Learning Differences: How Can Teachers Help?

What is a learning disability?

  • A discrepancy that exists between a person’s potential for learning and what she actually learns.
  • The learning problem is not due to:
  • Mental retardation
  • Lack of motivation
  • Emotional issues
  • Biological imbalances

What are the main types of learning issues?

The 3 main types are:

  • Language processing, which includes auditory processing.
  • Visual processing, which includes visual motor integration.
  • Attention deficit disorder, ADHD.

      Understanding the Symptoms of Learning Differences:

Auditory Processing

Jessica is in 2nd grade. Her parents see her as bright and friendly. Socially, she interacts well with peers and adults. Jessica’s mother became concerned when she observed her daughter in the classroom. Outside the classroom Jessica is active and outspoken, inside the classroom Jessica was withdrawn. Jessica stayed to herself and avoided interaction with teachers and peers. The teacher reported that Jessica could not learn her math facts or read. Jessica also had difficulty following simple directions and would not ask questions when she did not understand what she supposed to do. An auditory processing difficulty often means the student is unable to understand, or process auditory input at the rate it is spoken. Depending on the extent of the problem, students may miss anywhere from 5% to 50% of the information being given.

Classroom accommodations

  • Encourage participation
  • Form small groups where she feels comfortable joining in.
    • Call on her only when you know she knows the answer. Often this will be the 2nd or 3rd person to talk in the discussion as this will give her time to establish the context of the conversation.
    • Praise her for her accomplishments.
    • Have her work with a partner.
    • Find out what she’s good at and have her share that skill with the class.
    • Help her understand directions.
      • Her low reading ability limits her understanding of written corrections and her auditory processing difficulties make it difficult for her to understand oral directions.
      • Break both written and oral directions into short concise parts.
      • Teach her to number each set of written directions and underline key words, which indicate actions needed to complete the assignment.
      • Check with her directly after getting instruction is given to ensure she understands what she is to do.
      • Seat her in the front of the class so she can gain as many visual and auditory clues as possible.
      • Help her visualize what she’s reading or listening to.
      • Concretely convey objectives.
        • Provide context for new materials by building on familiar concepts.
        • Answer questions by referring back to the main idea of the topic to help facilitate the understanding of the whole concept.

Visual Motor Integration

Kevin is in the 6th grade. He is extremely verbal and is an excellent reader. He is able to verbally demonstrate his knowledge of what he has read. He performs well on multiple-choice tests. However, when asked to write a paragraph Kevin uses simple sentences and gives only brief answers. His writing is messy. He ignores margins, indents haphazardly, and has trouble anchoring his letters on the line. Kevin also has difficulty in math. His writing is so sloppy he makes careless errors due to misreading what he’s working on. Additionally, Kevin’s class notes are incomplete and often so difficult to read even he doesn’t know what they say. Lastly, Kevin’s assignment book is never filled in completely causing him to miss assignments. A weakness in visual motor integration means the student has fine motor problems, which make it hard for him to write, combined with a visual problem, which makes it hard for him to manually reproduce visually presented information. Therefore, copying from a book or the board is extremely difficult. Anything that requires fine motor skills, like writing, is challenging for a child like this. Students with a visual motor integration weakness dislike writing. They generally turn in written work that is sloppy and inferior in quality. All written work is laborious and takes an exorbitant amount of time.

Classroom accommodations

  • Give handouts, or have a partner whose notes Kevin can photocopy, rather than requiring him to copy from the board.
  • Assist in note-taking by providing an outline, which he can then fill in with the lecture information.
  • Give him a template to write paragraphs and essays.
    • The template has the indent markers and margins clearly noted.
    • Use wide ruled paper.
    • Allow the use of computer whenever possible.
    • For long assignments, that cannot be done on the computer, either shorten the assignment or allow him extra time.
    • Allow him to use graph paper for all math assignments.
    • Once you’ve demonstrated mastery of math facts allow the use of the computer.


Katie is in 5th grade. She is bright and an evaluation of her skills indicates that she has superior verbal skills and average to superior performance skill. Katie was noted by teachers to exhibit tremendous anxiety, which inhibited her from demonstrating her ability. She is struggling in all subjects and has difficulty staying focused during lectures. She is observed to  “daydream” during independent work times. Her attentional difficulties present a problem at home and at school. Katie is unable to stay on task and is easily distracted. She often leaves the books she needs for homework at school. She also forgets to turn in her homework. Amy is in 1st grade. She is unable to remain in her chair. She calls out answers before the teacher is finished asking the question. She has a difficult time lining up and often pushes other children around her. Her writing and drawing is hastily finished, resulting in sloppy work. ADHD students are unable to remain focused and therefore miss details and make careless mistakes. They often fail to follow through on assignments and have a difficult time organizing their thoughts, as well as their work. They forget things, lose things and are easily distracted. When attention deficit has the added component of hyperactivity it makes it difficult for students to remain physically calm. They squirm and fidget. They need to get up and move around, and often talk excessively. Waiting for turns is difficult because these students to jump into games and conversations.

Classroom accommodations

  • Seat her in the front of the room.
  • Have “cue” words that you both agreed upon, these are intended to call her back when she’s daydreaming.
  • Provide structure words in your lectures that enable her to refocus and know where she is. “1st point, 2nd point, 3rd point, moving to the next idea”.
  • Provide weekly assignment sheets.
  • Use visual organizers/calendars for long-term assignments.
  • Check her assignment book, or have a partner check, to ensure she has all assigned work written down and knows which books need to be taken home.
  • Remind her to turn in homework each day.
  • If movement is a problem, discuss appropriate movements that can be done within the classroom system.
    • A wiggle seat can be helpful.
    • Timers can be very helpful, especially ones that count down.
    • Checklists and charts that can be used in the classroom and at home can be very beneficial.
    • Teach children to take control of their thinking with this mantra
STOP: “What am I doing?”
THINK: “What do I need to do? Do I have a checklist I can use?”
PLAN:  “ What are the steps needed to finish this task?”
 DO: Now you can sit down and start working!

3 Responses

  1. Bee Leng

    Thank you so much for the useful information. Will continue to follow your blog postings.

  2. Bee Leng

    Sorry, there is a typo-error in my email address. Am resending the post. Thanks!
    Hi Melissa, read your write-up with great interest as your insights and knowledge are very useful for parents whose kids are struggling with their learning. My daughter did an assessment for dyslexia recently as we thought she displayed some symptoms especially not being able to complete her maths homework and tests and bad in memorizing facts and chinese characters. But she was diagnosed not to be dyslexic but has below average math fluency and working memory. Overall her gca score is 113 and non-verbal reasoning at 123 but average in her spatial. Verbal comprehension and processing speed is ok. I would like to know why her math fluency in terms of speed can be slow when the processing speed can be high. Also if her non-verbal reasoning is high, why us it her spatial test score is only average? The psychologist told us that that she could do her sums accurately if she were to be given extra time; she has trouble retaining information due to short working memory but did quite well when she had to read the numbers reversely. We are puzzled by the results. In addition, what are the ways to tap on her non-verbal reasoning strength to improve her maths fluency or even the short working memory. Would you be able to share with us more about non-verbal reasoning? Many thanks in advance for your time and generous sharing as a ep and mother. Warm regards, Bee Leng 

    • Melissa Mullin, Ph.D.

      The results of testing can be very confusing. You are given lots of details that are used to create a learning profile. I don’t have all the scores for your child, so I will use what I know from other children I have seen and make some assumptions. I hope enough of what I say pertains to your daughter and can help you.

      Let’s start with more information about non-verbal reasoning. Non-verbal reasoning skills are used for the recognition of similarities, analogies and patterns in unfamiliar designs. These skills can be considered ‘fluid-general intelligence’, which involves the ability to reason with new material, without the need to use previous knowledge. They have been described as ‘culture fair’ and thus provide a more appropriate measure of general intelligence, compared with verbal reasoning tests, for test takers not fluent in the language being used. This means that your daughter is a good problem solver, and can come up with creative solutions.

      You ask why her math fluency in terms of speed is slow when the processing speed is high. The simple answer is that the processing speed tests do not require any thinking or prior knowledge. The processing speed index measures how quickly the child can process visual information and the write symbols. Math fluency requires the quick processing speed AND math knowledge. Your daughter’s math facts are not yet automatic, so she has to stop and think before she can write her answer, this slows her down and lowered her score.

      So neither processing speed or non-verbal reasoning require learned knowledge. Math fluency, memorizing facts and Chinese characters requires getting information into long term memory for later recall.

      Working memory is an issue, and that can be affecting the math fluency. To increase the math fluency you need to make the math facts automatic. Since working memory is an issue, you have to practice and find ways to get the facts into long-term memory. Using visualization, computer programs, songs, writing the facts down, playing dice and card games are all helpful. The issue is to get the facts memorized and overlearned so she doesn’t have to stop and think about the answer but can quickly answer. I would guess that this is going to be true with other things she need to memorize, so making flash cards and daily practice is highly recommended.

      Here are some tips I found:

      1. Focus your attention on the materials you are studying.
      Attention is one of the major components of memory. In order for information to move from short-term memory into long-term memory, you need to actively attend to this information. Try to study in a place free of distractions such as television, music and other diversions.
      2. Avoid cramming by establishing regular study sessions.
      According to Bjork (2001), studying materials over a number of session’s gives you the time you need to adequately process the information. Research has shown that students who study regularly remember the material far better than those who did all of their studying in one marathon session.
      3. Structure and organize the information you are studying.
      Researchers have found that information is organized in memory in related clusters. You can take advantage of this by structuring and organizing the materials you are studying. Try grouping similar concepts and terms together, or make an outline of your notes and textbook readings to help group related concepts.
      4. Utilize mnemonic devices to remember information.
      Mnemonic devices are a technique often used by students to aid in recall. A mnemonic is simply a way to remember information. For example, you might associate a term you need to remember with a common item that you are very familiar with. The best mnemonics are those that utilize positive imagery, humor or novelty. You might come up with a rhyme, song or joke to help remember a specific segment of information.
      5. Elaborate and rehearse the information you are studying.
      In order to recall information, you need to encode what you are studying into long-term memory. One of the most effective encoding techniques is known as elaborative rehearsal. An example of this technique would be to read the definition of a key term, study the definition of that term and then read a more detailed description of what that term means. After repeating this process a few times, your recall of the information will be far better.
      6. Relate new information to things you already know.
      When you are studying unfamiliar material, take the time to think about how this information relates to things that you already know. By establishing relationships between new ideas and previously existing memories, you can dramatically increase the likelihood of recalling the recently learned information.
      7. Visualize concepts to improve memory and recall.
      Many people benefit greatly from visualizing the information they study. Pay attention to the photographs, charts and other graphics in your textbooks. If you do not have visual cues to help, try creating your own. Draw charts or figures in the margins of your notes or use highlighters or pens in different colors to group related ideas in your written study materials.
      8. Teach new concepts to another person.
      Research suggests that reading materials out loud significantly improves memory of the material. Educators and psychologists have also discovered that having students actually teach new concepts to others enhances understanding and recall. You can use this approach in your own studies by teaching new concepts and information to a friend or study partner.
      9. Pay extra attention to difficult information.
      Have you ever noticed how it’s sometimes easier to remember information at the beginning or end of a chapter? Researchers have found that the order of information can play a role in recall, which is known as the serial position effect. While recalling middle information can be difficult, you can overcome this problem by spending extra time rehearsing this information. Another strategy is to try restructuring the information so it will be easier to remember. When you come across an especially difficult concept, devote some extra time to memorizing the information.
      10. Vary your study routine.
      Another great way to increase your recall is to occasionally change your study routine. If you are accustomed to studying in one specific location, try moving to a different spot during your next study session. If you study in the evening, try spending a few minutes each morning reviewing the information you studied the previous night. By adding an element of novelty to your study sessions, you can increase the effectiveness of your efforts and significantly improve your long-term recall.
      10 Fascinating Facts About Human Memory
Bjork, D. (2001, March). How to succeed in college: Learn how to learn. APS Observer, 14(3), 9.

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