Rock Valley College

Strategies for Students with Learning Disabilities

Working With Students Who Have Learning Disabilities

Students with learning disabilities constitute one of the largest groups of students registered with the Disability Support Services (DSS) office on campus.  Learning disabilities are also considered one of the "hidden" disabilities, which means it is not always obvious how to address the student’s difficulties, or that a disability even exists. It is important to note that although students may struggle in some of these key academic areas, they still are very capable of succeeding in college with the right support, attitude, motivation, and patience.

Because a student with a learning disability appears outwardly "normal" and not much different than his/her peers, it can be easy to misunderstand the challenges these students face.  For example, some students may be viewed as unintelligent, lazy, or that they just want a “free ride”.  These misguided assumptions can be very harmful, therefore it is important to know where learning difficulties stem from, so as to avoid negative assumptions. 

The effects of learning disabilities result from long-term retrieval, short-term memory, processing speed, auditory, visual, and/or other cognitive processing deficits.  Students with specific learning disabilities may exhibit difficulties in one or more of these areas:

Students may:

  • Display slow reading rate and/or experience difficulty in modifying the reading rate in accordance with the difficulty of the material.
  • Struggle with comprehension and retention of written material.
  • Have difficulty in identifying important/relevant points or themes.
  • Experience difficulty distinguishing between sounds.
  • Encounter difficulties mastering phonics.
  • Confuse similar words, and have difficulty integrating new vocabulary.
  • Encounter poor tracking skills resulting in skipped words, phrases or lines or losing place on the page.

Written Language:
Students may:

  • Have difficulty with sentence structure resulting in incomplete sentences, inappropriate use of grammar, missing inflectional endings, and frequent spelling errors.
  • Transpose of letters, making words and sentences jumbled or unclear.
  • Omit or substitute sounds, especially in unfamiliar vocabulary.
  • Have difficulty copying correctly from written information, poor penmanship, or poorly formed letters.
  • Have trouble with capitalization and/or spacing in paper preparation.

Oral Language:
Students may:

  • Encounter an inability to concentrate on and comprehend oral language.
  • Have difficulty expressing ideas orally and/or sequencing events properly.
  • Exhibit difficulty in managing more than one task at a time.
  • Experience difficulty retaining a list of information.
  • Possess an inability to distinguish between sounds or a combination of sounds.

Students may:

  • Have difficulty mastering basic facts that underlie other operations; can hinder math comprehension and computation if unaddressed.
  • Experience problems with number reversals.
  • Confuse operational signals.
  • Have difficulty recalling the sequence of operational processes.
  • Experience difficulty understanding and retaining abstract concepts.
  • Exhibit poor comprehension of word problems and limited understanding of ratio, proportions or relative size.
  • Encounter reasoning deficits and inability to eliminate irrelevant data in applied problems.

Students may:

  • Have difficulty managing time effectively.
  • Have a tendency to work slowly, rush through work carelessly, or impulsively start before listening to or reading instructions.
  • Experience an inability to identify key points in a lecture or chapter.
  • Have a short attention span.


ADD/ADHD are neurological conditions that generally develop in childhood and are characterized by persistent patterns of distractibility, impulsivity and disorganization.  Although some students may have a combination of a learning disability and ADD/ADHD, most have one condition or the other.

Students with an attention deficit may have difficulty:

  • Paying attention in class
  • Staying on task
  • Taking exams or quizzes in a room with distractions
  • Organizing their written and oral thoughts or sentences
  • Managing time effectively
  • Identifying key points in a lecture or chapter

Many students with attention deficits take medications that control some of the symptoms. However, these medications may have side effects and they do not completely eliminate the characteristics of the disorder.  Accommodations and instructional techniques for students with attention deficits are similar to those provided for students with learning disabilities.



Know your mentee's dominant learning style (i.e., auditory, visual, “hands-on”, combination) and try to use this when communicating with him/her.

  • Encourage the mentee (as early as possible) to discuss modifications that will facilitate their learning.
  • Help the mentee to “connect” information by relating materials to the mentee's background or using personal examples whenever possible.
  • Begin working with your mentee at or below the student’s instructional level.  This way the material will not be too easy or too difficult and will reinforce success for both you and the student.
  • Maintain a positive and optimistic attitude and praise the mentee&#’;s to remember.
  • Have patience and be flexible!  Be ready to explain a concept or information in many different ways and offer as much practice as necessary.
  • Make sure your mentee thoroughly understands one concept before moving on to the next.  Have the student recite the information out loud to check for understanding.  Verbalizing also helps a person to remember.
  • Encourage good study habits in your mentee.  Many students have little or no study skills.  Some may need to be referred to other resources for additional study skills training.
  • Break down tasks/information into small increments and present them to the student sequentially. Blocking, or “chunking” assignments and information helps to prevent students from getting overwhelmed and losing confidence.
  • Provide concrete examples when giving feedback. 
  • Make sure your activities allow the mentee small successes that bolster self-esteem and confidence.  Praise the student when possible.
  • Use multiple modalities of presenting information (oral, visual, hands-on, etc.). 
  • Make directions as simple as you can.  Break down steps and present them one at a time- both orally and visually if possible.
  • Review and preview at each session.  Repetition, repetition, repetition!
  • Help the student visualize the material:  draw charts, graphs, illustrations, diagrams.