Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities affect about 15 percent of the population, and can have a profound impact on individuals and families. People with learning disabilities are just as smart (and sometimes smarter) than their peers, but have difficulty learning in conventional school settings. Understand more about learning disabilities, discover how to overcome obstacles, and learn how to uncover hidden aptitudes and gifts.

LD Basics

source: LD Online http://www.ldonline.org/ldbasics/whatisld

Some individuals, despite having an average or above average level of  intelligence, have real difficulty acquiring basic academic skills. These skills include those needed for successful reading, writing, listening, speaking and/or math. These difficulties might be the result of a learning disability.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law, defines a learning disability as a condition when a child's achievement is substantially below what one might expect for that child. Learning disabilities do not include problems that are primarily the result of intellectual disabilities, emotional disturbance, or visual, hearing, emotional or intellectual disabilities. The official definition is here.

Many children with LD have struggle with reading. The difficulties often begin with individual sounds, or phonemes. Students may have problems with rhyming, and pulling words apart into their individual sounds (segmenting) and putting individual sounds together to form words (blending). This makes it difficult to decode words accurately, which can lead to trouble with fluency and comprehension. As students move through the grades, more and more of the information they need to learn is presented in written (through textbooks) or oral (through lecture) form. This exacerbates the difficulties they have succeeding in school.

What is a Learning Disability?

A learning disability is a neurological disorder. In simple terms, a learning disability results from a difference in the way a person's brain is "wired." Children with learning disabilities are as smart or smarter than their peers. But they may have difficulty reading, writing, spelling, reasoning, recalling and/or organizing information if left to figure things out by themselves or if taught in conventional ways.

A learning disability can't be cured or fixed; it is a lifelong issue. With the right support and intervention, however, 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.

Not all great minds think alike

Did you know that Albert Einstein couldn't read until he was nine? Walt Disney, General George Patton, and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller had trouble reading all their lives. Whoopi Goldberg and Charles Schwab and many others have learning disabilities which haven't affected their ultimate success.

Facts about learning disabilities

  • Fifteen percent of the U.S. population, or one in seven Americans, has some type of learning disability, according to the National Institutes of Health.
  • Difficulty with basic reading and language skills are the most common learning disabilities. As many as 80% of students with learning disabilities have reading problems.
  • Learning disabilities often run in families.
  • Learning disabilities should not be confused with other disabilities such as mental retardation, autism, deafness, blindness, and behavioral disorders. None of these conditions are learning disabilities. In addition, they should not be confused with lack of educational opportunities like frequent changes of schools or attendance problems. Also, children who are learning English do not necessarily have a learning disability.
  • Attention disorders, such as Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and learning disabilities often occur at the same time, but the two disorders are not the same.

What are the types of learning disabilities?

LD is a broad term. There are many different kinds of learning disabilities. Most often they fall into three broad categories:

  • Reading disabilities (often referred to as dyslexia)
  • Written language disabilities (often referred to as dysgraphia)
  • Math disabilities (often called dyscalculia)

Other related categories include disabilities that affect memory, social skills, and executive functions such as deciding to begin a task.

Here is information on the more common forms of LD.

Dyslexia (difficulty reading)

Dyslexia is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. Reading disabilities affect 2 to 8 percent of elementary school children. To read successfully, one must:

  • Focus attention on the printed symbols
  • Recognize the sounds associated with letters
  • Understand words and grammar
  • Build ideas and images
  • Compare new ideas to what you already know
  • Store ideas in memory

A person with dyslexia can have problems in any of the tasks involved in reading. However, scientists found that a significant number of people with dyslexia share an inability to distinguish or separate the sounds in spoken words. Some children have problems sounding out words, while others have trouble with rhyming games, such as rhyming "cat" with "bat." Yet, scientists have found these skills fundamental to learning to read. Fortunately, remedial reading specialists have developed techniques that can help many children with dyslexia acquire these skills. However, there is more to reading than recognizing words. If the brain is unable to form images or relate new ideas to those stored in memory, the reader cannot understand or remember the new concepts. Other types of reading disabilities can appear in the upper grades when the focus of reading shifts from word identification to comprehension.

Here is a fact sheet and a newspaper story that give you more information about dyslexia:

Dysgraphia (difficulty writing)

Writing too, involves several brain areas and functions. The brain networks for vocabulary, grammar, hand movement, and memory must all be in good working order. A developmental writing disorder may result from problems in any of these areas. For example, a child with a writing disability, particularly an expressive language disorder, might be unable to compose complete and grammatically correct sentences.

Here are three helpful articles on dysgraphia, or writing disorders:

Dyscalculia (difficulty with mathematics)

Arithmetic involves recognizing numbers and symbols, memorizing facts, aligning numbers, and understanding abstract concepts like place value and fractions. Any of these may be difficult for children with developmental arithmetic disorders, also called dyscalculia. Problems with number or basic concepts are likely to show up early. Disabilities that appear in the later grades are more often tied to problems in reasoning.

Here are some articles on dyscalculia:

Other related conditions

Many aspects of speaking, listening, reading, writing, and arithmetic overlap and build on the same brain capabilities. It is not surprising that people can be diagnosed with more than one learning disability. For example, the ability to understand language underlies learning to speak. Therefore, any disorder that hinders the ability to understand language will also interfere with the development of speech, which in turn hinders learning to read and write.

There are many disabilities that are related to learning disabilities. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) makes it difficult for children to control their behavior and pay attention. Non-verbal learning disabilities make it hard for people to understand non-verbal communication. LD OnLine has information about these difficulties here:

For a thorough discussion of related disorders, read Are Learning Disabilities the Only Problem? You Should Know About Other Related Disorders by Larry Silver.


Sometimes the media, the public, and even educators confuse autism with learning disabilities. They are two separate disorders. According to the Autism Society of America, autism is a developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and affects a person's ability to communicate and interact with others. Autism is defined by a specific set of behaviors and is a "spectrum disorder" affecting individuals differently and to varying degrees. There is no known single cause for autism, but increased awareness and funding can help families today.

Read the Autism Fact Sheet from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke to find out more about autism.

Common Signs of Learning Disabilities

Click here to download the "Taking the First Step" parent guide.*

The good news about learning disabilities is that scientists are learning more every day. Their research provides hope and direction.

If parents, teachers, and other professionals discover a child's learning disability early and provide the right kind of help, it can give the child a chance to develop skills needed to lead a successful and productive life. A recent National Institutes of Health study showed that 67 percent of young students who were at risk for reading difficulties became average or above average readers after receiving help in the early grades.

Parents are often the first to notice that "something doesn't seem right." If you are aware of the common signs of learning disabilities, you will be able to recognize potential problems early. The following is a checklist of characteristics that may point to a learning disability. Most people will, from time to time, see one or more of these warning signs in their children. This is normal. If, however, you see several of these characteristics over a long period of time, consider the possibility of a learning disability.


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

Grades K-4

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

Grades 5-8

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

High School Students and Adults

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

How are learning disabilities identified?

Usually, the teacher or parent notices that the child is struggling to learn or is behind in class. An evaluation can be requested by the teacher or the parent. A comprehensive set of tests are given to see why the child has difficulty. Here are some articles on the evaluation process:

Traditionally, evaluators used the results from the assessments to determine if there was a discrepancy between the child's ability and achievement. In practice, this often meant waiting for the child to fail before a child was eligible for special education services. Today a greater effort is being made to respond to a child's special learning needs before he or she falls too far behind. This effort is called Response to Intervention.

Richard Lavoie

FAT City: How Difficult Can this Be?
PBS movie by Richard Lavoie.

Some Resources for Lavoie
You Tube search results
Stuff For Educators

Social Skills & Learning Disabilities

July 24, 2009
Rick Lavoie talks about the importance of teaching a child with LD the necessary social skills to build solid friendships. In this excerpt from the PBS program "It's So Much Work to Be Your Friend," parents learn how to plan a successful playdate.

Response to Intervention

Response to Intervention uses a tiered approach to assist students struggling in school. In Tier 1, scientific, research-based instruction is provided to all students. In Tier 2, a student whose performance is below that of his peers receives more intensive instruction from a trained specialist in a small-group setting, usually while the child stays in class. In addition, the student participates in a carefully designed intervention. In Tier 3, students who continue to have difficulty, despite the Tier 2 intervention, undergo a comprehensive evaluation. The results of the evaluation help determine whether the student is eligible to receive special education services. Each tier includes careful and consistent progress monitoring.

Here are two helpful articles on Response to Intervention:

What is effective instruction for students with LD?

Students with learning disabilities benefit from instruction that is explicit and well sequenced. Effective teachers help students with LD learn how to use strategies for managing their assignments. For example, a teacher might teach students to use a graphic organizer that outlines the important information from a text. A different type of organizer might be used to help students remember to bring home the right supplies for a homework assignment.

Teachers often need to provide accommodations to help children learn in class. These are changes in how tasks are presented or responses are received that allow the child to do the same work as their fellow students. Students might receive the assignment in larger print or be allowed to take a spelling test by reciting the words instead of writing them. They might be given more time to complete an assignment. For more information about accommodations, go to:

It's an exciting time in the field of learning disabilities. With new procedures for identifying kids at risk and teachers using research-based instructional strategies, the needs of students with learning disabilities remain a priority in today's schools.

We also recognize that learning disabilities are a lifelong challenge. In that spirit, LD OnLine also offers information for adults, including sections on adults with LDcollege and college prep, and school to work transition issues.

For more details see http://www.ldonline.org/article/Learning_Disabilities%3A_An_Overview
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