Guide Focus

What are Learning Disabilities?

Role of Formal Assessment

LD Students in Your Composition Classroom

LD Students in a Writing Center Tutorial

Teacher Resources

An Introduction to Resources for Disabled Students

Annotated Bibliography

Relevant Web Sites

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Authors & Contributors

A Student's Perspective on Writing with Dislexia, by Lucas Gilbreth

Living with a Learning Disorder

"People do not understand what it costs in time and suffering to learn how to read. I have been working at it for eighty years, and I still can't say that I've succeeded."


Picture yourself back in the third grade. Now imagine that you are as intelligent as you were then, only this time, you can't read along with the rest of the class because your reading ability is that of a second or first grader. How frustrated would you feel when your teacher gives the class three pages to read and when everyone else is finished, you are still on the first page. Furthermore, when you do finish, you can not talk about it with the class because you could not figure out some of the words. This scenario is an example of one of many different daily experiences of a child with a learning disorder. It is also one of the many memories that I have of when I was in school. I have a learning disorder called dyslexia. Throughout this paper, I will try to give you some insight on what it is like to have a learning disorder by giving you examples of my life and the lives of others with learning disorders. Furthermore, I will compare these experiences with what experts say about learning disorders.

The term learning disorder refers to problems with learning that occur in the absence of other conditions, such as mental retardation or brain damage. To determine if someone has a learning disorder, they are given an IQ test and various achievement tests that show that person's specific abilities in different academic areas. If this person's IQ is shown to be normal to above-average, but his or her score on one or more of the achievement tests is substantially below that which would be expected, given his or her age and educational standing. Then it is possible that this person has a learning disorder. In addition to the score on the test, the person's difficulties must directly interfere with learning in school and daily activities in life. However these difficulties in learning cannot be caused by a sensory deficit, such as poor vision. Yet if the deficit can be helped or improved, the problems with reading must still be present for that person to be diagnosed with a learning disorder. Using myself as an example, I will try to bring this process into a more understandable context. I am 20 years old and a college sophomore. I have been given an IQ test, and scored within an above-average range. However, my reading level is that of a high school sophomore, and my spelling is even lower then that. I am constantly struggling with my classes. In class I can not take notes on account of the time it takes, and of my inability to take them accurately. Out of class, the time it takes me to complete homework assignments is usually twice as long than that of my classmates. Any paper, no matter how many times I re-read it or send it through spell-check, contains many misspelled words and grammatical errors. So in addition to re-reading and computer spell-checking my written works, I have to take them to a writing center to be checked for spelling and grammatical errors. 

The DSM-IV states that there are three main types of learning disorders: reading disorders, mathematics disorders, and disorders of written expression or writing. It is important to remember that although these disorders are separate from one another, it is very common for them to overlap. Also, these disorders differ significantly from person to person. Take my brother, Ian, and myself for example. We are both severely dyslexic. However, even though we both have the same diagnosis of the same learning disorder, our problems in school and in life do have their differences. Ian, even with his poor spelling and grammar, has always been able to express his ideas and thoughts, both verbally and on paper, and has become a very good storyteller. I have continuously had trouble expressing my thoughts in any form. It can take me hours to put them down on paper. Many of my papers are jumbled and hard to follow. Yet even with our differences, there are some similarities; we are both slow readers and poor spellers.

When I tell people that I am dyslexic, I am often asked if I read backwards. I always answer this question "no", then go I on to explain how the reading disorder part of dyslexia affects me when I read things. When I am reading something, I do a lot of things that do not correspond with what is actually on the paper. Sometimes I will change some words into different words, such as changing "those" into "these". Sometimes I will add a word to a sentence that is not there, or I will leave words out of a sentence. I have even left out an entire sentence. This may be hard to imagine or understand, but this is actually how I read. The way that I read has also been the cause of a lot of frustration and humiliation on my behalf. In school I stopped reading out loud, because many of the kids would laugh and tease me because of the mistakes that I would make while reading.

If you think about it, reading is actually a very complex skill, both to learn and to continue to do correctly. When was the last time you thought about all the things that you have to do when you read? You have to focus attention on the printed marks and control your eye movements across the page, recognize the sounds associated with letters, understand words and grammar, build ideas and images, compare new ideas to what you already know, and store ideas in memory (Mash & Wolfe, 1998, p.47). In addition, you have to do all of these things simultaneously.

Reading disorders are hard to detect at an early age, since everyone struggles when they first learn to read. Unfortunately, the longer a reading disorder goes undetected, the harder it becomes to correct the problems caused by the disorder. Even though reading disorders are hard to detect, there are certain signs that one can look for to detect a reading disorder. Children with a reading disorder frequently have trouble learning words that are phonetically irregular, like "where" and "laugh". Children with a learning disorder also can develop their own style of reading patterns that are unique to them and often peculiar to others. If you recall the example that I gave of the way that I read, it is not really that of the norm. "Typical errors include reversals (b/d; p/q), transpositions (sequential errors such as was/saw, sacred/scared), inversions (m/w, n/u), and omissions (reading "place" for "palace" or "section" for "selection")" (Mash &Wolfe, 1998, p.49). As you can see, making errors such as these can cause great confusion and embarrassment with reading.

Mathematics, like reading, is also a complex skill. "Arithmetic involves recognizing numbers and symbols, memorizing facts such as the multiplication table, aligning numbers, and understanding abstract concepts like place value and fractions. Any or all of these may be difficult for children with a mathematics disorder" (Mash & Wolfe, 1998, p.51). Similar to reading disorders, mathematical disorders can also be detected through signs such as trouble with numbers and basic concepts, for example realizing that two nickels are the same as one dime. Other problems that may exist are an inability to enumerate, compare, and manipulate objects, problems reading and writing mathematical symbols, understanding mathematical concepts and performing calculations mentally, and performing computational operations.

As I stayed before, I am not a good speller. However my problems with writing go far beyond that of my poor spelling and grammar. My handwriting is almost illegible, and most aspects of grammar are still a mystery to me. Think back to when you were in school and the teacher would ask a student to go up to the blackboard and write a sentence or two. How embarrassed would you be if when it were your turn you misspelled simple words, such as writing "fot" instead of "boat"? Again, this is what it was like for me in school. I used to pray that the teacher would not ask me to go up the board, because I was afraid that I would make mistakes, and then be teased. I have even made up excuses for not being able to write on the blackboard. Still, to this day, I do not like to write letters, or anything else that other people will be able to read, unless I have had it corrected by someone else.

Besides spelling and grammatical errors, my writing disorder also inhibits me from copying things down. Think back to when you were in school and you had to copy notes off of the board. Did you ever go back over your notes and look for mistakes? Maybe you forgot to put an "e" at the end of "the", or left a "to" out of the middle of a sentence. These mistakes mite not cause a problem for most people, but mistakes that I make when copying are about ten times greater then the ones that I just mentioned. When I was in the first or second grade, my teacher gave the class a homework assignment in which we had to copy down some sentences. I was doing the assignment when my mom came to see how I was doing. She was shocked at what she saw. The sentence that I had just copied consisted of five words, four of the five were horribly misspelled, and one I did not even copy down. The mistakes that I made were caused by an inability to copy down what I saw. Instead of copying the word "run" the way it should be r-u-n, I copied it down as c-u-l. I was not able to look at the words or even the letters, then go to my paper and copy what I had just seen. Even to this day, I have problems copying things down. In all my classes, I have to have note-takers, because for me to correctly copy something, I have to constantly look up at the word that I am copying, copy that word, then double check the word on the board to the one that I just copied.

Unfortunately, not much is known about writing disorders. It is known that it is uncommon for someone to have a writing disorder without it overlapping with another disorder. The components of writing that this disorder can interfere with are handwriting, spelling, written syntax, vocabulary, or written expression (Mash & Wolfe, 1998, p.55). It is very common for children with writing disorders to have a combination of these problems, which in turn may cause them to produce shorter, poorly organized, and less interesting written works. Writing disorders also interfere with more then just writing. Children with a writing disorder tend to have visual-motor problems that demand eye-hand coordination, such as drawing, copying figures, and to ability to rotate figures. However, the disability does not interfere with gross motor development.

Failure is something that most people fear. Unfortunately, failure is something that people with learning disorders have to deal with throughout school, and in some cases, for the rest of their lives. This failure may be one of the reasons that children with a learning disorder show increased anxiety, withdrawal, depression, and low self-esteem when compared to their peers. To deal with these emotional disorders, children may begin to show behavioral disorders as well. Children with learning disorders are often described two ways: either as attention-seeking and acting-out, or as withdrawn and isolated. It is likely that these learning disorders overlapping with emotional/behavioral disorders are the reason why teachers and parents tend to describe learning disabled children as harder to manage then other children.

As of yet, even with strong biological underpinnings, there are no medical cures for learning disorders. However there are treatments that can help a person compensate for the problems caused by their learning disorders. The methods that are used rely primarily on psychosocial and educational methods. One must remember that these methods are not cures. Learning disorders are lifelong disorders. However with time and the right help people with learning disorders can learn and can function in society.

By the first grade my parents and teachers became concerned with the way I was progressing in school. I was unable to keep up with the rest of my classmates, I began to withdraw from many of my friends, and I had a difficult time speaking because of a difficulty in retrieving the words that I wanted. My parents began to send me to specialists to try see what the problem was. For four years I struggled through school, and each year my problems seemed to get worse. In the fourth grade I was tested and diagnosed with dyslexia. At the time, no one in Colorado really knew what dyslexia was, or how to help a person with dyslexia. So, at the request of the person that diagnosed me, my parents sent me to a boarding school call Linden Hill, which specialized and only accepted children with dyslexia. 

The Linden Hill School is unlike any other school. It only accepts thirty students, from ages eight to fourteen, all of who have been diagnosed with dyslexia, and there are only ten teachers. Because of this, the sizes of classes were quite small, mostly ranging from one on one, to four on one. This is immensely helpful for a student with a learning disorder, because more of the teacher's energy can be directed toward each student. It also gives the teacher time to realize and capitalize on a student's strengths. There are also no set grades at Linden Hill. Students are put into classes based on ability rather than grade or age. For example, even though I was only ten years old and had just passed the fourth grade, I was put in to a math class with two other students, ages nine and twelve, where we worked out of a sixth grade textbook. Yet I was the only student in my reading class, and I worked out of texts for first graders. This set up took away a lot of the anxiety that I faced in public school. I was no longer in a class that made feel stupid, but rather in a class that made me feel like an equal. Also, each class moves at the students' pace. So if I was having a hard time learning a certain aspect of reading, then the teacher and I would spend as long as took until I finally learned it. In looking back at all the schools that I have attended, and all the progress that I have made, I can honestly say that none of it would have been possible without Linden Hill.

Hopefully I have expressed what learning disorders are, and what it is like to have one. Learning disorders are becoming a rising concern in schools today. Although not everything is known about them, it is important to realize what is known, and the more that is learned about them, the better the chances we have of helping those with learning disorders. One last piece of advice that I would like to expose is, the greatest gift you can give a student with a learning disorder is the gift of time.