An Overview of Learning Disabilities

     A learning disability is a permanent disorder that affects how information is
processed, stored, or retrieved.  It is characterized by a significant discrepancy
between an individual’s ability (intelligence) and achievement (level of
academic skill).  In other words, an individual with a learning disability has at
least average intelligence, but because they process information incorrectly,
their reading, math, and writing skills are affected.  Many individuals with
learning disabilities have above average intelligence, but experience
frustration because they easily forget information or cannot retrieve it easily.  
Studies show that about 10-12% of the population experiences learning
disabilities, regardless of economic or social backgrounds.

     The “discrepancy” between ability and achievement is caused by a
disorder in cognitive processing that affects how information is processed,
stored, or retrieved.  Individuals can also experience a combination of learning
disabilities.  No single type of learning disability is the same for all
individuals.  The following are the common areas in which learning
disabilities can occur:

     Auditory perception: refers to how an individual makes sense of oral
language.  Individuals with these types of learning disabilities cannot
consistently match a sound that is heard (spoken) with a letter or group of
letters.  Because of this, reading and spelling become very difficult.  Many
times these individuals experienced great difficulty learning the alphabet, its
sounds, and how to read words phonetically.  When reading aloud, they may
guess at the word by how it looks, not by how it is accurately decoded.  
Reading comprehension is often affected because they do not accurately
process the “language” involved in the written text.  In class, these individuals
may be able to repeat what was said to them, but they do not “get it” and
cannot explain what was meant.  Therefore, these individuals may appear
inattentive during discussions or may demonstrate a delayed response time.  
When working alone, though, these individuals may often concentrate very
well on tasks despite outside auditory distractions.

     Auditory memory: refers to how the individual is able to accurately recall
what was said orally.  Students with these types of learning disabilities cannot
accurately or completely remember what was said to them (i.e. directions,
new concepts) and may appear forgetful.  They become easily frustrated
because they truly understood what was said to them initially, but they soon
forget it because the oral information was not adequately encoded into long-
term memory.  These individuals have difficulty memorizing anything oral (i.e.
times tables, multi-step directions, helping verbs, details from oral
discussions, etc).  They may spell incorrectly because they do not recall the
“sounds” of words or may need to reread material to fully comprehend it.

     Language processing: refers to how the individual uses words to express
ideas verbally and how the individual understands the word combinations that
are said to him.  These types of learning disabilities can be very selective (i.e.
affecting only receptive language or expressive language).  These students
seldom participate in group discussions, demonstrate word retrieval
difficulties (i.e. “tip of tongue” phenomena), and have difficulty explaining
concepts and procedures fully.  Often they possess and use a limited range of
vocabulary.  These individuals are often good at math but cannot verbally
explain the steps very well.

     Visual perception: refers to how the individual makes sense of visual
designs, patterns, and information.  This also includes visual tracking (seeing
print consistently and accurately in a line), understanding of spatial
relationships, visual analysis, and visual sequencing skills (understanding
visual sequential information).  Individuals with these types of learning
disabilities do not process visual information efficiently, accurately, or readily.  
Because of this, they may read very slowly or incorrectly, have reversals when
decoding or spelling, omit punctuation when proofreading, and misalign
numbers and symbols when solving math problems.  They may incorrectly
recall the correct sequence of visual material (i.e. spelling or math processes)
by transposing steps and omitting them.  When reading or completing
multiple choice exams, these individuals may often lose their place.  They may
also copy incorrectly from the board or have difficulty doing so quickly.  In
social situations, they may have difficulty “reading” body language and
nonverbal cues.

     Visual Memory:  refers to how the individual remembers visual
information.  Individuals with these types of learning disabilities cannot recall
what they have seen although they understood it when it was first presented to
them or when it remained in their view.  They often experience great difficulty
when asked to “visualize” material, such as when understanding math and
geometric concepts or recalling descriptive illustrations in Biology.  Spelling
and reading comprehension may also be impaired since the individual is less
able to recall the visual image (i.e. word, reading text) accurately.  When
completing math items, these individuals may calculate incorrectly because
they “forget” the steps involved and how it “looks like” to solve a problem

     Short-Term Memory: refers to how the individual is able to recall visual or
auditory information immediately after it was presented.  These types of
learning disabilities may cause individuals to appear disorganized, because
they may lose belongings or materials easily and not remember where they
placed them.  Individuals with short-term memory disabilities have
tremendous difficulty processing and recalling multi step directions; they
usually only remember one part in a sequence of directions.  Reading
comprehension may suffer unless they are able to reread and review the
material to prompt their recall of it. Because of these disabilities, students
perform much better when given repetition and additional review.  These
individuals are best able to recall information once it has been “over learned”
through extended practice, repetition, on-going review, or when new
information is “connected” to previously learned material.

     Long-Term Retrieval: refers to how accurately and efficiently the individual
is able to retrieve information learned from a while ago.  Individuals with this
type of learning disability have great difficulty in school because the concepts
they once mastered tend to slip away if not constantly reinforced.  They learn
and recall it originally, but lose the information over time or when asked to
recall an increasingly longer amount of related information.  These students
may retain the overall, “big picture” concept, but forget the supporting details
and specifics.  Because of this, math is often problematic because they
cannot accurately or fully recall the facts, steps in procedures, or formulas.  
Information that has been learned through reading or past discussion is
easily lost without more current review.  These students experience the most
difficulty in school when returning from vacations or lengthy breaks; they
require additional review to recall previous concepts before “picking up” and
continuing with new concepts.  During class discussion, these students
generally need time to “warm up” with the information since they cannot
quickly recall the concepts being discussed.

     Abstract Reasoning: refers to how the individual is able to generalize
learned information to new situations.  It also involves understanding the logic
behind concepts, procedures, and directions.  Individuals with this type of
learning disability may have no difficulty memorizing and recalling rote
information, but cannot apply that information to new settings or similar
problems.  They have difficult understanding multiple word meanings,
proverbs, and metaphors, as well as holding multiple processes in mind.  In
math, these students may be able to solve several items of a same type once
they learn the “pattern” involved, but cannot generalize this understanding to
new type of problems.  They have particular difficulty with story problems.  
These students may understand reading material concretely, but have
difficulty drawing inferences, understanding symbolism, or processing
figurative language.  In social studies, they may recall facts, figures, and
dates, but cannot hypothesize well about underlying causes and effects.  They
fare best on tests that require only rote recall of information and experience
more difficulty when asked to hypothesize, infer, or apply principles to novel

     Motor Processing:  refers to how accurately, quickly, and efficiently an
individual is able to complete paper and pencil tasks.  Individuals with these
types of learning disabilities are often very accurate when writing (e.g  note
taking, writing essays, completing timed tests), but their deficient motor
processing speed greatly hinders their pace.  These individuals then
experience extreme difficulty taking notes quickly and fully, developing written
responses when timed, and often spend much more time than their peers
completing homework assignments.  They often do not finish tests within
normal time limits.  They perceive visual material accurately, but suffer when
asked to put ideas in writing quickly.

     Visual Motor Integration: refers to how the individuals accurately integrate
visual material with a motor processing (i.e. written or drawn) response.  
Individuals with this type of learning disability may lose their place, skip lines,
or reread lines when reading.  They demonstrate poor fine and/or gross motor
coordination and often have messy handwriting and artwork.  They do not
organize their work well on paper and therefore, may complete assignments
sloppily or run out of space.  Generally these individuals can explain their
ideas and understanding very well orally, but cannot develop them well on

Learning Disabilities