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What are Learning Differences

You probably have many questions if your child is struggling in school or has been diagnosed with a learning disability, ADHD, or auditory processing disorder. The information below is designed to provide some answers.

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What are Learning Disabilities?

Learning disabilities affect hundreds of thousands of children and adults around the world. In Federal law, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the correct term is “specific learning disability.” The official definition of a specific learning disability is “…a neurological disorder that affects one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using spoken or written language. The disability may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations.”

Every individual with a learning disability is unique, each with their own strengths and needs. A common characteristic among people with learning disabilities is uneven areas of ability. For example, a child with dyslexia who struggles with reading, writing, and spelling may be very capable in math and science. Generally speaking, people with learning disabilities are bright and intelligent and need additional support to understand who they are as learners and how to self-advocate for themselves. 

“Learning Disabilities” is an “umbrella” term describing a number of other, more specific learning disabilities, such as dyslexia and dysgraphia.

Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability affecting 10-20% of the population. It causes people to have difficulties with reading, spelling, writing and pronouncing words. Dyslexia is called a learning disability because it can make it very difficult for a student to succeed academically in a traditionally taught classroom.

According to the International Dyslexia Association (IDA), dyslexia is “a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”  Dyslexia Association. (2002, November 12). Definition of Dyslexia. Retrieved from

What are the signs of dyslexia?

The problems displayed by individuals with dyslexia involve difficulties in acquiring and using written language. It is a myth that individuals with dyslexia “read backward,” although spelling can look quite jumbled at times because students have trouble remembering letter symbols for sounds and forming memories for words. Other problems experienced by people with dyslexia include the following:

  • Learning to speak
  • Learning letters and their sounds
  • Organizing written and spoken language
  • Memorizing number facts
  • Reading quickly enough to comprehend
  • Persisting with and comprehending longer reading assignments
  • Spelling
  • Learning a foreign language
  • Correctly doing math operations

Not all students who have problems with these skills are dyslexic. Formal testing of reading, language, and writing skills by a licensed psychologist is the only way to confirm a diagnosis of suspected dyslexia.

Dyslexia is a lifelong condition, although, with the appropriate help, many people with dyslexia can learn to read and write well.

  • Early identification is the key to helping individuals with dyslexia achieve in school and in life.
  • Most people with dyslexia need help from a teacher, tutor, or therapist specially trained in using a multisensory, structured language approach such as the Orton-Gillingham method. It is important for these individuals to be taught by a systematic and explicit method involving several senses (hearing, seeing, touching) simultaneously.
  • Many individuals with dyslexia need one-on-one help so that they can move forward at their own pace. In addition, students with dyslexia often need a great deal of structured practice and immediate, corrective feedback to develop automatic word recognition skills. For students with dyslexia, 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. For example:

  • A student with dyslexia can be given extra time to complete tasks,
  • Teach students different ways to take notes, provide them with a “scribe”, or provide them with copies of teacher notes.
  • Modify work assignments appropriately.
  • Teachers can give taped tests or allow students with dyslexia to use alternative means of assessment.
  • Students can use their iPods or Kindles to read age-appropriate books while listening to the words
  • Students can utilize speech-to-text software on their laptops for writing, such as Dragon Naturally Speaking.

For more detailed information, visit the International Dyslexia Association website.

Dysgraphia is a neurological disorder of written expression that impairs writing ability and fine motor skills. It is a learning disability that affects children and adults and interferes with practically all aspects of the writing process, including spelling, legibility, word spacing and sizing, and expression.

It’s estimated that 5 to 20 percent of all children have some type of writing deficit like dysgraphia. Dysgraphia and other learning disorders, like dyslexia and dyscalculia, are common in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD).

What are the signs of dysgraphia?

Dysgraphia is typically identified as a child learns to write. However, a disorder of written expression may remain unrecognized through the early school years as a child’s writing ability continues to develop; dysgraphia may remain undiagnosed until adulthood.

According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, symptoms of dysgraphia include:

  • Trouble forming letters shapes
  • Tight, awkward, or painful grip on a pencil
  • Difficulty following a line or staying within margins
  • Trouble with sentence structure or following rules of grammar when writing, but not when speaking
  • Difficulty organizing or articulating thoughts on paper
  • Pronounced difference between spoken and written understanding of a topic
Dysgraphia symptoms typically change over time. Children with dysgraphia generally have trouble with the mechanics of writing and exhibit other fine-motor impairments, while dysgraphia in adolescents and adults manifests as difficulties with grammar, syntax, comprehension, and generally putting thoughts on paper.

Dyscalculia is a specific learning disorder with impairment in mathematics. It is associated with significant difficulty understanding numbers and working with mathematical concepts.

People with dyscalculia have trouble working with numbers and understanding concepts like “bigger” and “smaller', weaknesses in understanding the meaning of numbers, and difficulty applying mathematical principles to solve problems.

What are the signs of dyscalculia?

People with dyscalculia can have trouble with math in different ways. Signs may vary from person to person. And they can look different at different ages. Problems with number sense may show up as early as preschool in some people. In other people, the challenges become clear as math gets more complex in school.

  • Difficulty counting accurately
  • May misread numbers
  • Difficulty memorizing and retrieving math facts
  • Difficulty copying math problems and organizing written work
  • Many calculation errors
  • Difficulty retaining math vocabulary and concepts

Millions of children and adults have difficulty understanding spoken language. They are not deaf, autistic, or have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, although they may seem unfocused, disorganized, or distracted. They may have trouble following directions or continually ask for information to be repeated. While they might be labeled as misbehaving or assumed to have attention problems or other developmental delays, it is something completely different that is impacting their lives.

People with auditory processing disorder (APD) have difficulty processing and interpreting auditory information because of deficits in one or more areas: decoding (hearing and processing different speech sounds), tolerance-fading memory (the ability to distinguish speech sounds from other background noise and short-term memory of speech), integration (the communication between the left and right hemispheres of the brain) and organization (the ability to store orally presented information in the brain). Some people will have deficiencies in just one category; others, in all four.

Although children with auditory processing disorder have normal hearing, they have difficulty understanding and interpreting spoken information. APD is often confused with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). While both disorders involve the same area of the brain, they are very different. Children suffering from ADHD are distracted because they’re attracted to other stimuli in the environment, but children with APD are distracted because they cannot sort out what they are hearing. It is possible for a child to have both ADHD and APD, and children with APD also sometimes present with developmental problems in other areas, such as speech and reading.

What are the symptoms?

The most significant indication that a child may have APD is a consistent delay in response to a question or instructions, often combined with an inability to follow multi-step directions. They might regularly ask for information to be repeated or have difficulty saying specific letter sounds. In addition, they may be unfocused, disorganized, forgetful or easily distracted.

How is APD supported?

To support children who have difficulty distinguishing with decoding, they are taught to distinguish individual letter sounds, such as the difference between “m” and “n.”

To support children who have difficulty distinguishing speech from other noises in their surroundings, children are desensitized to background noise through repeated listening exercises that gradually increase background noise.

Children who exhibit short-term memory deficiencies may be able to improve it with memory training. Children with impaired organization can benefit from sequencing exercises.

The term Executive Function (EF) describes a collection of cognitive (mental) abilities that helps connect past experience with present action. We use executive function processes whenever we exert self-control over our thoughts, emotions, or actions.

Executive Function abilities help us perform activities such as:

  • Planning
  • Organizing
  • Strategizing
  • Paying attention to and remembering details
  • Managing emotions
  • Managing time and space

Children develop executive function processes over time with the help of their parents and the other adults in their lives. When adults teach children to use self-control, to control their emotions and behavior, and to solve problems, they are helping their children to develop strong executive function skills. These skills are thought to be the strongest trait of a person’s psychology in predicting outcomes, even more so than IQ. Executive functions affect:

  • School performance
  • Occupational achievement
  • Relationship satisfaction
  • Overall happiness and quality of life


How does Executive Function affect learning?

In school, at home, or in the workplace, we’re called on all day, every day, to self-regulate behavior. Executive function allows us to:

  • Make plans
  • Keep track of time and finish work on time
  • Keep track of more than one thing at once
  • Meaningfully include past knowledge in discussions
  • Evaluate ideas and reflect on our work
  • Change our minds and make mid-course corrections while thinking, reading, and writing
  • Ask for help or seek more information when we need it
  • Engage in group dynamics
  • Wait to speak until we’re called on


What are the symptoms of Executive Function?

A student may have problems with executive function when he or she has trouble:

  • Planning projects
  • Comprehending how much time a project will take to complete
  • Telling stories (verbally or in writing), struggling to communicate details in an organized, sequential manner
  • Memorizing and retrieving information from memory
  • Initiating activities or tasks, or generating ideas independently
  • Retaining information while doing something with it, for example, remembering a phone number while dialing

How are problems with Executive Function identified?

No single test or even battery of tests identifies all of the different features of executive function. Educators, psychologists, speech-language pathologists, and others use a variety of tests to identify problems. Careful observation and trial teaching are invaluable in identifying and better understanding weaknesses in this area.

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