What is a learning disability?
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines a learning disability as "a disorder
in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written,
which disorder may manifest itself in imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations."
Learning disabilities include perceptual disabilities, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.
Learning problems caused by visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, mental retardation, emotional disturbance, or environmental,
cultural or economic disadvantage are not considered learning disabilities. (Some individuals with these characteristics,
however, may happen to have learning disabilities as well). Learning disabilities are the result of central nervous
system dysfunction (not of cultural factors or of treatment by teachers) and, as such, may affect individuals throughout their
The principle characteristic of students with learning disabilities is relatively low academic
performance. This low performance can occur in the following ways. Students with reading disabilities often leave out,
insert, substitute, and/or reverse words when asked to read aloud. They may experience poor reading comprehension, lack skills
in phonological awareness (the ability to separate language sounds into distinguishable segments), and/or have dyslexia,
which leads to difficulty in listening, speaking, writing and reading). Students with learning disabilities
in written language may be challenged by spelling, handwriting, paragraph structure, syntax, word usage,
composition, and productivity. Problems in differentiating numbers or shapes, poor memory of math facts, poor motor skills
in writing numbers, and difficulty in making abstract comparisons and engaging strategies to solve problems are all referred
to as dyscalculia, or difficulty in performing mathematics. Students with weak short-term or long-term
memory demonstrate difficulty in storing and recalling information. Another learning disability is the inability
to utilize strategies to facilitate one's own learning because of poor metacognition, or the process of monitoring
and being aware of one's thinking. Further learning disabilities take the form of behavioral, social, and emotional
challenges, evidenced by a lack of interpersonal skills, motivation, and self-concept (Turnbull et al., 2002).
Effective teaching practices for students with learning disabilities
Students with any type of learning disability benefit from assistance in developing their self esteem, motivation,
capacity to work independently, and sense of agency. It is also helpful for them to learn how to apply the skills they
gain in the classroom to other situations. Numerous learning strategies can aid in accomplishing
these goals. For example, maps, math word problems, and a five-step Self-Questioning Strategy for reading comprehension
all help students acquire information. Mnemonics and systems by which to organize information, concepts, time, and paperwork all
stimulate information storage. Strategies such as POSSE, which directs learners to Predict and organize ideas,
Search for structure, Summarize main ideas, and Evaluate comprehension, assist in demonstrating
understanding of material. A further teaching practice effective with students with learning disabilities is anchored
instruction, which encourages students to anchor their learning in an issue that interests them and to solve problems
by themselves rather than by being told the answer. Finally, it is important to note that establishing strong, comprehensive
education programs for students with learning disabilities from preschool through high school is key to the effectiveness of all services for students with learning disabilities (Turnbull et al., 2002).
Carole, a teacher at Sierra Linda Elementary School in Oxnard, California with twenty-three years experience
in special education, advises teachers of children with learning disabilities to incorporate teaching strategies that
make the subject matter come to life. "Engage all the modalities, especially vision, hearing, and kinesthetics,"
she suggests. "When beginning a lesson, give an informal pretest to gauge students' knowledge, which
also functions to tap their prior knowledge. Remember to define words they may not understand." Finally,
Borland stresses the importance of repetition in teaching students with learning disabilities (Interview
6/29/2003, Ojai, CA).
One woman's struggle with dyslexia
of teaching general education students how to read have changed greatly in the past half century. Ironically, educators
now teach students with dyslexia the ABCs by a method similar to that used for all students until the mid-fifties. Robin,
now an ESL teacher in Oxnard, California, learned to read in 1953. The teaching method of spending a week mastering
each letter bored most of her first grade class, but it was perfect for her.
As she advanced
through elementary school, she began to realize there was something different about how she learned. Robin understood
the concepts they were learning, yet she often arrived at the wrong answer. She wrote down words and number sequences
backwards and didn't find out they were backwards until it was pointed out to her. Her teachers told her to try to be
less careless, to not be so lazy. "Somehow I knew I wasn't stupid, though," she recalls.
Robin's parents speculated that she had bad eyesight. They had her vision tested, and she was given glasses. "That
was supposed to fix everything, but it didn't," she remembers. She received A's for content and C's or D's for mechanics
on the papers she wrote in high school. When she proofread her papers before turning them in, she couldn't see the errors.
Throughout high school and college, Robin found ways to compensate for her difficulties. She learned to recheck her
math problems by doing them backwards. She accepted the fact that she needed to allot six hours per night to homework
(which didn't bother her, she insists, because her life was so boring). She accepted that she would never earn 100%.
She became used to not being able to finish timed tests and learned to compensate by focusing on the quality of what she was
able to finish. She developed a tolerance for imperfection.
Years later, as an adult, Robin
came across some magazine articles on dyslexia that raised her eyebrows. She thought to herself, "Hey, that sounds just
like me." She began reading more and more about dyslexia in the library and found that she showed all its symptoms.
After finishing a book on dyslexia, it was obvious to her that she had the disability.
if she sees any advantages to having dyslexia, Robin says she's more honest than other people in being able to admit when
she's made a mistake. She also decrees that having dyslexia has taught her not to punish herself for not being perfect.
Does Robin think her elementary school teachers, had they known about her dyslexia, should have done anything differently
for her? They should have been more tolerant toward her, she says. They shouldn't have always acted as if
her mistakes and slowness were her fault. They could have taught her ways in which to compensate for her disability.
She is glad, however, that she was always placed in general education classrooms. She points out the experience of her
niece, who attended a private school especially for students with learning disabilities. In the middle of college, in
another special program for the learning disabled, her niece came to the realization that her school had held her back more
than it had helped her. She renounced the program she was in and transferred to a university where she could learn along
with the rest of the students. Now, the niece is is grad school, studying education with a specialization in teaching
children with learning disabilities. (Telephone interview 8/1/2003).
For more information
|The Learning Disabilities Association of America