Jun 24 2022
Updated at: Jul 08 2024

3 Learning and Thinking Differences: Your Simple Guide

Positive Action Staff
Did you know physicians made the earliest identification of learning and thinking differences in the late 1800s and early 20th century?

It’s also interesting that these discoveries coincided with the advent of compulsory education, standardized written tests, and the increasing importance of literacy to career success.

Do you see where we’re going with this?

Learning and thinking differences have nothing to do with low intelligence, disruptive behavior, laziness, or any other negative stereotypes often unfairly attached to them.

In fact, learning and thinking differences point to a different wiring of the brain and nervous system that makes it difficult to learn such skills as reading, writing, and math—especially in standardized education systems.

It also means that with appropriate, equitable education, students and adults with learning differences can learn to cope and thrive in the world.

Here’s our simple guide to the most common learning differences, how to identify them and useful learning interventions.

1 - What Is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a learning difference that causes lifelong difficulties in reading, writing, spelling, and speaking. It’s the most common learning and thinking difference, affecting 5%–15% of the American population.

There are several types of dyslexia and they manifest differently, but they all boil down to challenges in decoding and processing language.

What Are the Types of Dyslexia?

Auditory Dyslexia

Auditory dyslexia is a difficulty in processing sounds. It includes difficulties in identifying, discriminating between, and blending sounds.

Auditory dyslexia is also known as dysphonetic dyslexia or phonological dyslexia.

It often manifests other signs, such as:

  • Difficulty remembering words
  • Low-level vocabulary
  • Difficulty following multiple-step instructions
  • Regular confusion and mispronunciation of words

Visual Dyslexia

Visual dyslexia refers to challenges in mentally picturing words. It includes difficulty in visual processing, working memory, and abstraction of letters and words.

Visual dyslexia is also called surface, orthographic, or dyseidetic dyslexia.

Common signs of visual dyslexia include:

  • Spelling words that aren’t phonetic, poorly
  • Confusing letters and words that are reversible, such as “p” and “q,” or “saw” and “was”
  • Omitting, substituting, or inserting letters that aren’t there
  • Difficulty associating words with pictures, leading to poor comprehension

Attentional Dyslexia

Attentional dyslexia is the reading deficit characterized by the migration of letters from one word to another, especially with the first letter. For example, the student may read “fig tree” as “fig free” or “tie free.”

People with attentional dyslexia often struggle to read individual letters within a word or words in a sentence. They do better reading words in isolation.

For instance, one young participant in an attentional dyslexia study could read without errors when advised to read one word at a time through a word-sized window cut into a cardboard paper.

Developmental Neglect Dyslexia

Developmental neglect dyslexia refers to a reading difficulty in which the reader consistently omits, adds, or substitutes parts of a word, usually with a bias of one side over the other. It’s common for reading errors to occur on the left side or beginning of words.

For instance, a person with neglect dyslexia would read “partial” instead of “impartial,” “lend” instead of “blend,” or “outsm\\art” instead of “smart.”

It’s important to note that “neglect” doesn’t mean the child or student is neglected. Rather, it means neglecting to honor the sequencing of letters.

What are the signs of this form of dyslexia?

  • Students often read words in the wrong order, such as right to left.
  • Words seem to jump around on the page and get mixed up.
  • Readers often mix up mirror-image letters such as “d” and “b”.

Rapid Naming Deficit Dyslexia

Also known as rapid auto naming, this type of dyslexia is the difficulty in quickly and automatically naming things, such as numbers, letters, or colors. It often occurs together with phonological dyslexia.

Students with rapid naming deficit dyslexia will often exhibit:

  • Slow speed and difficulty in oral responding, reading, and writing
  • Challenges in retrieving a word even when they can describe it
  • Poor comprehension
  • Using the wrong words or made-up words when reading
  • Nonverbal vocalizations and gestures instead of using words

Double-Deficit Dyslexia

This last type of dyslexia refers to any combination of the types of dyslexia discussed above.

One study showed that over 60% of dyslexic children have double-deficit dyslexia. It’s, therefore, crucial for educators to take a multipronged approach to supporting dyslexic learners.

How Can You Help Dyslexic Students Thrive?

Dyslexia’s determining factors are challenges in visual and phonetic processing. There are several ways teachers can help dyslexic students manage these deficits, including:

  • Promote visual tracking skills through structured paper-pencil tasks like connecting the dots, solving mazes, and drawing. Ball games, such as ping-pong, and imitation games, such as Simon Says, use motor movements to improve eye tracking.
  • Improve auditory processing by encouraging students to listen to and memorize songs and poems. Play sound and word sequencing games. For example, “I went to the market, and I bought…”
  • Build spatial skills into daily learning. For example, start the class with proprioception skills, such as one-leg balance or tightrope walk on tape.
  • Create a positive, emotionally safe learning environment for the student. Explain their learning difference, encourage peer support, give positive affirmations, and enough time for the student to work.

Expert tip: There’s an upside to the thinking differences of dyslexia: Dyslexic people are good at creative problem-solving and trend-spotting because of their dynamic and interconnected reasoning coping skills.

This helps them excel at creative endeavors and also in situations with incomplete knowledge, such as start-up businesses.

Did you know? Well-known celebrities living with dyslexia include Octavia Spencer, Steven Spielberg, Richard Branson, and Cher.

2 - What Is Dyscalculia?

Dyscalculia is a significant, lifelong difficulty in learning basic math facts, processing the magnitude of numbers, and completing calculations accurately and fluently.

Contrary to common comparisons, dyscalculia isn’t simply dyslexia for numbers. It affects other non-math related aspects of life, such as telling the time, reading directions, and remembering birthdays.

Developmental dyscalculia is a deficiency in the ability to develop numerical skills, while acquired dyscalculia (acalculia) is the loss of existing math skills due to brain injury or other cognitive impairments.

What Mathematical Difficulties Are Signs of Dyscalculia?

In the table below, we compare the difficulties dyscalculic people experience as they grow.

  • Difficulties of Dyscalculia in Preschool and Kindergarten

  • Remembering names of numbers

  • Difficulties of Dyscalculia in Elementary School Students

  • Remembering addition and subtraction facts, and timetables

  • Difficulties of Dyscalculia in High School Students

  • Remembering phone numbers, dates, or addresses

  • Difficulties of Dyscalculia in Preschool and Kindergarten

  • Learning to count by ones, twos or threes

  • Difficulties of Dyscalculia in Elementary School Students

  • Mixing up math symbols

  • Difficulties of Dyscalculia in High School Students

  • Budgeting, shopping, tipping, and counting change

  • Difficulties of Dyscalculia in Preschool and Kindergarten

  • Recognizing numbers e.g., reading “2” as “Z”

  • Difficulties of Dyscalculia in Elementary School Students

  • Struggling with size, position, amount, and time concepts

  • Difficulties of Dyscalculia in High School Students

  • Reading maps, and following instructions

  • Difficulties of Dyscalculia in Preschool and Kindergarten

  • Understanding quantities and patterns

  • Difficulties of Dyscalculia in Elementary School Students

  • Following sequences and organization

  • Difficulties of Dyscalculia in High School Students

  • Estimating distance, speed, and time

  • Difficulties of Dyscalculia in Preschool and Kindergarten

  • Understanding link between number figures and words

  • Difficulties of Dyscalculia in Elementary School Students

  • Math anxiety

  • Difficulties of Dyscalculia in High School Students

  • Understanding graphs and charts

How Can You Help Dyscalculic Students Thrive?

  • Reduce your student’s anxiety in math class by creating a relaxed learning atmosphere with no pressure or competition between students. Encourage collaborative learning between students, which can eliminate the fear of falling behind their peers.
  • Differentiate homework according to the students' capabilities so that parents can support their child at home without the frustration and pressure of unfinished work.
  • Develop the student’s core number competency in cardinal value, quantities, number representation, and number sense.
  • Avoid memorization activities, such as multiplication tables, until your student feels secure in the number sense.
  • Break down learning into small steps. For example, simplify large-number concepts into smaller chunks to ease number processing.
  • Provide multisensory learning opportunities, including tactile manipulatives like blocks and geoboards, to make abstract math concepts more concrete. Practical experiments and educational apps provide other sensory avenues to learn math.

We can see the benefit of the multisensory approach to learning in this teacher’s experience of the Positive Action curriculum:

“We’re learning how to keep our minds healthy and bodies strong. One struggling student said, ‘Aren’t we glad we’re learning to keep our minds healthy so we can do our math?’” — Wendy Karren, Ashley Elementary 3rd Grade Teacher

3 - What Is Dysgraphia?

Dysgraphia refers to challenges with transcription skills, which include handwriting, typing, and spelling.

Apart from messy handwriting, most people with dysgraphia struggle with:

  • Writing in a straight line
  • Holding and controlling a writing tool
  • Forming and spacing letters correctly
  • Writing grammatically correct sentences
  • Writing clearly enough to be legible
  • Getting tired before completing writing tasks
  • Writing complete words without skipping letters
  • Positioning their wrist, body, or paper correctly when writing
  • Gripping pencils incorrectly or too hard, leading to a sore writing hand

How Can You Help Dysgraphic Students Thrive?

For dysgraphia, you want to target visual-spatial skills, language processing, and fine motor skills.

  • Work on gross motor skills, such as jumping, throwing, or dancing, to build the arm and core muscles that are necessary for the fine motor skill of writing.
  • Nourish the brain. Studies on children with learning difficulties found that diets rich in vitamins and minerals and low in refined foods have a substantial influence on learning and behavior.
  • Make writing easier by encouraging cursive writing, using a pen grip, and paper with large spaces or graph lines to guide letter placement.
  • Structure the student’s work by giving them keywords to build on and allowing them to work on a first draft before the final polished product.
  • Adapt the learning environment to the capabilities of the student by extending the time for exercises, minimizing copying exercises, and reaffirming the student.

Expert tip: In cases where dysgraphia challenges wax and wane, there might be an underlying immune system problem causing abnormalities in the nervous system. Medical treatment may help ease some of the dysgraphia symptoms.

4 - Disorders Related to Learning Differences

Finally, let’s briefly look at a few disorders that are usually comorbid with learning disabilities. For example, 25%–40% of people with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) are likely to have dyslexia and vice versa.

Why these two disorders are so closely linked is up for debate, but therapists agree that the best course of action is early evaluation and detection. The sooner students receive learning interventions, the better they can cope with daily challenges.

Other learning and thinking differences include:

  • Receptive language disorder
  • Expressive language disorder
  • Written expression disorder
  • Executive function issues
  • Slow processing speed
  • Sensory processing issues

How to Help Students With Learning and Thinking Differences Succeed

The key takeaways regarding learning and thinking differences is that they are common, lifelong and can be managed with early evaluation, detection, and intervention. It’s also crucial to handle each student’s needs in an individualized manner.

If you’re looking to provide academic, physical and emotional value to students according to their unique needs, then you want Positive Action’s Special Education Program.

Contact us or schedule a webinar to better understand how our curriculum fits in your special education needs.