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Quick Facts on Specific Learning Disorder

A brief overview of the signs and symptoms of specific learning disorder, and how to help

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A specific learning disorder is a condition that affects a child’s ability to acquire and apply reading, writing, and math skills. Children with learning disorders are not able to acquire academic skills expected for their age, intellectual ability, and education. They may struggle with decoding words, understanding the meaning of what is read, spelling, expressing themselves in writing, doing calculations, and mastering mathematical reasoning.

Specific learning disorder is a relatively new classification that groups together reading-related (dyslexia) and math-related (dyscalculia) disorders under a single umbrella. When a child is diagnosed with specific learning disorder, the particular areas of impairment are described as part of the diagnosis.

Reading-related symptoms:

  • Difficulty rhyming, associating sounds with symbols, sequencing and ordering sounds, and trouble identifying and comprehending signs or logos in the environment
  • Late talking and persistent trouble with word retrieval
  • Difficulty following simple or complex directions
  • Difficulty with little words: Omits or reads twice little words like the, and, but, in
  • Difficulty sounding out unfamiliar words, and confusion with patterns

Math-related symptoms:

  • Trouble with calculation
  • Difficulty with math reasoning-solving problems
  • Confusing basic symbols such as “+” and “-“
  • Making simple computational errors-being off by a single digit or the place value might be incorrect.


There are several kinds of evaluations that examine how a child processes information, including educational evaluations (which assess reading, writing, math, and spelling ability) and neuropsychological evaluations (which develop a wide profile of a child’s skills and abilities in reasoning, learning, memory, visual and auditory processing, listening comprehension, verbal expression, executive functioning skills, and academic abilities).

If a student is suspected of having a learning disorder, the school is legally required to provide an evaluation according to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). You can also get a private evaluation from outside the school.


While there is no cure for specific learning disorder, there are many ways to improve reading, writing, and math skills for a child. Treatment usually includes both strengthening the skills and developing a learning strategy tailored to take advantage of a child’s strengths. For example, repetition and mnemonic devices might make it easier to memorize a math formula, and drawing a picture to illustrate a word problem might help a child visualize what is being asked.

Treatment for specific learning disorder often also involves multimodal teaching. If a child has trouble comprehending a subject with his or her eyes and ears alone, other senses such as touch, taste, and even smell can play a role in the learning process. Similarly, learning to convert one sort of problem into another format may help (e.g. changing a traditional math problem into a word problem).

A learning specialist can help determine the services or accommodations a child might benefit from at school. Psychotherapy, cognitive behavior therapy in particular, may also be helpful in treating the emotional and behavioral problems that can accompany specific learning disorder.

This article was last reviewed or updated on October 30, 2023.