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Melyssa Higgins, Ph.D.

Learning disorders

Learning disorders can impact a student in one or more academic areas. Among young elementary school students, it is fairly common to observe difficulties in all academic areas. This sometimes occurs when a student has difficulty memorizing or automatically using ‘symbol’ information. During the primary elementary grades, much of the learning involves our alphabet- and number-systems. The student’s work focuses on the symbols we use to read, spell, and work with quantities.

Some of the most common learning disorders are briefly described below.

Dyslexia – This is a term used to describe students with normal (or even superior) intelligence that have difficulty decoding and reading words. Dyslexia is in many ways a language disorder. Dyslexic students see letters in the same way that other people do. (They do not see letters in mirror-image, which was once commonly thought.) It is simply that they have greater difficulty recognizing familiar letter-patterns, holding a sequence of sounds in short-term memory, and/or blending the sounds together. Students with Dyslexia often demonstrate weaknesses on language-processing tasks, such as rapid naming and phonological awareness. These difficulties can significantly slow the student’s reading speed, cause word-reading errors, and/or interfere with the student’s ability to absorb the meaning of what they have read.

Dysgraphia - This is a term used to describe students with normal (or even superior) intelligence who struggle with handwriting and/or spelling. Students with Dysgraphia can be excellent readers, but they have difficulty completing written work. In some cases, the student exhibits a weakness in fine-motor coordination (in their finger-pencil control or finger movements) or in their hand strength. As a result, these students often dislike written work, produce written work slowly, or turn in work that seems messy or rushed. In other cases, the student’s handwriting legibility is satisfactory, but they have significant difficulty remembering how to spell words.

Dyscalculia - This is a term used to describe students who have normal (or even superior) intelligence who have difficulty with one or more aspects of math. There are at least three different skills used in math, and a student could have difficulty with one but not others. These include: (1) reasoning ability, (2) conceptual knowledge, and (3) arithmetic skills. Reasoning ability is the capacity to recognize patterns and spatial relationships among numbers and numeric concepts. (For example, knowing that “64 ÷ 2” can be reorganized and solved easily knowing that, “Half of sixty is thirty, and half of four is two, so the answer is thirty-two”.) Conceptual knowledge has to do with the student’s familiarity with specific vocabulary and topics that are used in mathematics. (For example, knowing what different types of coins are worth or knowing how to tell time.) Arithmetic skills have to do with the student’s ability to remember math facts and use algorithms that they have learned. Some students are strong mathematicians during the early grades but go onto experience greater difficulty with math later on.

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