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Learning disabilities

Teaching students with learning disabilities

Students with learning disabilities often find learning to be a difficult and painful process. As a result of their experiences, these individuals often feel ashamed, fearful, depressed and helpless. It is estimated that learning disabilities occur in about 10 per cent of the population and affect about three million Canadians. In fact, research indicates that 36 per cent of Canadian students with disabilities at post-secondary institutions self-identified as having learning disabilities.

Learning disabilities are due to genetic and/or underlying neurological factors resulting in impairments to one or more processes related to perceiving, thinking, remembering or learning. Learning disabilities are life long and affect an individual’s ability to acquire, organize, retain, understand or use verbal and non-verbal information.

Learning disabilities range in severity and may cause impairment in one or more of the following areas:

  • Oral language (e.g. listening, speaking, understanding).
  • Reading (e.g. decoding, phonetic knowledge, word recognition, comprehension).
  • Written language (e.g. spelling, written expression).
  • Mathematics (e.g. computation, problem solving).
  • Organization (e.g. assignment planning, time management).
  • Social perception (e.g. reading body language).
  • Social interaction (e.g. conversing with others).

What can teaching staff do to offer assistance?

Learning disabilities are individual and affect students differently at various points in their lives. The following suggestions for faculty will help not only the students with a learning disability, but also the general student population:

  • Avoid providing overwhelming amounts of instructions.
  • Encourage study groups, providing an alternative way of learning the information.
  • For large projects, provide step-by-step directions, use bullet points and give advanced due dates.
  • Make notes available to students.
  • Outline the stages students need to follow to complete an assignment.
  • Provide an adequate timeframe for students to complete a written assignment (i.e. two weeks for a standard paper; four weeks for a paper requiring intensive research).
  • Provide both written and oral instructions.
  • Provide examples whenever possible.
  • State the class objectives at the beginning of the class.
  • Try to select well-organized, clear textbooks; textbooks that also have an alternative format CD will allow students who struggle with reading to use assistive technology.
  • Vary your teaching methods (lecture, discussion, small groups).


Students with learning disabilities may struggle to understand lecture content. They may have problems comprehending the vocabulary, or be unable to keep up with the pace of the class. Here are some measures that will be beneficial to students with learning difficulties:

  • Leave slides up longer than you think necessary for students to copy.
  • Link abstract or new concepts to concrete or previously learned concepts.
  • Make lectures interactive (e.g. ask questions).
  • Make notes available online.
  • Maintain student attention by varying delivery approach.
  • Outline main points and key terms on PowerPoint.
  • Reduce distractions in the classroom.
  • Use visual supports including gestures, pictures, charts and diagrams to supplement verbal information.

Lab work

Some students with learning disabilities are confused by math symbols or formulas. They may also be clumsy, have difficulty interpreting written instructions, struggle with memory or have problems managing time effectively. They may also have difficulty communicating with or relating to lab partners.

  • Allow extended time for responses.Colour code materials for enhanced visual recognition.
  • Be aware of social issues and be open to changes in lab partners if requested.
  • Make cue cards, diagrams and/or labels designating the steps of a procedure.
  • Provide individual orientation to the laboratory and give extra practice with tasks and equipment.
  • Students weak in nonverbal processing may need verbal instructions and verbal identification of materials.

Group interaction and discussion

Students with disabilities may have problems reading body language, understanding the give and take of communication and following classroom conversations. Realizing their inabilities often contribute to feelings of low self-esteem and problems with learned helplessness, which in turn greatly affects their participation in class and their social interactions.

  • Ask students to repeat their points or to paraphrase them to facilitate comprehension.
  • Encourage questions during or after class to ensure that the material is understood.
  • Give plenty of reinforcement when it is evident that the student is trying things that are made difficult by the disability.
  • Provide alternative ways for students with disabilities to show their competence.


Students with learning disabilities may not be able to understand what is being asked on a test. Some students might also have difficulty reading the test questions, knowing where to place responses and responding to certain types of questions.

  • Avoid overly complicated language in exam questions.
  • Consider other forms of testing (e.g. oral, hands-on demonstration, open-book).
  • Provide study questions for exams that demonstrate the format along with the content of the exam.
  • Provide visual supports, such as large texts, diagrams and charts.
  • Use various types of test questions (e.g. multiple choice, true/false, short answer).
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