LBS Practitioner Training

Professional development support for Literacy and Basic Skills educators in Ontario

3.3 Specific Learning Disabilities

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There are many different kinds of learning disabilities. A person with LD may have only one or several learning disabilities in combination. In this unit, in order to better understand how learning disabilities operate, we are going to:

  • review how the brain normally processes information in order for us to learn something new;
  • look briefly at a number of different learning disabilities;
  • examine three learning disabilities in particular to discover, 1) what interrupts the “normal” processing of information, and, 2) what the relationship is between specific barriers in information processing and specific problems that appear in reading, writing, speaking and listening, and math.

Finding and applying the right strategies for particular learning disabilities is covered in unit 3.4 Finding the Right Strategy.

What does it take to learn something new?

We learn new things in lots of different ways, but when it comes to literacy learning, it’s all about the ability to process language. In order for us to learn something that is literacy related, i.e. that involves reading, writing, math, speaking and listening etc., the brain must work through a particular series of tasks that have to do with processing language. If the brain is dysfunctional or disabled in any one of these tasks, a person will not be able to learn in the “normal” way.

How does the brain normally process language? Put simply, we could say that in literacy learning, the brain must be able to take in, understand, store, retrieve, and express information that is language-related.

An Activity:

In order to get a better handle on this idea, here is a quick brainstorming, word-association kind of exercise on what the brain does in order to process language. (This should remind us of the complexity thinking and learning!)

Think about what must the brain be able to do in order to:

  1. Take in new information,
  2. Understand new information,
  3. Store new information,
  4. Retrieve new information, or
  5. Express new information?

Here are the ideas we came up with:

Taking language in:

What’s involved in the task of taking in language-related information? We suggest that the brain must be able to do two things:

  • give attention to the new information.
  • receive the information.


If you don’t focus on something, you will not notice it, and you cannot learn it. The brain has to be able to pay attention in order to take in new information.

We receive language-related information primarily through our eyes, ears, and skin. In order to learn successfully, our brain needs to be able to use these receptors in order to distinguish, pick out, or perceive information accurately.

Understanding it:

After the brain successfully takes information in, it has to make some sense of it. To do this, it might try to:

  • name it,
  • identify something recognizable about it,
  • connect it to something already known,
  • distinguish it from other similar and dissimilar things,
  • examine it in parts and as a whole,
  • decide on its value,
  • integrate it with other bits of information for various purposes,
  • reason with it in order to draw conclusions,
  • come up with some possible theories about it,
  • “get it”, figure out what it means, and what it’s for,
  • consider how it might be used,
  • decide what more information is needed for clarity

We suspect this might turn into a thinking "free-fall".

Storing it:

Once we “have some sort of handle” on the information, our brain needs to put it somewhere. In storing information away, the brain might:

  • gather the pieces of information up,
  • order it,
  • organize it,
  • classify it,
  • label it,
  • associate it with other related information,
  • decide where it fits and where it should go.

Once the decision is made as to where the information belongs, the brain files it for future use.

Retrieving it:

After information has been stored, we need to be able to get it back again when we need it. Our brain has to be able to determine:

  • when information is needed,
  • what particular information is needed,
  • what it is needed for.

Our brain must also:

  • remember the information as something familiar,
  • recall what the information looks like,
  • remember where the information was filed,
  • locate and select the right piece from among other pieces of stored information,
  • pull it forward in order to use it.

Expressing it:

When the information we need is brought to mind, our brain needs to be able to tell us what to do with it:

  • how to use it to accomplish a particular task,
  • how to express it through writing, speaking, or through action.

This brainstorming (maybe your list was a better one) reminds us that whenever we encounter new information, whether by seeing it, by hearing it, or by touching and working with it, the brain takes many steps and uses different abilities in combination in order to process that information into new learning. Now, imagine how difficult learning would be if one or several of these processing functions simply did not work!

As you read on about learning disabilities from various sources, you may find that there are some inconsistencies in how writers describe particular disabilities and differences in how they use certain terms. One reason for that may be that the study of learning disabilities is still a developing field. Knowledge and understanding are still emerging; new categories and definitions are still being formed. Also, you will see that the terminology experts use when talking about the same thing is different depending on which side of the ocean they are on! (On European websites “learning disabilities” are referred to as “developmental disabilities”!)

You will notice that different researchers juxtapose information in different ways. For example, some researchers, using broad strokes, include ADHD in their lists of learning disabilities, whereas other researchers, being more precise, are careful to point out that ADHD is a disorder that may be closely associated with LD, but one that is completely different.

Don’t let these inconsistencies distress you. Keep reading. Look for the overall big picture, not for exact science.


What kinds of learning disabilities are there?

Read two or three of the following four links. While they all contain information that is similar, they each have some information the others do not. Look for consistency in the core information, and read everything that will help you become more familiar with different learning disabilities.

The first two links take you to the LDOnline website.

1) Visual and Auditory Processing Disorders. This link describes the various areas of difficulty in each, as well as some educational implications.

2) takes you to a  number of in-depth articles on various LD topics including various disabilities and how they are manifested; suggested teaching strategies.

3) This Introduction to Learning Disabilities is divided into three sections – What Are LDs?, What Helps?, and Who Helps? – and is intended as a quick introduction to the complicated topic of learning disabilities

4) The document, Many Kinds contains a useful chart that identifies eleven different learning disabilities and briefly describes difficulties associated with each one.

Learning Disabilities in Visual Perception, Auditory Perception, and Organization.

The three learning disabilities that instructors deal with most often in the LBS classroom are disabilities in:

  • Visual Perception
  • Auditory Perception
  • Organization

How does it feel?
Can you imagine what it would be like to have a learning disability in visual perception and yet have to spend a good part of the day working on activities that require reading?

Go to Experience LD to get a small taste of the “LD in Visual Perception Experience”.

What doesn't work right?

What part doesn’t work right when a person has a learning disability in visual, or auditory perception, or in organization?


SIDETRIP for experienced instructors

The following SIDETRIP is an opportunity for experienced instructors to explore this idea a little more. If you are new to LBS, this link is not essential for your training. If it interests you, however, by all means, take the trip!

Take the Side Trip Glitch to see:
  1. brain functions for processing language,
  2. processing tasks that rely on these functions,
  3. kinds of problems that can appear when a particular learning disability affects any of these functions.


Specific problems in reading, writing, speaking and listening, and math that are associated with visual, auditory, and organizational learning disabilities

Although, in previous readings, you have already seen some problems associated with learning disabilities, the following links highlight problems that are peculiar to reading, writing, speaking and listening, and math. Read all four of the following links and be sure to read the "Journal Reflection" at the end of each.

As you look at these lists of problems, please keep in mind:

  1. Learners will not experience all of the difficulties associated with a particular disability area but may exhibit several. The lists demonstrate a range of possibilities
  2. Every learner who has a learning disability is different. Each LD person has his own particular combination of disabilities and effects that are unique to him.
  3. It is the nature of learning disabilities to be inconsistent

For example, within any group of learners, you could have:

  • a learner with a severe disability in visual perception but only in one particular function of language processing. (i.e. visual memory or sequencing),
  • a learner with a mild visual perception disability in several functions of language processing, (memory, discrimination, sequencing, and tracking etc.)
  • a learner with a disability in two areas of auditory perception as well as a disability in organization (i.e. task management),
  • and each of them with or without ADD/ADHD

Note: The inconsistent nature of LD, "inconsistent" means that the disability may turn up “full blown” on one day and not appear much at all on another.
It does not mean that a person’s disability might change from a visual disability on one day into an auditory disability on another.

Here are the four links:

  1. LD and Reading
  2. LD and Writing
  3. LD and Speaking/Listening
  4. LD and Math

Identifying Possible Learning Disabilities

Finding the Right Strategy

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