We know more about learning and physical disabilities than ever before. However, understanding how those disabilities impact individual students and then translating that knowledge into effective teaching techniques is a different matter entirely.
Dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia are three of the most common learning differences teachers encounter. However, despite their high incidence, they often present differently in each student, and sometimes even overlap with one another. Understanding the differences and nuances between them will help you address the specific needs of students with one or more of these disabilities, and help you construct a positive, productive classroom environment for all students.
Let’s take a look at each one.
What Is Dyslexia?
Of the common learning differences, dyslexia is probably discussed the most. Although students with dyslexia communicate normally and exhibit a typical level of intelligence for their age, their reading comprehension and writing may suffer as a result of having dyslexia.
According to Brocks Academy, an educational resource hub for students with learning differences, “Dyslexia is defined as chronic neurological disorder causing inability or great difficulty in learning to read or spell, despite normal intelligence. It inhibits recognition and processing of graphic symbols, particularly those pertaining to language.”
Symptoms of dyslexia include:
- Very poor reading skills: Because students with dyslexia naturally and involuntarily mix up the order of words and letters, they have a much more difficult time reading.
- Reversed word and letter sequences: Students with dyslexia process word and letter order differently than readers who don’t have dyslexia, which results in a tougher time with reading and writing assignments.
- Illegible handwriting: Students who have dyslexia process words and letters in different sequences. As a result, their handwriting can be inconsistently spaced, sloppy, lacking some letters or finished words, and a jumble of capitalized and lower-case letters.
The International Dyslexia Association has written extensively about tactics teachers can use to teach students with dyslexia:
- Simplify and explain carefully any written instructions.
- Highlight or block off important information in written course materials.
- Allow and encourage the student to use an audio recorder in-class.
- Complement any visual instruction with verbal direction.
- Give time to go over specific corrections on written assignments.
- Offer examples or samples of another student’s work.
- Assign a classmate partner to routinely compare notes taken in-class.
What Is Dysgraphia?
While dyslexia makes reading especially challenging for students, dysgraphia is a learning difference that makes writing more difficult, both on a physical and mental level. Students with dysgraphia find communicating ideas in a written form to be challenging.
Put differently, dysgraphia makes the act of writing words harder because the learning difference affects the development of complex or fine motor skills.
Symptoms of dysgraphia include:
- Problems with spelling: Students who have dysgraphia have a harder time sequencing letters and words correctly, which can affect not only the word order in a sentence, but also the spelling of specific words.
- Poor handwriting: Dysgraphia affects the way students physically write, so handwriting will also be a problem area. These students often leave out letters, use spaces between letters and words inconsistently, and mix upper- and lower-case letters.
- Trouble putting thoughts on paper: Because dysgraphia makes writing much more challenging already, students will have more trouble communicating their ideas on the page.
Because both learning differences involve the consumption and communication of written language, there will likely be crossover in the ways you teach students with dyslexia and students with dysgraphia. Some tips for helping students with dysgraphia include:
- Allow them more time with in-class written assignments.
- Offer them printed copies of your class’s notes.
- Issue class assignments earlier to give them more time to plan.
- Grade their written work less on spelling, handwriting, or grammar errors.
- Evaluate their work based on their understanding of course concepts.
- Walk them through what areas you specifically grade for.
What Is Dyscalculia?
While dyslexia and dysgraphia both affect reading and written communication, dyscalculia makes the processing of numbers, time, and space monumentally difficult. Moreover, simple math equations can be overwhelming for students with this learning difference. Additionally, like dyslexia and dysgraphia, language processing is also more challenging.
Brocks Academy defines dyscalculia as “a wide range of lifelong learning disabilities involving math. There is no single type of math disability. Dyscalculia can vary from person to person. And, it can affect people differently at different stages of life.”
Dyscalculia symptoms include:
- Visual–spatial difficulties: People with dyscalculia have trouble remembering familiar locations, according to Indiana’s Department of Education.
- Language processing difficulties: Dyscalculia is a tricky learning difference that can make language rules more difficult to understand.
- Trouble understanding what they hear: Because students who have dyscalculia struggle to process language, they often struggle to understand the information they listen to immediately.
Students with dyscalculia are completely capable of learning high-level and conceptual mathematics. But because they will struggle with foundational math problems, it’s necessary to intervene early. According to the Child Mind Institute, one of the best things you can do for a student with dyscalculia is to address their math anxiety by offering one-on-one help before or after class.
Other ways to help these students include:
- Give extra time on tests and long math assignments.
- Offer a copy of your class notes.
- Arrange inside or outside school tutoring.
- Allow the use of a calculator on tests and assignments that aren’t assessing computation.
- Prepare different, highlighted worksheets for long-form word problems.
- Check-in often to make sure they’re not overwhelmed by coursework.
- Provide plenty of extra scratch paper.
- Use supplemental learning materials, like multiplication tables and formulas.
Creating an Inviting Classroom for All Students
Just like no two students are the same, learning differences will manifest differently in each student. Although it can seem overwhelming to account for each of these individual differences, with the right tools and strategies, you can create a more accommodating, more accessible classroom environment to serve all students regardless of their needs. Check out this course from Teaching Channel for cutting-edge techniques on assisting students with special needs without overwhelming your resources or your schedule:
- A Closer Look at Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, and Dyscalculia: Learn the ins and outs of three common learning disabilities in this no-nonsense course focused on what educators need to know about dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia. Discover how the Science of Reading, assistive technology, and purposeful engagement can positively impact students with learning disabilities. Whether you’re a general or special education teacher, support specialist, or tutor, you’ll take away numerous strategies and resources to help students with the disabilities of dyslexia, dysgraphia, and/or dyscalculia thrive.