Writing@CSU Guide

Teaching Strategies for Students with Learning Disabilities

Numerous strategies can be used to work with students who have learning differences. This guide offers advice on how you can help students with learning differences become more effective readers and writers.


Think about the first time you drove a car. Imagine yourself staring at all of the unfamiliar levers and knobs and pedals, at the panel covered with gages and numbers. Try to recall sitting frozen in the unfamiliar driver's seat, frantically going through all the steps you had to remember just to get the car out of the parking spot. It is hard for most of us to remember how overwhelming it was to process and recall all of those steps: to pay attention to the road, to remember the rules, drive the car, and to follow directions. There was also probably a very nervous and impatient instructor who couldn't seem to cover up her frustration at your clumsiness and your inability to remember all of the steps: for her, driving had become second nature.

Like driving a car, reading and writing are complicated processes; each requires numerous instantaneous and simultaneous steps, steps most of us complete without a second (or even a first) thought. Most of us probably cannot recall what it was once like to learn how to read and write, and certainly a great number of us never had to deal with another level of challenge, a learning disability that made these steps even harder to complete.

For many people with learning differences, the challenge of reading and writing are like having to learn to drive again every single day. The steps it takes to write that sentence or read that paragraph are not internalized, but rather feel like huge barriers between the student and the completion of an assignment. And you, the writing teacher, are like that frustrated instructor who cannot understand why this student cannot simply "drive" (or write, or read, or remember, or apply knowledge . . . ).

Guide Focus

Because there is so much information out there on every kind of disability, every kind of assessment, and every kind of resource, I have chosen to focus this guide specifically on things that you can (with your limited time) do in your composition classroom or in another course that uses writing assignments. I will not talk about how to teach a class that is specifically for teaching writing to LD students, nor will I cover other types of classes (math, etc.). My focus is specifically on writing,and reading that leads to writing (see Lipson for a useful explanation of the connection between reading and writing for students with LD). There are also other excellent resources for using technology with LD students, which I will also not attempt to cover here. This packet will provide some background on the research done on learning disabilities, on the types of "common" learning differences, how you might be able to spot signs that a student has a disability, and finally, will provide some specific activities and strategies you may employ as a teacher or tutor. Everything that I have provided in this packet is an accumulation of extensive research. Rather than relying on one single source, I have chosen to offer a broad and collaborative overview of the research. The appendix activities have all been adapted from several different texts, as well as suggestions from experienced LD writing teachers. For more information on specific LDs, refer to the texts I have listed in my Bibliography and to the related Web links listed after the appendices.

What Are Learning Differences?

You have probably heard of learning disabilities. You probably have also heard of 'learning differences," "specific learning styles,' and "different learning abilities." Do all of these describe the same thing? The answer to this question is a difficult one to address. There are many numbers of perspectives on learning, different epistemological perspectives that shape these descriptions, and many different interpretations of these perspectives. The purpose of this paper is not to try to decide which is accurate, nor even to negotiate between them. I will offer a very brief summary of the different perspectives but will then propose that despite the perspective on cause, effect, and "treatment," certain students are having trouble with reading and writing, and there are strategies out there that can make these activities, well, less "trouble." Neurological, developmental, hereditary, social. Do not think of this as anything to do with intelligence (in fact, opposite -- see yourself as helping a brilliant student be able to tap that brilliance)

The easiest way to think of learning differences is:something "which affects the manner in which individuals with normal or above average intelligence take in, retain, and express information."

Working Definition

One problem with the label "learning disabilities" encompasses a huge number of related and unrelated learning patterns, social and psychological problems, and in some of the research I found, also physical problems like visual and hearing loss. The easiest "types" of learning differences to describe are dysgraphia "difficulty writing," and dyslexia, "difficulty reading." Dyslexia, generally, is a disorder that affects the student's ability to make sense of printed material (note that this includes the notes you write on the overhead and chalkboard!). Most of us think of backward letters when we think of dyslexia, but that one of the manifestations of more serious problems than switching "d" and "b." These reversals also work at the sentence level: "to go the store" for "go to the store," and at the conceptual level: the student might start with the "middle" part of what she wanted to say, then end a sentence with an unfinished sentence, the "start" of the concept she intended.

College Students with LD

Research has shown that more and more students with learning disabilities are entering college these days, so it is likely that as a CO150 instructor or a consultant in the Writing Center you will come one of these students; sometimes that student has just gone through formal assessment and are just starting to learn compensatory strategies; sometimes students have known about their learning differences since kindergarten and feels comfortable with using university resources; sometimes, in fact, you may never be able to tell (and they may choose not to tell you) that they have learning disabilities because they are able to compensate ("Tutor Training"). Often, however, students might not know that they have learning disabilities. They are likely to think that they are just stupid or slow, and have long since accepted that writing and reading are things that they just "can't do."

Informal Assessment

Rather than define learning disabilities by their causes, I will rather describe them by their manifestations: how can we recognize them? Assessment can be as simple as looking at spelling errors, and as hard as trying to assess whether your student is a sequential or spatial learner. However, you do not need to know complicated terminology in order to do an informal assessment, to realize that your student might indeed have a different learning style than others you have encountered. For the most part, informal assessment is about patience and trial and error.

Many students who have mild LDs will have found ways of compensating without ever realizing that they have made these changes. You will generally never know about these students' learning differences because they do not exhibit the same "evidence" in their writing. On the other hand, students with moderate to severe learning problems will probably not have been able to compensate themselves and their problems will manifest themselves in their writing samples. The following is a general description of external "signs" of LDs. For a more detailed list of "textual" symptoms, see appendices 3 - 5.

External Signs

Most of the time, CO150 students are freshmen or sophomores. However, students who have serious reading and writing troubles will often go against the advice of their advisors and will come to your class at the "last minute," i.e., as a second semester senior. Often, this student will have gone through a writing center tutorial but will wait to sign up for composition several semesters after that tutorial is over. Writing Center consultants have the advantage of a copy of the student's CO150 placement exam (often the graders will mark the exam with "LD" if they suspect that the student might have one). Tutors, then, have the advantage of suggesting that students with possible LDs take the "LD section of CO150.

Obviously, writing center tutors will also have an advantage over classroom teachers in observing a student's process. In one-on-one tutorials, we can look very closely at the ways a student handles a reading or writing project. However, here are some basic "symptoms" to watch for in your writing classroom:


A student who already knows about his LD might have become comfortable with various resources and strategies,and might even have developed a positive perspective on his learning style. However, a student who has never been assessed and encouraged might be used to being called "lazy," and may act just that way in your class. This student might even act incompetent, immature, hostile, demanding or withdrawn. This may be the biggest challenge in front of you, because years of these socially enforced labels will work against you despite your attempt to draw this student out and convince him that he can be good students.


Often, this student will turn in late, incomplete, and/or poorly done work, but in response to a different sort of assignment suddenly excel. The cause of this might be that you have suddenly tapped into the strengths of this student's particular learning style. Take this as a sign, and perhaps give this student the opportunity to "explore" this strength more. For instance, if you give them a very different sort of assignment and they excel suddenly, you may have just tapped into one of their "strength" areas. However, and this is perhaps the most frustrating problem in trying to assess a student's needs, LDs tend to manifest themselves inconsistently. In any case, if you suspect that a student might have an LD, and you can find an opportunity to look at both the student's Process and Purpose, teaching strategies will be easier to apply. For instance, looking at how a student reads:

  • Process: taking a look at the way a student goes through the process of reading. You can have the student read aloud (but be sure that you emphasize that you will not be evaluating or judging her),or have her read quietly as you pay attention to how long it takes her to read the text.
  • Purpose: after the student has read the text, you can ask questions that will assess comprehension, questions that deal both with retention of content, and the student's ability to interpret, analyze, or personalize the content (see appendices 3-5 for a list of potential questions, and for a list of possible symptoms to watch for).

The Role of Formal Assessment

This guide does not suggest that a writing teacher or tutor is in any way qualified to do a formal assessment of learning disabilities; we can spot potential problems and adapt our teaching activities to accommodate these, but we should not try to "decide" whether a student has a disability, and we are never to tell a student that they have one. Can you imagine the distress a student might experience if she is suddenly told that she has a "disability?" Can you imagine what might happen if you have misdiagnosed a student in your haste to help him?

On the other hand, if you find through your informal assessment that your student seems to have some of the problems I will list in this packet, it could be a tragic lost opportunity not to help that student get the compensatory strategies that might improve his or her academic and professional success. It can be such a relief for students who have struggled their whole lives to find that there are things that they can do to excel as students; they might be very appreciative that someone finally didn't simply think they were slow,or ignore the problem hoping that someone else would deal with it.

LD Students in Your Composition Classroom

As you know already, teaching writing is a difficult, sometimes frustrating and sometimes rewarding, experience. We often have to wonder whether we are "getting through" to our students at all, and whether what we do is really making them more effective critical thinkers, readers, and writers.

Teaching writing to a student with a learning difference, who may not have easy "access" to the strategies and skills we are teaching, can turn moments of speculation into moments of absolute frustration.

Potential Frustrations

  • Sometimes we will suspect that a student is struggling in our class as a result of a learning disability, but we don't feel like we have the extra time and energy to accommodate this student.
  • Maybe we are scared to approach the student with something like this and hope instead that our regular teaching strategies will be enough.
  • Or, we will try to help a student and find that he or she simply has no interest in being "accommodated."
  • Finally, and perhaps the most frustrating experience for both teacher and student, a student might have come to grips with his or her LD and has the enthusiasm and dedication needed to learn and apply new strategies, but somehow nothing we do seems to work to make this student a better writer.

Coping Strategies

In his essay "Apprenticed to Failure: Learning from the Students We Can't Help," Steve Sherwood (an experienced writing teacher and tutor) describes an unsuccessful experience he had with an acknowledged student with LD: "Such failure leave bitter memories. They threaten our self-concept as benevolent and capable helpers" (50). He argues, however, that we can use these experiences to help us understand what we need to learn more about. Rather than remaining irritated by our own lack of time, energy, experience, and knowledge, we might find ways that we can learn from these students.

  • We can listen to them and keep trying again, rather than despair that a certain strategy hasn't worked.
  • We can try something else, and something else again, and something else again.
  • We can try to have patience with ourselves and with our students.

Potential Difficulties

But how about those students who want nothing to do with your "special" help? First of all, you need to keep in mind that you are dealing with students who are going to have (or have had) a very difficult time in college (Hutto). If they are unaware that they might process information differently than their classmates, they will probably come to your class quite used to being (and expecting to be) misunderstood and ignored. Although you can do your best to make the accommodations possible within the time (and energy!) you have, you need to remember that:

  • You will not ever be able to "fix" these students
  • You cannot take responsibility for the student's success. Your motivation will not be enough for both of you. You can offer her a certain amount of accommodation, resources and strategies, but you cannot motivate a student who won't be motivated, and you cannot force a student to find help.

Student's Role

The reality of having to take a required writing class or even a one-on-one writing tutorial can instill fear in even the most successful of students. Writing is for so many a very intimidating activity; it is no wonder that students who have more difficulty reading and writing than their peers are simply resistant to the idea that they will ever become "good" writers.

Although students with LDs have been listening to and speaking English for almost as long as you have, their different learning styles have prevented them from being able to apply the "templates" these experiences provide for more standard learners. Often, they are not aware of the mistakes they are making, and cannot understand why they are being misunderstood.

They have been called lazy, dumb, and unmotivated, and they are probably frustrated, anxious, and insecure. They often rely on the things they are good at and repel those activities they are not (which tend to be just the sort of things we assign in composition classes). Often these students did all right in high school, but are suddenly having difficulty in college.

What does all of this point to? The reality is that these students will have to work harder than students with traditional learning styles; they have to be more mature college students, more organized, more focused, more self-motivated, more ambitious, and more consistent. If they fall prey to the temptations other students are allowed, they are much more likely to fall behind and drop out of college. It will also take them more time to complete assignments, and they will have to make that time during schedules equally as busy as their classmates.' Again, you can try to inspire this kind of enthusiasm, but you cannot provide it.

If you have pointed out the available resources on our campus, have done your best to accommodate the student in your class or tutorial, and have provided the strategies you think might help, it is up to the student to get formal assessment and to make use of the other resources available.

Teacher's Role

As I noted before, as teachers of composition we are in the perfect situation to help students with LDs. One of the reasons for this is that most of the problems these students have are in the process of reading and writing. Because much of our teaching revolves around these kinds of processes, much of what you do already in your composition class will be of use to students with LDs; you probably already emphasize the importance of drafting and revising, vital steps for students who cannot produce a "quick and clean" final draft in one sitting. You might also consider giving your class various "process" due dates, which will help motivate a student who has trouble getting writing done on time.

Peer workshop and response are also probably important parts of your pedagogy. However, students with LD can become very uncomfortable with peer responding. Sometimes they have a difficult time with proofreading and revising their own drafts, much less their peers' drafts. In addition, they might feel bashful about sharing their own rough drafts, which might have many proofreading and coherence problems. You can encourage students with LD to go to a Writing Center consultant for help working through a peer draft, or to do a pre-workshop tutorial on their own drafts. Or, you might have these students bring the draft into a conference with you. One experienced LD teacher suggested that, if these strategies do not help curb the student's fear of peer workshops, you might allow this student to be absent on the day of the workshop, with no penalty, or set them up with a regular writing center tutorial.

It is very difficult for a writing teacher/GTA, who already has very limited time, to give one LD student a lot of extra time. It is important for you to realize that you are NOT watering down the content of your class -- you are simply accommodating different learning styles that are generally ignored in traditional classrooms. In fact, most of the accommodations you can make in your classroom will be beneficial to all types of learners. On the other hand, it is going to be such a benefit to students with LDs if you give them extra office-hour time to work on strategies. You might also make them aware of the Writing Center where they can get more one-on-one attention. Most of the suggestions for accommodation that I will include here and in Appendix1 are ideas that any teacher can employ without making huge adjustments -- good practices for any effective teacher. Appendix 2, then, offers ideas that you can pass on to your students and strategies that they can employ on their own.

LD Students in a Writing Center Tutorial

Students who have not been formally diagnosed and more acquainted with their learning process probably won't think to ask themselves why they are having trouble remembering what they have read or writing an organized paper. Generally, a student will probably give up on an activity before "assessing" exactly what the "trouble" is. It is your difficult job, then, to "dig around" in that student's process and access the areas that are causing problems.

You are also in the unique position of having the student practice strategies over and over again. Remember, in one semester you are not going to be able to "solve" all of this student's problems. You may need to focus on one or two strategies that the student can practice and employ for the rest of his or her life. Note that you will probably need to discuss your plans with the director of the Writing Center if there are requirements for how many drafts the student writes in the tutorial.

Added Tips

  • First, it is important to develop trust and rapport from the start - wait until you and your tutee are comfortable with each other before you try to informally assess his difficulties and find compensatory strategies.
  • Learning disabilities are not constant or consistent. Therefore, you will need to be able to constantly watch, adapt, revise, assess, and ask questions. What might work one day is not guaranteed to be the best approach the next.
  • Give your tutee constant feedback and opportunities to employ the strategies you taught in your tutorials.
  • You have an advantage that classroom teachers don't have; you can get the student used to reading aloud to you. Something that might be humiliating to a student in a classroom might be easier if you have set up your tutorials as a "safe" place. The student can then practice reading outloud.
  • Often, you cannot use the same strategies you use to teach yourself something. Rather, an explanation that seems very clear to you may seem incomprehensible to your tutee. Your sense of "internal logic" may simply not work with the way he thinks, and so your explanations won't be helpful, only frustrating. For instance, "telling" is usually the worst learning tool a tutor can use. Instead of relying on one kind of explanation, you will need to be flexible and adapt, and have available several different ways of explaining a strategy. We need to:
    • acquire an understanding of various strategies available
    • decide which might be the best for this student and this activity
    • break down learning process into bite sized chunks
    • decide which are the most important steps
    • decide which order they should be in
    • be able to explain the relation of each step
    • be able to explain the purpose of the strategy


Appendix 1: Classroom Accommodations

Some of these strategies are things that you probably already do in your classroom--they benefit all kinds of learners. Some also require fairly simple additional accommodations for students who do not do well in standard classroom environments. I have geared these suggestions toward CO150/250; I have not included information about testing students, since we generally do not test students in our composition classes. However, Appendix 14 offers some advice for students facing a testing situation.

At the start of the semester:

  • Let the class know that you will allow them to use tape recorder to record the class
  • Encourage (or require) the use of a word processer, spellcheck
  • Let your students know about the Writing Center (give it a good 'pump')
  • Pick a reader that includes study questions
  • At the beginning of the semester, provide a clearly written schedule of the class, your expectations, a timeline, and the required readings for the class. Go through this whole class plan/policy verbally in class
  • Make the student is aware of other campus support services and the kinds of resources at their disposal, such as

- textbooks recorded on tape

- student notetakers

Classroom activities/set-up:

  • Provide written copies or detailed outlines of lectures or points made in class
  • Be willing to break the class itself up into shorter activities (in other words, change gears once or twice to re-stimulate attention spans)
  • Speak clearly, slowly, and with expression
  • When giving a lecture or an assignment, offer the students several forms of the material. You might refer to an outline on an overhead as you speak, and also provide written copies of the assignments/materials (in other words, provide both verbal and written versions)
  • Speak facing the class
  • Avoid calling on students without warning    
  • Explain technical or new vocabulary
  • Start the class by reviewing the last class and giving an overview of what you are going to cover today. Then, at the end of the class, review the main points you covered
  • When a student asks a question that requires you to repeat something you already said or was already in the reading you assigned, repeat the information patiently


  • Break tasks into smaller parts, or help the student do this
  • Provide students with examples of satisfactory and unsatisfactory work, with explicit reasons and criteria
  • Leave space for notes on handouts so that they are easy to read, and so that students can write notes on the margins
  • Try to allow students with LD both written and verbal feedback on assignments
  • Allow for alternative measures; in other words, if a student has an extreme difficulty with collaborative work, allow her to work alone, etc. If you have noticed that a student has particular success with one type of activity, you might encourage the student to use this more often
  • Provide students with a few prompts or questions that will guide their reading of a new text
  • If you assign a reading, be sure to cover it in class; talk about the main points and ask the students for their responses to the assigned questions/prompts. One effective device is to have them respond to the readings in journals or on notecards.
  • Provide an LD student with more time on an assignment but give her an enforced due date ("whenever you want to turn it in" will not work with many students who have trouble organizing their time).

Appendix 2: Strategies for LD Students in Writing Classrooms

  • If you think you might have a learning disability, or you have been assessed already, do not hesitate to tell your teacher. Try to do this before or just when the semester begins so that the teacher can make any accommodations necessary
  • Keep ONE calendar in which to record your assignments and due dates
  • Set realistic goals for yourself
  • Set a weekly timetable for yourself, and include the time you need to grocery shop, eat, do laundry, etc. Give yourself more time than you think you need to complete your assignments
  • Attend all classes
  • Have one or two people read through your final draft
  • Use a 3-ring binder with loose-leaf notebook paper and colored notebook dividers in order to separate the different assignments you are working on in the class. Use a separate binder for each class
  • Create a checksheet for each assignment you do. Include on this checksheet all of the requirements for the assignment, and then go through each category when you have finished the assignment (see Appendix 13)
  • Try both recording the class and taking notes
  • Take some time after your class to review what was covered and the assignments given
  • Make note of any questions you have about the material in the margins of your notes
  • Pick a place in the classroom where you can see the board clearly, hear the instructor, and where you are not likely to be distracted
  • If you don't understand the purpose/objective of an assignment, talk to the instructor before trying to start it
  • If you are having trouble keeping up even after using the above compensatory strategies, perhaps re-assess your academic load

Appendix 3: Assessment

These are some of the "symptoms" of LDs your student might exhibit:


  • confusion of similar words, problem with multi-syllable words
  • slow reading rate
  • difficulty with retaining, comprehension, remembering
  • difficulty picking out important themes or points
  • skipping words or lines of printed materials
  • difficulty reading for long periods of time


  • difficulty with sentence structure, poor grammar, omitted words
  • frequent but inconsistent misspelling errors
  • difficulty copying from overhead, board
  • poorly formed letters, spacing, capitals, punctuation
  • difficulty planning and organizing a topic, putting thoughts on paper
  • difficulty with proofreading and revision
  • composition long and rambling or very short
  • difficulty in varying sentence structure
  • sentences in an illogical sequence
  • writes and prints in the same document
  • very slow writing
  • writing off the lines
  • difficulty with expressive, creative language

Study/Organization skills:

  • poor organization and time management
  • difficulty following directions
  • poor organization of written materials
  • turns things in late
  • slow to start tasks
  • inefficient use of library and reference materials

Other Signs:

  • difficulty reading facial expressions, body language
  • inappropriate, impulsive behavior
  • has a hard time grasping subtlety
  • spatial problems (cannot navigate a small classroom, trips)
  • quickly "overloads" and "shuts down"
  • distracted
  • trouble sustaining attention
  • hyper or hypo activity

Specific informal assessment results indicating problems in Summarizing/Revising


  • inability to summarize from organizer chart
  • not knowing how or where to begin
  • inability to find main idea
  • inability to separate main idea from supporting details
  • inability to see connections between points
  • inability to link reading to prior knowledge
  • cannot understand context clues in text


  • difficulty when asked to scan or discuss what is written
  • difficulty identifying errors in own writing
  • inability to use a dictionary successfully to check for errors
  • different spelling of the same word
  • inability to understand or use grammatically correct sentence structure

Appendix 4: Informal Assessment

Two approaches for Informal Assessment:

A. Questionnaire

If your student answers "yes" to 6 or more of these questions, you might take the next steps in encouraging the student to get formal assessment for reading difficulties:

(adapted from "Telltale Signs of a Learning Disability" by Hollybeth Kulick).

  1. Are you a slow reader?
  2. Do your eyes feel as if they are floating in your head when you read, or do the letters bounce around the page?
  3. When reading from a distance, do the letters seem to disappear?
  4. Have you known that you reversed letters or was it pointed out to you by a teacher?
  5. Do you remember what you have read ten minutes after you have read it?
  6. When reading do you have difficulty pronouncing words?
  7. When writing do you have difficulty putting your thoughts down on paper?
  8. Do you find that you cannot finish reading during class when the rest of the class has finished?

B. Possible approaches for informal assessment:

If you take a close look at both the student's writing/reading process and his or her sense of purpose, you can get a good idea of the kinds of trouble the student is having. For instance, if you are looking at the student's reading ability:

  • Process: take a look at the way a student goes through the process of reading. You can have the student read aloud (but be sure to emphasize that you will not be evaluating or judging her) or have her read quietly as you pay attention to how long it takes her to read the text.
  • Purpose: after the student has read the text, you can ask questions that will assess comprehension, questions that deal both with retention of content, and the student's ability to interpret, analyze, or personalize the content (see Appendix s 3 and 5 for a list of potential questions, and for a list of possible symptoms to watch for).

Appendix 5: Specific Symptoms of LDs

It might be useful, particularly for Writing Center consultants, to see the reference sheet the placement exam graders use to determine LDs in the CO150 placement exam essays.

A. Reverse letters

   1.     a. b for d, p for q

      b. "dig" for "big"

   2. Reverse adjunct letters

      a. "form" for "from"

      b. "clam" for "calm"

B. Confusion of similar sounding consonants

   1. /d/ for /t/, /p/ for /d/, /f/ for /th/, /m/ for /n/, /f/ for /v/

      a. "attentance" for "attendance"

      b. "imposder" for "impostor"

      c. "tranver" for "transfer"

      d. "assenble" for "assemble"

C. Confusion of similar words

   1. "hot" for "what"

   2. "where" for "there"

   3. "who" for "how"

D. Omission of syllables/letters

   1. "coarly" for "coarsely"

   2. "psychitrist" for "psychiatrist"

   3. "contempary" for "contemporary"

   4. "obvous" for "obvious"

   5. "peole" for "people"

   6. "epuiment" for "equipment"

E Addition of syllables/letters

   1. "occasionalally" for "occasionally"

   2. "symiphony" for "symphony"

F. Combination of errors

   1. "paricutaly" for "particularly"

   2. "ovbise" for "obvious"

   3. "relizse" for "realize"

   4. "electrice" for "electric"   

Appendix 6: Approaching a Student/Tutee about Potential LD

I noted that it is inadvisable to inform a person that he/she might have a learning disability. So how can we approach a writing student to do an "informal" assessment, or to let them know about the testing and resources available to them here at CSU? Authors from several sources offer these kinds of guidelines:

  1. Avoid the word "disability." It can be effective to talk to the student about different learning styles, and ask her what kinds of situations learning or writing make learning or writing difficult, and also when she feels most capable.
  2. It helps to be casual, conversational, and kind. You do not want to make this a "big deal," even if you think that this student's awareness of her potential learning difference could greatly change her ability to have success in college. The following are "lead-ins" provided by several of your colleagues:
  • "There is a great place on campus that you can visit where they work with you to figure out your learning style, so you can start to use some different strategies for studying and writing that are best for you."
  • "We all learn differently, only some ways of learning are seen as 'standard' and so classes don't always accommodate all of the different styles -- but you can find ways of compensating for this."
  • "I am a very visual learner; I have to draw pictures of ideas, of new ideas, or outlines in order to get the most out them. You seem like you are more of an "hearing" learner, since you like to have things read aloud rather than written down."

Other suggestions:

  1. Meet in a private and confidential setting.
  2. Avoid jargon.
  3. Listen attentively and avoid talking too much.
  4. Keep note-taking down to a minimum; you don't want the student to feel like a case study subject.
  5. Follow the verbal and non-verbal cues the student gives you in order to determine whether you should continue with this approach.
  6. Avoid making any judgmental, or for that matter "remedial" comments.
  7. Be tactful, but honest.
  8. Ask open-ended questions.
  9. Remain relaxed and avoid defensiveness and sarcasm.

Appendix 7: Motivating Writers

Often, students who are used to being told that they are bad writers have very little motivating them to take the big steps toward learning writing strategies. Here are two ideas for motivating students to write:

Written Conversation:

In a tutorial, you have the opportunity to encourage the students' writing by having a written conversation. You might start by asking an easy and accessible question about something in which you know the student is interested, like "How is your team doing right now?" or "What did you think of The Simpsons last night?" The student then replies on paper, and you reply back with another question than will illicit an "easy" response.

Journal Writing:

You can use one of several different forms of journal writing with your tutee or student. The purpose of this journal is simply to get the student used to writing, so you might make an agreement that the journal is the student's private place to write. You might, on the other hand, try one of these other forms:

  • Dialogue Journals: a two-way communication between you and your student. You can dialogue about casual issues, or talk about what you are doing in your session.
  • Reading Response Journals: This is a great way for a student to generate ideas for writing about reading. You might give the student reading questions that she might respond to in her journal, or encourage the student to "freewrite" a response after she has read.
  • Learning Log: This could be a place where your student writes about her use of the strategies you have taught her, the frustrations and questions she is having, and the successes she is experiencing. If you both agree that you will respond to these entries, be sure to emphasize that you WILL NOT evaluate this writing at all.

If your student is having a hard time getting started with the journal, even when you have offered suggestions for starting points, you might give her the following:

  • Before you write, think of the kinds of things you have done that day.
  • Make your entries brief if you like.
  • Have a good-sized notebook on hand and something to write with.
  • Choose the time of day that you feel most like reflecting and thinking
  • Use all your senses as much as possible. Start with what you see and work through your other senses.

Appendix 8: Teaching Writing/Reading Strategies

Students with LDs often need to work in well-defined steps. When you are teaching a student a new writing strategy, you can break up this teaching/learning process in the following ways:

Stage One: Introducing Strategies and Setting Goals

First you need to establish what goals you and the student have. What is it that the student wants to improve? What does the student have the most trouble with? Once you have established the goals, you will want to introduce the various strategies that can get the student to her goal. Explain the strategies slowly and clearly, then let the student decide which might be the most understandable or the most memorable, so that she might be able to employ it again on her own.

Stage Two: Preskill Development

You need to get the student up to the place he needs to be in order to use this strategy. For instance, if the student needs to learn how to use strategies to organize paragraphs, you will want to first make sure that he understands why paragraphs are used, how they are generally organized, etc.

Stage Three: Discussion of the Strategy

Explain the strategy in detail; its steps, its value, and when and where it might be used. You might explain this both verbally and visually.

Stage Four: Modeling the Strategy

Model the strategy using any prompts, charts, mnemonics or other aids that the student might find useful. Let the student watch you use the strategy step by step in a writing process. You can even work with the student to change the strategy, to make it easier to remember or use.

Stage Five: Providing Scaffolding

Help the student find ways to remember the strategy (for instance, if you are working on editing, have the student create a sentence that includes the mnemonic SCOPE -- see Appendix 13 -- : "To check the whole scope of my essay, I need to carefully edit)." Have the student reword the steps and purpose of the strategy in her own words.

Have the student try the strategy right then and there, then assign a writing situation where she will need to use the strategy at home.

Stage Seven: Feedback

Give the student definite feedback on his use of the strategy; be honest about the ways in which the strategy didn't work, and the ways the student might have implemented the strategy more effectively.

Stage Eight: Implement

Once the student has practiced and memorized this strategy, give her different situations where she can use it.

Appendix 9: Reading Strategies

Have the student bring the card to class or to the tutorial. She can use this card to refer to in class discussion, as well as a starting point for an essay. As a teacher or tutor, talk to the student about her quotes and how they illustrate the essay. Next, help the student see how these quotes and responses can be integrated into the construction of an essay.

  1. Go through numerous articles and have the student decide which information is "focus" information (important for the point of the articles), and what is "framing" information (analogies, digressions, metaphor, example, etc).
  2. Encourage your student to keep notecards for each reading. On the notecard, she should include:
    • title, author, source and page numbers
    • selected quotes and page numbers that best illustrate the essay
    • the student's response to the reading
  3. Have students read each text 3 times:
    1. the first time to find only factual information (who, what, when, where, etc.)
    2. the second read could be in response to reading questions
    3. the third read could be to generate ideas for a writing assignment

You could help students with reading comprehension by giving them both "forward" and "backward" reading questions. The forward questions will help them focus their reading toward a certain purpose, and the backward questions allow students to review the text from various angles.

Learning Strategies for Adults by Sandra Crux (94-97), offers some very useful suggestions for reading strategies

a. the ConStruct Procedure:

  • start with a rapid skimming of the text: look at the title, the subtitles, the first sentence of each paragraph, any illustrations, charts, etc. Then, start a diagram that includes the important information you have found
  • next, do a more thorough reading of the text, this time reading to understand, but with no stress toward remembering points. Add any new important material to your diagram.
  • Before beginning a third and fourth reading, look over the diagram and make sure that it makes sense. Try to figure out what does not make sense and check back through the text to find this information.
  • The final reading involves looking for more specific details, and anything that will fill out the diagram.

b. the Multipass Procedure: this strategy is for students who are required to do a lot of reading.

  • Survey: quickly read the text only looking at titles, subtitles, etc. (same as above).
  • Size-up: Use any questions/focus your instructor gave you, review questions that might come at the end of the reading or decide on your own purpose for reading this text, and focus only on finding information that answers or responds to that.
  • Sorting-out: Review notes you have made and check for any information that has not yet been answered or found.


  • Predict: Try to predict what one section of the text is going to be about (you can do this by the subsections set up in the reading, or by paragraph).
  • Read and Prove: Read the passage carefully and try to find evidence to prove your prediction. Repeat this for each section.

When teaching students to respond to texts, break the steps up so that the student can follow these steps each time she faces a reading-to-writing type of assignment. One way to break this up is:

Create a note card for the text, including quotes and notes.

  • Start with questions in order to focus the reading, like
    • For what purpose was this written?
    • What is the main thing the author wants to get across to me?
    • What is the most important example in the text?
    • Use the card to brainstorm ideas for a paper
    • Organize thoughts into an outline
    • Write at least 3 drafts, reading each 3 times before revising
    • Conduct a self-evaluation of the draft
    • Have at least 1 person read through the draft

Appendix 10: Writing Strategies

It is helpful to break any writing assignment up into separate "tasks." For instance, see Appendix 12 for a possible breakdown of a research project. For the most part, you can separate a writing task into 3 parts:

  • Planning
  • Translating
  • Reviewing


  • There are several different ways a student can plan a paper, including Brainstorming, Clustering, and Looping (see Stephen Reid's Prentice Hall Guide for a description of these strategies). You can also teach your student to use a graphic chart (there is a description of four types in Appendix 11). Try several of these charts to see which one works best for your student by having her brainstorm ideas on a topic.
  • After she has found a strategy that works for her, have her refer to her chart and do some freewriting (if your student has difficulty with freewriting, have her make a list instead); at this point, encourage her not to worry about what she includes in her text. She will be able to decide what to include or exclude later.
  • Next, have your student read through what she has done so far and decide what might be included and excluded from her essay.
  • Have her then plan a new "action plan." At this point, have your student separate her plan into an Introduction, a Body, and a Conclusion:

         1. Introduction: Generally, an introduction includes

            a. necessary background on the topic

             b. the purpose of the paper (why it might be important to

            explore this topic)

            c. an overview of the main points that will be covered

         2. Body: the body of the essay is generally

            a. organized by point (and the order makes sense)

            b. clearly states each point

            c. offers evidence/details for each point

         3. Conclusion: make sure the conclusion

            a. is consistent with what is slated in the introduction

            b. explains the importance of issue addressed

Next comes the drafting step:


Now it is time for your student to translate her chart into a draft. Some students might benefit from creating a more detailed linear outline before going on, and others will benefit more from a more detailed "pictorial" outline. For some students, once they have written a detailed outline the drafting is the easiest part of writing. However, most students with LDs have a very difficult time with this part of writing. Some students will need to freewrite again at this point, and then use a strategy like cutting the draft up and pasting it back together (see Appendix 11). Others will just need a lot of extra time and room for writing many drafts.


  • Students may benefit from keeping a "drafting diary" where she can record revision questions she needs to ask herself, like "Do my thoughts follow each other logically and make sense?" and "Does each sentence say what I want it to say?" or "Have I left out any important information?" (see Appendix 13 for more revision and editing strategies). Most students with LDs should work with you to create an editing/proofreading checklist that they can use throughout their academic career.
  • Some students might benefit from reading their essay into a tape recorder and then listening to the essay to find inconsistencies, errors, lack of coherence, etc.

Appendix 11: Organization Strategies

Students who have trouble with sequential organization might find some of these strategies useful:

  1. Have them draft as they normally would, then have them cut their draft up into what they determine as separate "points." Then work together to put them into a more logical order (the easiest way to do this may be to tape the pieces onto a large piece of posterboard). After a few times, they should be able to do this one on their own, although it does require extra drafting time.
  2. These "graphic organizers," adapted from Learning Strategies for Adults by Sandra Crux, (29, 93, 104-105) can be used as both reading-to-write strategies and as strategies to write about topics. Have the student try each one to find which will work best for him. Each one of these works well in the first stages of prewriting, and as a revision plan for a final draft:

Appendix 11a: Flow Chart (with activity idea)





               Central Theme









Main Points to be covered









1            2            3         4      



   Notecards containing facts go in envelopes below to be organized by topic


Envelope       Envelope       Envelope    Envelope   


1       2          3          4






This organizational chart is best placed on a large piece of cardboard or in the center of a piece of posterboard. Envelopes can then be stapled or pinned to the board. The student places 3 x 5 notecards that contain the different information into the appropriate envelope according to the way her topics are arranged.

Appendix 12: Breaking Research Papers Down into Steps

Research Papers:

    • Choose a topic

-is your topic too broad or too narrow?

-is there enough factual information on the topic?

-are you interested in this topic?

-has your topic been approved by your teacher?

    • Locate your sources

break your research down by each type of source you will find, including

   Internet sources

   Reference books





    • Prepare Bibliography Cards

-prepare a separate card for each source you find. Include on each card

   The title of the piece

   Where you found it

   The author's name

   page numbers

-number each card in the right-hand corner and circle it for easy identification

    • Prepare Note Cards

Use large note cards, and number these so that they correspond with the right bibliography card.

-Feel free to use more than one note card for each source, but be sure to number them.

-All notes should be in your handwriting, and each quote needs to be EXACT, and should be followed by the page number.

-write legibly .

Prepare your paper outline (organize this by 'Intro,' 'parts of body' and 'conclusion.' See Appendix 10)      


I. Roman numerals for topics

A. Capital letters for subtopics

   1. Arabic numerals for details

    a. small letters for subdetails

-As you become more aquatinted with your topic, revise your outline with more specific information.

    • Writing the Paper

- organize your notecards so that they are in the order of your outline

- Follow your notecards as you draft.





Appendix 13: Editing Proofreading Strategies

Many students with LDs have trouble both proofreading and editing their drafts. Since they often also tend to have more errors on their rough drafts, it is important for them to accumulate strategies that will help them clean up their final drafts. Here are a couple suggestions:

SCOPE is a mnemonic device to help students remember important steps in editing:

S - Spelling: Is the spelling correct?

C - Capitalization: Are the first words of sentences, proper names, and proper nouns capitalized?

O - Order of Words: Are the words in the right order?

P - Punctuation: Does each sentence end with a period, question mark, or exclamation mark? Are commas and apostrophes placed where needed?

E - Express Complete Thought: Is each sentence complete? Does each sentence have a subject and a predicate?

Check list for revising:

____ 1. My introduction clearly introduces the topic.

____ 2. The sub-headings help the reader understand the paper.

____ 3. The body of the paper contains all the facts needed.

____ 4. Each paragraph is written with a main idea.

____ 5. Every sentence and paragraph adds something to the paper.

____ 6. I have reread my sentences aloud to be sure they make sense.

____ 7. I chose the best words to explain my ideas.

____ 8. The conclusion follows from the facts.

____ 9. I corrected all the misspelled words.

____ 10. I capitalized all the appropriate words.

____ 11. I used quotation marks to identify all quotations.

____ 12. I reread the paper at least three times looking for ways to make it better.

____ 13. I numbered all the pages.

Sentence Level Editing:

For each sentence, ask the following questions:

1. Does the sentence state the topic?

2. Does the sentence add further information to the topic sentence?

3. Does the sentence follow a logical order?   

4. Does the sentence say what I really want it to say?   

5. Does the sentence sound right?

6. Does the sentence show what I really think?

7. Does the information sound credible?

8. Does the sentence summarize what has been said so far?

9. Does the sentence sound like a conclusive comment?

10. Will the readers see the importance of the sentence?

11. Will readers be interested in the sentence?

12. Will readers understand what I mean by the sentence?

13. Is the sentence clear and to the point?

14. Is the sentence connected to the previous one?

Appendix 14: Essay Test Taking Strategies

Although giving timed essay tests is not common practice in our composition classes, students are nonetheless apt to face these kinds of tests in other classes. Students who have visited the Resources for Disabled Students Office know that they can get extra time for these tests, but often students also need ideas for how to approach them, even with the extra time. Here are some ideas to pass on to your students:

Short answer/multiple choice:

  • Relax through deep breathing
  • Scan the entire test, searching for the part that appears to be the easiest for you.
  • Read each question or prompt carefully. Place a check mark beside the ones you think you know and a question mark by the ones you think you do not know. First, complete all items you are certain you know. Practice this procedure on worksheets prior to the test day.
  • To remember the answers, visualize yourself looking for the answer in the book, or picture yourself hearing the teacher give the answer in class, or close your eyes and mentally write the answer.
  • Go back to the questions you do not know. Try the methods listed above. If you cannot remember the answer:

     -- eliminate the answers you know are wrong

     -- deep breathe to relax, and write or circle the answer you feel is correct

     -- look for the answer hidden in another uestion on the test.

Essay Tests:

Studying for essay tests:

  1. Spend some time DESCRIBING what you should do to get ready to study for the test.
  2. OUTLINE the five-day study plan.
  3. SUMMARIZE the things you should do when taking any test.
  4. PREDICT the way the questions on the test might be written. You might practice writing the test questions yourself.

Taking the test:

  • Read and restate each item in your own words before attempting to answer it. In this way, you check to see if you understand it, and you make sure that you read ALL of the instructions.
  • Decide if your answer needs to be long or just a few words. If your answer is going to be long, make a brief outline before writing your answer. This helps you organize your information.
  • Answer all parts of the item.
  • Write directly to the point of the item. This means that you must answer the question or statement and not write about something else you find interesting or happen to know about.
  • Use pictures and diagrams to explain your ideas whenever it may be appropriate.
  • Write neatly because teachers will not give you credit for something they cannot read.
  • Proofread your answers for clarity, spelling, and grammar.
  • When you are running out of time, quickly list the information you know about any remaining items so your teacher will see what you know. This may earn you partial credit.

Appendix 15: A Self-evaluation for Teachers

If you are not sure whether your classroom is conducive to successful learning, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do I create a climate that welcomes each new learner?
  2. Would I feel welcome here if I were new to the class?
  3. Is the classroom safe?
  4. Are students encouraged or discouraged from making fun of each other or criticizing each others' choice of questions, their writing, or their manner of speaking?
  5. What is my comfort level with the ethnic, racial, and gender groups in my class?
  6. If I am uncomfortable with some groups of students, do I tend to overlook negative interactions among students?
  7. Do I avoid using analogies, metaphors, or jokes that might be offensive to some learners?
  8. Do I take complaints and concerns of learners seriously, rather than ignoring them?
  9. Do I show that I value the contributions of each student?
  10. Do I model the way I want my students to treat each other?

Appendix 16: Dyslexia and Dysgraphia


Dyslexia, generally, is not a "syndrome" but a multifaceted problem. For the most part, dyslexia affects the student's ability to make sense of printed material (note that this includes the notes you write on the overhead and chalkboard!). Most of us think of backward letters when we think of dyslexia, but there are more serious problems than simply switching the letters "d" and "b." These reversals also happen at the sentence level: "to go the store" for "go to the store," and at the conceptual level: the student might start with the "middle" part of what she wanted to say, then end with an unfinished sentence, the "start" of the concept she intended.

Students who have dyslexia tend to:

  • have problems writing legibly
  • have trouble writing in a straight line
  • have trouble keeping their place on the page
  • have trouble with long-term memory
  • might have visual problems that cause the letters to dance around on the page


The concept of dysgraphia includes any serious problem with writing, including spelling problems, coherence and organization problems, problems copying down what one sees, and the inability to write ideas down at all. A student with a form of dysgraphia probably has a hard time maneuvering the complicated process of writing. This student tends to:

  • take a very long time to write a sentence, or even a word
  • complain that she knows what she wants to say but can't seem to get it down on paper
  • have poor handwriting
  • write in fragments
  • write incoherently (sentences have no particular order)
  • write sentences with little syntactic complexity
  • do very poorly on any timed essay tests or exams
  • have difficulty copying text from the board, or to copy down lecture notes given orally

Annotated Bibliography

Crux, Sandra C. Learning Strategies for Adults: Compensations for Learning Disabilities. Middletown: Wall & Emerson, Inc., 1991.

This text offers specific strategies for adult educators for helping adults learn compensatory methods for their specific learning disabilities.

Dunn, Patricia A. Learning Re-Abled: The Learning Disability Controversy and Composition Studies. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook Publishers, Inc., 1995.

This book is a must read for any teacher or student interested in looking into the many issues that contribute to the learning disability controversy. The author not only offers a brief overview of how LD studies and composition have grown up together, but also gives teachers numerous possible approaches for working with students with learning disabilities.

Gaskins, Jacob C. "Teaching Writing to Students with Learning Disabilities: The Landmark Method." TETYC. 22.2 (1995): 116-122.

This article lays out the basic principles of the Landmark Method of teaching writing to LD students.

Gunning, Thomas G. Assessing and Correcting Reading and Writing Difficulties. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1998.

This impressive text is mostly geared toward teachers of children with learning disabilities, but there are quite a few useful teaching and learning strategies that will apply to post-secondary students as well.

Hutto, Melanie P. "Adults Who Have A Learning Disability: A Guide for the ABE Instructor." 1995. ERIC. CD-ROM.

Although written specifically for ABE instructors, this guide provides numerous strategies that would be appropriate for any writing tutor.

Kulick, Hollybeth. "Telltale Signs of a Learning Disability." Denver: Blue Spectrum Press, 1980.

A fairly dated but still relevant overview of what teachers can look for to determine whether students might have a learning disability. Includes the "telltale signs," as well as questions to ask the students.

Lipson, Marjorie Y. and Karen K. Wixson. Assessment and Instruction of Reading and Writing Disability: An Interactive Approach. 2nd ed. New York: Longman, 1997.

This text offers a great mini-history of reading and writing theory and practice and bases its own instructional models on a blend of cognitive and social approaches to learning. It leads writing and reading teachers through the process of assessing their own teaching methods as well as instruction in informal assessment.

Mather, Nancy and Rhia Roberts. Informal Assessment and Instruction In Written Language. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1995.

This text is a detailed instruction manual for teachers, particularly elementary school teachers, who are interested in informally assessing their students' possible learning difficulties. Although for the most part this text is not relevant for college students (the text is very specifically focused on children's writing samples), some of the reading comprehension strategies are perfectly applicable to any writing/reading teacher trying to help her students better understand and write about a text.

Merson, Martha. "An Ideal Student's Lack of Progress, or Snowshoveling in Unfamiliar Territory." Connections: A Journal of Adult Literacy. 5 Win 1995: 46-51.

Merson documents a "patient" teacher's approach to finding the best strategies for teaching reading and writing to a learning disabled student.

Pardes, Joan Rudel and Rebecca Z. Rich. "Teaching Writing to College Students with Learning Disabilities." Intervention in School and Clinic. 31.5 (1996): 297-302.

This article delineates a course to teach college students with learning disabilities how to become self-regulated learners in writing through strategies in prewriting, drafting, revising, and editing.

Plata, Maximino, et al. "Comparative Writing Performance of College Students With and Without Learning Disabilities." Journal of Research and Development in Education. 29.1 (1995): 20-26.

This article argues that holistic assessment can be used as a screening tool to find students who need additional assessment for learning disabilities.

Sherwood, Steve. "Apprenticed to Failure: Learning from the Students We Can't Help." The Writing Center Journal. 17.1 (1996): 49-57.

This article offers advice to writing center tutors who feel that they have failed in meeting the needs of students with learning disabilities. Sherwood argues that failure is a part of teaching, and can be used as learning tools to for re-evaluating and changing our tutoring strategies.

Smith, Judith O. "Self-Reported Written Language Difficulties of University Students with Learning Disabilities." Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability. 10.3 (1993): 1-10.

31 University students with learning disabilities were interviewed for their comments on the willingness of university professors to accommodate them and grant their requests.

Smith, Sally L. Succeeding Against the Odds: Strategies and Insights from the Learning Disabled. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc, 1991.

A look at learning disabilities from the perspective of students and adults with various disabilities.

Stracher, Dorothy A. "Providing Strategies for Learning Disabled College Students: Continuous Assessment in Reading, Writing and Reasoning." Research and Teaching in Developmental Education. 10.1 (1993): 65-84.

This article describes a model program for potentially gifted learning disabled college students. This program both offers strategies for LD students and suggestions for tutors in in-depth training with their students.

"Tutor Training for Occupational Students With Learning Disabilities: PY95 Final Detailed Report." 15 Aug. 95 ERIC. Online. FirstSearch. 23 March 1998.

Although this source is specifically geared toward training tutors in occupational therapy, there are several great strategies for teaching writing and reading to adult learners.

Note: Thanks to Lucas Gilbreth for the use of his essay, "Living with a Learning Disorder."

Citation: Please adapt for your documentation style.
Urschel, Heather. (2005). Teaching Strategies for Students with Learning Disabilities. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University. https://writing.colostate.edu/teaching/guide.cfm?guideid=113