Learning disorders are academic difficulties experienced by children and
adults of average to above-average
. People with learning disorders have difficulty with reading, writing,
mathematics, or a combination
of the three. These difficulties significantly interfere with academic
achievement or daily living.
Children with learning disorders, or disabilities, have specific
impairments in acquiring, retaining, and processing information.
Standardized tests place them well below their IQ range in their area of
difficulty. The five main types of learning disorders are reading
disorders, mathematics disorders, disorders of written expression,
fine motor skills
, and information processing disorders.
Reading disorders are the most common type of learning disorder. Children
with reading disorders have difficulty recognizing and interpreting
letters and words (
). They are unable to recognize and decode the sounds and syllables
(phonetic structure) behind written words and language in general. This
condition lowers accuracy and comprehension in reading.
Children with mathematics disorders (dyscalculia) have problems
recognizing and counting numbers correctly. They have difficulty using
numbers in everyday settings. Mathematics disorders are typically
diagnosed in the first few years of elementary school when formal teaching
of numbers and basic math concepts begins. Children with mathematics
disorders usually have a coexisting reading disorder, a disorder of
written expression, or both.
Disorders of written expression typically occur in combination with
reading disorders or mathematics disorders or both. The condition is
characterized by difficulty with written compositions (dysgraphia).
Children with this type of learning disorder have problems with spelling,
punctuation, grammar, and organizing their thoughts in writing.
Children with motor skill disorders (dyspraxia) have coordination problems
and may have difficulty with handwriting tasks and speech patterns.
Dyspraxia tends to affect boys more than girls.
Information processing disorders often occur along with other types of
learning disorders. Children with this problem have difficulty processing
the sensory input they receive, specifically sight and sound information.
They can see and hear adequately, but they have difficulty distinguishing
between different visual cues and auditory signals, and may have problems
understanding spatial relationships and sequencing the sights and sounds
Learning disorders affect approximately two million children between the
ages of six and 17 (5 percent of public school children), although some
experts think the figure may be as high as 15 percent. The male to female
ratio for learning disorders is about five to one.
Causes and symptoms
Learning disorders are thought to be caused by neurological abnormalities
or differences that trigger impairments in the regions of the brain that
control visual and language processing and attention and planning. These
traits may be genetically linked. Children from families with a history of
learning disorders are more likely to develop disorders themselves. In
2003, a team of Finnish researchers reported finding a candidate gene for
developmental dyslexia on human chromosome 15q21.
Learning difficulties may also be caused by such medical conditions as a
traumatic brain injury or brain infections such as
The defining symptom of a learning disorder is academic performance that
is markedly below a child's age and grade capabilities and measured
IQ. Children with a reading disorder may confuse or transpose words or
letters and omit or add syllables to words. The written homework of
children with disorders of written expression is filled with grammatical,
spelling, punctuation, and organizational errors. The child's
handwriting is often extremely poor. Children with mathematical disorders
are often unable to count in the correct sequence, to name numbers, and to
understand numerical concepts.
A child thought to have a learning disorder should undergo a complete
medical examination to rule out an organic cause of the problem. This may
include an eye exam by an ophthalmologist, a psychological exam by a
psychologist, and an exam by an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose, and throat
doctor, or ENT).
Problems with vision or hearing, mental disorders (depression,
, cultural and language differences, and inadequate teaching may be
mistaken for learning disorders or may complicate a diagnosis. A
comprehensive medical, psychological, and educational
is critical to making a correct diagnosis.
A psychoeducational assessment should be performed by a psychologist,
psychiatrist, neurologist, neuropsychologist, or learning specialist. A
, social, and educational history is compiled from existing medical and
school records and from interviews with the child and the child's
parents and teachers. A series of written and verbal tests are then given
to the child to evaluate his or her cognitive and intellectual
functioning. Commonly used tests include the Wechsler Intelligence Scale
for Children (WISC-III), the Woodcock-Johnson Psychoeducational Battery,
the Peabody Individual Achievement Test-Revised (PIAT-R) and the
California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT). Federal legislation mandates that
this testing is free of charge within the public school system.
Once a learning disorder has been diagnosed, an individual education plan
(IEP) is developed for the child in question. IEPs are based on
psychoeducational test findings. They provide for annual retesting to
measure a child's progress. Learning-disordered students may
receive special instruction within a regular general education class or
they may be taught in a
or learning center for a portion of the day.
Common strategies for the treatment of reading disorders focus first on
improving a child's recognition of the sounds of letters and
language through phonics training. Later strategies focus on
comprehension, retention, and study skills. Students with disorders of
written expression are often encouraged to keep journals and to write with
a computer keyboard instead of a pencil. Instruction for students with
mathematical disorders emphasizes real-world uses of arithmetic, such as
balancing a checkbook or comparing prices.
The high school dropout rate for children with learning disabilities is
almost 40 percent. Children with learning disabilities that go undiagnosed
or are improperly treated may never achieve functional literacy. They
often develop serious behavior problems as a result of
Common strategies for the treatment of reading disorders focus first
on improving a child's recognition of the sounds of letters
and language through phonics training.
(© Robert Maass/Corbis.)
their frustration with school. In addition, their learning problems are
often stressful for other family members and may strain family
relationships. The key to helping these students reach their fullest
potential is early detection and the implementation of an appropriate
individualized education plan (IEP). The prognosis is good for a large
percentage of children with reading disorders that are identified and
treated early. Learning disorders typically persist into adulthood, but
with proper educational and vocational training, an individual can
complete college and pursue a challenging career. Studies of the
occupational choices of adults with dyslexia indicate that they do
particularly well in people-oriented professions and occupations, such as
nursing or sales.
Some studies have indicated that one-on-one tutoring of children at risk
for developing learning disorders
may be effective in preventing later reading and writing problems.
—A type of reading disorder often characterized by reversal of
letters or words.
—Individualized Education Plan. Under federal law governing
special education, every child in public schools who is determined
through assessment to have special mental disability needs has an IEP.
An IEP is typically developed by a team of professionals that may
include special education teachers, physical, occupational and speech
therapists, psychologists, parents or guardians, and others who may be
called on to provide expertise. The team meets at least once a year to
set goals for the next school year and to assess progress on already
established goals. Parents who are not satisfied with school-based
assessments have the right to ask for independent assessments that must
be paid for by the school system.
—Intelligence quotient, a measure of intellectual functioning
determined by performance on standardized intelligence tests. It is
usually calculated by dividing an individual's mental age
(determined by testing) by his/her chronological age and multiplying
that result by 100.
—A system to teach reading by teaching the speech sounds
associated with single letters, letter combinations, and syllables.
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Taipale, M., N. Kaminen, J. Nopola-Hemmi, et al. "A Candidate Gene
for Developmental Dyslexia Encodes a Nuclear Tetratricopeptide Repeat
Domain Protein Dynamically Regulated in Brain."
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the USA
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Learning Disabilities Association of America. 4156 Library Road,
Pittsburg, PA 15234. (412) 341–1515. Web site:
National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD). 381 Park Avenue South,
Suite 1401, New York, NY 10016. (410) 296–0232. Web site:
The Interactive Guide to Learning Disabilities for Parents, Teachers, and
Children. Available online at: http://www.ldonline.org.
LD Online Page.
Available online at: http://www.ldonline.org.