How to Help Students with Specific Learning Disorders

An instructor can reduce the effects of differences in textual processing with a little forethought and creativity. Strategies to help students with learning differences will ultimately help other groups of students such as students whose first language is not English, students with insufficient educational background or students lacking a specific aptitude in the area of study. Whenever possible, supplement text with visual elements. Learning Disabilities Association of America says, “People who have learning disabilities are often visual learners and thinkers. That means they understand and remember information better when ideas, words, and concepts are associated with pictures, diagrams, charts, and maps” (Graphic Organizers).

  • In addition to instructions in a comprehensive syllabus, provide instructions for assignments in multiple ways.  Students can choose the format that makes the most sense to them or use all of them to help build comprehension.  Instructors may choose to create multiple explanations for assignments which have historically been most confusing to students or which have the highest point value for the course.
  • Class discussion
    • Students report they need to hear how others process instructions to check their own understanding.
    • Students also report missing this element most during all online instruction.
  • Audio recording or video
  • Visual timeline, flowchart, or diagram of stages/elements of the project, including suggested start and completion dates of each stage/element to keep tasks on schedule.
  • Separate handout with fewer elements per page.
    • Use clear hierarchy of headings.
    • Emphasize with highlighting, bullets, and other visual elements.
    • Students report that pages dense with text are hardest to read.


Note that the above-bulleted list and the following colored chart present the same information in slightly different ways. Students with specific learning disorders need various iterations not only to learn the material and understand instructions, but also to explore compensatory strategies to add to their personal toolboxes for future use.

Additional Ways to Provide Instruction for Complex Students:

  • Allow text font and size to be reformatted on all online documents so students can adjust for ease of visual processing.
  • Print tests with lots of white space around questions, using an easy-to-read sans-serif font such as Arial or Calibri in 12-point size.
    • Dense text, in small type-font with serifs can exacerbate reading comprehension difficulties.
    • Text with mathematical and/or scientific elements included can be especially difficult to comprehend as more than one system of symbols must be decoded (Latin alphabet, numbers, Greek symbols, computation symbols). Good formatting can help with comprehension.
  • Encourage use of graph paper for math calculations.
    • The graph lines help with perceiving and writing numbers and symbols in correct relationship to each other.
  • Encourage use of and demonstrate various graphic organizers for study and writing planning. See Graphic Organizers.
  • Make sure all electronic course documents are fully accessible, no image-only pdfs, so text-to-speech software can be used easily.  See Types of PDFs  for an explanation.
  • Assign a variety of types of assignments or permit choice of format as course content and desired learning outcomes allow:
    • Oral presentation
    • Poster presentation
    • Student-created video
    • Written assignments
  • Indicate which written assignments must have correct, formal writing and which assignments can tolerate minimal attention to formal writing conventions as long as meaning is not obscured, e.g., journals, notebooks, discussion forums, etc.
  • Encourage all students to use software tools to aid in learning and academic tasks.
    • Text-to-speech: computer reads text aloud
      • Excellent proofreading tool for any writer to hear as well as see one’s own writing.
      • “Read Aloud” in Microsoft Office or “Voice Over” in Apple products.
      • Read & Write (available for all FPU students via
        • Aids in comprehension with multi-modal presentation of text.
        • Many other functions for readers and writers.
    • Speech-to-text: computer types from the sound of the user’s voice
      • “Dictate” in Microsoft Office programs, “Dictation” in Apple products, “Talk & Type” in Read & Write.
      • When properly “trained” or acclimated to a single user, computer algorithms make fewer errors in spelling than most writers.
      • Voice-typing allows the user to focus on whole words instead of letter by letter as in manual typing.
      • User still needs to voice aloud commands for punctuation and formatting.
      • Often faster than manual typing which may allow a smoother train of thought processing.
    • Grammarly software checks for and makes correction suggestions for spelling, grammar, word choice, and punctuation errors.
      • Free version is useful for most writers.
      • Paid subscription provides higher-level analysis


Graphic Organizers. Learning Disabilities Association of America. (2013, November 18).

Types of PDFs. ABBYY FineReader PDF.