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Students with Disabilities

Teaching Students with Learning Disabilities and ADHD


The Association for Children and Adults with Learning Disabilities (ACLD) defines a learning disability as “a chronic condition of presumed neurological origin which selectively interferes with the development, integration, and/or demonstration of verbal or nonverbal abilities.” The LNEC website explains that these are “lifelong conditions, which affect learning in individuals with normal or above normal intelligence. These disorders affect learning processes, but not necessarily the capacity to learn.” We all have learning strengths and weaknesses, but for neurological reasons, students with learning disabilities may have difficulties with learning processes such as listening, time management, reading, writing, or mathematical reasoning.

If a student’s performance or lack of progress seems unusual or puzzles you, you may wish to see if he/she exhibits a pattern of some of the characteristics described below. Checking the student’s performance against this list will help you distinguish between a student who has poor or ineffective study habits and one who is potentially able and who studies very hard, but who happens to have learning disability or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Anyone may exhibit certain of these characteristics to some extent and at some time: On occasion, we all read more slowly, feel anxious when asked to perform orally, can’t finish on time, or have problems remembering terms. A student who has a learning disability, however, will show an unexplained,consistent, and unusual pattern of discrepancy between specific types of learning, and learn or perform well in some situations and not in others (e.g., he/she may understand diagrams but not an oral presentation or vice versa).

Specific Characteristics

Discrepancies in Processing and Reproducing Information:
The student may understand ideas when presented one way but not another or may do much better at one type of assignment. For example, a student may perform significantly better with short answer than with multiple-choice exam questions or better with numerical than with verbal math problems.

The student may not recognize familiar information when it is presented in an unfamiliar form, such as when switching from words to a chart or vice versa.

The student may repeatedly ask questions that seem “stupid” or strange, such as asking about an idea you just discussed, constantly asking you to repeat information, or asking questions that indicate a major misunderstanding of an assigned reading.

The student may have special difficulty understanding directions. For instance, the student may be able to recite information with no difficulty but be unable to reproduce it on exams because she consistently misinterprets the questions or does not seem able to understand what specific information the questions are asking for. Similarly, the student may consistently and puzzlingly misunderstand the point of written instructions, or he may find it necessary to read every assignment two or three times to understand its main points.

The student may show a consistent but puzzling pattern of errors in completing mathematical problems. He or she may always add numbers in the wrong columns or consistently confuse symbols. Or, the student may understand the ideas and work the problems correctly, but may produce final incorrect answers by consistently transposing numbers or by treating all negative numbers as positive numbers. Even when such errors are pointed out, the student may seem unable to recognize that the answers are wrong in this way.

The student may reverse ideas or consistently reverse words in explaining them. For instance, the student may grasp the pattern of ideas but consistently understand them backwards, or the student may consistently write “not red” on an exam when he/she means or should write “red.”

The student may understand the material, and may have no difficulty explaining it in class or in conference, but may not be able to complete timed tests and exams within the allotted time. This may indicate a slower rate of reading or writing, memory problems, or difficulty sorting information.

Unusual Difficulty Reading:
The student may read or write unusually slowly and may trace sentences with his/her finger or draw a line under them when reading. (This may indicate the student has eye focusing problems.)

The student may become unusually anxious and perform unusually poorly when asked to read aloud in class.(This may indicate that the student has difficulty processing written information. Dyslexic students, for instance, see letters as transposed.)

Unusual Difficulty Writing:
The student can explain ideas orally and ask good questions in class but cannot write these ideas coherently.

The student may hand in papers that seem conceptually unusual or strange. Examples include papers with good ideas but with unusually disjointed arguments and illogical or strange conceptual connections.

The student may hand in papers that seem stylistically unusual or strange (as opposed to papers that simply are not very good). The student’s style may include the following:

  • An extreme number of spelling errors. The same words may be misspelled inconsistently, words with initial vowels may be consistently misspelled, or the orientation of letters consistently switched within words (bfor detc.).
  • An extreme number of switched words. These kinds of errors may seem unusual for the college level; the order of letters may be switched (such as on for no).
  • An unusual lack of punctuation, or a large amount of strangely applied punctuation.
  • Extremely convoluted sentences with mismatched or unclear sentence structure.
  • Extremely wordy sentences where the student seems to write around a word or idea.
  • Grammar and mechanics that seem extremely careless, although the student insists that he/she has worked very hard on the paper and has proofread it carefully.
  • Unusually immature or uncoordinated handwriting for the college level.

Puzzling Lack of Progress:
Despite his/her ability and effort, the student may show a puzzling lack of progress or may start out well in the course but then seem to lose initial learning. (This may indicate problems with short- or long-term memory or with sorting information.)

Characteristics of Students with Certain Types of Learning Disabilities

NOTE: This chart is not complete. There are many specific types of learning disabilities, and each type will produce particular kinds of learning difficulties.



Difficulty in Processing
Auditory or Visual
Memory Problems Additional Possible Disabilities
Writing Unusual or inconsistent spelling.
Orientation or order of letters switched (no/on, b/d).
Punctuation missing or atypical.
Substitution of words or vowels.Ideas or words transposed.
Poor handwriting.
  Papers contain extremely wordy or convoluted sections. Papers seem conceptually unusual.
Logical connections are misused or missing.
Reading Difficulty reading aloud.
Unexplained difficulty in reading comprehension.
Difficulty processing written instructions, charts, diagrams, slides Difficulty retaining what is read.
Unusual errors.
Draws unusual and/or inappropriate inferences.
Consistent pattern of errors in computing mathematical problems. Cannot understand or recognize information when presentation is switched (e.g., visual to auditory or vice versa.) Constantly asks for repetition or asks “stupid” questions.
Puzzling lack of progress.
Unable to build on ideas, forgets due dates, etc.
Papers/Exams Difficulty organizing written work.
Cannot complete in-class papers or exams in the time allowed.
Can explain ideas orally but not in written form.
Misinterprets exam questions.
Same as for dyslexia. (see column to left.) Understands the important ideas of the course, but cannot remember basic facts on exams.  

Identification and Referral

Once you notice a student in your class who might have a learning disability, you can use the following techniques to refine your identification and distinguish between students with disabilities and those who do not work hard enough or have poor study or writing skills:

Give an in-class timed assignment. As the students work, check to see if the student in question seems to have unusual trouble getting started. Examine students’ responses for these signs:

  • unusually poor handwriting
  • large numbers of spelling or punctuation errors or confusing sentences
  • unusual lack of organization or strange conceptual connections
  • inability to address correctly the initial question
  • difficulty in finishing in the allotted time.

If your course does not include writing, announce a brief in-class timed test. Examine whether and how the student answers your questions, if there are unusual and consistent patterns of mathematical or conceptual errors, and whether he/she can finish the test in time.

Talk to the student privately to find out how much he/she is studying. A student with a learning disability may be working long hours and may say that he/she works very hard without results. If the student is not studying enough, point out the need to work harder, and make sure the student knows how to study for your course.

Ask the student to explain how he/she is studying. A student with special difficulties may study hard but misapply study time because he/she misunderstands your instructions; this misunderstanding may imply a problem with processing certain types of information. If the student exhibits poor study skills, recommend or require departmental small-group tutoring, available free for most large introductory courses.

Question the student about his/her note-taking strategies, and, if you feel the student will not resent it, ask to look at the notes. See whether the notes differ markedly but consistently from class presentations.

Require or recommend that a student who exhibits problems in his/her writing attend the Writing Center.Encourage the student to meet regularly with a tutor he/she finds helpful.

If, after eliminating other types of problems, you suspect the student may have a learning disability or ADHD, refer him/her privately to the LNEC, located in Elson Student Health Center (400 Brandon Avenue). The best approach is to be supportive and non-directive. Do not say that you think the student has a learning (or other) disability or imply that there is something “wrong.” Instead, tell them what the LNEC is, where it can be found, and the academic services it offers. You might explain that the LNEC offers time management/study strategy workshops every semester or that someone there can help determine whether the student has appropriate study habits, etc. If you feel concerned about how to broach this subject, call the LNEC for help in referral. If the student resists the idea of going to the LNEC, but you feel such a determination is crucial to his/her future success, you can contact the student’s dean.
Once you refer a student to the Learning Needs and Evaluation Center, staff members will consult with the student to determine whether a learning disability exists, and, if so, what kind. All LNEC services are free to the student, unless the student requires a full battery of diagnostic tests from outside the center. If the student or his/her insurance carrier cannot or will not pay for the outside testing fee, the LNEC staff can help find a resource to cover them. After the LNEC has determined that the student has a specific disability that requires accommodations, and if the student requests them, the LNEC will send you a form outlining some basic accommodations. To ensure confidentiality, the LNEC will not give you a specific diagnosis of the student’s disability. If you need further information about the nature of the disability to determine specific accommodations, speak to the student and, with his/her permission, with the LNEC.