Learning Disabilities

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Students with specific learning disabilities have average to above average intelligence but may have difficulties acquiring and demonstrating knowledge and understanding. This results in lower achievement for age and ability level, resulting in a significant discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability.


According to the National Joint Committee for Learning Disabilities, learning disabilities are a heterogeneous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, writing, reasoning or mathematical abilities. The specific causes of learning disabilities are not fully understood, however, these disorders are presumably related to central nervous system dysfunction. The effects of a learning disability are manifested differently for each individual and can range from mild to severe. Learning disabilities may also be present with other disabilities such as mobility or sensory impairments. Often people with Attention Deficit Disorder also have learning disabilities. Specific types of learning disabilities include:

  • Dysgraphia
    An individual with dysgraphia has a difficult time with the physical task of forming letters and words using a pen and paper and has difficulty producing legible handwriting.
  • Dyscalculia
    A person with Dyscalculia has difficulty understanding and using math concepts and symbols.
  • Dyslexia
    An individual with dyslexia may mix up letters within words and sentences while reading. He may have difficulty spelling words correctly while writing. Letter reversals are common. Some individuals with dyslexia have a difficult time with navigating and routefinding tasks as they are easily confused by directions and spatial information such as left and right.
  • Dyspraxia
    A person with dyspraxia may mix up words and sentences while talking. There is often a discrepancy between language comprehension and language production.
  • Non-verbal Learning Disorder
    Poor motor coordination, visual-spatial organization and/or a lack of social skills may characterize non-verbal learning disorders.

For a student with a learning disability, auditory, visual, or tactile information can become jumbled at any point during transmission, receipt, processing, and/or re-transmission. For example, it may take longer for some students who have learning disabilities to process written information. Lengthy reading or writing assignments and tests may therefore, be difficult to complete in a standard amount of time. This may be due to difficulty discriminating numerals or letters because they appear jumbled or reversed. Inconsistencies between knowledge and test scores are also common.

Some students who have learning disabilities may be able to organize and communicate their thoughts in a one-to-one conversation but find it difficult to articulate the same ideas in a noisy classroom. Other students may experience difficulties with specific processes or subject areas such as calculating mathematics problems, reading, or understanding language. People with learning disabilities may have difficulty spelling and subsequently have difficulty creating or editing text or otherwise communicating in writing. Difficulties with attention, organization, time management, and prioritizing tasks are also common.


Examples of accommodations for students who have learning disabilities include:

  • Note takers.
  • Audiotaped or videotaped class sessions.
  • Extended exam time and a quiet testing location.
  • Visual, aural, and tactile demonstrations incorporated into instruction.
  • Concise course and lecture outlines.
  • Books on tape.
  • Alternative evaluation methods (e.g., portfolio, oral or video presentations).
  • Detailed printed or audiotaped project descriptions or instructions.
  • Reinforcing directions verbally.
  • Breaking large amounts of information or instructions into smaller segments.

Computers can be adapted to assist students with learning disabilities. A student with learning disabilities might find these accommodations useful:

  • Computers equipped with speech output, which highlights and reads (via screen reading software and a speech synthesizer) text on the computer screen.
  • Word processing software that includes electronic spelling and grammar checkers, software with highlighting capabilities, and word prediction features.
  • Software to enlarge screen images.

For math and science classes, examples of specific accommodations that are useful for students with learning disabilities include:

  • The use of scratch paper to work out math problems during exams.
  • Talking calculators.
  • Fractional, decimal, and statistical scientific calculators.
  • Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI) software for math.
  • Computer Assisted Design (CAD) software for engineering.
  • Large display screens for calculators.

Check Your Understanding

Imagine that a student with Dyslexia who has difficulty reading enrolls in your course that has long reading assignments. What accommodations might be effective to help this student complete reading tasks? Choose a response.

  1. A computer with a scanner.
  2. Reducing the number of reading assignments for this student.
  3. Audiotaped class sessions.
  4. Books on tape.
  5. Written materials provided in electronic format.

Check Your Understanding Responses

  1. A computer with a scanner.
    A computer with a scanner, optical character recognition (OCR) and reading software can convert scanned text into speech output. This option may be effective for a student with learning disabilities. The student would need to have access to the software and hardware, which may need to be arranged through disability or computer lab support staff.
  2. Reducing the number of reading assignments for this student.
    Decreasing the reading load may result in missed content and would be unfair to other students. It is not necessary to change specific course requirements or content for a student with a disability.
  3. Audiotaped class sessions.
    Audiotaped class sessions would be helpful for some students who have difficulty taking notes. However, this accommodation would not help them with the course reading requirements.
  4. Books on tape.
    Books on tape are an appropriate option for some students with reading disabilities. Disabled student services staff can help coordinate this service. Ample notice (6 to 8 weeks) of reading material should be given in order for the student to make the request and receive the tapes in time for the course.
  5. Written materials provided in electronic format.
    If the student has access to a computer with speech output, the computer system can read online course materials to the student.

Accommodation needs of students with learning disabilities vary greatly by individual and by academic activity. Specific academic activities that may pose challenges and suggested accommodations in each area can be found in the following resources:

Questions and answers, case studies, and promising practices can be found in the searchable AccessSTEM Knowledge Base.