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Learning Disabilities

To understand the resources available to individuals with learning disabilities, it is helpful to first understanding how the laws and school districts define each disability.

What is a Learning Disability?

A learning disability is a general term that describes specific kinds of learning challenges. A learning disability can cause a person to have trouble learning and using certain skills. The skills most often affected are: reading, writing, listening, speaking, reasoning and doing math.

Learning disabilities vary from person to person. One person with learning disabilities may not have the same kind of learning challenges that another person with learning disabilities has. Researchers believe that learning disabilities are caused by differences in how a person’s brain works and how it processes information. It is important to remember that child ren or individuals with learning disabilities are not unintelligent and they are not lazy. In fact, they usually have average or above average intelligence. Their brains just process information differently than most people.

There is no cure for learning disabilities. However, children with learning disabilities can be high achievers and can be taught ways to navigate their learning disability. With the right help, children with learning disabilities learn successfully.

Signs of a Learning Disability

While there is no one sign that a person has a learning disability, there are certain clues. We have listed a few below. Most relate to elementary school tasks because learning disabilities tend to be identified in elementary school. This is because school focuses on the very things that may be difficult for the child – reading, writing, math, listening, speaking, reasoning. A child probably will not show all of these sings or even most of them. However, if a child shows a number of these problems, then parents and the teacher should consider the possibility that the child has a learning disability.

When a child has a learning disability, he or she:

  • may have trouble learning the alphabet, rhyming words, or connecting letters to their sounds.
  • may make many mistakes when reading aloud and repeat and pause often.
  • may not understand what he or she reads.
  • may have real trouble with spelling.
  • may have very messy handwriting or hold a pencil awkwardly.
  • may struggle to express ideas in writing.
  • may learn language late and have a limited vocabulary.
  • may have trouble remembering the sounds that letters make or hearing slight differences between words.
  • may have trouble understanding jokes, comic strips, and sarcasm.
  • may have trouble following directions.
  • may mispronounce words or use a wrong word that sounds similar.
  • may have trouble organizing what he or she wants to say or not be able to think of the word he or she needs for writing or conversation.
  • may not follow the social rules of conversation, such as taking turns, and may stand too close to the listener.
  • may confuse math symbols and misread numbers.
  • may not be able to retell a story in order (what happened first, second, third); or
  • may not know where to begin a task or how to go on from there.


What is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability. Dyslexia refers to a cluster of symptoms, which result in people having difficulties with specific language skills, particularly reading. Students with dyslexia usually experience difficulties with other language skills such as spelling, writing, and pronouncing words. Dyslexia affects individuals throughout their lives; however, its impact can change at different stages in a person’s life. It is referred to as a learning disability because dyslexia can make it very difficult for a student to succeed academically in the typical instructional environment, and in its more severe forms, will qualify a student for special education, special accommodations, or extra support services.

What are the Effects of Dyslexia?

The impact that dyslexia has is different for each person and depends on the severity of the condition and the effectiveness of instruction or remediation. Challenges can include word recognition, reading fluency, spelling, writing, grammar and reading comprehension. Some individuals with dyslexia can also have problems with spoken language. It may difficult for them to express themselves clearly or to fully comprehend others when they speak. Dyslexia can also affect a person’s self-image. After experiencing a great deal of stress due to academic problems, a student may become discouraged.

How is Dyslexia Diagnosed?

Before referring a student for a comprehensive evaluation, a school or district may choose to track a student’s progress with a brief screening test and identify whether the student is progressing at a “benchmark” level that predicts success in reading. If a student is below that benchmark (which is equivalent to about the 40th percentile nationally), the school may immediately deliver intensive and individualized supplemental reading instruction before determining whether the student needs a comprehensive evaluation that would lead to a designation of special education eligibility.

How is Dyslexia Treated?

Some students simply need more structured and systematic instruction to get back on track; they do not have learning disabilities. For those students and even for those with dyslexia, putting the emphasis on preventive or early intervention makes sense. There is no benefit to the child if special instruction is delayed for months while waiting for an involved testing process to occur. These practices of teaching first, and then determining who needs diagnostic testing based on response to instruction, are encouraged by federal policies known as Response to Intervention (RTI). Parents should know, however, that at any point they have the right to request a comprehensive evaluation under the IDEA law, whether or not the student is receiving instruction under an RTI model. A comprehensive evaluation typically includes intellectual and academic achievement testing, as well as an assessment of the critical underlying language skills that are closely linked to dyslexia. If a profile emerges that is characteristic of readers with dyslexia, an individualized intervention plan should be developed. Most people with dyslexia need help from a teacher, tutor, or therapist specially trained in using a multisensory, structured language approach. It is helpful if their outside academic therapists work closely with classroom teachers. Schools can implement academic accommodations and modifications to help students with dyslexia succeed. Students may also need help with emotional issues that sometimes arise as a consequence of difficulties in school. Mental health specialists can help students cope with their struggles.

Rights of Individuals with Dyslexia

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act 2004 (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) define the rights of students with dyslexia and other specific learning disabilities. These individuals are legally entitled to special services to help them overcome and accommodate their learning problems. Such services include education programs designed to meet the needs of these students. The Acts also protect people with dyslexia against unfair and illegal discrimination.


What is Dysgraphia

Dysgraphia is a specific learning disability that affects how easily children acquire written language and how well they use written language to express their thoughts. In other words, dysgraphia is the condition of impaired letter writing by hand, or disabled handwriting and sometimes spelling. Impaired handwriting can interfere with learning to spell words in writing. Occasionally, but not very often, children have just spelling problems and not handwriting or reading problems.

What Causes Dysgraphia?

Research to date has shown orthographic coding in working memory is related to handwriting. Orthographic coding refers to the ability to store unfamiliar written words in working memory while the letters in the word are analyzed during word learning or the ability to create permanent memory of written words linked to their pronunciation and meaning. Children with dysgraphia do not have primary developmental motor disorder, another cause of poor handwriting, but they may have difficulty planning sequential finger movements such as the touching of the thumb to successive fingers on the same hand.

Does Dysgraphia Occur Alone?

Children with impaired handwriting may also have attention-deficit disorder (ADHD)—inattentive, hyperactive, or combined inattentive and hyperactive subtypes. Children with this kind of dysgraphia may respond to a combination of explicit handwriting instruction plus stimulant medication, but appropriate diagnosis of ADHD by a qualified professional and monitoring of response to both instruction and medication are needed.

Dysgraphia may occur alone or with dyslexia (impaired reading disability) or with oral and written language learning disability (OWL LD, also referred to as selective language impairment, SLI).

OWL LD (SLI) are disorders of language (morphology—word parts that mark meaning and grammar; syntax—structures for ordering words and understanding word functions; finding words in memory, and/or making inferences that go beyond what is stated in text). These disorders affect spoken as well as written language. Children with these language disorders may also exhibit the same writing and reading and related disorders as children with dysgraphia or dyslexia.

Why is Diagnosis Important?

Without diagnosis, children with dysgraphia may not receive early intervention or specialized instruction in all the relevant skills that are interfering with their learning of written language. Considering that many schools do not have systematic instructional programs in handwriting and spelling, it is important to assess whether children need explicit, systematic instruction in handwriting and spelling in addition to word reading and decoding. Many schools offer accommodations in testing and teaching to students with dysgraphia, but these students also need ongoing, explicit instruction in handwriting, spelling, and composition. It is also important to determine if a child with dysgraphia may also have dyslexia and require special help with reading or OWL LD (SLI) and need special help with oral as well as written language.

What are Ways to Improve Dysgraphia?

Initially, children with impaired handwriting benefit from activities that support learning to form letters:

  • playing with clay to strengthen hand muscles;
  • keeping lines within mazes to develop motor control;
  • connecting dots or dashes to create complete letter forms;
  • tracing letters with index finger or eraser end of pencil;

Once children learn to form legible letters, they benefit from instruction that helps them develop automatic letter writing:

  • studying numbered arrow cues that provide a consistent plan for letter formation;
  • covering the letter with a 3 x 5 card and imaging the letter in the mind’s eye;
  • writing letters from dictation (spoken name to letter form); and

Students benefit from explicit instruction in spelling throughout K–12:

  • initially in high frequency Anglo-Saxon words;
  • subsequently in coordinating the phonological, orthographic, and morphological processes relevant for the spelling of longer, more complex, less frequent words; and
  • at all grade levels in the most common and important words used for the different academic domains of the curriculum.

Throughout K–12, students benefit from strategies for composing:

  • planning, generating, reviewing/evaluating, and revising compositions of different genre including narrative, informational, compare and contrast, and persuasive; and
  • self-regulation strategies for managing the complex executive functions involved in composing.


What is Dyscalculia?

Dyscalculia is a term referring to a wide range of life-long learning disabilities involving math. There is no single form of math disability, and difficulties vary from person to person and affect people differently in school and throughout life. Since disabilities involving math can be so different, the effects they have on a person’s development can be just as different. For instance, a person who has trouble processing language will face different challenges in math than a person who has difficulty with visual – spatial relationships. Another person with trouble remembering facts and keeping a sequence of steps in order will have yet a different set of math-related challenges to overcome.

More About Dyscalculia

Building a solid foundation in math involves many different skills. Young children with learning disabilities can have difficulty learning the meaning of numbers (number sense), trouble with tasks like sorting objects by shape, size or color; recognizing groups and patterns; and comparing and contrasting using concepts like smaller/bigger or taller/shorter. Learning to count, recognizing numbers and matching numbers with amounts can also be difficult for these children.

As math learning continues, school-age children with language processing disabilities may have difficulty solving basic math problems using addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. They struggle to remember and retain basic math facts (i.e. times tables), and have trouble figuring out how to apply their knowledge and skills to solve math problems.

Difficulties may also arise because of weakness in visual-spatial skills, where a person may understand the needed math facts, but have difficulty putting them down on paper in an organized way. Visual-spatial difficulties can also make understanding what is written on a board or in a textbook challenging.

If basic math facts are not mastered, many teenagers and adults with dyscalculia may have difficulty moving on to more advanced math applications. Language processing disabilities can make it hard for a person to get a grasp of the vocabulary of math. Without the proper vocabulary and a clear understanding of what the words represent, it is difficult to build on math knowledge.

Since math disabilities are varied, the signs that a person may have a difficulty in this area can be just as varied. However, having difficulty learning math skills does not necessarily mean a person has a learning disability. All students learn at different paces, and particularly among young people, it takes time and practice for formal math procedures to make practical sense.

These are signs that a person may need additional help in this area:

  • Good at speaking, reading, and writing, but slow to develop counting and math problem-solving skills
  • Good memory for printed words, but difficulty reading numbers, or recalling numbers in sequence
  • Good with general math concepts, but frustrated when specific computation and organization skills need to be used
  • Trouble with the concept of time-chronically late, difficulty remembering schedules, trouble with approximating how long something will take
  • Poor sense of direction, easily disoriented and easily confused by changes in routine
  • Poor long term memory of concepts-can do math functions one day, but is unable to repeat them the next day
  • Poor mental math ability-trouble estimating grocery costs or counting days until vacation
  • Difficulty playing strategy games like chess, bridge or role-playing video games
  • Difficulty keeping score when playing board and card games.

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. Understanding how a person learns best is a big step in achieving academic success and confidence.

Resource Downloads

MO DESE Resources

  • Dyslexia – Characteristics and Supports Pre K through 5 [DESE Webinar]
  • Dyslexia – Characteristics and Supports 6 through 12 [DESE Webinar]
  • Dyslexia – The Myths and the Science [DESE Webinar]