Learning Disabilities

    He was a daydreamer. His teachers in Germany told him he would never amount to anything, that his questions destroyed class discipline, that he would be better off out of school. Yet Albert Einstein went on to become one of the greatest scientists in world history.

What did Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, and William Shakespeare have in common? They all had a learning disability.

One common misperception about people who have a learning disability is that they are less intelligent than other people. In fact, people with learning disabilities can be academically gifted and highly motivated achievers. Instructional strategies that a tutor might use to help students with LDs are techniques that can help all students to learn better. Making clear the assignment instructions, emphasizing and summarizing the most important points of a lesson, presenting material in more than one way, and giving precise feedback on progress are features that help all students achieve success.

What is a learning disability?

A Learning Disability (LD) is a permanent disorder which affects the manner in which individuals with normal or above average intelligence take in, retain and express information. Like interference on the radio or a fuzzy TV picture, incoming or outgoing information may become scrambled as it travels between the eye, ear or skin, and the brain. This is one definition of a learning disability.

Abilities are frequently inconsistent. A student who is highly verbal with an excellent vocabulary has difficulty spelling simple words; a student who learns very well in lecture cannot complete the reading assignments. These striking contrasts in ability and learning style were evident in many famous individuals. For example, Nelson Rockefeller had dyslexia, a severe reading disability, and yet he was able to give very effective political speeches.

Learning disabilities are often confused with other non-visible handicapping conditions like mild forms of mental retardation and emotional disturbances. Persons with learning disabilities often have to deal not only with functional limitations, but also with the frustration of having to "prove" that their invisible disabilities may be as handicapping as paraplegia. Thus, a learning disability does not mean the following:

    1. Mental Retardation: Students who are learning disabled are not
        mentally retarded. They have average to above average
        intellectual ability.

    2. Emotional Disturbances: Students who are learning disabled
        do not suffer from primary emotional disturbances such as
        schizophrenia. The emotional support they need is due to the
        frustration mentally healthy individuals experience from having a
        learning disability.

    3. Language Deficiency Attributable to Ethnic Background:
        Students who have difficulty with English because they come
        from a different language background are not necessarily
        learning disabled.

Effects of Learning Disabilities on College Students
Following are characteristic problems of college students with learning disabilities. Naturally, no student will have all of these problems.

Study Skills: Inability to change from one task to another. No system for organizing notes and other materials. Difficulty scheduling time to complete short and long-term assignments. Difficulty completing tests and in-class assignments without additional time. Difficulty following directions, particularly written directions.

Interpersonal Skills: Impulsivity. Difficulty delaying resolution to a problem. Disorientation in time -- misses class and appointments. Poor self-esteem.

Reading: Difficulty reading new words, particularly when sound/symbol relationships are inconsistent. Slow reading rate -- takes longer to read a test and other in-class assignments. Poor comprehension and retention of material read. Difficulty interpreting charts, graphs, scientific symbols. Difficulty with complex syntax on objective tests
Writing: Problems in organization and sequencing of ideas. Poor sentence structure. Incorrect grammar. Frequent and inconsistent spelling errors. Difficulty taking notes. Poor letter formation, capitalization, spacing, and punctuation. Inadequate strategies for monitoring written work

Oral Language: Difficulty concentrating in lectures, especially two to three hour lectures. Poor vocabulary, difficulty with word retrieval. Problems with grammar

Math: Difficulty with basic math operations. Difficulty with aligning problems, number reversals, confusion of symbols. Poor strategies for monitoring errors. Difficulty with reasoning. Difficulty reading and comprehending word problems. Difficulty with concepts of time and money

Developing a Tutoring Plan
Before determining what to work on, both you and the student must understand the student's specific strengths and areas for improvement. Your first few sessions together should be spent discussing the student's learning disability, how it may affect him/her in school, and techniques for compensating for it. This is also the time to build trust. We believe this can be accomplished by:

    1. Treating the student as an equal. The student may have a
        learning disability, but he/she also possesses knowledge and
        talent that you don't have.

    2. Listening to what is important to the student. what areas of
        learning does he/she want to focus on?

    3. Creating an atmosphere that permits the student to confide in
        you. It is important to find a location away from peers and
        teachers, where learning disabled students can feel
        comfortable to tackle problems without fear of being

A tutor cannot always be sure whether a particular student has a learning disability. Students who have already been diagnosed will be aware of the nature of their disability and be able to discuss their needs. Some students (usually as a result of negative experiences) are reluctant to disclose their disability. Or, there might be a student who has not yet been diagnosed. By demonstrating your willingness to discuss learning disabilities, you are more likely to have students open up to you.

If you observe a cluster of symptoms indicating that you are working with a student with a learning disability, communicate privately with that student about what you have observed and/or contact the DRC program on campus. The following list shows the most prominent features of students with learning disabilities.

Are you tutoring a student who...

    • demonstrates marked difficulty in reading, writing, spelling,
       and/or using numerical concepts?
    • has poor handwriting?
    • appears clumsy or poorly coordinated?
    • exhibits such behaviors as an inability to stick to schedules,
       repeatedly forgetting things, losing or leaving possessions, and
       generally seeming "personally disorganized"?
    • sometimes seems disorganized in time, space; confuses up and
       down; right and left?
    • has trouble understanding or following directions?
    • confuses similar letters and words such as "b" and "d," "was"
       and "saw"?
    • is easily distracted?
    • often displays anxiety or anger because of inability to cope with
       school or social situations?
    • often demonstrates difficulty in understanding the subtleties in a
       social situation and does not seem to perceive how his/her
       behavior comes across to others?

Final determination of what to work on is based on the following factors:

    1. The nature and severity of the student's learning disability.
    2. The student's concerns.
    3. Course requirements.

We suggest listing information under each factor. Then use this information to determine priorities for the tutoring program. Some students may just require assistance with papers and reading assigned in their courses. Others also may want to work on supplementary materials. For example, a student planning to take a statistics course may want to review basic algebra concepts and overcome problems understanding fractions. A student with reading comprehension difficulties may want to focus on ways to improve his/her vocabulary.

General Guidelines for Tutoring Students with LDs

    • Take initiative. If you notice a problem, talk to the student in
    • Provide detailed instructions when reviewing assignments.
    • Give directions in writing and orally.
    • Present material in a variety of ways: visual, aural, role plays, etc.
    • Build skills gradually and give frequent feedback.
    • Avoid looking annoyed when a student asks a question you have
       just answered.
    • Keep students' attention through voice modulation, gesturing to
      emphasize significant points.
    • Help students to organize, synthesize, and apply information.

There is a wealth of information regarding learning disabilities on the Internet. Look at the following link for more Strategies for Teaching Students with Learning Disabilities.

For more information on tutoring students with learning disabilities, view the videotape series A Tutor’s Workshop – Students With Learning Disabilities. This is available for viewing in the Learning Assistance Center, room D300.

Lake Tahoe Community College has an excellent Learning Disabilities program. Any LTCC student with a history of learning disabilities or who is interested in assistance available for students with learning disabilities should be directed to Disability Resource Center.