Learning Disabilities

What are Learning Disabilities?

Learning disabilities (LDs) are neurological disorders that affect the brain’s ability to receive, process, store and respond to information. They influence one’s capacity to:

  • Understand and use spoken or written language
  • Perform mathematical calculations
  • Coordinate movements
  • Direct attention

Their impact will vary depending on the individual child, adolescent or adult. Learning disabilities can be lifelong conditions that make it difficult to acquire certain academic and social skills. In some people, several overlapping learning disabilities may be apparent. Other people may have a single, isolated learning problem that has little impact on their lives.

This group of disorders may affect one’s ability to speak, listen, think, read, write, spell or compute. Although learning disabilities cannot be cured, their effects often can be moderated or even overcome with early identification and appropriate strategies to support learning, living and earning.

How Common are Learning Disabilities?

Research shows that 8 to 10 percent of American children – an estimated 2.4 million younger than 18 – have some type of learning disability. The most frequently occurring learning disorder is dyslexia, which creates challenges in processing language, and therefore, reading.According to the National Institute of Child and Human Development, as many as 15 percent of Americans have major troubles with reading. Although learning disabilities occur in very young children, they are usually not recognized until children reach school age. Students who have been diagnosed with LD and receive special education services in our schools represent 41 percent of all students receiving special education.


The most common treatment for learning disabilities is special education. Specially trained educators may perform a diagnostic educational evaluation assessing the child's academic and intellectual potential and level of academic performance. Once the evaluation is complete, the basic approach is to teach learning skills by building on the child's abilities and strengths while correcting and compensating for disabilities and weaknesses. Other professionals such as speech and language therapists also may be involved. Some medications may be effective in helping children learn by enhancing their attention and concentration. In addition, psychological therapies may be used.

The primary types of learning disabilities are dyslexia (reading), dyscalculia (math) and dysgraphia (writing):


This language-based processing disorder can hinder reading, writing, spelling and sometimes even speaking. Dyslexia is not a sign of poor intelligence or laziness, or the result of impaired hearing or vision. Children and adults with dyslexia have a neurological disorder that causes their brains to process and interpret information differently. They frequently have problems recognizing, decoding and spelling words correctly. This can lead to problems with complex language skills, such as grammar, reading comprehension, acquisition of vocabulary and in-depth writing. Students with dyslexia also struggle with reading fluently and out loud.

The earlier in life dyslexia is identified, the greater the child’s likelihood of achieving success and gaining confidence. Dyslexia’s effects can have a big impact on a person's self-image. Without help, children often get stressed-out, frustrated with learning, and lose the motivation to overcome these challenges.

Identifying Dyslexia

Trained professionals use a formal evaluation process to identify dyslexia. It addresses the person's ability to understand and use spoken and written language. The evaluation examines areas of strength and weakness in the skills that are needed for reading. It also takes into account other factors, such as family history, intellect, educational background and social environment.


Because so much of what occurs in a classroom is built upon reading and writing, it’s important to identify dyslexia as early as possible. The good news is that with help from a tutor, teacher, or other trained professional, and the use of alternate learning methods, nearly all individuals with dyslexia can become good readers and writers. Additional strategies to foster progress include exposing children early on to oral reading, writing and drawing; ample practice reading different types of texts; multisensory language instruction; modifications in the classroom; and assistive technology. It’s also important to get help with the emotional issues that arise from struggling to overcome academic difficulties.

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Dyscalculia refers to a wide range of lifelong learning disabilities involving math. There is no single type of math disability. Dyscalculia can vary by individual, and it affects people differently depending on their stage of life. Work-around strategies and accommodations help reduce the obstacles associated with dyscalculia.

Two major areas of weakness can contribute to math learning disabilities:

  • Visual-spatial difficulties, which result in a person having trouble processing what the eye sees
  • Language processing difficulties, which result in a person having trouble processing and making sense of what the ear hears

Inability to master basic math makes it difficult for teens and adults with dyscalculia to progress to more advanced math applications. These require that a person be able to follow multi-step procedures and be able to identify critical information needed to solve equations and more complex problems.

Identifying Dyscalculia

Evaluating a student for learning disabilities in math involves a teacher or trained professional interviewing the student about a full range of math-related skills and behaviors. Certainly, the evaluation may employ pencil-and-paper math tests. However, it also focuses on revealing how a person understands and uses numbers and math concepts to solve everyday and advanced-level problems. The evaluation compares a person's expected and actual levels of skill and understanding while noting the person's specific strengths and weaknesses.


Helping a student identify his/her strengths and weaknesses is the first step to getting help. Following identification, parents, teachers and other educators can work together to establish strategies that will help the student learn math more effectively. Help outside the classroom lets a student and tutor focus specifically on the difficulties that student is having, taking pressure off moving to new topics too quickly. Repeated reinforcement and specific practice of straightforward ideas can make understanding easier.

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Dysgraphia is a learning disability that makes the act of writing difficult. Because writing requires a complex set of motor and information processing skills, people with dysgraphia often have problems with spelling, poor handwriting and putting thoughts on paper. They may struggle to organize letters, numbers and words on a line or page. This can result partly from: 

  • Visual-spatial difficulties: trouble processing what the eye sees
  • Language processing difficulty: trouble processing and making sense of what the ear hears 

Dysgraphia is a lifelong challenge, although symptoms and difficulties may change over time. A student with this disorder can benefit from specific accommodations in the learning environment as well as extra practice learning the skills required to be a competent writer. Because writing is a developmental process, the difficulties associated with dysgraphia may overlap with those learning to write: Children learn the motor skills needed to write while learning the thinking skills needed to communicate on paper.

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National Center for Learning Disabilities

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke


Helpful Links:

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/learningdisabilities/learningdisabilities.htm


National Institute of Child Health and Human Development



National Institute of Mental Health



Learning Disabilities Association of America



International Dyslexia Association



Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder



National Center for Learning Disabilities



LD Online