The DSM-5 defines specific learning disorders as a set of disorders that relate to having difficulty learning and developing certain skills for at least 6 months.
First, there’s dyslexia, which is difficulty with reading, then there’s dysgraphia, which is difficulty with writing, and finally there’s dyscalculia, which is difficulty with mathematics. People can have difficulty with just one of those activities, but they can also have problems in all three areas.
These disorders are considered specific learning disorders because they don’t stem from another condition like an intellectual disorder or a global developmental delay, and they aren’t due to an obvious environmental cause like not being taught how to read, write, or do math. Learning disorders are usually diagnosed during the school-aged years, when a child’s skill can be assessed and is found to fall significantly below the average of other children in their age group.
Dyslexia affects both oral and written communication throughout an individual’s life. People with dyslexia often have trouble identifying letters or words, and this can result in slow, inaccurate, and effortful reading. This often becomes obvious when a person with dyslexia is reading aloud, because they might have to hesitate or guess at words, and they might end up reading without normal intonation or expression. Dyslexia can also cause difficulty with spelling because a person might add or omit letters by mistake. Having to go through all of this extra effort with reading means that people with dyslexia might also have a hard time understanding what they’ve read, missing the deeper meaning of a passage, forgetting the correct sequence of events, or being unable to make inferences about what they’ve read.
Dysgraphia describes having trouble with writing: specifically, poor spelling and difficulty with grammar. People with dysgraphia often have poor handwriting, even though they don’t have trouble with other fine motor skills, like, for example, using tweezers. They might mix print and cursive writing, or might misuse upper and lowercase letters; as a result, their writing is often slow and labored, causing them to get writing fatigue. Dysgraphia can also involve more global writing problems like having difficulty putting thoughts down on paper, or thinking and writing at the same time, which, as you might guess, leads to writing that lacks clarity and cohesion.
Finally, there’s dyscalculia. Individuals with dyscalculia have a poor understanding of numbers, like their magnitude and their relationship to each other. The most common problem is with “number sense,” which is an intuitive understanding of how numbers work, and how to compare and estimate quantities on a number line. These individuals often struggle to memorize math facts like formulas and equations, which makes it very hard for them to manipulate numbers and solve math problems. In general, these individuals struggle to follow mathematical reasoning. They often misunderstand the logic behind the steps and therefore have to rely heavily on rote memory. Over time, this difficulty can cause related problems like not being able to easily measure out ingredients for a recipe or having difficulty reading and interpreting graphs and charts.
One important thing to keep in mind for all of these learning disorders is that they’re not due to a lack of intelligence or desire to learn; with appropriate teaching methods, individuals can master all of these skills. Individuals with learning disorders often benefit from small modifications to the normal method of instruction that take their particular disability into account. For example, individuals with mind or moderate learning disabilities might benefit from untimed tests, oral testing, or other alternatives to written assignments, such as video reports.
Individuals with dyslexia might benefit from having text printed in a specific font, while individuals with dysgraphia often benefit from wide-ruled paper or certain specialized pencil grips. For dyscalculia, playing math-based games and using physical objects that relate to the real world, like using buttons in place of numbers, can help to develop and cultivate a more intuitive feel for numbers and how they work. In most of these situations, individuals might benefit from having extra time to practice specific skills, or working with a personal tutor.
Alright, as a quick recap: specific learning disorders are a group of disorders that include difficulty with reading, writing, and mathematics, called dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia, respectively. They are often diagnosed in the early school-years and are not due to a lack of intelligence or desire to learn. These disorders can be accommodated through the use of specific teaching interventions.
Video credit: Osmosis (https://osmosis.org/)