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How to Teach: Learning Disabilities

Signs, Symptoms, Strategies from Learning Disabilities Association of America

A learning disability is a neurological disorder that affects one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using spoken or written language. The disability may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or to do mathematical calculations.

Every individual with a learning disability is unique and shows a different combination and degree of difficulties. A common characteristic among people with learning disabilities is uneven areas of ability, “a weakness within a sea of strengths.” For instance, a child with dyslexia who struggles with reading, writing and spelling may be very capable in math and science.

Learning disabilities should not be confused with learning problems which are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor handicaps; of mental retardation; of emotional disturbance; or of environmental, cultural or economic disadvantages.

Generally speaking, people with learning disabilities are of average or above average intelligence. There often appears to be a gap between the individual’s potential and actual achievement. This is why learning disabilities are referred to as “hidden disabilities:” the person looks perfectly “normal” and seems to be a very bright and intelligent person, yet may be unable to demonstrate the skill level expected from someone of a similar age.

A learning disability cannot be cured or fixed; it is a lifelong challenge. However, with appropriate support and intervention, people with learning disabilities can achieve success in school, at work, in relationships, and in the community.

In Federal law, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the term is “specific learning disability,” one of 13 categories of disability under that law.

“Learning Disabilities” is an “umbrella” term describing a number of other, more specific learning disabilities, such as dyslexia and dysgraphia. Find the signs and symptoms of each, plus strategies to help:

A language and reading disability
Problems with arithmetic and math concepts 
A writing disorder resulting in illegibility
Dyspraxia (Sensory Integration Disorder)
Problems with motor coordination
Central Auditory Processing Disorder
Difficulty processing and remembering language-related tasks
Non-Verbal Learning Disorders
Trouble with nonverbal cues, e.g., body language; poor coordination, clumsy
Visual Perceptual/Visual Motor Deficit
Reverses letters; cannot copy accurately; eyes hurt and itch; loses place; struggles with cutting
Language Disorders (Aphasia/Dysphasia)
Trouble understanding spoken language; poor reading comprehension

Recent research confirms that we can teach students with learning disabilities how to learn. We can put them into a position to compete! Here are the strategies that work:

Lee Swanson (1999) and his colleagues found two major intervention practices that produced large outcomes. One is direct instruction. The other is learning strategy instruction.

Teachers who were applying those kinds of intervention:

  1. broke learning into small steps;
  2. administered probes;
  3. supplied regular quality feedback;
  4. used diagrams, graphics and pictures to augment what they were saying in words;
  5. provided ample independent, well-designed, intensive practice;
  6. modeled instructional practices that they wanted students to follow;
  7. provided prompts of strategies to use; and
  8. engaged students in process type questions like “How is that strategy working? Where else might you apply it?”

Something else that seems to make a real difference is the practice of scaffolding. Start out with heavily teacher-mediated instruction -- explicit instruction – then as students begin to acquire the skill, moving down the continuum to more student-mediated instruction.

Whether the student is learning in a general education classroom or pulled out into a special education resource setting, be sure that activities are focused on assessing individual students to monitor their progress through the curriculum. Concerns for the individual must take precedence over concerns for the group, and over concerns about the organization and management of the general education classroom. Success for the student with learning disabilities requires a focus on individual achievement, individual progress, and individual learning. This requires specific, directed, individualized, intensive remedial instruction of students who are struggling.

"How to Teach Students with Learning Disabilities" from UC Berkeley DSP

Students with learning disabilities have normal or better intelligence, but they also have severe "information-processing deficits" that make them perform significantly worse in one or more academic areas (reading, writing, math) than might be expected, given their intelligence and performance in other academic areas. Though all learning disabilities are different, students with learning disabilities report some common problems, including slow and inefficient reading; slow essay-writing, with problems in organization and the mechanics of writing; and frequent errors in math calculation.

The following suggestions may be helpful in working with students who have learning disabilities, and also those who have head injuries.

  • Students with learning disabilities may take longer to complete exams and may need extended time
  • Students with learning disabilities may also take longer to complete assignments, so it is particularly important to provide a detailed syllabus at the beginning of the class. The syllabus should list all assignments and due-dates.
  • If possible, provide frequent opportunities for feedback: for example, weekly quizzes on assigned reading, instructor review of early drafts of essays, error-analysis of tests. If a student's written exams seem far inferior to the student's classwork, the two of you can meet during your office hours for a discussion of the exam questions. This discussion will give you a better idea of what the student really knows and how you can help the student produce better exams or other written work.
  • Encourage students to contact you in order to clarify assignments. You might suggest that students re-phrase the assignment and send the re-phrased version to you via e-mail. You can then reply via e-mail, confirming that the student has understood the assignment or correcting misunderstandings.
  • Well before the beginning of your class, leave a list of required and recommended texts at your department office, and tell the office staff that students with disabilities should be permitted to make copies of the list. (Or put the book-list on your course website.) Some students with learning disabilities will need to order their textbooks from Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic, and receiving the books takes time.
  • Be sensitive to students who, for disability-related reasons, may be unable to read aloud or answer questions when called on. If students make you aware of these difficulties, you and the students can discuss other ways they can meaningfully participate in class sessions: for example, volunteering comments or making short presentations.
  • Compose exams in a way that makes them accessible for students with learning disabilities:
  • Make sure that exams are clearly written or typed, in large black letters or numbers, with spaces between lines and with double or triple spaces between items. To avoid visual confusion, avoid cramming too many questions or math problems onto one page. Print questions on only one side of the paper.
  • Group similar types of questions together: for example, all true/false, all multiple-choice, all short-answers. Leave several spaces between multiple-choice items.
  • Permit students to circle answers in the test booklet rather than darkening circles on a Scantron sheet.
  • Allow students to use extra paper in preparing answers to essay questions. (Encourage the students to turn in preliminary outlines or scrawled notes with the completed exam bluebooks.)
  • Suggest that math students use graph paper (or lined paper turned sideways) to ensure neatness and avoid confusion when performing math calculations.