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Students with Learning Disabilities

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on May 1, 2014

Students with learning disabilities comprise the largest single category of students with special needs (U.S. Dept. of Education, 1996). The following criteria are typically used to identify these students (Mercer, Jordan, Allsopp, & Mercer, 1996; National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities, 1994):

  • The student has significant difficulties in one or more specific cognitive processes.  Such difficulties are often present throughout a person’s life and are assumed to result from a specific, possibly inherited dysfunction of the brain (J. G. Light & Defries, 1995; Manis, 1996).
  • Cognitive difficulties cannot be attributed to other disabilities, such as mental retardation, an emotional or behavioral disorder, a visual impairment, or hearing loss.  For instance, many students with learning disabilities obtain average or above-average scores on an intelligence test, or at least on some of its subtests.
  • Cognitive difficulties interfere with academic achievement to such a degree that special educational services are warranted.  Students with learning disabilities invariably show poor performance in one or more specific areas of the academic curriculum but may exhibit average or above-average achievement in other subjects.

Common Characteristics  In general, students with learning disabilities are different in many more ways than they are similar (Bassett et al., 1996; Chalfant, 1989; National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities, 1994). They typically have many strengths but may face such challenges as these:

  • Difficulty sustaining attention in the face of distractions
  • Poor reading skills
  • Ineffective learning and memory strategies
  • Difficulty with tasks involving abstract reasoning
  • Poor sense of self and low motivation for academic tasks (especially if they receive no special assistance in areas of difficulty)
  • Poor motor skills
  • Poor social skills (Chapman, 1988; Gresham & MacMillan, 1997; Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2000; Mercer, 1997; H. L. Swanson, 1993; Wong, 1991b)

By no means do such characteristics describe all students with learning disabilities, however. For instance, some of them are attentive in class and work diligently on assignments, and some are socially skillful and popular with peers (Heward, 2006).

Learning disabilities can manifest themselves somewhat differently in elementary and secondary school students (Lerner, 1985). At the elementary level, students with learning disabilities are apt to exhibit poor attention and motor skills and often have trouble acquiring one or more basic skills. As these students reach the upper elementary grades, they may also begin to show emotional problems, due at least partly to frustration with their repeated academic failures.

At the secondary school level, difficulties with attention and motor skills often diminish, but students may be especially susceptible to emotional problems. On top of dealing with the usual emotional issues of adolescence (e.g., dating and peer pressure), students must also deal with more stringent academic demands. Learning in secondary schools is highly dependent on reading and learning from textbooks, but the average high school student with a learning disability reads at a third- to fifth-grade level and has few, if any, effective study strategies (Alley & Deshler, 1979; E. S. Ellis & Friend, 1991). The following exercise can give you a sense of how these students might feel under such circumstances.

For many students with learning disabilities, school success may constantly seem like an uphill battle. Perhaps for this reason students with learning disabilities are often at risk for dropping out of school (Barga, 1996).

Adapting Instruction  Instructional strategies for students with learning disabilities must be tailored to students’ specific strengths and weaknesses. Nevertheless, several strategies should benefit many of these students: 

  • Minimize potentially distracting stimuli. Because many students with learning disabilities are easily distracted, we should minimize the presence of other stimuli likely to compete for their attention. For example, we might pull down window shades if other classes are working or playing outside, and we might ask students to keep their desks clear of objects and materials they don’t need for the tasks on which they’re working (Buchoff, 1990).
  • Use multiple modalities to present information.  Because some students with learning disabilities have trouble learning through a particular modality (e.g., through vision or hearing), we need to be flexible in the modalities we use to communicate information (e.g., Florence, Gentaz, Pascale, & Sprenger-Charolles, 2004; J. W. Wood, 1998). When teaching a student how to read and spell a particular word, for instance, we might write the word, say its letters aloud, and have the student trace or write the word while repeating its letters. And in lectures to secondary students, we might incorporate videos, graphics, and other visual materials, and we might encourage students to audiotape the lectures (J. W. Wood & Rosbe, 1985).
  • Analyze students’ errors for clues about processing difficulties. For example, a student might solve a subtraction problem this way: 85-29=64  This student may be applying an inappropriate rule—always subtract the smaller number from the larger one. Or a student who reads the sentence I drove the car as “I drove the cat” may be having trouble using context clues to decipher meaning. The following exercise can give you a taste of what error analysis might involve.
  • Teach study skills and learning strategies.  Many students with learning disabilities benefit from being taught specific strategies for performing tasks and remembering classroom subject matter (Eilam, 2001; Graham & Harris, 1996; Wilder & Williams, 2001; J. W. Wood & Rosbe, 1985). For example, we might teach them concrete strategies for taking notes and organizing homework assignments. We might give them questions to try to answer as they read a story or textbook passage. And we might teach them certain mnemonics, or memory tricks, to help them remember particular facts.
  • Provide study aids.  Students with learning disabilities often study more effectively when they have scaffolding to guide their efforts (Brigham & Scruggs, 1995; Mastropieri & Scruggs, 1992). For instance, we might provide study guides, outlines, or graphics that help students identify and interconnect important concepts and ideas. We might also let students copy (or receive a duplicate of) the class notes of high-achieving classmates.  Such strategies are helpful not only for students with learning disabilities, but also for students with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
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