Learning Difficulties: How do you Know?

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By Anne R. Fenske; Center Director of Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes in Englewood
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How do you know if you or someone you love has a learning difficulty? What are some of the causes of learning disabilities? What are some of the symptoms? The following stories, causes, and symptoms may surprise you.

Sarah reads words accurately, but she cannot comprehend the content. She has difficulty connecting to language she reads or language she hears. Words seem to go in one ear and out the other. People think she is not trying, and she has been labeled with a “motivation” or “attention” problem.

The primary cause of language comprehension problems is difficulty creating an imaged gestalt, or whole, from oral and written language. This is called weak concept imagery. This weakness causes individuals to only process “parts” of information they read or hear, but not the whole. These individuals have difficulty with reading comprehension, critical thinking, and may not easily follow directions or connect to conversations. They may also have a hard time expressing ideas in an organized manner.

Symptoms of weak concept imagery can include difficulty with written and/or oral language comprehension, critical or abstract thinking, problem solving, following directions, expressing language orally and/or in writing, grasping humor, interpreting social situations, and difficulty with cause and effect.

George has learned phonics and can sound out words, but he reads paragraphs very slowly. He often has to sound out the same word multiple times, not remembering it. He makes mistakes such as reading “basket” for “breakfast” and struggles with spelling.

The primary cause of difficulty with reading and spelling is weak symbol imagery - the ability to visualize sounds and letters in words. Many individuals, even those who have well-developed phonetic processing, have difficulty rapidly perceiving sounds in words, and thus are slow to self-correct their reading errors. Their spelling is often phonetically accurate, but they cannot remember the visual patterns of words.

Symptoms of weak symbol imagery include weak word attack skills, weak word recognition skills, difficulty learning and retaining sight words, weak phonological and/or orthographic spelling skills, difficulty reading fluently in context, difficulty monitoring and self-correcting reading and spelling errors, and slow and laborious decoding skills.

Michael is unable to read and spell words to his potential. Despite numerous attempts to teach him, Michael cannot decode written words and has to guess from memory or context clues.

A primary cause of decoding and spelling problems is difficulty in judging sounds within words. This is called weak phonemic awareness. This weakness in phonological processing causes individuals to omit, substitute, and reverse sounds and letters within words. They cannot “get the words off  the page” and cannot judge whether what they say matches what they see.

Symptoms of weak phonemic awareness include difficulty sounding out words, difficulty spelling, and pronunciation errors. Individuals with weak phonemic awareness often struggle to learn letter names and sounds.

The right evaluation is the first step in addressing an individual’s learning difficulty. Strengths and weaknesses need to be identified through academic and literacy tests, and the results clearly explained. Second, the proper instruction, one that addresses the underlying causes of the individual’s learning needs, should be sought out.

Your doctor or educational specialist is a good place to start. Know the difference between a remediation program- one that addresses the underlying causes of the individual’s learning needs that will help them to reach their potential, and an enrichment program- one that does not take a step back to focus on the underlying causes, but rather increases the amount of information that is learned.

Finally, the right learning environment is key. It should be structured so that an individual is engaged and motivated, regular progress updates should be given, and if applicable, parents should have the opportunity to participate in sessions to reinforce the skills their child is learning, so that they can help them at home.

If your intuition is telling you that something is not “right,” trust your instincts. Seek out a professional who is knowledgeable about the underlying causes and solutions of learning difficulties.

 

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