Learning Disabilities

A learning disability (LD) is any of a diverse group of conditions, of presumed neurological origin, that cause significant difficulties in auditory, visual, and/or spatial perception. Included are disorders that impair such functions as reading (dyslexia), writing (dysgraphia), and mathematical calculation (dyscalculia). Each category exhibits a wide variation of behavioral patterns.

A learning disability may exist in the presence of average to superior intelligence and adequate sensory and motor systems, as evidenced by the extraordinary achievements of people with LD.

In fact, the marked discrepancy between intellectual capacity and achievement is what characterizes a learning disability. LD is most often diagnosed using a battery of aptitude and academic achievement tests. This documentation is required not only to establish the need for disability services but to determine the kind of services that are required. Students who are believed to have a learning disability and have not been previously or reliably identified should be referred to your campus Coordinator/ Director of Student Disability Services for an appropriate referral.

While a learning disability cannot be “cured,” it can be circumvented through instructional intervention and compensatory strategies. In general, a variety of instructional modes enhances learning for LD students by allowing them to master material that may be inaccessible in one particular form. In other words, using multiple instructional techniques increases the likelihood that students with LD will understand.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a medical term that is not synonymous with learning disabilities. Students with ADHD may or may not have specific accompanying learning disabilities. The effects of ADHD involve executive functioning including, but not limited to, trouble with attention, organization, and impulse control. ADHD can impact academic functioning in many ways and with varying severity but it is not considered a learning disability, per se. Many people conflate ADHD with LD because of its impact on the learning process and because it is often (but not always) accompanied by a learning disability.

In teaching students with LD, it is important to identify the nature of the disability in order to determine the kind of strategies that might accommodate a particular student. Drawing upon the student’s own experience offers valuable clues to the types of adaptation that work.

Once the nature of the disability is identified for students with LD, these strategies may help:

Auditory processing: Some students may experience difficulty integrating information presented orally, hindering their ability to follow the sequence and organization of a lecture.

  • Provide students with a course syllabus at the start of the semester.
  • Outline class presentations and write new terms and key points on the chalkboard.
  • Repeat and summarize segments of each presentation and review it in its entirety.
  • In dealing with abstract concepts, paraphrase them in specific terms, and illustrate them with concrete examples, personal expediencies, hands-on models, and such visual structures as charts and graphs.

Reading may be slow and deliberate, making comprehension a difficulty for students with LD, particularly when dealing with large quantities of material. For such students, comprehension and speed are expedited dramatically with the addition of auditory input.

  • Make required book lists available prior to the first day of class to allow students to begin their reading early or to have texts put on tape.
  • Provide students with chapter outlines or study guides that cue them to key points in their readings.
  • Read aloud material that is written on the chalkboard or that is given in handouts or transparencies.

Memory or sequencing difficulties may impede the students’ execution of complicated directions.

  • Keep oral instructions concise and reinforce them with brief cue words.
  • Repeat or re-word complicated directions.

Note-taking: Some students with LD need alternative ways to take notes because they have difficulty writing and assimilating, remembering, and organizing the material while listening to lectures.

  • Allow note-takers to accompany the student to class.
  • Permit tape recording or make your notes available for material not found in texts or other accessible sources.
  • Assist students, if necessary, in arranging to borrow classmates’ notes.

Participation: It is helpful to determine the students’ abilities to participate in classroom activities. While many students with LD are highly articulate, some have severe difficulty in talking, responding, or reading in front of groups.

Specialized limitations: Some students with LD may have poor coordination or trouble judging distance or differentiating between left and right. Devices such as demonstrations from students’ right-left frame of reference and the use of color codes or supplementary symbols may overcome the perceptual problem.

The science laboratory can be especially overwhelming for students with LD. New equipment, exact measurement, and multi-step procedures may demand precisely those skills that are hardest for them to acquire.

  • An individual orientation to the laboratory and equipment can minimize students’ anxiety.
  • The labeling of equipment, tools, and materials is helpful.
  • The students’ use of cue cards or labels designating the steps of a procedure may expedite the mastering of a sequence.
  • Specialized adaptive equipment may help with exact measurements.

Behavior: Because of perceptual deficiencies, some students with LD are slow to grasp social cues and respond appropriately. They may lack social skills, or they may have difficulty sustaining focused attention. If such a problem results in classroom interruptions or other disruptions, it is advisable to discuss the matter privately with the student or with the Coordinator/Director.

Evaluation: A learning disability may affect the method by which students should be evaluated. If so, some of the following arrangements may be necessary:

  • Allow students to take examinations in a separate, quiet room with a proctor. Students with LD are especially sensitive to distractions.
  • Grant time extensions on exams and written assignments when there are significant demands on reading and writing skills.
  • Avoid needlessly complicated language in exam questions, and clearly separate them in their spacing on the exam sheet. For students with LD perceptual deficits who have difficulty in transferring answers, avoid using answer sheets, especially computer forms.
  • Try not to test on material just presented, since more time is generally required to assimilate new knowledge.
  • Permit the use of a dictionary, computer spell checker, and proofreader, and in mathematics and science, a calculator. In mathematics, students may understand the concept, but may make errors by misaligning numbers or confusing arithmetical facts.
  • When necessary, allow students to use a reader, scribe, word processor, tape recorder or typewriter.
  • Consider alternative test designs. Some students with LD may find essay formats difficult, and may have trouble with matching tests.
  • Consider alternative or supplementary assignments that may serve evaluation purposes, like taped interviews, slide presentations, photographic essays, or hand-made models.
  • Professors who are aware of learning differences in their students can help these students utilize their hidden talents in the following areas:
  • By understanding that learning styles differ for every student.
  • By create a learning environment that supports and emphasizes different learning styles.
  • By employing teaching methods and supporting varying learning styles.
  • Knowing the correct time to intervene when learning becomes difficult.

In general, effective study groups, both inside and outside the classroom, help students with LD communicate with others. It allows them to share notes, build social support, and get organized.

For additional guidance or detailed faculty training on LD issues, please contact the CUNY LD Project:

Mariam Chohan
CUNY LD Project Coordinator
Phone: (718) 518-4356