What are learning disabilities?

In basic terms, learning disabilities (LDs) are brain-based difficulties that affect one or more ways that a person takes in, stores, recalls or uses verbal and nonverbal information.

LDs are difficulties in processing information and they occur in spite of average or above average thinking and reasoning abilities.

LDs are not caused by environmental factors such as cultural differences or socio-economic status, although such factors can compound their impact.

LDs can interfere with learning basic skills such as reading, writing, and math.  They can also interfere with higher level skills such as organization, time management and social communication skills.

Such difficulties reflect impairments in what we call ‘psychological processes’; for example:

  • Phonological processing (identifying and manipulating speech sounds)
  • Working memory (holding information in mind while also using the information)
  • Processing speed (speed of taking in, using or pulling out information)
  • Language processing (understanding and expressing information using words)
  • Visual-spatial processing (perceiving or organizing visual information)
  • Executive functions (planning and organizing)
  • Visual-motor processing (carrying out hand-eye activities)

What kinds of problems show up in the classroom?

Reading

Students with LDs may experience problems with reading in any of the following areas:

  • Breaking words down into their individual sounds
  • Recognizing words
  • Reading fluently
  • Understanding what is read

Writing

Students with LDs may experience problems with writing in any of the following areas:

  • Handwriting
  • Putting thoughts on paper
  • Organizing written work
  • Spelling and grammar

Mathematics

Students with LDs may experience problems in math in any of the following areas:

  • Learning number facts
  • Doing arithmetic and calculation
  • Using symbols in math
  • Understanding visual–spatial relationships

Executive Function

Students with LDs may experience problems in executive function in any of the following areas:

  • Organizing
  • Managing time
  • Planning & decision making
  • Problem solving

Social Situations

In addition, some students with LDs may experience problems with social situations in any of the following areas:

  • Interpreting facial expressions
  • Understanding body language
  • Understanding tones of voice
  • Taking turns in conversations

A few things to keep in mind when teaching students with LDs

It is important to remember that each student is different and will have their own unique combination of strengths and difficulties.

Students may have a lot of difficulty in some areas but none or very little in others. This can be confusing to teachers, and even to the students themselves.

Many students with LDs may struggle with feelings of frustration, a lack of confidence, and low self-esteem.

Some students with LDs may appear to be unmotivated or not trying hard enough, when in fact, they have become discouraged because they’ve been struggling so hard.

Students with LDs CAN be successful

Students with LDs CAN be successful when they have access to specific skill instruction, compensatory strategies, self-advocacy skills and accommodations.

Additional Resources:

Supporting Students with Learning Disabilities:  Click here for "A Guide for Teachers", Province of British Columbia, 2011.

Click here for an article" Teachers Make the Difference: Teaching Students with Learning Disabilities at Middle and Secondary Levels", Saskatchewan Ministry of Education, 2009.

Click here for Resource for the Identification and Teaching of Students with Specific Learning Disability: High School Program, New Brunswick Department of Education, 2003.

Click here or an article "Unlocking potential: Key components of programming for students with learning disabilities, Alberta Learning, 2002.

Click here for Resource for the Identification and Teaching of Students with Specific Learning Disability, New Brunswick Department of Education, 1999.