Adult Learning Disorders

Author: David Martz

Pierre is very intelligent student, but he can’t earn a passing grade at Bible college because of poor reading and writing skills. He complains that letters begin to swirl after reading only a few minutes. Kim wants to become a Bible translator, but she has trouble concentrating and often daydreams instead of paying attention to lectures.

While these conditions seem to represent a lack of self-discipline or motivation, they are characteristic of well-documented learning disorders (LD) that inhibit or interfere with normal learning. Adult students with LD may be afraid of entering Bible college because of visual, speech, hearing, writing, or mathematical processing disorders. The Mental Health Net (1997) mentions that as many as 15% of American students may be classified as Dyslectic.

What is LD?

The National Institute of Health, (1997, p. 4) describes LD as “a disorder that affects people’s ability to either interpret what they see (visually) and hear (audibly), or to link information from different parts of the brain.” Jordan (1996, p.12) mentions that LD affects people of normal or above intelligence and is caused by physical differences in right or midbrain brain structures, genetic backgrounds, and body chemistry. The term dyslexia is often used as a synonym and is defined by the World Federation of Neurology as “a disorder manifested by difficulty in learning to read despite conventional instruction, adequate intelligence, and socio- cultural opportunity.”

Categories of LD

The National Institute of Mental Health divides LD into three categories: (a) developmental speech and language disorders, (b) academic skills disorders that include reading, writing, and arithmetic difficulties that are often referred to as dyslexia, and (c) “other” which includes attention deficit disorders (ADD) that are either hyper or hypoactive in nature. Many theorists and practitioners believe strongly that ADD is a separate category because of the unique physical-neurological characteristics of ADD and specific methods of treatment. When categorizing LD, it is important to distinguish between learning disabilities, difficulties, differences, and late development according to Jordan (pp. 10,11). Although LD is primarily a neurological problem, factors such as stress, trauma, disease, toxins, genetics, socio- cultural factors, nutrition, and I.Q., can also cause or intensify LD in adults.

Symptoms of LD

Since the symptoms of LD often resemble other conditions, a suggested guideline is to determine whether the symptoms are chronic, persistent, excessive, inhibitive to learning, or behavioral in nature before suspecting a learning deficit over a learning difficulty or difference. A few general symptoms of LD and ADD are as follows:

1. Developmental speech and language disorders:

a. Afraid to read aloud
b. Stuttering
c. Difficulty understanding
d. Oral communication difficulties
e. Difficulty controlling rate of speech

2. Academic skills disorders (Dyslexia)

a. Poor writing skills
b. Difficulty differentiating separate sounds in words (b & d and p & q)
c. Word blindness (words swirl or are off center)
d. Unusually slow reading and writing
e. Written words appear on top of each other or in reversed order
f. Difficulty remembering information
g. Difficulty sequencing and organizing information
h. Difficulty processing numbers and symbols

3. Other (Attention Deficit Disorders)

a. Excessive Daydreaming
b. Hyperactivity (restlessness)
c. Hypoactivity (withdrawal, poor social skills)
d. Lacks attention to details
e. Easily distracted
f. Difficulty organizing tasks
g. Forgetful
< h. Loud or often interrupts

Facilitating the Learning of LD Students

According to a report on techniques from the National Adult Literacy and Learning Disabilities Center, adults with LD often require instructional strategies that are different from children with LD. The best techniques are based on personal consultations and assessments of individual learners with LD. Twelve successful techniques are deduced from a literature review as follows:

  1. Help adults with LD maximize their unique learning styles
  2. Give oral and written assignments and announcement’s
  3. Vary methods of instructional delivery
  4. Allow students with LD extra time for class work and evaluations
  5. Present organized and structured presentations
  6. Relate new concepts to practical application’s
  7. Use larger print and colors when possible
  8. Ask students with LD to sit in front of class
  9. Reduce anxiety in classroom
  10. Utilize positive feedback
  11. Repeat and overlap information and instructions
  12. Utilize handouts and distribute materials in advance

Helping Adults with LD

Research suggests that nutrition, medication, counseling, and learning that is structured by outline can help adults with LD compensate learning disorders. Some educators have suggested that a computer may be the most effective tool in helping adults with LD. In some countries, adult with LD are referred to neurologists, psychiatrists, and psychologists for diagnosis and treatment. Specialized tests have been developed to help diagnose LD. In cross- cultural contexts, adults with LD could be networked to local or regional LD centers and faculty members could work in collaboration with qualified specialists via E-mail (see Resources). College faculties can help adults with LD by designing curriculum, instructional delivery methods, activities, creating healthy learning environments, and assessments for adults with LD in mind. Individual faculty-student consultations, sensitivity to the needs of learners, and instructional flexibility are perhaps the most effective initial steps in helping adults with LD. A final word of encouragement, students with LD are known to be highly creative, gifted, and motivated, if given good support and a healthy learning environment.

Resources for Further Study


Gerber, P. & Reiff, H. (Eds.). (1994). Learning disabilities in adulthood: Persisting problems and evolving issues. Boston, MA: Andover Medical.

Jordan, D. R. (1996). Teaching adults with learning disabilities. Malabar, FL: Krieger.

Kravets, M. & Wax, I. (1992). The K & W guide: Colleges and the learning disabled student. New York: NY: Harper Collins.

Moran, J. J. (1997). Assessing adult learning: A guide for practitioners. Malabar, FL: Krieger.

Smith, C. (1991). For you: Adults with learning disabilities. Ottawa, Ontario: Learning Disabilities Association of Canada.

Sudderth, D. B. & Kandel, J. (1997). Adult ADD: The complete handbook. Rocklin, CA: Prima.

Institutional Resources

Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA) 4156 Library Road Pittsburgh, Pa 15234 (phone: 412-341-1515)

National Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA) P.O. Box 488 West Newbury, MA 01985 (phone: 800-687-7211)

National Center for Learning Disabilities 381 Park Avenue South, Suite 1420 New York, NY 10016 (phone: 212-687-7211)

Orton Dyslexia Society 724 York Road Baltimore, MD 21204 (phone: 800-222-3123)

Internet Contacts (annotated)

"About LDA." (1997). LDA. [On-line]. Available: style="mso-spacerun: yes"> (membership and services available)

"Dyslexia: General information." (1997). Mental Health Net. [On-line]. Available: (treatments, prognosis, and research results)

"Learning disabilities." (1997). National Institute of Mental Health. [On-line]. Available: style="mso-spacerun: yes"> (30 page article with a good reference section)

"Guidelines for working effectively with student with learning disabilities." (1997). The Australian National University. [On-line]. Available: (23 pages that outlines issues and strategies for LD students)

Root, C. (1997). "A guide to learning disabilities for the ESL classroom practitioner." TESL-EJ. [On-line]. Available: (details types of Dyslexia, classroom behaviors of LD, and good advise to instructors)

"Screening for adults with learning disabilities: The role of the practitioner in the assessment process." (1997) National Adult Literacy and Learning Disabilities Center. [On-line]. Available: (visual/hearing, auditory, and visual processing problems; psychological manifestations; academic performance)

What's Next

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