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Learning disabilities

Teaching students with learning disabilities

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 an overwhelming number of instructions all at once. 
  • Be specific about the steps students need to follow to complete an assignment. 
  • Encourage the use of study groups which provides an alternative way of learning the information.
  • For large projects, provide step-by-step directions, use bullet points and provide due dates in advance.
  • Make course notes available to students.
  • 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.
  • Select well-organized and clear textbooks. Textbooks that are available in accessible formats are preferred.
  • Use various teaching methods, such as lectures, discussions, and small group activities.


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 make notes.
  • Link abstract or new concepts to concrete or previously learned concepts.
  • Make lectures interactive, for example ask the class questions).
  • Make course notes available online.
  • Maintain student attention by varying your instructional delivery.
  • Outline main points and key terms on PowerPoint.
  • Reduce distractions in the classroom.
  • Use visual supports including pictures, charts and diagrams to supplement verbal information.

Lab work

Some students with learning disabilities may require additional time to comprehend math symbols or formulae. They may also have difficulty interpreting written or verbal instructions, struggle with memory or have problems managing time effectively.

  • Allow extended time for responses. Colour code materials for enhanced visual recognition.
  • Ensure that steps of a procedure are clearly outlined.
  • Provide individual orientation to the laboratory and offer practice with tasks and equipment.

Group interaction and discussion

Students with disabilities may have problems reading body language, understanding the give and take of communication and following classroom conversations. 


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, such as oral, or hands-on demonstration.
  • Provide alternate ways for students with disabilities to demonstrate their competence.
  • Provide study questions for exams that demonstrate the format along with the content of the exam.
  • Provide visual supports, such as larger text, diagrams and charts.
  • Use various types of test questions, such as multiple choice, true/false, and short answer.
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