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Learning Disabilities- A Guide For Parents

Learning Disabilities-A Guide For Parents

What is a learning disability?
The term learning disability describes a neurobiological disorder in which a person's brain works or is structured differently. These differences may interfere with his or her ability to think and remember. A variety of motor, social, memory, organizational and attentional problems may also negatively impact academic achievement. Learning disabilities can affect a person's ability to speak, listen, read, write, spell, reason, recall, organize information, and/or do mathematics.

According to the National Institutes of Health, twenty percent of the school population, or one in five Americans, are learning disabled. Learning disabled individuals comprise fifty percent of the special education population in the United States.

Though learning disabilities are common, they are not well understood. This is due, in some measure, to the heterogeneity of the population. Individuals with learning disabilities evidence different characteristics and each individual is unique in displaying only some of these characteristics.

What are the most common learning disabilities?
Dyslexia-a language-based disability in which a person has trouble understanding words, sentences, or paragraphs.

Dyscalculia-a mathematical disability in which a person has a difficult time solving arithmetic problems and grasping math concepts.

Dysgraphia-a writing disability in which a person finds it hard to form letters or write within a defined space.

Auditory and Visual Processing Disabilities-sensory disabilities in which a person has difficulty understanding language despite normal hearing and vision.

What areas of learning are affected by learning disabilities?
Receptive language problems (i.e. listening) can cause difficulties within and outside the classroom and often affect social interaction. Verbal dialogue (conversation) or humor may be misunderstood. Listening comprehension deficits are readily observed in oral expressive language, reading comprehension and written expression. Frequently poor auditory perceptual skills are diagnosed in these children and are the contributory factors to receptive language disorders.

Expressive language problems include word finding difficulties, lack of specificity with vocabulary, and an inability to organize thoughts. Individuals with oral language disorders may mispronounce multi-syllabic words, confuse word order (syntax) in sentence structure, substitute pronouns (e.g. "me want") or have difficulty using language socially in context (pragmatics).

Written language problems often affect individuals with reading disorders, and may be displayed through spelling, handwriting, and/or composition. In middle or high school, written language often becomes the more obvious disability.

Mathematics can be another problem academic area for some students with learning disabilities. Specifically, these disabilities may involve deficits in quantitative thinking, numerical reasoning, temporal and spatial concepts and calculation. Memory deficits often inhibit the memorization of math facts.

What are some common signs of learning disabilities?


  • Speaks later than most children do
  • Pronunciation problems
  • Slow vocabulary growth, often unable to find the right word
  • Difficult 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
  • 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 compositions
  • Slow or poor recall of facts
  • Difficulty making friends
  • Trouble understanding body language and facial expressions

High School Students & Adults

  • Continues to spell incorrectly, frequently spell 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

Date reviewed: February 2005

All contents Copyright 1997, 1998, 1999 Schwab Foundation for Learning

Schwab Foundation for Learning

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.

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