Primary Characteristics of Students with Learning Disabilities

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010


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.

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