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Why do some students struggle to learn? What types of learning disabilities affect students? In this lesson, we’ll look closely at three common learning disorders: dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia.

Learning Disorders

Alma has a problem.

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She’s smart and can understand concepts that are above her grade level, but she just can’t read. Whenever anyone reads something aloud to her, she understands it well and can even repeat sentences. But, when she tries to read it herself, she gets confused and can’t seem to make out the words.Meanwhile, Gordon has no problems reading, but he can’t seem to get his ideas down on paper.

He struggles with forming letters or words. He has all these great thoughts and can express himself very well when he’s speaking, but he can’t write down what he’s thinking.Finally, Barry struggles with math.

He struggles to count even though he’s in the sixth grade. Not only that, he sometimes can’t figure out which is which when talking about addition and subtraction. It takes him forever to do simple math, and even then, he makes tons of mistakes.

Alma, Gordon and Barry are all suffering from learning disorders. A learning disorder is a developmental disorder that causes difficulties in learning. It is usually diagnosed in childhood or adolescence.

One of the hallmarks of a learning disorder is that there is a discrepancy between a person’s ability and their achievement. A student who is two or more years behind where they should be based on their age and IQ might be diagnosed with a learning disorder. The gap that lies between their ability (based on age and IQ) and their academic achievement tells psychologists that there’s a problem. Let’s look closer at the three main learning disorders: reading disorder, disorder of written expression and mathematics disorder.

Reading Disorder

Remember Alma? She has trouble reading. Her comprehension is fine when something is read to her, but when she has to actually read something herself, she struggles.

Alma may be suffering from reading disorder, also called dyslexia, a psychological problem that makes it difficult to understand written language.Students like Alma often reverse letters or words. For example, a lowercase ‘b’ might be seen as a lowercase ‘d.’ The words ‘was’ and ‘saw’ might be confused by a dyslexic student. In addition, students with reading disorder have problems identifying phonemes, or parts of a word. They might not see the letters ‘c’ and ‘h’ as making a ‘ch’ sound, for example. They often struggle with rhymes.

All of this leads to a low reading comprehension and a slow reading pace. As a result, people with reading disorder are sometimes thought to be stupid. However, dyslexics are often quite bright, and many famous and accomplished people have gone on to find success despite reading disorders.

Disorder of Written Expression

Though the majority of people with a learning disorder have reading disorder, it is not the only learning disorder. Another example of a learning disorder is disorder of written expression, or dysgraphia, which is characterized by problems expressing oneself with written language.

Remember Gordon? He’s got great thoughts and his teachers always praise his ideas when he speaks in class. But, he really struggles to write down those ideas. It’s very hard for him to write a letter or number, and he has almost illegible handwriting because writing them is so difficult. Students like Gordon often make lots of spelling and grammatical errors.

They also can’t seem to put ideas together in a logical, clear way when they are writing. But, if you talk to them, they are really smart and have no problems forming clear sentences.Dysgraphia can affect both language arts and mathematics because students have a difficult time with writing letters, numbers or both. So, Gordon might be a math whiz, but always fails his math homework because he can’t write the numbers down. And like dyslexia, dysgraphia can make people appear to be less smart than they actually are.

Mathematics Disorder

So, Gordon has trouble writing numbers down, and so he fails math. Barry is struggling in math but for a very different reason than Gordon. Barry doesn’t have any problems with writing things down, but numbers just don’t make sense to him. He’s always struggled to count and he gets confused when asked to do basic math, like adding and subtracting. Barry suffers from mathematics disorder, or dyscalculia, a psychological disorder involving problems dealing with numbers and basic mathematical functions.

Students like Barry have trouble doing basic math calculations and often get confused about which mathematical symbol means what. For example, a student with dyscalculia might see an addition sign and not remember if it stands for addition or subtraction. In addition, students with mathematical disorder have trouble lining up numbers for multiple-column addition and subtraction, like 456 + 57. Place value often poses a confusing challenge for them.Finally, they often struggle with reading graphs. Dyscalculia, like both dyslexia and dysgraphia, is characterized by a gap between ability and achievement.

As such, mathematical disorder patients are often thought of as not smart, when in fact they may be very smart.


Learning disorders are sometimes called learning disabilities for good reason. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act, or IDEA, persons with learning disorders in the United States have certain rights. Among the rights given to people with learning disorders is that of an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. This document is written by an educational psychologist, staff members and the teachers of the student with the learning disorder.

It offers a plan for how the school will provide customized services to the student to help them learn despite their disability. This might take the form of one-on-one or small group instruction, extra time on tests, special equipment (like laptops for dysgraphic students) or a combination of these solutions. Since there are no drugs to help students overcome learning disorders, the IEP is the best treatment available to learning-disabled students.

Lesson Summary

Learning disorders, also called learning disabilities, are developmental disorders characterized by a gap in a person’s ability and his or her achievement. The most common learning disorders are reading disorder, or dyslexia, disorder of written expression, or dysgraphia, and mathematical disorder, or dyscalculia. Each of these is treated with an Individualized Education Program, which outlines what services the patient’s school will offer to help him or her learn.

Learning Outcomes

When this lesson is done, you might be able to:

  • Explain what learning disorders are
  • Characterize reading disorders like dyslexia
  • Recognize written and mathematics disorders such as dysgraphia or dyscalculia
  • Recollect what IDEA and IEP stand for as well as their significance to those with learning disabilities

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