems functional and applicable to everyday life.
  • Do math problems on graph paper to keep the numbers in line.
  • Use uncluttered worksheets to avoid too much visual information.
  • Use rhythm or music to help students memorize.
  • Use distributive practice: plenty of practice in small doses.
  • Use interactive and intensive practice with age- appropriate games as motivational materials.
  • Have students track their progress; which facts they have mastered and which remain to be learned.
  • Challenge critical thinking about real problems with problem-solving.
  • Use manipulatives and technology such as tape recorders or calculators.

What would be a goal for the IEP when you have Dyscalculia?

Goal writing is always a pain.  Is the goal SMART?  What's a good goal?  Often I struggle to come up with goals.  I found some help!

Common Core Aligned Goals for Kindergarten and First Grade

Virginia SMART goals (2009)

Goal and Objective Bank - Covers more than math

2nd and 3rd Grade Math Goals

Goal Bank (Tons of Goals for ALL Grades and Subjects)

2nd Grade Math Goals

What else can I do to help my child?

Embrace technology when your child has dysgraphia and/or dyscalculia!  There are great apps that can be used to help you and your child. Here are some apps/software you may find helpful:



Math Cirriculum for Dyscalculia

Policy, Research, Identification and Intervention for Maths Learning Difficulties and Dyscalculia

 Math Programs and Apps for Dyscalculia

Photomath - Camera Calculator App (Apple and Android)


Dysgraphia is a specific learning disability that affects how easily children acquire written language and how well they use written language to express their thoughts. Dysgraphia is a Greek word. The base word graph refers both to the hand’s function in writing and to the letters formed by the hand. The prefix dys indicates that there is impairment. Graph refers to producing letter forms by hand. The suffix ia refers to having a condition. Thus, dysgraphia is the condition of impaired letter writing by hand, that is, disabled handwriting and sometimes spelling. Impaired handwriting can interfere with learning to spell words in writing. Occasionally, but not very often, children have just spelling problems and not handwriting or reading problems.

This is a handwriting sample for James in Math.  Notice the poorly shaped and
spaced letter formations.  Also notice the mixed of capital and lower case letters.
James can read at a 12.5 grade level at 8 but he had to look on the paper to find an "H"
so he could copy the letter.  He has has problems with number formation too. 

There are several different kinds of dysgraphia. Some people with dysgraphia have handwriting that is often illegible and shows irregular and inconsistent letter formations. Others write legibly, but very slowly and/or very small. When these individuals revert to printing, as they often do, their writing is often a random mixture of upper- and lowercase letters. In all cases of dysgraphia, writing requires inordinate amounts of energy, stamina, and time. Dysgraphia can interfere with a student’s ability to express ideas. Expressive writing requires a student to synchronize many mental functions at once: organization, memory, attention, motor skill, and various aspects of language ability. Automatic accurate handwriting is the foundation for this juggling act. In the complexity of remembering where to put the pencil and how to form each letter, a dysgraphic student forgets what he or she meant to express. Dysgraphia can cause low classroom productivity, incomplete homework assignments, and difficulty in focusing attention. Emotional factors arising from dysgraphia often exacerbate matters. At an early age, these students are asked to forego recess to finish copying material from the board, and are likely to be sent home at the end of the day with a sheaf of unfinished papers to be completed. They are asked to recopy their work but the second attempt is often no better than the first. Because they are often bright and good at reading, their failure to produce acceptable work is blamed on laziness or carelessness. The resulting anger and frustration can prevent their ever reaching their true potential.

Common symptoms of dysgraphia include:
The symptoms of dysgraphia fall into six categories: visual-spatial, fine motor, language processing, spelling/handwriting, grammar, and organization of language. A child may have dysgraphia if his writing skills lag behind those of his peers and he has at least some of these symptoms:

Visual-Spatial Difficulties
Has trouble with shape-discrimination and letter spacing
Has trouble organizing words on the page from left to right
Writes letters that go in all directions, and letters and words that run together on the page
Has a hard time writing on a line and inside margins
Has trouble reading maps, drawing or reproducing a shape
Copies text slowly

Fine Motor Difficulties
Has trouble holding a pencil correctly, tracing, cutting food, tying shoes, doing puzzles, texting and keyboarding
Is unable to use scissors well or to color inside the lines
Holds his wrist, arm, body or paper in an awkward position when writing

Language Processing Issues
Has trouble getting ideas down on paper quickly
Has trouble understanding the rules of games
Has a hard time following directions
Loses his train of thought

Spelling Issues/Handwriting Issues
Has a hard time understanding spelling rules
Has trouble telling if a word is misspelled
Can spell correctly orally but makes spelling errors in writing
Spells words incorrectly and in many different ways
Has trouble using spell-check—and when he does, he doesn’t recognize the correct word
Mixes upper- and lowercase letters
Blends printing and cursive
Has trouble reading his own writing
Avoids writing
Gets a tired or cramped handed when he writes
Erases a lot

Grammar and Usage Problems
Doesn’t know how to use punctuation
Overuses commas and mixes up verb tenses
Doesn’t start sentences with a capital letter
Doesn’t write in complete sentences but writes in a list format
Writes sentences that “run on forever”

Organization of Written Language
Has trouble telling a story and may start in the middle
Leaves out important facts and details, or provides too much information
Assumes others know what he’s talking about
Uses vague descriptions
Writes jumbled sentences
Never gets to the point, or makes the same point over and over
Is better at conveying ideas when speaking

Does Dysgraphia occur with other learning disabilities?
Children with impaired handwriting may also have attention-deficit disorder (ADHD)—inattentive, hyperactive, or combined inattentive and hyperactive subtypes. Children with this kind of dysgraphia may respond to a combination of explicit handwriting instruction plus stimulant medication, but appropriate diagnosis of ADHD by a qualified professional and monitoring of response to both instruction and medication are needed

Dysgraphia may occur alone or with dyslexia (impaired reading disability) or with oral and written language learning disability (OWL LD, also referred to as selective language impairment, SLI).

Dyslexia is a disorder that includes poor word reading, word decoding, oral reading fluency, and spelling. Children with dyslexia may have impaired orthographic and phonological coding and rapid automatic naming and switching. Phonological coding refers to coding sounds in spoken words in working memory. Phonological coding is necessary for developing phonological awareness—analyzing the sounds in spoken words that correspond to alphabet letters. If children have both dysgraphia and dyslexia, they may also have difficulty in planning sequential finger movements.

OWL LD (SLI) are disorders of language (morphology—word parts that mark meaning and grammar; syntax—structures for ordering words and understanding word functions; finding words in memory, and/or making inferences that go beyond what is stated in text). These disorders affect spoken as well as written language. Children with these language disorders may also exhibit the same writing and reading and related disorders as children with dysgraphia or dyslexia.

So what can be done to help a child with Dysgraphia?

There are many things that can done for remediation with dysgraphia.  Here is a list of possible accommodations and modifications:

  • When considering accommodating or modifying expectations to deal with dysgraphia, consider changes in
  • The rate of producing written work
  • The volume of the work to be produced
  • The complexity of the writing task
  • The tools used to produce the written product
  • The format of the product
  • Change the demands of writing rate
  • Allow more time for written tasks including note-taking, copying, and tests
  • Allow students to begin projects or assignments early
  • Include time 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 related to the material being learned.
  • Encourage learning keyboarding skills to increase the speed and legibility of written work.
  • Have the student prepare assignment papers in advance with required headings (Name, Date, etc.), possibly using the template described below under "changes in complexity."
  • Adjust the volume
  • Instead of having the student write a complete set of notes, provide a partially completed outline so the student can fill in the details under major headings (or provide the details and have the student provide the headings).
  • Allow the student to dictate some assignments or tests (or parts of tests) a 'scribe'. Train the 'scribe' to write what the student says verbatim ("I'm going to be your secretary") and then allow the student to make changes, without assistance from the scribe.
  • Remove 'neatness' or 'spelling' (or both) as grading criteria for some assignments, or design assignments to be evaluated on specific parts of the writing process.
  • Allow abbreviations in some writing (such as b/c for because). Have the student develop a repertoire of abbreviations in a notebook. These will come in handy in future note-taking situations.
  • Reduce copying aspects of work; for example, in Math, provide a worksheet with the problems already on it instead of having the student copy the problems.
  • Change the complexity
  • Have a 'writing binder' option. This 3-ring binder could include:
  • A model of cursive or print letters on the inside cover (this is easier to refer to than one on the wall or blackboard).
  • A laminated template of the required format for written work. Make a cut-out where the name, date, and assignment would go and model it next to the cutout. Three-hole punch it and put it into the binder on top of the student's writing paper. Then the student can set up his paper and copy the heading information in the holes, then flip the template out of the way to finish the assignment. He can do this with worksheets, too.
  • Break writing into stages and teach students to do the same. Teach the stages of the writing process (brainstorming, drafting, editing, and proofreading, etc.). Consider grading these stages even on some 'one-sitting' written exercises, so that points are awarded on a short essay for brainstorming and a rough draft, as well as the final product. If writing is laborious, allow the student to make some editing marks rather than recopying the whole thing. On a computer, a student can make a rough draft, copy it, and then revise the copy, so that both the rough draft and final product can be evaluated without extra typing.
  • Do not count spelling on rough drafts or one-sitting assignments.
  • Encourage the student to use a spellchecker and to have someone else proofread his work, too. Speaking spellcheckers are recommended, especially if the student may not be able to recognize the correct word (headphones are usually included).
  • Change the tools
  • Allow the student to use cursive or manuscript, whichever is most legible
  • Consider teaching cursive earlier than would be expected, as some students find cursive easier to manage, and this will allow the student more time to learn it.
  • Encourage primary students to use paper with the raised lines to keep writing on the line.
  • Allow older students to use the line width of their choice. Keep in mind that some students use small writing to disguise its messiness or spelling, though.
  • Allow students to use paper or writing instruments of different colors.
  • Allow student to use graph paper for math, or to turn lined paper sideways, to help with lining up columns of numbers.
  • Allow the student to use the writing instrument that is most comfortable. Many students have difficulty writing with ballpoint pens, preferring pencils or pens which have more friction in contact with the paper. Mechanical pencils are very popular. Let the student find a 'favorite pen' or pencil (and then get more than one like that).
  • Have some fun grips available for everybody, no matter what the grade. Sometimes high school kids will enjoy the novelty of pencil grips or even big "primary pencils."
  • Word Processing should be an option for many reasons. Bear in mind that for many of these students, learning to use a word processor will be difficult for the same reasons that handwriting is difficult. There are some keyboarding instructional programs which address the needs of learning disabled students. Features may include teaching the keys alphabetically (instead of the "home row" sequence), or sensors to change the 'feel' of the D and K keys so that the student can find the right position kinesthetically.
  • Consider whether use of speech recognition software will be helpful. As with word processing, the same issues which make writing difficult can make learning to use speech recognition software difficult, especially if the student has reading or speech challenges. However, if the student and teacher are willing to invest time and effort in 'training' the software to the student's voice and learning to use it, the student can be freed from the motor processes of writing or keyboarding.

  • For some students and situations, accommodations will be inadequate to remove the barriers that their writing problems pose. Here are some ways assignments can be modified without sacrificing learning.
  • Adjust the volume
  • Reduce the copying elements of assignments and tests. For example, if students are expected to 'answer in complete sentences that reflect the question,' have the student do this for three questions that you select, then answer the rest in phrases or words (or drawings). If students are expected to copy definitions, allow the student to shorten them or give him the definitions and have him highlight the important phrases and words or write an example or drawing of the word instead of copying the definition.
  • Reduce the length requirements on written assignments -- stress quality over quantity.
  • Change the complexity
  • Grade different assignments on individual parts of the writing process, so that for some assignments "spelling doesn't count," for others, grammar.
  • Develop cooperative writing projects where different students can take on roles such as the 'brainstormer,' 'organizer of information,' 'writer,' 'proofreader,' and 'illustrator.'
  • Provide extra structure and intermittent deadlines for long-term assignments. Help the student arrange for someone to coach him through the stages so that he doesn't get behind. Discuss with the student and parents the possibility of enforcing the due dates by working after school with the teacher in the event a deadline arrives and the work is not up-to-date.
  • Change the format
  • Offer the student an alternative project such as an oral report or visual project. Establish a rubric to define what you want the student to include. For instance, if the original assignment was a 3-page description of one aspect of the Roaring Twenties (record-breaking feats, the Harlem Renaissance, Prohibition, etc) you may want the written assignment to include:
    • A general description of that 'aspect' (with at least two details)
    • Four important people and their accomplishments
    • Four important events - when, where, who and what
    • Three good things and three bad things about the Roaring Twenties

What would be a goal for the IEP when you have Dysgraphia?

Back to that goal question again.  Sometimes they are so hard to come up with them on your own so I thought I would include some ideas.

IEP Goals for Writing , Keyboarding, and Copying

Did you know these were the only goal examples I could readily find.  If you find any others please let me know!

A little off topic but important to know...How to get the school OT to treat handwriting issues.
OT Services in the IEP: Handwriting

Apps to help those with Dysgraphia






Information on Assistive Technology

General information on AT

Your Child’s Key to Great Writing: Assistive Technology for Dysgraphia and Writing Disabilities
Journal Article on Assistive Technology for Dysgraphia - June 2015

I hope you found this information useful.  This article was written mostly for the public school crowd but MANY of these ideas can be used and utilized by the homeschooling parent.  This article is littered with links!  Please click on all the links.  Some are used a reference to the material quoted in the article.  Other links are to items I found interesting but not specifically needed for this article. Please leave any comments or question you might have.  I will answer them as promptly as I can!


  1. Thank you so much. I had never even heard of dysgraphia until my daughter's OT said that she probably had it due to her poor fine motor skills due to not eating when she was litte. I had no idea where to begin and I am sure neither does her county school system.

    1. I suggest you join my FB group, IEP Assistance and Special Needs Parenting Advice, as I am often there and I can help provide you with more assistance.