There’s nothing as heartbreaking as watching one of your most dedicated students try and fail to grasp a school subject. A student struggling with reading, writing, or math can be overwhelmed by feelings of frustration and embarrassment. They may feel helpless or avoid participating in class. They may even act out to draw attention away from their shortcomings. But what if their behavior is a response to an undiagnosed problem, one affecting one-third of students with disabilities

A specific learning disability is a disorder of one or more psychological processes involved in language acquisition, manifesting as an “imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.” No wonder students with learning disabilities can have a hard time in class; their own psychological processes are working against them. Educators must be on the lookout for signs of the three types of specific learning disabilities: dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia.  


Dyslexia impairs a person’s ability to decode, or associate letters and words with their corresponding speech sounds. Consequently, reading becomes slow and laborious, even for students who’ve mastered basic reading skills. Dyslexia can also impair writing and spelling skills, and some students with dyslexia will mix up similar-looking letters like “b” and “d.” School-aged children with this learning disability may also struggle with:  

  • Copying written language.  
  • Expressing themselves in spoken language.  
  • Noticing differences and similarities in letters and words.  
  • Remembering sequences, such as the days of the week.  
  • Sounding out unfamiliar words. 

Living With Dyslexia 

As a student, Daniel Britton was unable to read test questions and was forced to retake math and English courses multiple times, but he wasn’t lazy or a slow learner, as his teachers had suggested. He merely had a reading disorder. Daniel went on to pursue a career as a graphic designer—a career he excelled at despite his condition—and gain international notoriety for designing a typeface that simulates reading with dyslexia. By removing about 40% of each letter, the typeface forces readers to slow down and experience the frustration and embarrassment a dyslexic person goes through with everyday reading. Daniel believes that better learning conditions can be achieved if only there was greater empathy for people with dyslexia. “I would’ve liked to have had more options when I was younger,” he told CNN. “If it (my disability) was picked up earlier or treated correctly, who knows what I could’ve done.” 


Both dyslexia and dysgraphia are characterized by writing difficulties, but dysgraphia interferes with all aspects of writing, including spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Students with dysgraphia tend to write in an awkward position, gripping their pencil in a clenched fist. For them, writing is a slow, frustrating, and sometimes painful experience. Their handwriting can be illegible—even to them—with inversed, reversed, incorrectly formed, or inconsistently spaced letters. Unable to organize and express their thoughts on paper, students with dysgraphia tend to run out of space on the page as their hand cramps and their words become scrawls.  

Writing requires a broad range of skills, including phonemic awareness, fine motor coordination, and visual and auditory processing. These skills are acquired over a period of years, beginning in preschool with copying shapes and becoming automatic by the third grade. School-aged children with dysgraphia who are unable to develop foundational writing skills due to the demands of letter formation will likely fall behind as writing assignments become increasingly complex. Deficient handwriting is associated with low self-esteem and poor social functioning, which can follow a student into adulthood.  


Referred to as “number dyslexia,” dyscalculia impairs a person’s ability to learn number-related concepts or perform calculations with symbols and functions. Without a clear understanding of numbers, students with dyscalculia must sometimes rely on finger-counting to perform even simple calculations. They may also struggle with:  

  • Counting backward. 
  • Memorizing basic calculations. 
  • Performing mental math.  
  • Recalling basic math facts. 
  • Using math symbols.  

Considering that most children receive their first smartphone (with a built-in calculator) around the age of 10, basic math skills may not seem as necessary as reading and writing skills. But dyscalculia impairs all areas where mathematical concepts are needed. Telling time, counting money, and remembering directions can puzzle and frustrate students with dyscalculia. Basic math skills are also needed when it comes to mastering complex mathematical concepts in higher grades, and like dysgraphia, dyscalculia can leave students disadvantaged in college and in their careers. 

What do dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia have in common?  

Specific learning disabilities are associated with several comorbidities. Not only are students with a learning disability likely to exhibit symptoms associated with another, but they also have increased rates of behavioral and emotional problems. A recent study following 3,014 German schoolchildren found that students with a specific learning disorder had high rates of anxiety (21%), depression (28%), ADHD (28%), and conduct disorder (22%). The prevalence of comorbid psychiatric disorders makes it all the more important to diagnose learning disabilities as early as possible.  

Accommodating Students With Learning Disabilities 

Although specific learning disabilities cannot be cured, they can be treated with special education services. With the proper support and accommodations, students can focus on their strengths, adapt to their disability, and succeed in and out of school. They do, however, need a professional who can intervene at the first sign of a learning disability.  

Pursue a Master of Arts in Special Education 

Are you interested in enriching the lives of students as a special educator? The University of Texas Permian Basin offers two online programs for teachers interested in working with students with learning disabilities: 

Master of Arts in Special Education: Gain the knowledge and skills needed to integrate universally designed instruction into the classroom and foster an inclusive learning environment for students with special needs.   

Master of Arts in Special Education, Educational Diagnostician Track: Gain in-depth training on assessing and diagnosing learning and developmental disabilities in students.  

Accredited by the prestigious Council for the Accreditation of Education Preparation (CAEP), our online programs will help you become a more well-rounded educator, capable of reaching a broader range of students as a classroom teacher or special education professional. Apply now to one of our online MA in special education programs for the chance to help all your students, disabled or non-disabled, achieve their highest potential.