Don't "Dys" Labels: Defining Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, and Dyscalculia

Labels are tools. Labels are only words to help us define and understand phenomena we see in learning development. When we have children who struggle with learning, labels help us find resources and make connections. Most importantly, labels help us approach learning using appropriate strategies with proven effective outcomes.

Labels also create a cycle of understanding: the better we define a cluster of learning struggles, the more researchers begin to identify neurocognitive connections, the more educators explore strategies for improvement. As this cycle continues, information about various treatment options—and their efficacy—is made available. Resources grow.

In other words—and this is the goal—the better we are able to differentiate between types of learning struggles, by assigning labels and solidifying our understanding, the better our intervention.

This blog defines four common labels associated with reading and writing difficulties. In future posts, I will share how each type of learning struggle should be matched with appropriate, research-based intervention. The following definitions are taken from the book, Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, OWL LD, and Dyscalculia: Lessons from Science and Teaching, by Virginia Berninger and Beverly Wolf (21-22).

girl sitting at table writing on white board


Dysgraphia is perhaps the most debated and confusing label. It is also poorly diagnosed with few assessment tools available. Unfortunately dysgraphia continues to be defined and treated primarily as a fine motor disorder, despite research to the contrary. The word dysgraphia is from the Greek base word graph, which means letter. Dysgraphia is an impairment in letter formation.

"Dysgraphia is a Specific Language Disability in students for whom developmental motor coordination disorder (outside the normal range) can be ruled out."

Children with dysgraphia "have difficulty with:

  • subword letter formation—producing legible letters others can regonize
  • [writing] automatically in a consistent way that does not drain limited working memory resources"

In summary, dysgraphia is a written language disorder that:

  • interferes with the "serial production of strokes to form a handwritten letter"
  • "involves . . . finding, retrieving, and producing letters, which is a subword level language skill"
  • interferes with spelling and written composition
  • may occur without additional difficulty in reading (dyslexia).


Dyslexia is also from a Greek base word lex, which means word. It involves impairment in word-level reading and spelling skills. Part of the definition is that dyslexia occurs in the absence of other specific developmental disabilities. In other words, listening comprehension and oral expression are not impaired.

Dyslexia is a Specific Learning Disability that can involve any or all of the following delays in:

  • both accuracy and rate of oral reading
  • only rate of oral reading
  • reading of only nonsense words
  • reading of both real and nonsense words
  • silent reading rate
  • written spelling

Dyslexia may occur with or without dysgraphia.


Dyscalculia is often overlooked, and research is fairly new in understanding the possible co-occurrence of dyscalculia and dysgraphia. Based in another Greek base word, dyscalculia is an impairment in calculation, including:

  • computational procedures
  • basic addition
  • subtraction
  • multiplication
  • division operations

Children with dyscalculia may not be impaired in their comprehension of all quantitative skills. Like the other three, it is a disorder at the sub-word level, involving fast mapping and automaticity of symbols—in this case, math symbols.


OWL LD is an acronym for Oral Written Language Learning Disability. Because learning struggle involves more global language skills, an OWL LD becomes evident in the early toddler and preschool years as children struggle to progress in both their verbal and listening language development.

Characteristics of an OWL LD include children who "tend to:

  • be late talkers
  • struggle with understanding heard language
  • [struggle in] combining words to express ideas and intentions in oral language."

In addition, some children with language impairment "may show signs of co-occurring dysgraphia and/or dyslexia."

Most educators are less familiar with dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia, but they are more familiar with reading and writing struggles that are the result of underlying language impairment. When weak language skills impact reading and writing, it is diagnosed as an Oral Written Language Learning Disability.

It is easy to see that understanding the areas of weakness is critical for determining proper intervention. It doesn't help to work on context cues with a student who cannot decode, or a graphic organizer for a student who cannot spell. We need to understand where kids struggle and strengthen those skills.

Labels do not define who a child is, but they can give us a better sense of what a child is living with in their educational life. Better understanding leads us to better support.

~ Rita

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