Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities (LD) is a generic term that refers to a group of disorders which are manifested by significant difficulties in at least one of the following areas: oral expression, listening comprehension, written expression, basic reading skills, reading comprehension, mathematical calculation, or problem solving. People who have learning disabilities may also have some difficulty with sustained attention, time management, or social skills.

Students with LD have average or above-average intelligence, but are hampered in their demonstration of their capabilities such that there is often a marked discrepancy between achievement and potential in individuals with LD. The effects of learning disabilities on students' academic life are different for different people, even if they have the same type of learning disability. Each individual's experience will be unique, and the severity of his or her learning disability will vary. As a result, students may not realize that they have a learning disability until they are placed in a situation where their coping strategies are no longer effective.

Awareness of some of the characteristics of individuals with LD, therefore, serves two functions for instructors. First, your knowledge about learning disabilities may help you to better understand the needs of your students and make you more sensitive to areas in which they may have difficulty. For instance, although many students with LD are highly articulate, some have severe difficulty in speaking, responding, or reading in front of groups. Thus, it would be beneficial to students if you are aware of this issue and are able to assess their ability to participate in classroom activities. Your knowledge will make you more prepared to accommodate your students with LD and to discuss privately with them any academic difficulties that they may face.

Secondly, your knowledge of the attributes of individuals with LD will provide a basis for referral of undiagnosed students taking your classes who demonstrate these characteristics for testing. It is important to keep in mind, however, that while many students may experience difficulties in some of these following categories at one time or another, students with LD will often have difficulties in several of these areas with varying degrees of severity. In fact, students who have a learning disability are characterized by a pattern of strengths and weaknesses. Thus, individuals may be strong in some areas and significantly weak in others.

  • Reading--slow reader, have to re-read several times, experience headaches or falling asleep when reading
  • Writing--difficulty organizing thoughts, procrastination
  • Spelling--very poor speller
  • Listening--difficulty following what someone is saying, difficulty translating speech into written language
  • Coordination/Orientation--problems with left/right, hyperactivity
  • Memory--forget names, day of the week, etc., lose things often
  • Concentration--easily distracted, tire easily when studying
  • Tests--often does not finish in the allotted time, often misinterprets questions or directions on tests
  • Mathematics-- reversing numbers, difficulty understanding word problems
  • Foreign Languages--difficulty with vocabulary and oral performance
  • Psychological Barriers--feeling lazy, stupid, ashamed
  • Speech--difficulty getting a point across, stuttering

Despite their difficulties, students with learning disabilities can and do succeed in the classroom. They can and do meet the same course requirements and performance standards as all other students when allowed to use learning strategies that compensate for their specific deficits. Students with learning disabilities should be expected to perform at a level commensurate with their peers; instructors should not expect less from them.

For students with learning disabilities, comprehension and retention of class material are more likely when there is clarity, repetition, variety, and flexibility in teaching style. Thus, in order for students with LD to have the same opportunities to learn as their peers, several teaching strategies should be taken into consideration. The following guidelines may, therefore, be helpful to faculty in working with students with various types of learning disabilities in the classroom and in the laboratory. Further suggestions may be found in the section titled "General Procedures."

For Auditory Learning Disabilities

Some students may experience difficulty integrating information presented orally, possibly resulting in an inability to easily follow the logic and organization of a lecture.

  • During class, provide periodic summaries of the important points. At the end of the lecture, briefly recap the key points to stress their importance one more time. Write new terms and important information on the chalkboard or on an overhead transparency, and use them in context to further convey meaning.

  • When dealing with abstract concepts, paraphrase them in specific terms--illustrate them with concrete examples, personal anecdotes, hands-on models, or visual tools, such as charts and graphs.

  • Instructors should speak distinctly and at a relaxed pace, pausing occasionally to allow students to ask questions or to catch up in their note-taking.

  • Try to recognize and respond to non-verbal signals of confusion or frustration. Gauge students' understanding by periodically asking them to volunteer an example, a summary, or a response to a question. Keep in mind that students with LD sometimes have difficulty with oral expression. Thus, be sure to only call on volunteers to avoid unnecessary embarrassment.

For Visual Learning Disabilities

Students with LD often read at a slow and deliberate pace, and their comprehension may be impaired. This is particularly true when dealing with large quantities of material. For these students, comprehension and speed are expedited dramatically with the addition of auditory input.

  • Make lists of required readings well before the first day of class to allow students to begin their reading early or to arrange to obtain texts on tape.
  • Read aloud material that is written on the chalkboard or overhead transparencies.
  • Provide students with chapter outlines or study guides that cue them to key points in their readings. For Problems with Memory Processing Memory or sequencing difficulties may impede students' execution of complicated directions.
  • Keep oral instructions concise.
  • Repeat or re-word complicated directions.
  • To avoid confusion, give assignments both orally and in written form.