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Learning Disorders

A neurologically-based disorder that affects the psychological processes required for the acquisition, organization, storage, and use of skills and knowledge. Learning disabilities are permanent.

The manifestations resulting from this disability may result in skill deficits in the following areas:

  • spoken and written language skills
  • reading
  • abstract and general reasoning
  • executive functioning (planning and time management)
  • decoding and comprehension
  • visual spatial skills
  • mathematical calculation skills
  • memory (long-term, short-term, visual auditory)

The learning disability itself is NOT due to auditory, visual, or motor impairment. It is due to the actual processing of information aspect of learning.

Each student with a learning disability has their own patterns of strengths and weaknesses. By definition, these individuals have average or above average intelligence. However, there is still a significant discrepancy between their potential to learn and their achievement in certain areas. Below are some examples and descriptions of common Learning Disabilities.

Developmental Speech and Language Disorders

Speech and language problems are often the earliest indicators of a learning disability. People with developmental speech and language disorders have difficulty producing speech sounds, using spoken language to communicate, or understanding what other people say. Depending on the problem, the specific diagnosis may be:

Developmental Articulation Disorder
Children with this disorder may have trouble controlling their rate of speech. Or they may lag behind playmates in learning to make speech sounds. Developmental articulation disorders are common. They appear in at least 10 percent of children younger than age 8. Fortunately, articulation disorders are often outgrown or successfully treated with speech therapy.

Developmental Expressive Language Disorder
Some children with language impairments have problems expressing them selves in speech. Their disorder is called, therefore, a developmental expressive language disorder. This disorder can take many forms. For example, a 4-year-old who speaks only in two-word phrases and a 6-year-old who can't answer simple questions have an expressive language disorder.

Developmental Receptive Language Disorder
Some people have trouble understanding certain aspects of speech. There's a toddler who doesn't respond to his name, a preschooler who hands you a bell when you asked for a ball, or a worker who consistently can't follow simple directions. Their hearing is fine, but they can't make sense of certain sounds, words, or sentences they hear. They may even seem inattentive. These people have a receptive language disorder. Because using and understanding speech are strongly related, many people with receptive language disorders also have an expressive language disability. (Of course, in preschoolers, some misuse of sounds, words, or grammar is a normal part of learning to speak. It's only when these problems persist that there is any cause for concern.)

Academic Skills Disorders

Students with academic skills disorders are often years behind their classmates in developing reading, writing, or arithmetic skills. The diagnoses in this category include:

Developmental Reading Disorder
This type of disorder, also known as dyslexia, is quite widespread. In fact, reading disabilities affect 2 to 8 percent of elementary school children. When you think of what is involved in the "three R's" -reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic- it's astounding that most of us do learn them. Consider that to read, you must simultaneously:

  • Focus attention on the printed marks and control eye movements across the page
  • Recognize the sounds associated with letters
  • Understand words and
  • Build ideas and images
  • Compare new ideas to what you already know
  • Store ideas in memory

A person can have problems in any of the tasks involved in reading. However, scientists found that a significant number of people with dyslexia share an inability to distinguish or separate the sounds in spoken words. Some children have problems sounding out words, while others have trouble with rhyming games, such as rhyming "cat" with "bat." Yet, scientists have found these skills fundamental to learning to read. Fortunately, remedial reading specialists have developed techniques that can help many children with dyslexia acquire these skills.

However, there is more to reading than recognizing words. If the brain is unable to form images or relate new ideas to those stored in memory, the reader can't understand or remember the new concepts. So other types of reading disabilities can appear in the upper grades when the focus of reading shifts from word identification to comprehension.

Developmental Writing Disorder
Writing too, involves several brain areas and functions. The brain networks for vocabulary, grammar, hand movement, and memory must all be in good working order. So, a developmental writing disorder may result from problems in any of these areas. For example, a child with a writing disability, particularly an expressive language disorder, might be unable to compose complete, grammatical sentences.

Developmental Arithmetic Disorder
Arithmetic involves recognizing numbers and symbols, memorizing facts, aligning numbers, and understanding abstract concepts like place value and fractions. Any of these may be difficult for children with developmental arithmetic disorders, also called dyscalculia. Problems with number or basic concepts are likely to show up early. Disabilities that appear in the later grades are more often tied to problems in reasoning.

Many aspects of speaking, listening, reading, writing, and arithmetic overlap and build on the same brain capabilities. So, it's not surprising that people can be diagnosed as having more than one area of learning disability. For example, the ability to understand language underlies learning to speak. Therefore, any disorder that hinders the ability to understand language will also interfere with the development of speech, which in turn hinders learning to read and write. A single gap in the brain's operation can disrupt many types of activity.


  • It is your legal responsibility to provide the student anonymity from the other students (e.g., avoid pointing out the student or explicitly mentioning their accommodation need to the class).
  • Although a learning disability may be present with other disorders, these conditions are not the cause of the learning disability.
  • Learning disabilities are permanent, and are not a disorder that the student can outgrow.
  • Mental retardation or emotional stress does not manifest the same as learning disabilities.
  • The instructional design, workload, and test formats often determine the level of manifestation of a learning disability.

Instructional Strategies

  • Include a statement in your course syllabus regarding accommodation issues for students with disabilities.
  • Clearly define course requirements such as assignments and their deadlines. Be sure to provide advance notice of any schedule changes.
  • When possible, use multi-sensory teaching techniques in presenting material. When presenting new or technical terms, it can be crucial for students with a learning disability to have them written on the board or supplied in handouts
  • When talking, be mindful of the speed and audibility of your lecture. Use consistent pauses or voice inflections can be effective in emphasizing important points.
  • Break information into small steps while instructing on new tasks.

Common Accommodations

The following list includes examples of accommodations that are commonly used by students with a learning disability. Not all students with a learning disability are eligible to receive all of following listed accommodations, nor are they limited to those listed when receiving accommodations. Eligibility for receiving any kind of accommodation depends upon factors specific to the nature of the student's disability. The accommodations included on the Student Accommodation Letter are recommended by Disability Resources, and are considered to be both appropriate and required for that particular student.

  • Extended Time on Exams and Quizzes
  • Reduced Distraction Environment (exams)
  • Tape Record Lectures
  • Note taking Assistance
  • Books on tape


Main Campus Building Room E108

300 The Fenway
Boston, MA 02115


For more information regarding Disability Services, please contact:

Timothy Rogers
Director of Disability Services

Erin Glover
Coordinator, Disability Services

For appointments, call 617-521-2474.