Learning Disabilities


What is a Learning Disability?

The term "Learning Disability" describes a group of disorders characterised by inadequate development of specific academic, language, and/or speech skills. Types of learning disabilities include reading and spelling disability (dyslexia), writing disability (dysgraphia) and mathematics disability (dyscalculia).  The term does not include those who have learning problems which are primarily the result of sensory or physical handicaps, or mental retardation, or emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.  People with specific learning disabilities characteristically display average to above average intelligence in all other areas.



Dyslexia is the most common learning disability. It is about five times more prevalent in males than in females, and is more likely to affect left-handed individuals. Many people with dyslexia are considered to be strongly right-brain dominant.  They will be very good at visual-spatial tasks such as puzzles and map-reading.  Whilst no two people with Dyslexia are exactly alike, most dyslexics will display a good number of the following characteristics:




  • Can read a word on one page, but won't recognise it on the next page.

  • May know phonics, but resists "working out" an unknown word.

  • Slow, laboured, inaccurate reading of single words in isolation (when there is no story line or pictures to provide clues).

  • When they misread, they often say a word that has the same first and last letters, and the same shape, such as house-horse or beach-bench.

  • They may insert or leave out letters, such as could–cold or star–stair.

  • They may say a word that has the same letters, but in a different sequence, such as who–how, lots–lost, saw–was, or girl–grill.

  • When reading aloud, reads in a slow, choppy way (not in smooth phrases), and often ignores punctuation.

  • Becomes visibly tired after reading for only a short time.

  • Reading comprehension may be low due to spending so much energy trying to figure out the words. Listening comprehension is usually significantly higher than reading comprehension.

  • However, reading comprehension may be higher than predicted given the level of decoding inaccuracy.

  • Directionality confusion shows up when reading and when writing.

  • b–d confusion is a classic warning sign. One points to the left, the other points to the right, and they are left–right confused.

  • b–p, n–u, or m–w confusion. One points up, the other points down. That's also directionality confusion.

  • Substitutes similar-looking words, even if it changes the meaning of the sentence, such as sunrise for surprise, house for horse, while for white, wanting for walking.

  • When reading a story or a sentence, substitutes a word that means the same thing but doesn't look at all similar, such as trip for journey, fast for speed, or cry for weep.

  • Misreads, omits, or even adds small function words, such as an, a, from, the, to, were, are, of.

  • Omits or changes suffixes, saying need for needed, talks for talking, or late for lately.


  • Their spelling is far worse than their reading.

  • They sometimes struggle to even make attempted spelling understandable.

  • They have extreme difficulty with vowel sounds, and often leave them out.

  • With enormous effort, they may be able to “memorise” Monday's spelling list long enough to pass Friday's spelling test, but they can't spell those very same words two hours later when writing them in sentences.

  • Continually misspells high frequency sight words (nonphonetic but very common words) such as they, what, where, does and because—despite extensive practice.

  • Misspells even when copying something from the board or from a book.

  • Written work shows signs of spelling uncertainty—numerous erasures, cross outs, etc.



Dysgraphia is so commonly found in people with dyslexia that it is often considered to be part of the same disorder.  Also known as a visual-motor integration problem, people with dysgraphia have poor, nearly illegible handwriting.  Signs of dysgraphia include:


  • Unusual pencil grip, often with the thumb on top of the fingers (a “fist grip”).

  • Young children will often put their head down on the desk to watch the tip of the pencil as they write.

  • The pencil is gripped so tightly that the writer's hand cramps. They will frequently put the pencil down and shake out their hands.

  • Writing is a slow, laboured, non-automatic chore.

  • Letters are formed with unusual starting and ending points.

  • Getting letters to “sit” on the horizontal lines is very difficult.

  • Copying off of the board is slow, painful, and tedious. The child looks up and visually “grabs” just one or two letters at a time, repeatedly subvocalises the names of those letters, then stares intensely at their paper when writing those one or two letters. This process is repeated over and over.  The child frequently loses his/her place, misspells, and doesn't always match capitalisation or punctuation when copying—even though the child can read what was on the board.

  • Unusual spatial organisation of the page. Words may be widely spaced or tightly pushed together. Margins are often ignored.

  • Cursive (linked) writing proves incredibly hard to master, and similarly-formed cursive letters such as f and b, m and n, w and u cause chronic confusion.


Individuals with dyscalculia have difficulties in mathematics. The brain areas which appear to be affected in dyscalculia are areas which are specialised to represent quantity. Dyscalculia is equally likely to occurr in both males and females. Whilst there is some cross-over into the dyslexic population, there are many dyslexic people who excel at maths, and likewise, many with dyscalculia are strong readers and spellers.


  • Delay in counting.

  • Less understanding of basic counting principles than their peers (e.g. that it doesn't matter which order objects are counted in).

  • Delay in using counting strategies for addition. Dyscalculic children tend to keep using inefficient strategies for calculating addition facts much longer than their peers.

  • Difficulties in memorising arithmetic facts for simple addition, subtraction and multiplication (eg. 5 + 4 = 9), and this difficulty persists up to at least the age of thirteen.

  • Lack of “number sense”.

  • A fundamental difficulty in understanding quantity. They are slower at even very simple quantity tasks such as comparing two numbers (which is bigger, 7 or 9?), and saying how many there are for groups of 1-3 objects.

  • Less automatic processing of written numbers. In most of us, reading the symbol "7" immediately causes our sense of quantity to be accessed. In dyscalculic individuals this access appears to be slower and more effortful.

  • Difficulty in linking written or spoken numbers to the idea of quantity.



Many thanks to Susan Barton from www.brightsolutions.us for allowing us to use information from her website regarding characteristics of Dyslexia and Dysgraphia; and

Many thanks to Dr Anna Wilson from www.aboutdyscalculia.org (website no-longer on line) for allowing us to use information from her website regarding characteristics of Dyscalculia.