Learning Disabilities

A specific learning disability (LD), is a disorder in one or more of the central nervous system processes involved in perceiving, understanding and/or using concepts through verbal or nonverbal language, (verbal language includes spoken and written word). This disorder manifests itself with a deficit in one or more of the following areas: attention, reasoning, processing, memory, communication, reading, writing, spelling, calculation, coordination, social competence, and emotional maturity. In general, individuals with a specific learning disability have:

  • Average to superior intelligence.
  • A chronic neurological disorder which posses difficulty in receiving, processing, integrating and/or expressing information.
  • A severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual capacity in one or more areas which does not result from environmental or academic disadvantage, emotional disturbance or mental retardation.

Students with learning disabilities are often misunderstood and assumed to have little potential, be unmotivated and/or unintelligent. Although a learning disability can not be “cured,” it can be circumvented through instructional intervention and compensatory strategies.

Some of the disorders included under the umbrella of specific learning disabilities are dyslexia(difficulty with reading), dyscalculi (difficulty with math), dysgraphia (difficulty with writing), and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder or ADHD (difficulty with maintaining concentration and impulse control). Students with LD may have a weakness in one or more of the following areas:

Visual perception: The student may see letters incorrectly or in reverse order; fail to see some letters, words, or even a whole paragraph; may confuse letters and symbols that are similar (b and d, g and q); or may omit ends of words.

Auditory perception: There may be difficulties differentiating between similar sounds, picking up on the subtleties in different tones of voice, e.g., anger, sarcasm, questioning, or extreme sensitivity to background noises.

Spatial perception: May be unable to judge distances, differentiate between left and right, or follow complicated directions.

Memory: Short term memory difficulties typically present more problems than longterm memory difficulties. The student may have to search for words, names, dates, etc.

Sequencing: Students may have difficulty with the order and arrangement of letters and numbers, organizing notes and keeping track of important materials. They may also have difficulties in understanding the relationship of main to subordinate ideas.

Motor coordination: Poor gross-motor coordination can result in clumsiness. Poor fine-motor coordination can result in poor handwriting and difficulty manipulating small objects. Auditory motor problems interfere with following verbal directions or listening and taking notes at the same time.

College students with LD vary widely in the extent to which they exhibit weaknesses in these areas. Most students with LD have learned coping strategies to help manage some of their barriers to learning. As with anyone, students with LD will have greater success at learning if all sense modalities can be used in the teaching and learning process (visual, auditory, tactile and kinesthetic). A variety of instructional modes enhances learning for students with LD by allowing them to master material that may be inaccessible in one particular form. It is important to work with the student to identify effective strategies.

Instructional strategies and potential accommodations

Specific accommodations will need to be individually tailored because students with LD will vary depending on their type and degree of learning difficulty. Usually, a combination of adaptive methods is the best approach. Many adaptations used for students with LD are the same as for other types of disabilities.

  • Provide a course syllabus and reading list in advance to students who require more time for organizing their work or need to have material taped.
  • Vary your approaches to enhance the ways in which students with LD learn. Concepts can be strengthened by using as many senses as possible when presenting subject matter: the chalkboard, handouts, videos, group discussions, role playing, overhead projectors, etc. Incorporate “hands on” and lab experiences when they are appropriate.
  • Consider highlighting print by varying the letter size, underlining, or changing the typeface or spacing for those students with reading difficulties.
  • Organize material sequentially. Use concrete examples and personal anecdotes to increase the student’s ability to recall information.
  • Review/summarize key concepts periodically when lecturing.
  • Minimize room distractions and interruptions, i.e., close the hall door, minimize interruptions, and turn off overheads and slide projectors when not in use.
  • Provide handouts on technical terms used in your class.
  • Provide, if necessary, extra time for reading assignments.
  • Point out the organizational items in textbooks, e.g., chapter summaries, subheadings, charts, maps and indexes.
  • Give all assignments and course expectations in written and oral form, listing tests and assignments with due dates.
  • Break down difficult concepts into steps or smaller parts
  • Recognize that proofreaders, if used, are simply assisting the student in producing a more satisfactory copy, not in completing the assignment.
  • Outline the day’s lecture on the chalkboard or as a handout.
  • At the end of the class period give a brief review of the material presented and emphasize key points.
  • Include time for questions and answers.
  • Give students study questions for exams that demonstrate format as well as potential content with an explanation of what constitutes a good answer and why.
  • Allow the tape recording of lectures when necessary.
  • Extend the time allowed to complete assignments if necessary and appropriate.
  • Read aloud material that is written on the chalkboard.
  • Read aloud written material presented in class.

Students may need to meet with their instructors regularly to keep apprised of their progress and to review relevant course information.

Test adaptation and administration alternatives

  • Keep physical transferring of information to a minimum by allowing students to write answers on the test rather than having a separate sheet upon which to record answers. Circling or checking answers is the best alternative.
  • Exams in large-print format, an 18-24 point bold font, may work well for some students.
  • Allow extended time to accommodate for the student’s decreased reading/processing speed. Research has shown that extra time will improve the results for a student with a learning disability, while having no impact on performance of students without LD.
  • Avoid using double negatives and unnecessarily complex sentences. Ask direct, concise questions.
  • Provide alternative format exams, e.g., an essay exam could be substituted for multiple choice, an oral exam in place of a written one.
  • Allow the use of a scribe or enlarge the answer when using computer scored answer sheets, which may be difficult for a student with poor eye-hand coordination to complete.
  • Provide frequent, shorter exams rather than a long test at the end of a term to more fairly test the knowledge of a student with LD.
  • Allow word processors or calculators for the completion of exams.
  • Do not evaluate the exam based on handwriting and spelling quality.
  • Provide a quiet, separate room or office to minimize noise and distractions.
  • Review exams with students after grading to explain incorrect answers and further review correct ones.
  • Discuss exam arrangements with the Hawley Academic Resource Center staff early in the semester to assure that the process will be smooth when the time comes.

Communication suggestions

  • Give timely feedback to the student; errors need to be corrected as soon as possible.

Special note:

The accommodation needs of students with LD must be examined individually as the difficulties encountered vary with the strengths and weaknesses of the individual. The student may benefit from program modifications such as the substitution of one course for another required course, part-time rather than full-time study, auditing a course before actually enrolling in it or an extension of time allowed to complete a program of study.