Accommodating Specific Learning Disorders in the Classroom:  Minor Effort, Major Benefits

By Susan Grover and Anne Hendricks


In postsecondary education,  we must address the challenge of helping SLD students discover different methods of learning without dramatically restructuring our courses. Whether in the English classroom, in the lab, on the web, or via distance learning, faculty can meet each student’s differing learning needs by assessing needs and then implementing accommodations. These accommodations needn’t be difficult to integrate into current programs. They may be as simple as effectively utilizing assistive technologies or support services. To accommodate effectively, teachers should focus on clarifying each phase of the learning process: inputting, processing, and outputting. This clarification, by virtue of the universal-design principle, will benefit not only the SLD student but other students in the class as well. Instead of focusing on our own frustrations with a particular student, we can focus on learning from his or her frustrations. By accommodating SLD students’ differing learning needs, we learn how to teach more effectively.


We’re working on the upcoming paper in my critical writing class. About ten minutes late, Albert runs into the computer lab seemingly dazed. He's holding two library books in his hands like someone holds a food tray. He halts almost directly in front of me. I'm trying not to draw attention to him, so I continue my instructions and avert my gaze. My attempts are useless, since he's right in front of me and since the entire class turned to look at him the moment he threw open the door. He stares at the books for a minute, turns to face the class, and announces, as if he had just awakened: "I just dropped my textbooks in the library return chute." He turns and runs back out again to few muffled titters from the class.

This was not the only disruption with Albert that semester. Many times I rolled my eyes or groaned in frustration at Albert’s apparently irrelevant questions, late assignments, and misunderstanding of papers/activities.  But the real frustration came when I was grading research papers.  One paper clearly stood out from the others: it was clear and artfully written, filled with specific support for a provocative idea.   It was the type of research paper I love to read.  It was Albert's. 

When measuring ideas, Albert was a genius—or at least he had the potential to excel.  When measuring his academic abilities—the abilities to interpret assignments or negotiate the mechanics of college—Albert was incompetent.   And that is why I was frustrated.  I think he had the potential to learn more in my class than he did, but the standard practices of education didn’t work for him.

Students who, like Albert, do not learn well in traditional educational situations are often labeled learning disabled.  However, this label is problematic.  Learning disabled literally means “not able to learn” and creates a stigma for learning disabled students.  Applying this label, teachers, parents, peers, and even the students themselves, can make such students feel they are stupid or below normal intelligence.   However, multiple studies prove this inference wrong.  These students can learn, and can excel in academics.  They just learn differently (Shaywitz, Davis 3, Levine qtd in Prescott 18-19, LaVoie Understanding Learning Disablities, Krantrowitz 72-74, 78).  

New terms refocus attention from an overall deficiency to a narrow developmental disorder that affects how the student learns.  Two terms, specific learning disorder (SLD) and specific developmental disorder (SDD), emphasize that these disorders are specific in nature, suggesting specific coping strategies for individual disorders (Wender 5, 14; Eckwall 315-316).  

This change in terminology emphasizes that a student may have difficulty in one particular aspect of learning while mastering and excelling in others.  Therefore, many SLD students may not need major modifications to succeed at a college level, but rather minor accommodations to meet his or her specific differing learning needs.

Some accommodations are naturally evolving with changes in pedagogy as well as technology. If teachers recognize and understand the needs of SLD students, they can begin to accommodate these needs with resources at hand. Some technological resources include specific assistive devices for SLD students and are offered through campus support services. However, technology resources standard to most computer classrooms—word process, Internet use, PowerPoint, and many other types of multimedia—may benefit SLD students with slight modifications. Unfortunately these technologies are too rarely evaluated for how they might help " individuals with learning disabilities to compensate for specific cognitive deficits" (Day and Edwards). Something as simple as encouraging students to word process all assignments can dramatically impact a student with poor motor-coordination, which often makes handwriting disorganized and difficult to read. 

However, just because a teacher uses technology in the classroom does not mean the SLD student will benefit. In order for technology to truly function as an assistive devices, potential needs for accommodation must considered when designing an activity/assignment. The simplest accommodations include explicit clarifications whether in the classroom, in the lab, on the web, or via distance learning. These accommodations are generally the basic modifications to course objectives and assignments a teacher makes when moving from traditional classrooms to learning settings enhanced by technology (Cook and Gladhart page?). Occasionally a more significant accommodation must be made for the SLD student. Thus, our challenge as educators is to help SLD student discover different methods of learning, without requiring excessive amounts of time or dramatically restructuring our courses.

Facing the challenge begins with recognition and understanding.  First, recognizing that spending some time making accommodations/modifications for these students is, in the terms of our economically-driven society, cost beneficial.  Second, and most significantly, educators need to understand   why standard academic practices do not work for SLD students and how they do learn.

Benefits of Making Accommodations

Accommodations can benefit not just SLD students, but professors, students, even the community at large.  It is expedient that we accommodate SLD students for at least four reasons:

Ethical Expediency for Accommodations[1]

The number of SLD students in colleges and universities is rising.  According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, in 1992, 65% of high school students with documented learning disabilities went on to post secondary studies.  This number has increased approximately 10% in the last ten years.  In 1993, 25% of all college students identified themselves as learning disabled, and in 2000 this number increased to approximately 33% (NCLD).  The number of SLD students in higher education is actually greater since many SLD students do not have the formal testing that legitimizes their learning disability.  What this means is that one-fourth to one-third of freshmen students have some level of learning difficulty.  Additionally, more SLD students now begin postsecondary education because distance learning and on-line courses provide easier access for them (Cook). What this means is that one-fourth to one-third of freshmen students have some level of learning difficulty. Postsecondary administration and faculty must realize that these students are not just in developmental classes or in the community colleges; SLD students are enrolled in all courses.

Though more SLD students enter college, not enough of them are graduating.  The number of SLD students dramatically decreases in the upper-level courses.  According to Hull, Sitlington, and Alper, SLD students who attend college or university struggle to earn a degree.  Their study indicates that 80% of SLD students in postsecondary educational institutions do not graduate within five years of entering the program, compared to 56% of student with no disabilities.  Furthermore, only 44% of the SLD students have earned their degrees ten years after college enrollment compared to 68% of students with no learning disabilities. Similarly, high drop out rates exist in distance learning and on-line courses. The pacing and literacy demands have the "potential to exclude persons with disabilities who may [have] benefitted from Web-based or distance learning" (Cook).

The dropout rate for SLD students in colleges and universities is linked to the frustration these students face when standard academic practices inhibit their learning.  It is ethically expedient for educators to make accommodations that increase SLD students’ learning and decrease their frustration with the learning process.  From an idealistic standpoint, as educators, we should be ethically motivated to help all our students tap into their potential, and not simply those who can already succeed within the standard academic paradigm.

Legal Expediency

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, section 504, indicates that federally funded institutions must work with the learning disabled to provide an atmosphere in which they can learn.  The 1992 Americans with Disabilities Act expanded this law, requiring that all learning institutions, not just federally funded schools, accommodate the needs of the learning disabled (Scott and Gregg 159-160).  

This attitude of inclusion also addresses technology in education. The Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act (Tech Act, updated 1994) promotes "specially designed devices and accommodations meant to empower persons with disabilities" (qtd. in Day and Edwards; Turnbull, et al 34). Reflecting this same empowerment of SLD students, the United States Department of Justice stated that ADA requires that "entities that use the Internet for communications regarding their programs, goods, or services must be prepared to offer those communications through accessible means" (qtd in Buargstahler). Both promote educational technology as a resource to accommodate SLD students.

Clearly, it is legally expedient to "create entitlement . . . [through] special services" for the disabled and prevent exclusion because of disability (Turnbull et al 34).

To ensure that colleges and universities comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Tech Act, federal funds are being made available postsecondary for resources and training.

A primary purpose of the Tech Act is funding grants for states to supply technological support to those with disabilities (Turnbull et al). As a result, Day and Edwards contend that "virtually every postsecondary" educational institution has assistive technology available. They cite several examples. In Florida in 1994, 90 of 91 colleges and universities provided such support. California has a "statewide system of specialized educational programming involving technology for students with disabilities in the postsecondary setting."  

Additionally, the federal government is promoting faculty training for teaching SLD students.  The National Joint Learning Committee on Learning Disabilities and U. S. Department of Education’s Post-Secondary Division both cite studies showing that post-secondary institutions aren’t currently doing enough for the SLD student’s success.    They encourage faculty to better facilitate SLD students’ learning, also citing the beneficial impact such modifications would have on all students.  To promote faculty training in accommodations for SLD students, the federal government has set aside five million dollars to “ensure quality higher education for the disabled” (Hollander).  With this grant, 25 universities including Brown, Dartmouth, Harvard, Stanford, and Columbia are participating in a pilot project (Levison).   

This project is groundbreaking in that is has shifted focus from SLD students to the academic system itself.  Lynne Bejoain, head of Disabilities Services at Columbia University, explains this new focus of faculty training, “In the past, we’ve had the students adapt to the process, instead of just looking at the process”  (Levison, Hollander). With an $800,000 grant, Bejoain hopes to educate faculty at Columbia University about a “variety of new teaching methods, including how to present and how to engage” the SLD student in education beyond the traditional read/lecture methods (Hollander).  

Economic and Political Expediency

Economic expediency provides another reason why educators should accommodate SLD students.  Citizens who fail to learn are significantly under or un-employed. Learning disabilities are some of the most frequently cited factors that inhibit welfare "clients’ ability to gain and retain employment and fiscal independence" (NCLD). Thus, there is clearly a political economic motivation for educators: most people with SLDs are capable and could make a significant contribution to society if they could overcome their learning difficulties. Sheryl Day points to assistive technology in postsecondary education as a partial answer to what she describes as the "burnout" many undereducated adults feel as they face the challenge of economically improving their lives. In contrast with the "years of remedial instructions that yielded little benefit," adults see "immediate solutions" possible in the resources of assistive technology (Cook).  Adults who did not attend a postsecondary institution because of their SLD's are taking advantage of distance learning courses, which allow them to get an education while still meeting the demands of work and family.

Benefit to the Entire Class

A fourth motivation for modifying course curriculum is that these modifications can benefit all students in a classroom.  To illustrate how, consider the universal design theory in architecture.  As architects designed wheelchair-friendly curbs, they discovered that the design benefited bicyclists, older and younger pedestrians, and many others.  Similarly modifications for SLD students can universally benefit many students in a class (Levinson, Hollander).  Often, the SLD student’s difficulties merely magnify other students’ struggles.  Dr. Mel Levine, one of the principle researchers on learning needs, explains, “the [students] who are struggling in school are sending us a message about how all [students] learn” (qtd. in Prescott 18).  Several other studies indicate the same to be true for teaching environments based on technology (Cook and Gladhart; Burgstahler).  According to Cook and Gladhart, "when we encourage the use of adaptive technology in accommodating the needs of learners with disabilities, we also serendipitously make positive strides in addressing the diverse learning styles of students without disabilities."  These modifications to help the SLD student will benefit the entire class because most of these accommodations are merely good teaching techniques that clearly define concepts.

Identifying Specific Learning Disorders 

Once educators are committed to better assisting SLD students in the classroom, they should become aware of standard measures for identifying learning difficulties.  As the revised label, “specific learning disorder,” indicates there is no universal definition for learning disabilities because there are different types of disorders and levels of learning needs (Levine 1, 8-9; Wender 5, 14; Eckwall and Shanker 315-316, 339).  However, there are some general signs that a student’s inability to succeed academically might be linked to a specific learning disorder.

First, it is important to realize that the SLD student’s academic struggles are not due to below normal IQ, physical handicaps, emotional disturbances, or because of cultural or economic disadvantages.  The National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (NJCLD) explains “that difficulties such as [these] may also be present by are not the primary cause of the learning difficulty” (Turnbull 107).  Instead, SLD’s generally come from inability to successfully retrieve, process, or reproduce information.  The federal government has defined learning disabilities in Public Law 94-142, the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, as follows:

[A] specific learning disability means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical cal­culations. (qtd. in Turnbull 106, italics added)

Each SLD student is unique; each shows a different combination and severity of problems.  This variety in SLDs can be frustrating for educators.  They may feel that each SLD student must receive intense one-on-one attention to adapt to that student’s individual developmental disorder. However, there are some general patterns to learning disabilities that can assist the educator in making general modification that will assist a variety of SLD’s.  The following summarizes three criteria to determine if a student needs accommodations.

Performance Contradicts Potential

A significant measurement of an SLD is the gap between a student’s academic potential and achievement.  This is the standard measurement used by public schools to identify SLD students.  Student potential is usually measured by an IQ test.  If there is a “severe discrepancy” between this potential and the student’s performance, as measured by basic skills tests such as a Woodcock-Johnson or Wechsler Individualized Achievement Test (WIAT), the student might have a SLD.  The term “severe discrepancy” is defined differently from state to state.  Some states require anywhere from 1 to 2.5 standard deviations between potential and performance.  Other states have more complicated formulas for defining severe discrepancy (Turnbull 108, 118).

W Pattern on IQ Testing

The second method for determining an SLD is used by many psychologists and also relies on the results of an IQ test.  Most IQ tests evaluate subsets of cognitive aptitudes.   For example, the commonly used tests—WISC (Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children) & WAIS (Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale)—measure a series of performance skills.  Part of these tests focus on performance skills related to spatial and mathematical reasoning.  Another subsection focuses on verbal skills, as related to language development.  The results of these tests are plotted, and a student with a W pattern on the graph (i.e., higher scores in some areas and exceptionally low scores in others) may have a specific learning disorder (Turnbull 118, 120).

Learning Difficulty Not Attributed to Specific Cause

The third method for identifying a student with an SLD is used by the government in the Education of All Handicapped Children Act.  This method is the broadest standard of the three.  According to this act, a specific learning disorder may cause significant learning difficulty in any discipline without a determinable cause such as a physical or mental handicap or an emotional, environmental, or economic disadvantage (Bush 4-7; Turnbull 106-109, 141-142).

The problem with this final measurement of SLD’s is that its broad description may make educators skeptical of or uncomfortable with its vagueness.  However, because SLD’s are based on fundamental neurodevelopmental functions that inhibit learning, there are some significant signs that a student’s difficulties are SLD-related.

As seen in all three indicators, a principle sign of an SLD is the gap between potential and performance. As teachers become familiar with these measurements and definitions of specific learning disorders, they are better able to understand and therefore deal with this gap. Of equal importance, teachers will recognize that these students have the potential to learn, legitimizing their rights to receiving modifications in the classroom (Wender 36).

The following example illustrates how a teacher’s awareness of SLD indicators improved a student’s educational experience. In his writing class, Charles scored 85% on an in-class essay test and 26% on the multiple choice part of the online test. The wide discrepancy alarmed his teacher. After meeting together, Charles and the teacher agreed that Charles should consult the Learning Assistance Labs. Here he received tutorial support, as well as a referral to one of the university psychologists who identified a recent traumatic brain injury as impacting Charles’s learning ability. Charles qualified for legal accommodations. Now a trained tutor acts as a reader for his online tests which will be "untimed." With this accommodation his test scores reflect his true abilities and not merely his disabilities.

Suggested Accommodations for SLD Students

The National Joint Learning Committee on Learning Disabilities urges college and university professors to address the issue of SLD’s:  “Providers of services for students with learning disabilities in post-secondary education settings must be prepared to meet the needs of a diverse student population who have a variety of skills, educational backgrounds, and intellectual abilities.”  These needs are met through course accommodations, which are “legally required adaptations that ensure adults with learning disabilities have an equal chance for success in learning” (Gregg, Noel, Charles Talbert, and Keith Lenz.).  

This mandate, however, does not have to be daunting. Accommodations may be as simple as the following

It is also important to recognize that all possible accommodations do not have to be implemented at once.  As with many changes to a course, faculty should add one or two modifications a semester, evaluating their effectiveness and then adapting as necessary.

Acknowledging SLD Students’ Frustrations

Perhaps the most significant yet simple accommodation an educator can make is simply to acknowledge SLD students’ frustrations with learning.  By the time SLD students reach a post-secondary educational institution, they have spent many years feeling frustrated with or incapable of learning.  Often the incapacitating frustration students experience comes from teachers or parents telling SLD students that if they would simply try harder—concentrate more, or stop being lazy—they would learn.  Though these inaccurate criticisms may be somewhat understandable, they reflect what Richard Lavoie, executive director of Riverview School for adolescents with complex and severe language disorders, calls “blaming the victim” (Understanding).  Specific learning disorders primarily affect language and organization skills, two dominant aspects of secondary education. However, these disorders often resemble lack of concentration or lack of motivation, causing teachers to blame the student. 

However, increased concentration doesn’t solve these students’ difficulties, and often such an accusatory attitude only increases frustration.  Because of their previous educational experiences, SLD students may perceive a teacher’s attempts at motivation as a symbol of their failure.  Therefore, before teachers can help SLD students, they need to understand these students’ frustrations.   As Lavoie explains, “[We] must make a commitment to increase the sensitivity of teachers [as they deal with SLD students]. . . . Before we can fully understand the feelings of [SLD students] perhaps we must first see the world as he or she does” (“How Hard” 38).  

Through his video Understanding Learning Disabilities: How Difficult Can This Be?—The F.A.T. (Frustration, Anxiety, Tension) City Workshop, Lavoie helps teachers gain this sensitivity by illustrating the SLD student's perspective in a learning situation.  In this video he shows educators the picture on the right, and tells them they need to identify the photo.  

Some of the participants succeed immediately, but others do not.  Lavoie then states, "I'll help you."  He proceeds to encourage these participants:  "Try harder.  Just concentrate.  If you don't get it in five seconds, you'll fail this workshop."  The more he pushes, the more frustrated participants become. 

Lavoie's point is this. Motivation is not enough to help SLD students.  Their failure to understand is because they don't understand the context for an individual piece of information.  By clarifying the concept, as seen in the next photo, teachers focus SLD students. The lines drawn around the cow's face directs the observer's eye, indicating the main point of this photo, whereas before, without clarification, the observer isn't sure what to focus on.

As this example indicates, motivation is not the problem for SLD students.  Simply telling a student to spend more time on an assignment, or to try harder can often cause the student to quit or shut out all comments from the teacher. 


Adapting Assignments Based on Neurological Causes of SLDs

To design specific accommodations that will be truly effective, educators must become aware of fundamental neurodevelopmental functions that could inhibit learning.   Levine encourages educators to take a “phenomenological approach” to working with SLD students, meaning teachers should evaluate the phenomena associated with learning or the lack thereof:

Teachers [should] identify neurodevelopmental functions that are needed for the mastery of academic sub-skills (i.e., attention, memory, language, etc.)  These neurodevelopmental functions represent a range of highly specific and basic developmental abilities that may or may not be adequate to satisfy the current academic and social expectations imposed upon a [student]. (2)

Identifying this neurological difficulty can be improve the student’s attitude toward learning, by labeling “the phenomenon, rather than the [student],” making the student more open to accepting a teacher’s accommodations (Levine, qtd. in Prescott 17). 

These neurological struggles can be placed in three basic categories:  inputting, processing, and outputting information. To accommodate students with these struggles, educators can use a VAKT method of teaching.  VAKT stands for Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic, and Tactile.  This multi-sensory approach serves as the foundation for many of the accommodations discussed below.  Traditionally, teaching, especially at a post-secondary level, focused on visual methods of learning (students read texts) and auditory methods of learning (students listen to teachers).  A combination of VAKT methods helps students to input, process, and output information, especially in settings involving technology (Day and Edwards). Multi-sensory teaching using VAKT modalities, supports all students well, but particularly the SLD students’ learning needs.

Inputting Modifications and Accommodations

Inputting refers to the students’ abilities to understand and receive information (e.g., definitions, concepts, assignments, deadlines, etc.).  A common difficulty in SLD students is recognizing which information they need to remember and how individual pieces of information fit together.  The following table outlines problems students often exhibit in class that result because of poor inputting skills.  When evaluating these symptoms, notice that a significant problem in inputting stems from the fact that the traditional model for education is auditory—the student listening to the teacher to extract pertinent information.  Many SLD students struggle with auditory models of learning, while excelling in other models (e.g., visual or kinesthetic). 

Another common inputting problem can be magnified by technology-based courses. 80%-90% of SLD students struggle with written language skills, which is the primary input medium on the computer (Day and Edwards). On the other hand, for both traditional and tech-based classrooms, assistive technology can be a valuable resource to accommodate students with this language needs when basing these assistive devices on improving how a student inputs information.

Once teachers understand the neurological function that affects the students’ ability to input information, modifications can be developed to help students adjust to this difficulty.  When modifying procedures and activities to facilitate students’ inputting capabilities, focus on clarification.  Explain to the student the goals and outcomes for understanding the information (e.g., they need to know this information for a text, they need to read the syllabus to know reading assignments, they need to understand this concept to discuss it in a paper).  Helping students understand why information is important will help them understand, retain and apply this information.

Inputting Techniques:
Teachers typically present information to students via the following: texts, reading assignments, online assignments and readings, audio/video presentations, lectures, demonstrations, drawings and charts, activities, student presentations, or guest speakers.  When determining which inputting technique is best suited for accommodating SLD students, consider the following inputting problems and possible modifications:

Inputting Problems Teaching Modifications
Only understands auditory instructions— stems from oral language development exceeding written language development
  • Provide, or direct to, programs that read text displayed on the computer screen

  • Utilize multiple modalities: give crucial information orally, in a handout, on the computer screen, with the a demonstration, and with in class practice

Afraid to begin; too overwhelmed to try— stems from repeated failures in earlier educational settings
  • Identify support resources on campus; possibly offer a few extra credit points for utilizing

  • Provide assistive technology

  • Plan periodic teacher/student conferences, particularly immediately after assignment is given

Can’t read well from the computer screen——stems from poor reading skills
  • When possible, break digital text into columns.
  • Have student minimize window to make the reading screen narrower.

Poor note taking skills—stems from poor auditory discrimination.  Students cannot follow organizational pattern in class lectures; therefore, they cannot discern critical information from minor points  

  • Skeletal outlines

  • Class notes or PowerPoint slides on Internet

  • Notes from another student


Failing reading quizzes, misunderstanding reading assignments, poorly developed essays—stems from inadequate comprehension skills  
  • Class activities that encourage previewing

  • Graphic organizers that explain main idea and supporting ideas.
Poor listening and organizational skills (easily distracted, misunderstand assignments, completes wrong assignment)—stems from perceptual distractions, i.e., inability to filter out distractions or maintain long periods of concentration  
  • Use visual, auditory, kinesthetic methods to present information.
  • Provide checklists to help organize information
  • Make sure class activity (distraction) is completed before giving pertinent information
  • Shut classroom door to minimize hallway noise
Misinterprets main idea of reading/class discussion, neglects individual pieces of a large assignment, does the assignment “wrong” because gets off on tangent—stems from  neurological “wiring” that leads students to make atypical connections between ideas.  
  • Provide several, clear models of concept application
  • Explain concepts/assignment multiple times, varying method of presentation

Processing Modifications and Accommodations

Processing refers to the students’ abilities to remember, organize, and apply specific information to larger concepts, or make inferences based on reading to larger issues (e.g., unable to determine main idea of story). 

A common metaphor used to illustrate processing difficulties compares information retrieval to a file cabinet.  The teacher repeatedly asks the student to find information stored in the A folder.  However, when the student read the textbook, he or she did not categorize information alphabetically.  Instead, the student used colors for an organizational tool.  Therefore, when the exam asked for information about “file A,” the student will miss the question because he or she only considers accessing that piece of information by looking in the “red folder.”  A significant part of processing modifications is helping students to 1) understand the conventional filing system the exams/projects will require, and 2) developing exams/activities/projects that allow the student to utilize his or her own “filing” system.

Because of their unique "filing" systems, SLD students often take more time to process information. Thus SLD students would be insecure in answering questions in a fast-paced class discussion whether in the classroom or virtual classroom. With distance learning, this hesitancy becomes a greater problem, because the student does not have to make eye contact with the teacher.  Simple accommodations, such as giving discussion questions before hand and then calling on students to read responses, or just talk through their answers, can resolve this.  

When modifying procedures/activities to facilitate students’ processing capabilities, focus on clarification.  Explain to the student the goals and outcomes for remembering and applying the information (e.g., need to know for test, need to apply concept in writing paper).  Helping students understand why the information is important will help them retain and apply this information.

Processing Methods:
Daily assignments and activities require the following processing skills:  following directions, memorizing, computing, comprehending, drawing inferences, synthesizing, analyzing, etc.  When determining how to facilitate students' processing capabilities, consider the following processing problems and possible modifications:

Processing Problems

Teaching Modifications

Poor memorization–can stem from lower reading level or poor organization
  • Group work to reinforce concept
  • Class discussion
  • Repetition of concept, varying presentation
  • Support services (e.g., tutors, study groups, conferencing)
Student gives up quickly, usually after one attempt–can stem from learned defeat–student expects to fail
  • Break task into smaller units
  • Allow rewriting/revision
  • Provide extra credit options that practice key concepts
Fear to participate in class, includes both actual classroom setting and synchronous virtual discussions––stems from needing longer processing time to formulate answers
  • Provide discussion topics and questions ahead of time via technological resources: Power Point slides, discussion board, E-mail, asynchronous
  • Work in small groups again in actual classrooms or virtually by setting up private chat rooms with a limited number in the room
Unable to make connections between various activities and various mediums––can stem from a variety of neurological differences such as those mentioned; additionally SLD students often function holistically better the in detail and have trouble inferring less obvious connections among details
  • Plan some direct teaching time with sequential, clear connections spelled out explicitly by the teacher
  • With both concepts and materials, explicitly teach what, why, when, how. Also, What is it? Why is it important? When and how do I use it?
Unusual connections or inferences (student’s comments seem to “come out of left field”)–can stem from unique perceptions
  • Seek to understand/value this uniqueness (e.g., when appropriate, value quality of actual work, rather than exactly meeting assignment specifications)
  • Teach students to evaluate and question their information based on specific criteria

Outputting Modifications and Accommodations

Outputting refers to the students’ abilities to demonstrate mastery of concept/knowledge through assignments, documents, projects, etc. (e.g., exams, homework assignments, papers, answering discussion questions). Often students with SLD's struggle demonstrating what they have learned. By modifying certain outputting techniques, teachers can better evaluate a student's actual understanding.

Many SLD students struggle with visual/motor coordination, which can be particularly frustrating when working with computers that require such manipulation. While some technology can facilitate outputting (e.g., typing assignments rather than trying to write legibly), some modifications may have to be made to accommodate this challenge (e.g., pausing slightly longer between steps in an activity).

When modifying procedures/activities to facilitate students’ outputting capabilities, focus on clarification.  Explain to the student the goals and outcomes for applying the information (e.g., need to know for test, need to apply concept in writing paper).  Helping students understand why the information is important will help them retain and apply this information.  

Outputting Methods:
Activities and assignments such as quizzes, exams, essays, presentations, and class participation require  outputting skills.  When determining how to facilitate students' outputting capabilities, consider the following processing problems and possible modifications:

Outputting Problems

Teaching Modifications

Only gives “safe” answers (shallow interpretation or development of ideas) or chooses boring/simplistic topics for papers–can stem from life-time of being “wrong”
Submits disorganized (in structure and in format), sloppy (poorly developed and poorly written) work–can stem from poor visual-motor coordination or poor organization skills
  • Encourage students to word process assignments
  • Help them in get training in assistive technologies such as real-time spell check, programs to check mechanics, or speech-recognition systems that allow the user to operate the computer by voice commands.
  • SLD students generally visualize better at a computer–allows them to reorganize without excessive effort
Speaks in jumbled, disjointed sentenced, or has disorganized ideas–can stem from inability to retrieved stored linguistic information quickly
  • Provide time for student to think
  • Allow time to practice or prepare ahead
  • Give questions in advance
  • Put questions on board prior to class discussion
  • Give sample answers for them to model
Fails at multiple choice or other types of exams—can stem from confusion based on too many choices, cannot filter out large numbers of options; cannot connect question and options from test booklet to circle on answer sheet due to visual/motor coordination problems
  • Improve exams by giving strong organizational clues and limiting choices
  • Provide an online testing option, which is easier for some SLD students because the questions and answers are together on the screen. Online testing at home is sometimes less intimidating.
Can’t navigate online testing——can stem from complexity of recalling learned information when also thinking about using technology that is new to them, cannot deal with these complex tasks in time limits
  • Provide tutorial support or instruction in using the online testing program. After they become familiar with program, they may see it as an easier option.
  • Use programs that allow you to override timing constraints.


Postsecondary faculty can meet each student’s differing learning needs by assessing needs and then implementing accommodations. These accommodations needn’t be difficult to integrate into current programs. They may be as simple as effectively utilizing assistive technologies or support services. They may be simple clarifications whether in the classroom, in the lab, on the web, or via distance learning. Accommodations in one venue can easily be adapted to another, as these environments for teaching writing probably have more commonalities than differences (Cook). Regardless, these accommodations, by virtue of the universal-design principle, benefit not only the SLD student but also other students in the class.

Learning from experiences like the one I had with Albert, educators can recommit to making these accommodations that will improve their teaching.  Instead of focusing on our own frustrations with a particular student, we can focus on learning from their frustrations.  By accommodating their differing learning needs, we learn how to teach more effectively.  Rather than adding to these students’ frustrations, we can help them reach their potential.  We can learn from Lavoie’s admonition to educators, “The pain that a troubled [student] causes is never greater than the pain that he feels. . . . [SLD students] need [teachers] at their best.  They can’t function, grow, or progress with anything less” (“How Difficult” 38, 39).


[1]These “expediencies” are adapted from Clutes, Loa. “Special Education Workshop.”  Eastern Idaho Technical College, Idaho Falls, ID:  September, 1994.