LBS Practitioner Training

Professional development support for Literacy and Basic Skills educators in Ontario

3.2 Identifying Possible Learning Disabilities

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Many instructors ask, “How can I tell for sure if a learner has a learning disability?

To address that question, we will look at:

  • signs that point to possible learning disabilities,
  • what LD diagnostic testing can tell you,
  • screening for LD in LBS
  • FAQs on screening and talking with learners about possible learning disabilities.

Many LBS practitioners are looking for ways that will help them identify possible learning disabilities, as quickly as possible, so that they can help the learners work towards their goals more effectively and efficiently.  Many think that a quick-screen process would meet this need. Experts in the field, however, caution us against making possible LD identifications prematurely. They remind us that assessment for a learning disability is a long process, not a one-time quick-screen activity. There are dangers to avoid. For example, it is very possible that certain “obvious signs” of LD may, in fact, be the effects of medication the learner is taking, and not be LD-related at all. What signs point to the possibility of a learning disability?

Signs that point to possible learning disabilities:

Open and read the following links on characteristics of adults with learning disabilities. After a couple of lists, you will begin to see similarities. You may also find that these descriptions bring particular people to mind –possibly some of the learners in your program. Developing your own mental composite of these characteristics will help you form a fairly trustworthy inner sense for recognizing people who might have learning disabilities.

Go to:

JOURNAL REFLECTIONS: What do you think?

When you read these lists of characteristics, were you prompted to think of particular learners in your program or people that you know? If so, what were the “trigger” characteristics? Based upon what you have read, write your own profile of a person with learning disabilities.


What LD diagnostic testing can tell you

How can you tell for sure if a learner has a learning disability?

The only way we can say for sure that a learner has a particular learning disability, is by seeing the results of a formal assessment. In Ontario, a formal assessment must be carried out by a psychiatrist, or psychologist with a PhD in psychology, who:

  • selects, administers, and interprets different kinds of educational, vocational, psychological and neurological tests,
  • forms a diagnosis,
  • makes recommendations for meeting the individual’s needs.

Go to Formal Assessment and read further information about:

  • when a formal assessment may be indicated,
  • pros and cons of formal assessments,
  • how to help learners prepare for a formal assessment.

What we can’t do:

LBS practitioners, unless otherwise trained and certified, do not have the necessary credentials to:

  • conduct a formal assessment for learning disabilities
  • diagnose a learning disability.

What we can do:

LBS practitioners can apply a number of informal and more formal screening measures that will tell whether or not a learner may have a particular learning disability.


Screening for LD in LBS

What is screening?

Screening is a process that is used in order to quickly pick out from a larger group of people the most likely candidates who:

  • fit a particular profile,
  • require a closer look for some purpose,
  • would benefit from further testing.


  • Many companies quick-screen resumes in order to locate the most likely candidates for job interviews.
  • Airports may screen passengers for possible contagious diseases (i.e. SARS).
  • Motor Vehicle Licensing Bureaus screen for poor vision when people apply for a driver’s license.

In LBS, we are developing screening measures in order to identify learners who might possibly have learning disabilities.


  • Screening is not the same as diagnostic testing.
  • Screening will not answer the question, “Does this learner have a learning disability?”
  • Screening can only answer the question, “Is it likely, or is it possible, that this person has a learning disability?”

How do we screen for LD in LBS?

In LBS, we rely on a number of ways to screen for possible learning disabilities. We gather relevant information through:

1. Informal screening methods such as:

  • interviews with the learner,
  • quick check of previous records or documentation,
  • self-reporting by the learner,
  • observation of the learner and the learner’s work,

2. More formal screening methods such as:

  • the use of various screening tools,
  • close examination of school, medical and employment records.

These screening methods can provide instructors and learners with all the information they need in order to know:

  • why the learner may be having difficulty in learning certain things in certain ways,
  • how to select and develop appropriate learning activities,
  • which strategies to try first.

Read the document About Screening for adults with possible learning disabilities. In particular, take note of the role of the practitioner in the assessment process. This information is on the website of the National Adult Literacy and Learning Disabilities Centre. Be sure to check out pages 2-4!


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ's)

There are a number of frequently asked questions about the informal and formal screening methods we use and talking with learners who may have a learning disability. Read the links for each of the following questions.

1. When is the right time to screen for possible LD?

FAQ when to screen - This link describes the three natural opportunities we have for screening for LD, and responds to a question about the value of quick screen methods and tools. 

2. What if a learner tells you she knows she has a learning disability?

FAQ self-reporting
- This link gives you some questions to ask if a learner reports that she has a learning disability. It also tells you what various answers might indicate. 

3. What are the signs to look for during intake and assessment?

FAQ signs at intake - This link tells you:

  • what information to look for,
  • examples of behaviours that can point to a possible learning disability.

4. What are the signs instructors can look for while observing the learner in day-to-day performance?

FAQ in day2day - The three checklists you will see in this next file are different from the checklists you looked at previously. These focus more on what possible LD characteristics can be observed in a learner’s day-to-day academic performance.

5. How do you talk with a learner about a possible learning disability?

FAQ What Now? - Should you talk to a learner about a possible learning disability? Is there a right time to bring the subject up? What do you say? What should you do? This link answers all of these questions. It gives general guidelines for talking with learners about the possibility of a learning disability, and provides a step-by-step description of how such a conversation might go.

6. What is involved in the screening process and what kinds of good screening tools are available?

FAQ Screening Process - Here you will find:

  • screening tools most recommended by practitioners in the field to date, (taken from the LDI report)
  • links to more good screening tools online.

7. Are there any self-screening methods that learners can use?

FAQ self-screen - Some research suggests that self-screening can be a valuable exercise for learners. The self-screening tools and methods they refer to are really more like learning style inventories that help the learner identify learning strengths, and, conversely, help to point out where difficulties may lie. The good thing about this method of screening is that it can be beneficial for all learners, and it does not single out anyone in particular.


Regarding learner self-screening…

Be aware that…
finding good ways to work with learners who have learning disabilities is not as simple as discovering, and “going with” the learners’ preferred learning styles. If only it were!

Self-screening tools that learners use, to identify their best and least effective ways of learning, are helpful and can provide a good place to start, but they will not give you the full and final answer for how to work with a particular learning disability.

Just a reminder…

Are you downloading and saving documents that you really like as you go along? Don’t you hate it when you want that particularly good piece of information but can’t remember what it was called and where you saw it?

JOURNAL REFLECTIONS: What do you think?

Take a moment to reflect upon your current practice and/or experience with screening learners for possible LD. Do you feel you have the skills you need in order to recognize possible LD-related behaviour and academic performance? Have you had conversations with learners about possible learning disabilities? How did that go? Is there anything you would now do differently? What would that be? How might you use an LD characteristics checklist to advantage? What is one screening tool that you think would be workable/useful?


Understanding Learning Disabilities

Specific Learning Disabilities

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