If your child has trouble with writing, you might be concerned that he has dysgraphia. To know for sure, you’ll need to have him tested for this common learning issue, which is diagnosed as “specific learning disorder,” with the areas of writing weakness listed.
Testing for dysgraphia can reveal what’s causing your child’s difficulties with writing. But it should be done as part of a full evaluation that looks for other issues that might be at play. These might include issues with expressive language and with executive functioning.
Tests for dysgraphia may assess various skills in the following areas:
The mechanics of writing (includes things like grammar, spelling and punctuation)
Thematics (includes skills like word usage and the ability to organize a narrative)
Evaluators will also assess handwriting (graphomotor) skills. They typically look at handwriting samples the child has already produced in other parts of the evaluation.
Here are the types of tests used to evaluate for dysgraphia, and examples of each.
Tests That Assess the Mechanics of Writing
Example: Test of Written Language–Fourth Edition (TOWL-4) subtests for vocabulary, spelling, punctuation, logical sentences and sentence combining (ages 9 and up)
Similar tests include: WJ IV and WIAT-III subtests assessing writing skills, such as the spelling subtest
What it measures: Your child’s ability to use common rules when writing a sentence, like the rules of punctuation.
Why it’s important: When a child doesn’t automatically recall the rules of spelling, grammar and punctuation, it can make the process of writing more difficult. It also makes it harder for the reader to understand what the child is trying to express.
How it works: Here’s how various skills might be assessed:
Vocabulary: When writing a sentence, your child has to incorporate a specific word the evaluator says. This is called a “stimulus word.”
Spelling: Your child writes a series of sentences using stimulus words he gets from the evaluator. He starts with a stimulus word that is easy for his grade level. But with each new sentence, the stimulus word gets harder. The test ends when your child misspells three words in a row.
Logical sentences: Your child edits various sentences that contain grammar mistakes. He may also have to complete a sentence so the evaluator can assess his knowledge of grammar rules. For example, if the evaluator says, “The boy went…,” your child might say something correct like, “…to the store yesterday.” Or he might say something incorrect like, “…yesterday the store.”
Sentence combining: The evaluator asks your child to take two simple sentences and combine them into one complex sentence. For example, he might have to combine “John drives slowly” and “John has a red car” to say, “John drives a red car slowly.”
Punctuation: The evaluator uses the child’s writing from other parts of the test to assess his use of capitalization and punctuation.
Tests That Assess Thematics
Example: Test of Written Language–Fourth Edition (TOWL-4) subtests for story composition and contextual conventions (ages 9 and up)
Similar tests include: Woodcock–Johnson IV Test of Achievement (WJ IV) Writing Sample subtest (school age through adult); Wechsler Individual Achievement Test–Third Edition (WIAT-III) Essay Composition (school age through adult)
What it measures: The story composition subtest looks at the quality of plot, character development, sentence construction, vocabulary and the flow of a composition your child writes. It also assesses word usage, sentence structure and organization. The contextual conventions subtest looks at how your child uses grammar, punctuation and spelling in more than just a single sentence.
Why it’s important: Thematics, or higher-order writing skills, allow kids to express what they’re thinking in writing—and for readers to understand it.
How it works: Your child is given a picture and is asked to write a story based on it, including as many details as he can. He spends five minutes planning and making an outline, with 15 minutes to write.
Tests That Assess Fine Motor Skills
Example: Grooved Pegboard (ages 5 to 18)
Similar tests include: Purdue Pegboard (ages 5 to 18); NEPSY-II Visuomotor Precision subtests (ages 3 to 16)
What it measures: Your child’s ability to manipulate the small muscles of the hand. It also measures hand-eye coordination.
Why it’s important: Trouble with fine motor skills can make it hard to hold a pen or pencil properly. This can make the physical act of writing a slow and difficult process.
How it works: Your child gets a board with 25 randomly positioned holes, and a set of 25 pegs with grooves in them. He then has to put all the pegs into the holes as quickly as possible. (Your child has to rotate the pegs to fit them in the holes.) The score is based on how long it takes him to complete the task and how many pegs he drops.
What Happens After Dysgraphia Testing
The evaluator will look at the results of all the testing together. He should also look at it along with other types of tests. These should include tests that measure expressive language skills like oral vocabulary.
It may take a few weeks to get the results. The evaluator will put all the information together and write a report.
If testing shows that your child has dysgraphia, find out what to do next. Learn about dysgraphia accommodations your child might be eligible for. And check out a simulation that shows what it’s like to struggle with writing.