Learning Disability: Definition, Types and Common Signs
Jan 09 2022

Learning Disability: Definition, Types and Common Signs

Positive Action Staff
Learning disabilities are caused by impairments in one or more of the cognitive processes associated with learning. A learning disability affects an individual's ability to acquire, retain, comprehend, and organize verbal and/or non-verbal information.

In other words, a student with a learning disability may be smarter than his or her classmates. But because such a student's brain is wired differently, they may not be able to read, write, spell, reason, recall, or organize information as well as their peers.

Symptoms of a learning disability can adversely affect a student's academic success. When a learning disability goes undiagnosed, it can also lead to low self-esteem and high stress, as well as interfere with socialization skills, careers, and day-to-day activities.

If the learning disability is correctly diagnosed and the students are given adequate consideration and accommodations, they can succeed at school and in their careers.

What Is a Learning Disability?

A learning disability is sometimes referred to as a specific learning disorder. From an academic perspective, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines a learning disability as a problem with one or more of the basic psychological processes related to the use or understanding of spoken or written language.

A learning disability may manifest as difficulty listening, thinking, speaking, writing, spelling, reading, or doing arithmetic calculations.

From a medical perspective, the DSM-5 defines a specific learning disorder as follows:

"A heterogeneous group of disorders characterized by persistent difficulties with learning academic skills in a variety of domains, including reading, spelling, written expression, and mathematics.”

The DSM-5 further emphasizes that symptoms must have persisted for at least 6 months despite the provision of appropriate interventions.

Having said that, learning disabilities are lifelong conditions characterized by significant difficulty in at least one of the following areas:

  • Reading (Dyslexia)
  • Writing (Dysgraphia)
  • Math (Dyscalculia)
  • Listening
  • Speaking
  • Reasoning

Types of Learning Disabilities

Dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia are the most common learning disabilities, particularly in schools.

The table below is a summary of the symptoms of the three disorders:

Learning Disability

  • Dyslexia
  • Dysgraphia
  • Dyscalculia

Area Affected/Difficulty

  • Reading and spelling
  • Written expression, including writing, spelling, and fine motor skills
  • Poor arithmetic skills


Dyslexia is a lifelong learning disability that affects a person's reading, speaking, writing, and spelling abilities.

Some dyslexics may not have extreme challenges with early reading and spelling tasks. However, they may have difficulties with complex language skills such as grammar, comprehending textbook material, or even writing essays.

Dyslexics may also have trouble with spoken language, and may not be able to express themselves clearly or understand what others are saying. These language difficulties can damage a person's self-image and make them feel dumb and less capable than they are.

Having said that, 15% to 20% of the population has a language-based disability. About 70% to 80% of individuals with a reading disability suffer from dyslexia, the most common language-based disability.

What Are the Common Signs of Dyslexia?

The warning signs of dyslexia at different grade levels include:

Signs of Dyslexia in the Preschool Years

  • Later than expected speech development, resulting in trouble pronouncing certain words like “wabbit” instead of “rabbit,” or “thoap” instead of “soap
  • Trouble naming known objects, such as bed, table, and chair
  • Difficulty rhyming words like mat, bat, cat, and learning nursery rhymes

Signs of Dyslexia in Primary School Years

  • Difficulty reading single words
  • Occasionally confuses q and p, b for d, or m and w
  • Writing backward, such as tip instead of pit
  • Avoids language tasks, such as reading books and reading out loud
  • Trouble recalling alphabets

Signs of Dyslexia in High School Years

  • Difficulty in logically expressing ideas
  • Constantly misspells the same word in a single piece of writing
  • Reads inaccurately
  • Trouble writing summaries and essays


Dysgraphia, or impairment in written expression, is a language-based learning disability in which a child has problems with handwriting. The term can also include difficulties with:

  • Grammar
  • Spelling
  • Letter formation
  • Letter spacing
  • Fine motor coordination
  • Speed of writing
  • Overall sentence production

As children learn how to write, it’s common for them to make some writing errors, which is part of the learning process. However, dysgraphia distorts a child’s handwriting, making it worse than that of kids their age, intelligence, and level of education.

On the other hand, older children tend to struggle with the cognitive-linguistic aspects of writing. They may be able to express themselves verbally but struggle to put their thoughts and ideas on paper.

In other words, people with dysgraphia struggle with poor spelling and writing good sentences, paragraphs, reports, and stories.

What Are the Common Signs of Dysgraphia?

The warning signs of dysgraphia at different grade levels include:

Signs of Dysgraphia in the Preschool Years

  • Awkward pencil grip
  • Tires quickly when writing
  • Uneven spacing between sentences, words, or letters
  • Poorly formed or inverted letters
  • Maintains an incorrect writing posture
  • Trouble writing within margins or spacing out text
  • Avoids writing and coloring assignments

Signs of Dysgraphia in Primary School Years

  • Messy and illegible handwriting
  • Frequent erasures and crossing out of text
  • Consistently mixes upper and lower case letters
  • Misspells the same words even after repeated practice, which can also manifest as unfinished words and missing letters
  • Switching between cursive and print letters
  • Writes letters, words, and sentences in the reverse direction (mirror writing)
  • Slower paced writing

Signs of Dysgraphia in High School Years

  • Poor planning and organizational skills
  • Disparities between written and verbal output
  • Trouble keeping pace when taking notes
  • Difficulty creating ideas for essays and constantly needing extra time to complete writing assignments
  • Poor grammar

Dyscalculia or Number Blindness

Dyscalculia, often known as number blindness, is a long-term learning disability that inhibits an individual’s ability to learn, grasp, and apply basic mathematical concepts.

It’s common for children and young people to struggle with mathematics at some point in their lives but they eventually overcome it. However, dyscalculic children tend to have severe difficulties with math compared to other children their age.

Dyscalculia makes mathematical reasoning and computation difficult, even when an individual has a high level of education, intelligence, and motivation.

Consequently, dyscalculia hinders an individual’s ability to learn mathematics as they progress through school because math builds on previously learned information. For example, if a child is not confident with addition and subtraction, he or she may struggle with division and fractions.

For this reason, people with dyscalculia experience mental confusion, math anxiety, phobia, and distress when doing number-related tasks.

Dyscalculia affects at least 3% to 7% of the population, with a similar prevalence among boys and girls. Approximately 30% to 60% of individuals with dyscalculia will also have dyslexia, and 10% to 20% will have ADHD.

What Are the Common Signs of Dyscalculia?

The warning signs of dyscalculia at different grade levels include:

Signs of Dyscalculia in the Preschool Years

  • Trouble counting in the correct order and even backwards - forgets and skips numbers more frequently than peers
  • Difficulty understanding basic number concepts and, despite repeated practice, may not know that '7' is the same as "seven"
  • Difficulty recognizing number patterns like small vs large, or tallest to shortest, and vice versa
  • Difficulty connecting a number to an object, and may not know that “5” applies to groups of things like 5 biscuits, 5 books, or 3 tables

Signs of Dyscalculia in Primary School Years

  • Trouble rememberingbasic math facts such as 5+10=15
  • Difficulty recognizing the difference between mathematical symbols like plus and, minus , and cannot use them correctly
  • Difficulty understanding words like “less than” or “more than
  • Counts with fingers past a developmentally appropriate age because he’s not able to use mental calculations
  • Difficulty telling time with an analog clock and memorizing times tables
  • Difficulty identifying place value: Child has delays in applying borrowing, and carrying concepts

Signs of Dyscalculia in High School Years

  • Difficulty applying mathematical concepts to everyday activities like estimating costs, creating budgets, measuring amounts, and estimating distance
  • A negative attitude and increased anxiety towards math-related activities like tests, counting off in the classroom, and math-related games
  • Difficulty interpreting graphs and charts
  • Difficulty keeping track of time and staying on schedule
  • Inaccuracies in navigating maps and directions (right/left)

How to Help Students With Learning Disabilities Succeed in Class

A correct diagnosis helps develop an evidence-based instructional strategy, curriculum, and interventions, which can help students with learning disabilities succeed in class.

By understanding each student's learning needs, parents and teachers can provide appropriate help and support. This help and support can be offered in the form of accommodations and modifications, which can be incorporated into an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

With this in mind, Positive Action offers evidence-based special education curriculums that help students achieve positive outcomes in reading, writing, and math. Our special education programs help parents and schools assess the special education needs of students.

Consequently, they’re able to develop an Individualized Education Plan based on a child’s specific areas of difficulties.

“I’ve been an educator for 32 years. Positive Action helps me handle anything that comes my way!” — Margaret Carvajal, school counselor at Noonan Elementary School in Alice, TX