Language-Based Learning Disorders: Symptoms and Teaching Strategies

Every day, teachers are faced with students experiencing difficulties with reading and writing. For many students, these problems are (relatively) minor and temporary. Continued scaffolding and instructional support are sufficient to help them gain the needed skills to comprehend text and communicate through the written word. Yet for others, more complex factors are at work.

Dyslexia and dysgraphia are two neurological-based learning disorders that impede student achievement in reading and writing.

It is important to note that not every student who exhibits difficulty with reading and/or writing is necessarily dyslexic or dysgraphic. Only a qualified professional should make this diagnosis. However, teachers should be aware of the characteristics of both disorders and have a set of strategies at their disposal to ensure the success of students exhibiting any or all of these characteristics. As with most strategies used in special education, the strategies recommended below help all students learn and succeed.


The International Dyslexia Association defines dyslexia as a language-based learning disability characterized by difficulties with word recognition, spelling, and decoding, despite classroom instruction and adequate intelligence.

Individuals with dyslexia often have difficulty identifying the separate sounds within a word and how letters represent these sounds. While the causes of dyslexia are not completely clear, imaging studies show that there are differences in the way the brain of a dyslexic person develops and functions as compared to the brain of a nondyslexic person.

Dyslexia is estimated to affect between 5 and 17 percent of the population. The disorder is equally prevalent among males and females, and among people from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Dyslexia is not the result of lack of intelligence or the desire to learn.

Symptoms of Dyslexia

While symptoms of dyslexia vary according to the severity of the disorder and the age of the individual, teachers will be most interested in symptoms exhibited by preschool children and elementary students.

Preschool Children

  • learn new words slowly
  • have difficulty rhyming words
  • have low letter knowledge
  • may reverse letters (although this is fairly common among children before age 7)

Primary Students

  • have difficulty learning the alphabet in order
  • have difficulty associating sounds with the letters that represent them
  • have difficulty rhyming words
  • have difficulty counting syllables in words
  • have difficulty segmenting words into individual sounds or blending sounds to make words

Upper-Elementary Students

  • may read slowly or inaccurately
  • spell poorly
  • read words out of order, skip words, or substitute words
  • have difficulty comprehending instructions, especially when given rapidly or in a sequence
  • have difficulty with time keeping and organization
  • have difficulty sounding out unfamiliar words

This list is not meant to be a diagnostic checklist; only a qualified professional can (or should attempt to) diagnose dyslexia. Many students struggle with the skills mentioned above, and teachers should provide instructional support to help all students develop skills needed for successful reading and comprehension of text. However, teachers should be aware that a student who exhibits many of these symptoms and seems to have difficulties with reading that are not commensurate with his or her overall academic ability or intelligence level may be affected by the disorder. Left undiagnosed, dyslexia can lead to low self-esteem, underachievement, and problem behaviors such as acting out and bullying.

Strategies and Interventions

Research shows that programs that utilize multisensory structured language techniques can help individuals with dyslexia learn to read. This type of instruction explicitly links the letters and words we see (visual) with what we hear (auditory) and feel (kinesthetic-tactile) as we read and spell. Taught by clinically trained teachers, multisensory teaching includes exaggerating the movement of the mouth when speaking, looking in a mirror when speaking, tracing, copying, and otherwise manipulating words and cards. The combination of movement, speech, and reading helps students link this information together.

Research also shows that students who are identified as dyslexic and receive multisensory instruction in kindergarten and first grade have significantly fewer problems in learning to read at grade level than those not identified or taught until third grade.

While not a substitute for targeted instruction from a clinically trained instructor, regular classroom teachers can support students with dyslexia through the following strategies and approaches:

  • Offer content in multiple formats (listening centers and electronic books as well as print materials).
  • Simplify directions. Give directions one step at a time, or provide a written list.
  • Help students manage time by using timers (for the entire class or on an individual student’s desk).
  • Provide modified or shortened spelling lists.
  • Allow students to write a first-draft of an assignment without worrying about spelling. Proofread the draft and provide support for students as they correct spelling mistakes.
  • Give students advance warning that they will read aloud. Giving a student a passage the day before and asking him to practice prepares him to read confidently in front of the class, removing the fear of embarrassment. No one else needs to know!

Dyslexia may occur alongside other language-based disorders, including dysgraphia.


Less researched than dyslexia, dysgraphia is a disorder that expresses itself through difficulties in writing. Like dyslexia, this disorder results in skills that are substantially below what would be expected given the individual’s age, intelligence, and education. Dysgraphia is also thought to be a neurological disorder and not the result of low intelligence or lack of motivation.

Symptoms of Dysgraphia

Individuals affected by dysgraphia may exhibit some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Poor handwriting
  • A mixture of upper- and lowercase letters
  • Irregular letter sizes and shapes
  • Unfinished letters
  • Odd writing grip
  • Many spelling mistakes
  • Pain when writing
  • Decreased (or increased) speed of writing and copying
  • Talks to self while writing
  • Struggle to use writing as a communication tool
  • Reluctance or refusal to complete writing tasks

Again, a formal evaluation by a qualified professional is the only way to diagnose dysgraphia. Many students will struggle with poor handwriting and spelling, but are not necessarily affected by dysgraphia. For those that are, the physical process of writing actually impedes their ability to convey information to others – leading to the perception that they are not intelligent or are unmotivated or lazy. Individuals with undiagnosed dysgraphia are often frustrated and stressed by written tasks.

Strategies and Intervention

Formal interventions may include treatment for motor disorders, occupational therapy, and treatment of memory impairments and other neurological problems. Regular classroom teachers can also use the following strategies and modifications:

  • Use small pencils (a typical pencil cut into thirds or golf pencils) or triangular-shaped pencils to promote a functional grip.
  • Include regular and explicit handwriting instruction beyond the primary grades.
  • Use prewriting activities (discussion, webbing) to help students formulate ideas before writing.
  • Teach keyboarding skills.
  • Allow students to use a laptop or word processor for class work.
  • Provide extra time for in-class assignments.
  • Allow students to type homework instead of writing by hand.
  • Allow students to dictate to an adult or into a tape recorder. The work can then be transcribed by the teacher or the student at a later time.

In addition, teachers should remember that these students are not simply lazy or less intelligent than others. By incorporating some of the strategies listed above, teachers will find that these strategies benefit their students, whether they are dyslexic or dysgraphic or not.


The International Dyslexia Association
A comprehensive source of information for researchers, parents, and educators. Includes information on dysgraphia as well as dyslexia.

Learning Disabilities Association of America
LDA is an organization advocating for individuals with learning disabilities from around the world. The site includes information for parents, teachers, and professionals.

This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Kimberly Lightle, Principal Investigator, with any questions about the content of this site.

Copyright April 2010 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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