Teaching Students Who Have a Learning Disability: Strategies for Faculty, Tutors, and Learning Instructors

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Teaching Students Who Have a Learning Disability:

Strategies for Faculty, Tutors, and Learning Instructors
Located in 3702 Spruce Street (Stouffer Commons), Ste 300, the Learning Resources Center provides comprehensive academic support for all undergraduate, graduate, and professional students at the University of Pennsylvania. All services are free and confidential. The center is comprised of two offices: the Office of Learning Resources and Student Disabilities Services.
Office of Learning Resources:

The Office of Learning Resources provides academic support and individual instruction in reading, writing, studying, and time management. Learning Resources is staffed by professional Learning Instructors who help students differentiate academic concerns, realize academic strengths, and improve academic study strategies. Learning Instructors work with students during one-on-one meetings to discuss study skills and strategies for their various courses. They provide instruction and resources to improve approaches to learning. Group learning opportunities are available through a variety of interactive workshops. The Learning Center also offers support for students who know or suspect they have a learning disability and wish to find ways to close the gap between their academic achievement and their intellectual potential.

Student Disability Services:

Student Disability Services (SDS) collaborates with the Office of Learning Resources to provide comprehensive academic support for students with disabilities. SDS serves students from all of Penn’s undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools. It provides services and programs for students with disabilities to ensure equal academic opportunities and participation in University-sponsored programs. This office coordinates the self-identification process and the provision of reasonable accommodations, arranges auxiliary services, monitors campus accessibility, and refers students to other appropriate University services and programs. In addition, SDS provides consultation and guidance for faculty, advisors, and academic support staff so that they may reasonably accommodate students with disabilities without compromising academic standards and requirements.

Questions regarding the Learning Resources Center should be addressed to:

Director of Learning Resources

Office of Student Disabilities Services

3702 Spruce Street (Stouffer Commons), Ste 300

215-573-9235 (Voice), 215-746-6320 (TDD), 215-746-6326 (Fax)


e-mail: sdsmail@pobox.upenn.edu

Acknowledgements: This handbook was written primarily by Denise Marone, Ph.D with contributions by Edie Johnston and the staff of the Office of Learning Resources

June, 2002

Table of Contents

Introduction …………………………………………………………………………….. 3

Overview ……………………………………………………………………………….. 7

General Suggestions ………………………………………………………………………………….. 9

Oral Expression ………………………………………………………………………………………. 13

Listening Comprehension ………………………………………………………………………….. 15

Written Expression ………………………………………………………………………………….. 17

Reading Skills and Comprehension …………………………………………………………..….. 21

Math Calculation and Problem Solving …………………………………………………...…….. 25

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)………………………………………...…... 29

Reference and Additional Recommended Reading………………………………….……...….. 35

The University of Pennsylvania web page states,
As a major research and teaching institution with an emphasis on undergraduate education, Penn seeks students who will avail themselves of the rich academic, cultural and social opportunities of the academic community. As an institution, Penn prides itself on its enormous diversity—not only in the great wealth of our undergraduate and graduate programs, but in the wide variety of students and talents that such programs attract. The student who flourishes in the Penn community possesses a history of strong academic excellence, a healthy degree of motivation, and a well-developed interest and involvement in his or her environment. (http://www.upenn.edu/admissions/undergrad/applying/)
The University of Pennsylvania is committed to providing equal educational opportunities to its diverse population of students. Teaching Students Who Have Learning Disabilities: Strategies for Faculty, Learning Instructors, and Tutors, produced by the Learning Resources Center, is intended to serve as a concise guide for the Penn faculty and staff who teach the diverse student population, which includes students who have learning disabilities. This handbook is written to foster teaching strategies that enable students who have learning disabilities to have better access to learning at the university; a larger aim is to promote teaching strategies across the university that respect the concept that all students have different ways of learning. Therefore, this publication focuses on providing clear and practical suggestions that address specific learning needs/areas that impact the learning of students with learning disabilities as well as discusses pedagogy that will benefit all students.

This handbook may serve as a tool to assist faculty, TAs, tutors, and mentors in reaching more students by incorporating various modes of teaching into their practice. In addition, learning instructors are given suggestions for ways to help students take control of their learning by becoming better equipped with the knowledge of how they learn and how to incorporate this knowledge into their daily studying. The goal is to promote teaching strategies that tap into the talents of all of our students.

What is a learning disability? The Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) defines a learning disability (LD) as:

A disorder which affects the manner in which individuals with normal or above normal intelligence take in, retain, and express information. It is commonly recognized as a significant deficit in one or more of the following areas: oral expression, listening comprehension, written expression, basic reading skills, reading comprehension, mathematical calculation, or problem solving. Individuals with learning disabilities also may have difficulty with sustained attention, time management, or social skills.

Federal legislation, Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, assist college students who have a documented LD by ensuring that reasonable accommodations are made for them at any postsecondary education setting that receives federal funding. A reasonable accommodation, based on a student’s documented learning disability and decided upon on an individual basis for each course, allows the student who has a learning disability the “most integrated experience possible” and does not compromise essential requirements of a course or program (Scott, 1994, p. 410). Academic standards for students with learning disabilities are in no way different for students without learning disabilities; the rigor and expectations of the course are not compromised or watered-down.

There are a variety of accommodations students use. Some typical accommodations for Penn students with a documented LD are: having extended time on exams, taking exams in a different location to assure a distraction-free environment, using a computer to type exams, obtaining copies of lectures notes from a classmate or note-taker, and obtaining books on tape or from a reader. [Students seeking accommodations should contact the Office of Student Disabilities Services.] A student’s accommodations may vary from course to course depending on the requirements of the course; for example, a student who has an expressive language disability might receive double time on essay exams but no extended time for multiple choice exams.

Students who have learning disabilities are not a homogeneous group and their experiences are different. The diversity among the general population of students also exists among students with disabilities. Not only are there many variations of learning disabilities—as addressed in this handbook—but there are also differences in the ways in which a learning disability impacts a student’s learning. Moreover, since learning disabilities may be identified at different stages of students’ academic careers, students’ understanding of their LD varies widely.

Some students enter college aware of their LD. They have had years garnering strategies to compensate for the LD and have used these strategies to capitalize on their strengths and to excel in their former academic settings. They know their learning strengths and weaknesses and can anticipate which courses will be more problematic for them and can thus use this knowledge to navigate through their courses. Some students have had experience explaining their LD and how they learn and advocating for the accommodations they need to learn and to demonstrate their knowledge. Other students who have a learning disability, although aware of their LD, may not have developed strategies that can be applied to different situations in the university. Similar to most in-coming students, these students often have transition issues and would benefit from refining their study strategies and learning how to adapt those strategies to the new contexts in college.

Other students, however, begin college unaware that they have a learning disability. One reason that students do not know about the LD is that they typically develop compensatory techniques in response to the nature of their learning difficulties. As a result, they are often very successful in high school, rising to the tops of their classes, by capitalizing on their strengths while avoiding their areas of disability. For example, many high school classes assign reading that corresponds to the daily lectures; students can attend to the lecture and do well on exams without ever reading the text. Or, students who are unable to attend to and glean information from lectures learn the necessary material by reading it; furthermore, many teachers often write notes on the board, so students who have auditory processing difficulties are able to leave class with a record of what was covered that day. However, because of the different academic setting of college, the former compensatory strategies may no longer mask the LD.

This handbook discusses a variety of learning disabilities and ways that learning disabilities impact student learning. As discussed, students experience their LD differently—therefore, you are not expected to be able to gauge the impact a student’s disability will have on a course. When a student approaches you and tells you that he or she has an LD, a useful and valuable question to ask him or her is: “What does this mean for you, and specifically, for you in this course?”

Teaching Students Who Have Learning Disabilities: Strategies for Faculty, Tutors, and Learning Instructors is a collection of educational strategies that have been helpful in working with students with learning disabilities. The strategies have evolved over a period of time in response to specific needs brought by students and faculty to the Learning Resources Center. They are rooted in practice, supported by theory, and are already incorporated into the practice of many professors and teaching staff across the university. Undoubtedly, many of the strategies in this handbook are already in your repertoire of teaching strategies. You will find that these strategies, although written in the context of teaching students who have learning disabilities, really fall under the general category of “good teaching practices.” Integrating strategies such as these into your pedagogy will help you anticipate the diversity of learning styles that students bring to the university classroom.

The first few pages of the booklet are devoted to providing a synthesis of general suggestions for teaching methods that will benefit all students in the classroom, including students with learning disabilities. The majority of the booklet then explains and discusses strategies that can be implemented to enhance the learning of students with specific learning disabilities (which also enhance the learning of all students). These specific sections are based on the areas named in the AHEAD definition of a learning disability: oral expression, listening comprehension, written expression, basic reading skills and comprehension, and mathematical calculation and problem solving. A section is also devoted to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which, although not technically a learning disability, sometimes accompanies a learning disability. While each section is presented on its own for the practical purpose of highlighting the nature of a disability in this area, the areas do not necessarily exist in isolation. Therefore, the strategies and suggestions in different sections enhance one another.

Each topic begins with a description of the LD and some ways that it can impact student learning. Following, there are strategy recommendations specifically for the university teaching staff—faculty and TAs, tutors, and learning instructors. Since each teaching role is different, the strategies appear in separate categories based on types of instruction. In general, faculty strategies focus on group instruction (i.e. the classroom); tutor strategies are aimed at personalized, one-on-one or small group instruction; learning instructor strategies include ways to assist students in garnering personalized learning and study strategies that are tailored to the ways in which they learn best and to the expectations of their courses. TAs and mentors, who may find themselves in all of these teaching descriptions at different times in their work, may find it useful to consider suggestions from all three categories.

The handbook concludes with a list of suggested readings. Many of these resources can be borrowed from the library of the Learning Resources Center.

General Suggestions
Below is a list of general suggestions that can be implemented into the daily routine of a course in order to assist students in comprehending and retaining course material. Some suggestions might have to be adapted according to discipline or type of course (i.e. lecture, seminar, recitation, or lab), but they can serve as a foundation. Many of them are already in the daily practice of professors and teaching staff across the university and are, undoubtedly, in your practice. The premise for these suggestions is the idea that students have different ways of learning and, therefore, benefit from teaching methods that tap into different learning modalities. They are listed here in order to emphasize how incorporating a variety of teaching methods will anticipate diversity in the classroom as well as enhance the learning of all students, including students who have an LD or ADHD.


  • Make your syllabus available before registration and describe all course assignments and expectations, due dates, grading procedures and policies, and format of exams. This information will help students decide how the course corresponds to their learning strengths.

  • On the syllabus, name required texts so students have time to obtain books on tape if this is necessary. [Sometimes, obtaining books on tape can take months.]

  • Announce reading assignments well in advance so students have ample time to prepare.

  • Begin class with an outline or agenda (or for a seminar, general topics to be discussed) which is either written on the board or can be obtained before class from the web.

  • Present assignments verbally as well as in writing. Announce any changes in the syllabus also verbally and in writing.

  • Incorporate different ways of presenting material: through speech, gestures, and writing. Incorporate visual aids (such as slides, graphs, charts, and pictures) into lectures. If appropriate, allow time for students to interact with each other through questions and answers, or have students break into groups to discuss the material.

  • If lecture notes are posted on a web site, post them before the lecture so students can review them and anticipate the day’s lecture. Having these notes to print and bring to class allows students to focus on the content of the lecture rather than the process of getting it all down.

  • Allow time, whenever possible, to answer students’ questions.

  • Help students recognize that the ways of knowing in you discipline may be different than ways of knowing in other disciplines. Help students learn the particular ways of reading, writing, and thinking within the discipline. One way to accomplish this is by doing “think alouds” for students as you approach content and describe your thought processes.

  • Make use of educational technology, such as a listserve and programs like Blackboard, for students to interact with the material and each other outside of the classroom.

  • At the end of class, facilitate a brief conversation to re-cap and highlight the main points of the lecture or discussion.

  • Encourage students to form study groups to continue course conversations outside of classroom.

  • Encourage students to review their lecture notes consistently throughout the course.

  • Encourage students: to make connections with assigned readings, previous lectures and discussions; to compare and contrast information; to determine cause and effect relationships; to apply concepts to real world examples; to visualize concepts; and to map out information on a flow chart or time-line.

  • Repeatedly throughout the semester, encourage students to visit during office hours.

  • Schedule review sessions for exams. Announce the time of the review well in advance so students can accommodate their schedules to attend.

  • Provide sample questions, practice exams, and information about the exam format. Explain what makes a “good” exam answer and provide examples of such models.

  • Provide examples of what constitutes “good” writing for the course and the discipline in general. Make explicit to students that your written feedback on assignments should be incorporated into subsequent assignments.

  • Encourage students to capitalize on the extensive support services available at Penn, including the Learning Resources Center (Office of Learning Resources and Office of Student Disabilities Services), the Department of Academic Support Programs, Counseling and Psychological Services, and the Writing Center. Refer students to the library reference desk for assistance with library searches.

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