Understanding Dyslexia and Dysgraphia
Dyslexia affects approximately 20 percent of the population, and 80-90 percent of people with learning disabilities. It’s believed to be caused by differences in brain connectivity.
"To break it down, dyslexia affects reading and the interpretation of words; dysgraphia impacts one’s writing abilities,” explains Danielle Augustin, a special education attorney.
For any person to read words, the brain must perform several complex steps that essentially answer the following questions:
- What sound goes with the letter?
- What is the correct order for those sounds?
- How do you put the individual words into sentences?
Although many believe dyslexia means seeing and writing words backward, the symptom of letter/word reversal is a myth. People with dyslexia have difficulty matching sounds to letters and blending sounds into words, leading to problems with spelling, writing and speaking.
While people with dyslexia may also have dysgraphia, they are two distinct disabilities. Dysgraphia is defined as difficulty forming letters by hand and organizing and expressing thoughts in writing.
Dyslexia and dysgraphia both can lead to struggles in the classroom. College students with dyslexia may take longer to finish tests, have messy handwriting, read slowly and have trouble with note-taking. Those with dysgraphia may take longer to write and their work might be filled with grammar and spelling errors. These issues can take a big toll on a student’s self-esteem.
Dyslexia and dysgraphia are unrelated to intelligence, however. In fact, many people with learning disabilities are creative, fast thinkers with strong reasoning skills. While there is no cure for either, there are strategies to help students who struggle with dyslexia or dysgraphia to succeed.
What About Dyscalculia?
Dyscalculia makes it difficult to understand and manipulate numbers and learn math facts. It can occur developmentally or result from traumatic brain injury or neurological disease.
"In addition to difficulty understanding these basic concepts, dyscalculia often includes trouble with both logical information sequencing and time sequencing, and messiness when writing math problems on a paper," says Suzanne Cresswell, an occupational therapist.
In college, students with dyscalculia may struggle with quantitative concepts such as estimation or comparison. It can be difficult to retrieve multiplication and division facts, making higher-level math a challenge. Even simple computational operations and procedures can become impossible when using the wrong application or making sequencing errors.
Symptoms of dysgraphia vary. It's common for students to have dysgraphia and dyslexia concurrently. In fact, 43-65 percent of the population with a math disability also has a reading disability. The good news is, just like with dyslexia and dysgraphia, there is help for college students with dyscalculia.
Working with Your Professors
All students must receive equal access to facilities, programs and activities on campus, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Students are used to their parents working with the school to get accommodations for their learning disabilities in elementary through high school; but in college, it’s up to the students to advocate for themselves.
"It's important to keep in mind that, as a student with unique learning needs, you are an ambassador for the countless unique learners that follow you," Cresswell says. "When you communicate with your teacher or professor how you learn best, you will help them understand other unique learners better."
Augustin encourages students to have open communication with their instructors. "Let them know the areas you struggle with so that you can both come up with the best solution to accommodate your needs," she advises. "Accommodations you are entitled to may include priority registration, private testing, notes from note-taker or scribe, extended time on tests, course substitutions and textbooks in an alternate format."
“For example, you might say, ‘I have difficulty reading,’” Cresswell says. “‘I need to sit close to you, so I can really listen and look at you while I take notes.’”
Here’s a list of expert tips to help you prepare for the lecture hall:
- Have a plan to keep track of assignments and due dates. Keep in mind all quizzes, exams, tests, papers, etc.
- Pre-read the assignments listed on the syllabus so you can identify words difficult to pronounce.
- Plan to work with a tutor 1:1 or get involved in a campus study group.
- Sit in front of the room or lecture hall — close to the instructor — and away from distractions.
- When you get an assignment, break it into small pieces. Develop an outline of what needs to be accomplished to avoid becoming overwhelmed.
- Utilize assistive technology such as laptops and reading, recording and note-taking pens.
- After each lecture, confirm with the professor the expectations for any upcoming assignments and ensure you fully understand.
- Meet regularly with the professor or teacher's assistant for office hours.
Brain Drills and Study Tips
Suzanne Cresswell shares the following brain drill warm-ups:
Top 12 Study Tips
Tip 1: Remove all distractions including internet, television and cell phone from your study area.
Tip 2: Play classical or instrumental music in the background to relax.
Tip 3: Set small goals and reward yourself when you complete them.
Tip 4: Keep an agenda/planner and check it off as you finish to visualize your progress.
Tip 5: Use a phonetic dictionary to sound out words.
Tip 6: Study outside of your room. Try a coffee shop or library.
Tip 7: Use a peer's notes or the instructor’s notes (through accommodations) to ensure you have accurate information.
Tip 8: If you have dyslexia and are borrowing notes, rewrite them in your own handwriting as a memorization strategy.
Tip 9: Turn your written notes into pictures or diagrams to make them easier to remember.
Tip 10: Try reading your notes aloud in addition to other strategies.
Tip 11: Check on campus for a study skills group for support.
Tip 12: Practice “brain drills” or warm-ups before a study session.
Strategies for Test Taking
Taking tests can be anxiety-inducing for any student but it’s especially stressful for students with a learning disability. Most students can benefit from testing in a separate or smaller environment and seeking extra test time. Here are some specific test-taking pointers from our experts to build confidence during exam time:
Be mindful of the exam format
The test format matters more to the student with reading difficulties than other, more typical learners. Just like performance athletes practice sport-specific training, the college learner needs to study in a test-specific environment. Determine in advance the type of test you will be taking and whether it will be on paper or the computer.
Students with dysgraphia know that being unable to trust that your fingers will listen to your brain is frustrating. Deal with the uncomfortable feelings by taking calm, deep breaths and doing shoulder circles during the test time. Read the test questions in advance and, while you do, warm up your fingers with a fidget spinner or squeeze a stress ball.
Plan your time
If you have an hour, read all the test questions first and make notes to make it easier for you to read the hard words when you go over it again. Work through the test, moving on to the next question if you feel stuck. Spend the last 20 minutes working on the questions you skipped and reviewing the entire exam.
Reviewing completed answers is very important for students with dysgraphia and should begin when a third of the test time is remaining. Watch for spacing between your words and legible letter shape. If any time remains after proofing, continue to work on difficult problems until time runs out.
Study Help: Technology Edition
Convert text to a synthesized voice with programs such as Natural Reader, Ivona and WordTalk.
E-pens such as Wizcom ReadingPen 2, help by reading the text aloud that students scan from books and other written material.
These pens digitally record students’ written notes while pens such as Livescribe Smartpen and SoundNote simultaneously record audio while you type.
Find and correct spelling and grammar errors with programs such as Grammarly, Ginger and the comprehensive Ghotit, which also reads text aloud.
By expanding keyboard shortcuts into text and images, this program helps students with writing difficulties.
Students transform ideas into visual representations by creating and sharing mindmaps.
Use a stylus or your finger to take notes on your iPad in your handwriting using your own shorthand.
My Study Life
Stay organized with classes, exams and daily tasks by using this free software.
Students can perform math functions without a mouse or keyboard.
National Library of Virtual Manipulatives
Visual-spatial exercises, like those at this website, strengthen writing skills for those with dyscalculia.
This virtual graph paper ensures numbers and equations are legible before printing or emailing.
What is Dysgraphia?
This video from the National Center for Learning Disabilities explains dysgraphia.
A guide to understanding dysgraphia and how to succeed despite the learning disability.
This nonprofit organization shares information about math learning disabilities and provides tools for schools, teachers and students.
The Mathematical Brain
Brian Butterworth, a professor with dyscalculia, provides tips, tools and resources for those with the learning disability.
A handout of self-advocacy advice for students with learning disabilities from Disability Rights North Carolina.
Preparing Students with Disabilities for Postsecondary Education
The Washington Student Achievement Council developed this guide of definitions, resources, scholarships and tips for students with common learning disabilities.