Dysgraphia: Necessary Cognitive Abilities and Executive Functions

Do your students complain that they cannot get their ideas from their head to the paper? 86713_5_80x100

Do they report that they are unable to generate ideas about what to write? Are they having difficulty elaborating on what they want to say and produce only simple sentences? Is their spelling and grammar deficient?

If any of the above are present, it may be that your students are suffering from a disorder in written expression or dysgraphia. Writing problems can take several forms as noted above or occur in combination. They can also interface with other learning disorders. This is because writing is a complex skill requiring a number of cognitive ability skills as well as intact executive functioning. For example, when writing, students need to have an adequate amount of acquired language (i.e. expressive vocabulary) from previous learning and life experience. Without this reservoir of words, generating verbiage may prevent them from being productive. Thinking conceptually and using inference (i.e. fluid reasoning) is necessary when writing in order to do more sophisticated tasks (i.e. describing character’s thinking and intentions) beyond writing single details. Working memory and long term memory are necessary to link already learned information with new information (i.e. the prompt or topic). Working memory problems often result in issues with transcribing or translating verbiage from your head to the paper. In addition, it is important to have specific executive functions intact. Executive functions are processes that cue and direct the brain to access an individual’s abilities. Thus, if attention, an executive function, is impaired, then learning cannot take place. Similarly, for writing tasks, the ability to plan and organize, two other important executive functions, must be in place. In writing, taking individual pieces of information and weaving them into an integrated whole is an absolute necessity in order to create a coherent narrative. This, in turn, requires good sequential processing as it is necessary to be able to organize facts sequentially. Poor spelling can be a combination of things, including weak orthographic processing (i.e. difficulty recalling the shapes and contours of letters and words) and reliance solely on a phonemic approach to decoding as well as a lack of exposure to language.

It is important to assess each ability and executive function area so that you know precisely where the deficit(s) are. It is then easier to identify strategies to address the specific deficits. Without a solid evaluation your efforts to remediate can be targeted on the wrong ability area. A comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation can rule out problems in: verbal fluency that underlie difficulties in generating verbiage; inferential reasoning; planning and organization; working memory; attention; orthographic processing; and non-intellectual problems like low motivation, anxiety, and depression that can interfere with writing.


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