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Learning Disabilities

A learning disability (LD) is a neurological disorder that causes difficulty in organizing information received, remembering it, and expressing it, and therefore affects a person's basic functions such as reading, writing, comprehension, and reasoning. In simple terms, a learning disability results from a difference in the way a person's brain is "wired." While children with learning disabilities are as smart or smarter than their peers, they may have difficulty with reading, writing, spelling, reasoning, or recalling and/or organizing information if they are left to figure things out by themselves or if they are taught in conventional ways.

Jack Horner
Jack Horner (b. 1946) is an American paleontologist who discovered the Maiasaura, providing evidence that dinosaurs cared for their young. His dyslexia interfered with his ability to do well in school, yet he received an honorary doctorate and is a faculty member at Montana State University.

A learning disability may not be curable, but with the right support and intervention, children with learning disabilities can succeed in school and go on to successful, often distinguished careers later in life. Parents can help children with learning disabilities achieve such success by encouraging their strengths, knowing their weaknesses, understanding the educational system, working with professionals and learning about strategies for dealing with specific difficulties.

It is important to understand that learning disabilities are defined differently by different groups. The concept of “learning disability” has one meaning for the general public, but a different meaning for professionals. Furthermore, different professional groups use different definitions of learning disability.

Common Learning Disabilities

  1. Dyslexia – a language-based disability in which a person has trouble understanding written words. It may also be referred to as reading disability or reading disorder.
  2. Dyscalculia – a mathematical disability in which a person has a difficult time solving arithmetic problems and grasping math concepts.
  3. Dysgraphia – a writing disability in which a person finds it hard to form letters or write within a defined space.
  4. Auditory and Visual Processing Disorders – sensory disabilities in which a person has difficulty processing auditory or visual information despite normal hearing and vision.
  5. Nonverbal Learning Disabilities – a neurological disorder which originates in the right hemisphere of the brain, causing problems with visual-spatial, intuitive, organizational, evaluative and holistic processing functions.

(From: Learning Strategies for Problem Learners, by Thomas Lombardi,, and

Possible Indicators

Becoming aware of the warning signs of learning disabilities and getting children the necessary help early on can be key to a child's future. The earlier a learning disability is detected, the better chance a child will have of succeeding in school and in life. All children learn in highly individual ways. To increase the likelihood of student success, detection is key.


  1. Speaks later than most children
  2. Pronunciation problems
  3. Slow vocabulary growth, often unable to find the right word
  4. Difficulty rhyming words
  5. Trouble learning numbers, alphabet, days of the week, colors, shapes
  6. Extremely restless and easily distracted
  7. Trouble interacting with peers
  8. Difficulty following directions or routines
  9. Fine motor skills slow to develop

Grades K–4

  1. Slow to learn the connection between letters and sounds
  2. Confuses basic words (run, eat, want)
  3. Makes consistent reading and spelling errors including letter reversals (b/d), inversions (m/w), transpositions (felt/left), and substitutions (house/home)
  4. Transposes number sequences and confuses arithmetic signs (+, -, x, /, =)
  5. Slow to remember facts
  6. Slow to learn new skills, relies heavily on memorization
  7. Impulsive, difficulty planning
  8. Unstable pencil grip
  9. Trouble learning about time
  10. Poor coordination, unaware of physical surroundings, prone to accidents

Grades 5–8

  1. Reverses letter sequences (soiled/solid, left/felt)
  2. Slow to learn prefixes, suffixes, root words, and other spelling strategies
  3. Avoids reading aloud
  4. Trouble with word problems
  5. Difficulty with handwriting
  6. Awkward, fist-like, or tight pencil grip
  7. Avoids writing assignments
  8. Slow or poor recall of facts
  9. Difficulty making friends
  10. Trouble understanding body language and facial expressions

High School Students and Adults

  1. Continues to spell incorrectly, frequently spells the same word differently in a single piece of writing
  2. Avoids reading and writing tasks
  3. Trouble summarizing
  4. Trouble with open-ended questions on tests
  5. Weak memory skills
  6. Difficulty adjusting to new settings
  7. Works slowly
  8. Poor grasp of abstract concepts
  9. Either pays too little attention to details or focuses on them too much
  10. Misreads information

Sample Strategies

Bring to the student's attention science role models with disabilities with a similar disability to that of the student. Point out that this individual got ahead by a combination of effort and by asking for help when needed. Generally, a person with learning disabilities may experience difficulties in study skills, writing skills, oral skills, reading skills, math skills, and social skills.

In studying, students may experience inability to organize time and may be unable to finish assignments on time. They also may have trouble taking notes and following instructions. They often have difficulty spelling correctly and may make frequent grammatical errors which results in poor sentence structure and poor penmanship. If the lecturer speaks too fast, they may have difficulty understanding the lecture and recalling the words. They are often slow readers and sometimes have incorrect comprehension and poor retention. They may be confused with math symbols and may have difficulty with concepts of time and money. Realizing their inabilities  result in low self-esteem which can greatly affects their social skills. They might have impulsive behavior and be disorientated in time.

Dealing with students with learning disabilities, as with other students, requires that teachers have a good understanding of individual students’ strengths and needs, and plan instruction to build on their strengths and address their needs. The following are some suggestions and guidelines for a teacher with students with learning disabilities.

General Courtesy

  1. Don't assume that the person is not listening just because you are getting no verbal or visual feedback.
  2. Don't assume that you have to explain everything to students with learning disabilities. They do not necessarily have a problem with general comprehension.
  3. Consult with the special education specialist to obtain help in understanding the specific nature of the learning disability for each student.
  4. Never assess a student's capabilities based solely on their IQ or other standardized test scores.
  5. Give student with learning disabilities priority in registration for classes.
  6. Allow course substitution for nonessential course requirements in their major studies.
  7. A student may have documented intelligence with test scores in the average to superior range with adequate sensory and motor systems and still have a learning disability. Learning disabilities often go undiagnosed, hence teacher observation can be a major source of identification.
  8. Bring to the student's attention science role models with disabilities with a similar disability to that of the student. Point out that this individual got ahead by a combination of effort and by asking for help when needed.

Teacher Presentation

  1. Always ask questions in a clarifying manner, then have the students with learning disabilities describe his or her understanding of the questions.
  2. Use an overhead projector with an outline of the lesson or unit of the day.
  3. Ensure that students have a managable course load.
  4. Provide clear photocopies of your notes and overhead transparencies, if the student benefits from such strategies.
  5. Provide students with chapter outlines or study guides that cue them to key points in their readings.
  6. Provide a detailed course syllabus before class begins.
  7. Ask questions in a way that helps the student gain confidence. Keep oral instructions logical and concise. Reinforce them with a brief cue words.
  8. Repeat or re-word complicated directions. Frequently verbalize what is being written on the chalkboard.
  9. Eliminate classroom distractions such as, excessive noise, flickering lights, etc.
  10. Outline class presentations on the chalkboard or on an overhead transparency.
  11. Outline material to be covered during each class period unit. (At the end of class, summarize the important segments of each presentation.)Establish the clarity of understanding that the student has about class assignments.
  12. Give assignments both in written and oral form.
  13. Have more complex lessons recorded and available to the students with learning disabilities.
  14. Have practice exercises available for lessons, in case the student has problems.
  15. Have students with learning disabilities underline key words or directions on activity sheets (then review the sheets with them).
  16. Have complex homework assignments due in two or three days rather than on the next day.
  17. Pace instruction carefully to ensure clarity.
  18. Present new and or technical vocabulary on the chalkboard or overhead.
  19. Provide and teach memory associations (mnemonic strategies).
  20. Support one modality of presentation by following it with instruction and then use another modality.
  21. Talk distinctly and at a rate that the student with a learning disability can be follow.
  22. Technical content should be presented in small incremental steps.
  23. Use plenty of examples, oral or otherwise, in order to make topics more applied.
  24. Use straight forward instructions with step-by-step unambiguous terms. (Preferably, presented one at a time).
  25. Write legibly, use large type; do not clutter the blackboard with non-current / non-relevant information.
  26. Use props to make narrative situations more vivid and clear.
  27. Assist the student, if necessary, in borrowing classmates' notes.
  28. Consider cross-age or peer tutoring if the student appears unable to keep up with the class pace or with complex subject matter. The more capable reader can help in summarizing the essential points of the reading or in establishing the main idea of the reading.


  1. Clearly label equipment, tools, and materials. Color code them for enhanced visual recognition.
  2. Consider alternate activities/exercises that can be utilized with less difficulty for the student, but has the same or similar learning objectives.
  3. Provide clear photocopies of your notes and overhead transparencies.
  4. For students with learning disabilities, make available cue cards or labels designating the steps of a procedure to expedite the mastering.
  5. Use an overhead projector with an outline of the lesson or unit of the day.
  6. Allow extended time for responses and the preparation and delivery of reports.
  7. In dealing with abstract concepts, use visual tools such as charts and graphs. Also, paraphrase and present them in specific terms, and sequence and illustrate them with concrete examples, personal experiences, or hands-on exercises.
  8. To minimize student anxiety, provide an individual orientation to the laboratory and equipment and give extra practice with tasks and equipment.
  9. Find areas of strength in the student's lab experiences and emphasize those as much as possible.
  10. Allow the students with learning disabilities the use of computers and spell checking programs on assignments.


  1. Announce readings as well as assignments well in advance.
  2. Find materials paralleling the textbook, but written at a lower reading level. (Also, include activities that make the reading assignment more relevant.)
  3. Introduce simulations to make abstract content more concrete.
  4. Make lists of required readings available early and arrange to obtain texts on tape from Recording for the Blind or a Reading/Typing Service.
  5. Offer to read written material aloud, when necessary.
  6. Read aloud material that is written on the chalkboard and on the overhead transparencies.
  7. Review relevant material, preview the material to be presented, present the new material then summarize the material just presented.
  8. Suggest that the students use both visual and auditory senses when reading the text.
  9. Rely less on textbooks. Reading for students with learning disabilities may be slow and deliberate, and comprehension may be impaired for the student , particularly when dealing with large quantities of material. Comprehension and speed usually dramatically increase with the addition of auditory input.
  10. Spend more time on building background for the reading selections and creating a mental scheme for the organization of the text.
  11. Encourage students to practice using technical words in exchanges among peers.
  12. Choose books with a reduced number of difficult words, direct non convoluted syntax, and passages that deliver clear meaning. Also, select readings that are organized by subheads because this aids in the flow of ideas.
  13. When writing materials for reading by students with learning disabilities, some of the strategies referred to in the reading section of the hearing impaired presentation will be appropriate.
  14. Allow the student to use a playback device, such as tape player, computer, mp3 player, etc...

Group Interaction and Discussion

  1. Always ask questions in a clarifying manner, then have the students with learning disabilities describe his or her understanding of the questions.
  2. Assist the student, if necessary, in borrowing classmates discussion notes.
  3. Encourage questions during or after class to ensure that materials are understood by students with learning disabilities.
  4. Give individual conferences to guide students with learning disabilities to monitor progress and understanding of the assignment and of the course content.
  5. Give plenty of reinforcement when it is evident that the student with a learning disability is trying things that are made difficult by the disability.
  6. Have frequent question-and-answer sessions for students with learning disabilities.

Field Experiences

  1. Allow the students with learning disabilities the use of computers and spell checking programs on field notes and reports.
  2. Consider alternate activities/exercises that can be utilized with less difficulty for the student, but has the same or similar learning objectives.


  1. Review and discuss with the student the steps involved in a research activity. Think about which step(s) may be difficult for the student's specific functional limitations and jointly devise accommodations for that student.
  2. Use appropriate laboratory and field strategies.


  1. Avoid overly complicated language in exam questions and clearly separate items when spacing them on the exam sheet. (Refer to writing for students with hearing impairments in thereading section.)
  2. Consider other forms of testing (oral, hands-on demonstration, open-book etc.). Some students with learning disabilities find that large print helps their processing ability.
  3. Consider the use of illustrations by the students with learning disabilities as an acceptable form of response to questions in lieu of written responses.
  4. Eliminate distractions while students are taking exams.
  5. For students with perceptual problems, for whom transferring answers is especially difficult, avoid answer sheets, especially computer forms. Allow them to write answers (check or circle) on the test (or try to have them dictate their responses on a tape recorder.)
  6. For students who have reading difficulties, have a proctor read the test to the student.
  7. For students with writing difficulties, have someone scibe the answers for them or use a tape recorder to take down the answers.
  8. Gradually increase expectations as the students with learning disabilities gains confidence.
  9. Grant time extensions on exams and written assignments when there are significant demands on reading and writing skills.
  10. If distractions are excessive, permit the students with learning disabilities to take examinations in a separate quiet room with a proctor.
  11. Provide study questions for exams that demonstrate the format along with the content of the exam.
  12. Review with the student how to proofread assignments and tests.
  13. Do not test material just presented or outcomes just produced, since for the students with learning disabilities, additional time is generally required to assimilate new knowledge and concepts.
  14. Permit the students with learning disabilities the use of a dictionary, thesaurus, or a calculator during tests.
  15. Provide computer with spell check/grammar/ cut & paste features


Council for Exceptional Children - Division for Learning Disabilities (DLD)
The Division for Learning Disabilities (DLD) is one of 17 special interest groups of the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC). DLD works on behalf of students with learning disabilities and the professionals who serve them to meet the needs of youth currently identified as having learning disabilities in the United States.

Council for Learning Disabilities (CLD)
Professionals representing diverse disciplines who are committed to the development of individuals with learning disabilities. Information on conferences, advocacy, research and teaching tips.

International Dyslexia Association
General information, branch services, membership, conferences and seminars, bookstore and bulletin boards.

Learning Disability Association of America
The Learning Disabilities Association of America is a national, non-profit organization with the purpose of advancing the education and general welfare of children and adults of normal or potentially normal intelligence who manifest handicaps of a perceptual, conceptual, or coordinative nature.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities
NCLD is a national non-profit organization committed to improving the lives of those affected by learning disabilities. NCLD provides, free of charge, the latest information on learning disabilities and resources available in communities nationwide to parents, professionals and adults with learning disabilities.

Learning Disability Resources


Learning Disability Online
This site is about Learning Disabilities from the Research and Training Division of the Learning Disabilities Center. Questions and comments are appreciated. Information about, Research Articles, Training Activities, A List of Products, and Consumer Led Empowerment Training are included.

The Resources for Learning Disabilities
This site contains a variety of resources for learning disabilities.

Assistive Software for Learning Disabilities

Creature Antics by Laureate Learning Systems Inc.
Designed for those with severe difficulties, this program has cast of animated characters helping users to begin learning about cause and effect and turn taking. Similar programs included Creature Capers, Creature Cartoons, Creature Chorus, Creature features, Creature magic.

Availability: Commercial product
Contact: Laureate Learning Systems, Inc.
Phone: +1-802-655-4755
Fax: +1-802-655-4757

Early Learning I, II, III by Marblesoft
This program is designed to let the student have fun learning while requite a minimum amount of time from the teacher or parent. Early Learning I includes 4 activities that teach pre-reading skills, Early Learning II includes 4 activities that teach addition and number sequencing. Early Learning III includes 3 activities that teach subtraction and number comparison.

Availability: Commercial product
Contact: Marblesoft USA

Following Directions: Left and Right by Laureate Learning Systems Inc.
Designed to help those with disabilities and impairments, this program offers 10 activities to help student learn to follow directions and discriminate between left and right, accessible through keyboard, touch screen or single switch.

Availability: Commercial product
Contact: Laureate Learning Systems Inc.
Phone: +1-802-655-4755
Fax: +1-802-655-4757

Micro-LADs: MicroComputers Language Assessment and Development System by Laureate Learning Systems Inc.
Designed to train 46 basic syntactic structures, this is aimed at the special needs of those with disabilities and impairments, accessible with keyboard, touch screen, single switch or mouse.

Availability: Commercial product
Contact: Laureate Learning Systems Inc.
Phone: +1-802-655-4755
Fax: +1-802-655-4757

Monkeys jumping on the bed by Soft Touch Software
This program combines a favorite preschool song with number and color activities. Students with cognitive delays respond to upbeat music and interesting sounds. Large graphics help learners focus on the action.

Availability: Commercial product.
Contact: Soft Touch Software USA
Phone: +1-877-763-8868
Fax: +1-661-396-8760

Teach Me to Talk by Soft Touch Software
Many students have difficulties learning to speak. This program features several strategies where children learn language through rhyme, rhythm, and repetition.

Availability: Commercial product
Contact: Soft Touch Software USA
Phone: +1-877-763-8868
Fax: +1-661-396-8760

Co: Writer 4000 by Don Johnston Inc.
Co: Writer is a writing assistant with intelligent word prediction, a productivity tool for those who struggle with writing due to injury, physical limitation, language delay or learning disability. Co: Writer is suitable for all vocabulary levels. And the speech output gives auditory feedback to those who need to hear their words. Co: Writer is a whole-language-writing tool for novel communication and for student with language deficiencies or learning disabilities.

Availability: Commercial product
Contact: Don Johnston Inc USA
Phone: +1-847-526-2682
Fax: +1-847-526-4177

Write: OutLoud by Don Johnston Inc.
Write: OutLoud is a flexible and user-friendly talking word processor that offers multisensory learning and positive reinforcement for writers of all ages and ability levels. Write: OutLoud uses CD-quality audio to repeat words, letters and sentences as students type. The auditory feedback is great for students with learning disabilities because they can hear if words are omitted or substituted. Write: OutLoud is a suitable creature writing program for all ages and especially for students with learning disabilities.

Availability: Commercial product
Contact: Don Johnston Inc. USA
Phone: +1-847-526-2682
Fax: +1-847-526-4177

Dyna Vox Mac by Dyna Vox Systems Inc.
Dyna Vox Mac software helps students with disabilities break through the barriers to learn and succeed in the classroom. Dyna Vox software can be used to create dynamically linked communication pages for those with special speech, language and learning needs. Dyna Vox Mac acts as a speech/language therapy tool and also helps turn a Macintosh into an augmentative communication device for the speech disabled.

Availability: Commercial product
Contact: Dyna Vox Systems Inc.
Phone: +1-888-697-7332

Fast Forword
A software for very young children to build the critical early learning skills. It is recommended as an appropriate tool for children with Autism.

Address: Scientific Learning, 300 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, Suite 500, Oakland CA 94612-2040
Phone: 1-888-665-9707
Fax: 510-444-3580

Access to Math
An on screen talking math worksheet that guides a student to math solutions. Students with learning disabilities can learn math at their own pace with this program.

Availability: Commercial product
Contact: Don Johnston Inc USA
Phone: +1-847-526-2682
Fax: +1-847-526-4177

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