As we begin to address the characteristics of students with learning disabilities, it is important to note that the only common characteristic shared by all of these students is uneven development of academic skills. That is, students with learning disabilities achieve at significantly lower levels in some academic areas than in others. Indeed, other than low achievement in reading, which occurs in approximately four of every five students with learning disabilities (Kavale & Forness, 1995), most characteristics occur in a small number of these students (i.e., often 25% or fewer). This has led some to conclude that one of the major characteristics of the learning disabilities category is its heterogeneity (Mercer & Pullen, 2005) and that it should be separated into several categories or subtypes of learning disabilities (i.e., students with reading problems, those with mathematics disabilities, students with language difficulties, and so forth). Thus, as you review the following characteristics, keep in mind that, in most cases, they only relate to a small group of students identified with learning disabilities.

Academic Difficulties

The primary characteristic of students with learning disabilities is underachievement in one or more academic areas, resulting in the uneven development of academic skills. The academic area in which most students with learning disabilities have difficulty is reading: approximately 80% of these students struggle in this area (Kavale & Forness, 1995). Research conducted over the past two decades has provided significant insight regarding why many students with learning disabilities fail to make adequate progress as they are learning to read.

Lyon and colleagues (2001) have pointed out that, as students begin to learn to read, those who progress with ease

  • Understand how the sounds of speech are represented in letters
  • Apply this information rapidly and fluently in decoding words
  • Have sufficient vocabulary and language abilities to quickly connect what they are reading to their experiences and background knowledge

Research has demonstrated that many students with learning disabilities lack these language skills, which contributes to their difficulty in learning to read.

To illustrate, students with the most severe reading problems often have difficulty decoding words rather than comprehending text (Torgesen & Wagner, 1998). A major contributing factor to this difficulty is a problem with phonological processing (i.e., the association of sounds with letters in oral language and when reading). Fortunately, research has shown that explicitly teaching beginning readers skills related to sounds in oral language and letter/sound relationships as well as how to translate this information into words can help to reduce the impact of a reading disability for many students (Siegel, 2003).

As you will readily recognize, reading is a foundational skill that is necessary if students are to progress throughout the school years. Thus, as students move through elementary school, reading becomes more and more important in other academic areas. For example, early mathematics skills depend heavily on recognizing numbers and learning math facts and basic operations, and reading skills are of little consequence. However, as students move to later elementary school, word problems become increasingly important in mathematics. Thus, the reading problems of students with learning disabilities tend to cause difficulty in a range of academic content areas as they progress through the school years.

Slightly more than two of every five students with learning disabilities have mathematics goals in their IEPs (Kavale & Forness, 1995). Students with learning disabilities most often have difficulty with one of four areas related to mathematics (Bryant & Dix, 1999):

  1. Learning math facts to allow quick, automatic response
  2. Learning strategies to complete math calculations (e.g., regrouping)
  3. Comprehending word problems
  4. Learning strategies for completing word problems

The first two of these problems reflect learning disabilities in the area of mathematics. The difficulties related to word problems may also result from these initial difficulties in learning the basic skills required for higher-level math. However, as we've noted, many students learn these basic skills with little trouble, but word problems present difficulty because of students' related learning disabilities in reading or language (i.e., understanding the word problems, especially as they become more complex). Thus, the teacher's instructional intervention will differ depending on the cause of the mathematics disability and whether the student has difficulty learning math facts or operations or cannot read and understand math word problems.

A third area in which many students with learning disabilities have difficulty is written expression: as approximately two in five students have IEP goals in this area (Kavale & Forness, 1995). Reading disabilities may contribute to difficulties students with learning disabilities face in written expression as reading skills tend to develop before comparable writing skills. Thus, a student who lags behind peers in learning to read will invariably do the same in the area of written expression. However, some students with learning disabilities have problems with written expression in spite of reading well.

For students with good written expression skills, writing involves three basic processes (Graham & Harris, 2003): "planning what to say and how to say it, translating plans into written text, and reviewing to improve existing text" (p. 323). Graham and Harris note that students with learning disabilities related to written expression tend to use a simplified or condensed version of this process: They rely on generating ideas and place little emphasis on planning, organization, or reviewing the text. Thus, the goal of teaching students with written expression disabilities should often be developing a more sophisticated approach to writing, including each of the previously described steps.

Cognitive Skill Deficits

Memory Problems  Students with learning disabilities are often characterized by certain cognitive problems that contribute to the difficulties they have learning academic content. One of the most frequently noted problems among students with learning disabilities is a memory deficit. Many students with learning disabilities have difficulty with long-term memory and experience great frustration in attempting to learn basic information and rapidly retrieving this information during school activities. For example, many students with learning disabilities who have problems with math have difficulty learning math facts. Moreover, they may remember facts one day and forget them the next. Much the same can be said about learning to spell for a significant number of students with learning disabilities.

The most frequently investigated aspect of memory for students with learning disabilities is working memory (Siegel, 2003). Working memory is the ability to see something, think about it, and then act on this information. For example, when reading, a student sees a word he does not know, retrieves information from his long-term memory regarding the letters in the word and the sounds they represent, blends these sounds into a word, and then says the word while retaining information regarding the context of what is being read. Obviously, this is a complex process and is made more difficult by the fact that a fundamental problem that many students with learning disabilities face is a deficit in working memory. Evidence indicates that working memory problems contribute to learning disabilities in the areas of reading, mathematics, and written expression (Swanson & Saez, 2003).

Attention Problems

A second cognitive factor that may contribute to many learning disabilities is attention problems. Available evidence suggests that as many as 60% of students with learning disabilities have some level of attentional difficulty (Rock, Fessler, & Church, 1999). Attentional problems for students with learning disabilities may relate to three types of attention.

  • Orienting toward important activities in the classroom (i.e., the teacher provides an example of regrouping on the board, while the student looks out the window at children playing on the playground)
  • Sustaining attention for an appropriate period of time (i.e., paying attention for a sustained period of time without distraction)
  • Selectively attending to material that is most important (e.g., attending to directions before responding to math problems on a worksheet)

Metacognitive Deficits

Students with learning disabilities may also have difficulty with what are called metacognitive skills. Metacognition relates to an awareness of thinking processes and how these processes are monitored. Scott (1999) has more simply characterized this phenomenon as "knowing what you know and how you know it" (p. 55). Students with learning disabilities often have difficulty monitoring their thinking, and these difficulties contribute to academic problems. Many strategies have been used to support students with metacognitive difficulties, including providing advance organizers before presenting material, use of mnemonic devices to assist in remembering information (e.g., HOMES is a device to remember the names of the Great Lakes), and procedures for planning and organizing study time in a content area.

Social and Motivational Problems

While not all students with learning disabilities have social-skills deficits, research has revealed that some do manifest difficulties getting along with peers and teachers as a result of deficits in this area. For example, some students with learning disabilities lag behind others in social skills: They have difficulty helping others, accepting authority, and expressing feelings (Bender, 1999; Vaughn, LaGreca, & Kuttler, 1999).

Some research suggests that social-skills deficits among students with learning disabilities may result, at least in part, from the inability to read social cues and interact successfully in conversations (Bender, 1999). Furthermore, Vaughn and colleagues (1999) point out that a critical problem for many students with learning disabilities is social alienation, resulting in a lack of affiliation or involvement in school. These authors note that many students with learning disabilities report that they feel unimportant to peers and teachers and do not feel engaged or interested in school.

Another noteworthy aspect of social skills for students with learning disabilities relates to the low social status of some of these students in school. This low status may relate to social-skills deficits but also may be influenced by factors related to the students' low achievement level (e.g., student placement in classes with other low-achieving students, low status in a school of low-achieving students). Regardless of the cause, this low status often leads to a negative self-concept and emotional maladjustment and increases the potential for dropping out of school (Vaughn et al., 1999).

It is important to note that there is much variability among students with learning disabilities as they adjust socially in school. Some of these students are among the most popular in school and adjust very well, while others are rejected or neglected in school because of social-skills deficits and their low achievement. Although social skills are not a defining criterion of learning disabilities, teachers should recognize and address these issues to ensure that they do not exacerbate adjustment and motivational problems and contribute to lowered academic achievement.

In reflecting on the academic, cognitive, and social issues faced by students with learning disabilities, we can see that there is much potential for these students to become frustrated with school. Indeed, as many students with learning disabilities progress through school, they are faced with increasing difficulty in successfully completing school tasks and making passing grades; and this may result in avoidance of academic activities, frustration, behavior problems, and, ultimately, disengagement from school. Thus, maintaining student motivation becomes a key issue in ensuring that students with learning disabilities continue to adjust to school and make adequate academic progress.

The most important factors in maintaining a high motivation level for students with learning disabilities involve recognizing when these issues arise and addressing them by providing effective instruction that is appropriate to the students' needs.  Another important consideration is whether a student with learning disabilities needs to be directly taught social skills.