Learning Disabilities 101

A quick overview of defining learning disabilities, where they stem from, and how they affect learning.

By Ann Whittemore

group of students reading

Through my discussions with parents and fellow teachers, I have found that some people misunderstand the difference between children with learning disabilities and those who suffer from more acute developmental or cognitive impairments. In this article, I intend to define what it means to have a learning disability, how it differs from other developmental disabilities, list types of learning disabilities commonly found in the public school setting, and provide a few suggestions on engaging children with learning disabilities.

A learning disability is defined as a significant difficulty in acquiring skills in specific content areas:


  • Math
  • Writing
  • Reading
  • Speaking
  • Movement

These areas of difficulty are intrinsic to the individual and may or may not be accompanied by other cognitive, social, emotional, or developmental impairments. This means that each child with a learning disability may exhibit aspects of that disability in a very unique and individual way, and consequently, needs to be taught according to his/her processing needs.

Recognize the Difference

While the idea remains that children with learning disabilities are suffering from a delay or have a processing issue, this is not the same as a child with mental retardation or developmental delay. The biggest difference between the two populations exists in the reality that a child with a learning disability may only have issues in one specific area of learning, while a child with developmental disabilities will exhibit delays in multiple areas of learning, reasoning, and social functioning.

How a child processes information determines how he will perceive or understand it. There are four main ways people process information when they learn:

  • Input
  • Integration
  • Storage
  • Output

Children with a learning disability will often have trouble with one or more of these four types of processing modes. The way the child processes determines how he learns and why he may have struggles that other children do not.

What Does a Processing Issue Look Like?

Input: People with input problems will often show deficits with sequencing, time intervals, or temporal perception. They may also have auditory perception issues that make it difficult for them to focus on a parent’s or a teacher’s voice, meaning that lectures don’t help.

Integration: Integration is the means by which input is perceived or interpreted by the child. Difficulty with story sequencing, memorization of sequenced information, and the inability to generalize new information, learn facts, or make big picture connections are typically seen. 

Storage: Storage is related to memory; both long and or short-term memory issues can impede a child’s ability to store information, make it hard to learn new tasks, and can making spelling difficult. Kids with storage issues need to have new tasks repeated more often than learners with good storage skills.

Output: Output is how individuals express what they know; words, drawings, and writing are examples of output. Output can be seen as muscle activity as well, such as gesturing and gross or fine motor skills. Children with output issues often exhibit bad handwriting, poor ability to answer questions, and clumsiness.  

There are four major academic areas that are affected by the way a person processes information:

  • Reading or Dyslexia
  • Written or Dysgraphia
  • Math or Dyscalculia
  • Non-verbal learning skills

Each learning disability has its own set of criteria for diagnosis and may be anywhere on a spectrum of severe to mild in nature.

What Do Learning Disabilities Look Like in the Classroom?

Reading: Children with dyslexia or a reading disability will often have problems with reading accuracy or fluency, decoding, reading rate, comprehension, and oral expression. Issues with phonemic awareness or being able to decode words into sounds, letter matching and recognition, and symbolic correspondence are also prevalent.

Math: Kids with dyscalculia or math disability will have poor number sense. Basic concepts such as quantity, place value, time, and math facts can be a roadblock to understanding. They’ll have a hard time understanding how numbers are organized and may exhibit difficulties in comprehending procedural steps, such as those seen in long division.

Writing: Learners with writing issues are seen to  have severe problems with spelling, grammar, sentence structure, paragraph organization, and punctuation. Often, poor handwriting is also associated with this disability, but in fact, this may simply indicate slow motor development.

Non-Verbal: This area would include children who have very poor motor skills, are clumsy, and show poor visual-spacial understanding. This would be the child who has a difficult time buttoning a shirt, throwing a ball, and he may also have problems in social settings. However, these children may also be extremely adept in verbal or linguistic arenas.

How to Engage Your Students with Learning Disabilities

Math: Use graph paper to help learners organize their math problems. Don’t rely on memorization skills to ensure they know math facts; employ a number of different strategies and algorithms to help them build number sense. Always introduce new math skills and concepts in a concrete way and then move to more abstract applications.

Reading: Questioning strategies and reciprocal teaching are very effective in helping learners with reading difficulties. Have them answer questions and summarize main events continuously while reading. Provide multi-sensory involvement as a means of engaging with the text. Drawing story maps, acting out chapters, and making up games to promote phonemic awareness are some examples.

Writing: A big part of writing is understanding how to organize and express thoughts or ideas. Have learners color code as they write their paragraphs. Give them space to speak as they write. This may help them make the connection between what they think, say, and write. It is also a good idea to ask them to draw first and write later. They can storyboard or map their ideas visually (kidpix is great for this).

Non-Verbal: Kids with non-verbal disabilities are often highly successful in other academic areas. Involve them in activities that are suited to their strengths to increase self-esteem. Have them play games and sports that increase spacial ability and motor function. Prepare them for social situations through role play and practice. Use hands-on models often and try to show the relationships between spacial, visual, and temporal spaces; breaking boxes into flat nets and reconstructing them would be a good activity.

The Internet is full of useful information on how to help learners with disabilities of any sort. Here are a few links to great sites that will provide insights, assistance, and intervention ideas to make you a teacher who knows how to help his/her class.



The National Center for Learning Disabilities has amazing information on dyslexia. It's an easy site to navigate and will provide strong, research-based information—great for aiding a child or getting a diagnosis.


This site is wonderful because it is full of videos, books, ideas, and teacher resources all geared toward the child who needs extra help in math. 


Pbs.org has a list of simple solutions for teaching dysgraphic learners that you can use in your classroom right away. Also, the National Center for Learning Disabilities (See link under dyslexia) carries information on dysgraphia (writing disabilities)

Non-Verbal Learning Disability

Here is a great set of videos that provide an excellent explanation of what non-verbal learning disabilities are, and how they manifest in children.