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New Mexico State University
New Mexico State University

Learning Disabilities

A learning disability (LD) is any of a diverse group of conditions, of presumed neurological origin, that cause significant difficulties in perception, either auditory, visual and/or spatial. Included are disorders that impair such functions as reading (dyslexia), writing (dysgraphia), and mathematical calculation (dyscalculia). Characteristics of individuals with learning disabilities vary widely within each category.

By definition, a learning disability may only exist in an individual who has average to superior intelligence and adequate sensory and motor systems, as evidenced by the extraordinary achievements of people with learning disabilities.

In fact, the marked discrepancy between intellectual capacity and achievement is what characterizes a learning disability. Because this group of disabilities has only recently been identified, Learning Disabilities often go undiagnosed. Documentation of a student’s learning disability is maintained at Student Accessibility Services. This documentation is required in order to establish the need for disability services and to determine the type of special services that may be required. Students believed to have a learning disability not previously or reliably identified should contact the Student Accessibility Services for a referral.

While a student with a learning disability cannot be cured, the student can learn to compensate through instructional intervention and assistive technology. A variety of instructional modes enhances learning for students with learning disabilities by allowing them to master material that may be inaccessible in one particular mode. In working with a student with a learning disability, it is important to identify the nature of the disability in order to determine the type of strategies that might accommodate it. The Student Accessibility Services Office will provide information on authorized accommodations that may include many of the specific strategies identified below.

Specific Strategies

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 board.
  • Repeat and summarize segments of each presentation and review it in its entirety.
  • Paraphrase abstract concepts in specific terms, and illustrate them with concrete examples, personal expediencies, hands-on models, and such visual structures as charts and graphs.

Reading Comprehension may be impaired for the student with a learning disability, particularly with large quantities of material. For such students, comprehension and speed may be increased 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 obtain text in audio format.
  • 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 board or that is given in handouts or transparencies.

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

Memory or sequencing difficulties:
These 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 audio recording and/or make notes available for material not found in texts or other accessible sources. Assist students, if necessary, in arranging to borrow classmates’ notes.
    Keep oral instructions concise and reinforce them with brief cue words.

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 Director of Student Accessibility Services.

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. Allow use of a computer and audio-taped tests, if requested. 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, audio recorder or computer.
  • 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 recorded interviews, slide presentations, photographic essays, or hand-made models.

Instructors 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 creating 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.