Rhetoric and Composition
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Marginalized Learners: The Details of Learning Disabilities and One Student's Story

Marginalized Learners: The Details of Learning Disabilities and One Student's Story

by Sara Femenella

2.9 million students are currently receiving special education services for learning disabilities in the US, with the majority focused on reading. 27% of children with learning disabilities drop out of high school. Of full-time college freshman with disabilities, 40% are identified as having learning disabilities. 13% percent of students with LD have attended a 4 year post- secondary school program, in comparison to 53% of students in the general population.[1]

LettersRecently Oberlin College faculty voted on an amendment to the credit/no entry policy. Under this new policy, students can still chose to take classes pass/no pass, with a C being the cut off point for passing, but now a failed class will appear on a student’s transcript, and students can receive grades D and F. Perhaps the students most negatively affected by these new changes are students with learning disabilities. The now disbanded credit/no entry system allowed students to experiment with classes even thought they knew that the material to be covered was not necessarily one of their stronger abilities. They could try out a class with the confidence that if they failed it would not harm their GPA or appear on their transcript. While the policy was amended because some faculty felt that students were not being held accountable for failures, the ramifications are quite different for students whose failures are beyond their control, and the penalty is much more severe. Learning disabilities present a wide range of hindrances on a students learning, and they can take a great variety of forms. Ignoring the specific needs of students with LD can further serve to marginalize members of the academic community who are already struggling with certain issues.

There is a multitude of different obstacles students experience falling under the rubric of Learning Disabilities. Oberlin College defines Learning Disabilities as, “any of a diverse group of conditions that causes difficulties in perception, either auditory, visual, and/or spatial. Of presumed neurological origin, it covers disorders that impair such functions as reading (dyslexia), writing, (dysgraphia) and mathematical calculations (dyscalcula). They vary widely within each category in the patterns they exhibit.”[2] Yet this definition does not provide sufficient information. The National Institute of Mental Health classifies LD as “a disorder that affects people’s ability to either interpret what they see and hear or to link information from different parts of the brain.” According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, there are three broad categories of LD, which includes developmental speech and language disorders, academic skills disorders, and an “other” category, for “specific developmental skills not otherwise specified” Each of these then incorporates more particular disorders.[3]

Developmental speech and language disorders can be the easiest of learning disabilities to diagnose, since this disability is often apparent when a child is first learning to talk, and can affect how easily the child produces common speech sounds, communicates with spoken language, or understands when other’s speak to them. Children with developmental articulation disorder, a relatively common disorder that appears in at least 10 percent of children younger than 8, “may have trouble controlling their rate of speech. Or they may lag behind playmates in learning to make speech sounds… Fortunately, articulation disorders can often be outgrown or successfully treated with speech therapy.”[4] Developmental Expressive Language disorders are characterized by an abnormal ability of spoken expression. This can take several forms, such as calling something by an incorrect name, or a markedly slow rate in developing the capacity to speak in complete sentences or to answer a simple question. The final sub-category under speech and language disorders is developmental receptive language disorder, which focuses on spoken language where the difficulties come from processing phonological sounds. An expressive language disorder often appears alongside a receptive language disorder because of the significance phonological understanding has on the ability to speak a language.

Academic skills disorders incorporate the developmental disorders that Oberlin College acknowledges, and these include developmental reading, writing, and mathematical disorders. Dyslexia is one of the most common learning disabilities, affecting 2 to 8 percent of school age children, and its main feature is “an inability to distinguish or separate the sounds in spoken words.”[5] Dyslexic students have difficulties identifying new words and often must rely on context in order to understand a word. Dyslexia often overlaps into developmental writing disorders or dysgraphia, where the student’s ability to express an idea in written form is inhibited in someway. This can range from motor-skills that greatly hinder hand-writing, to the ability to utilize grammar rules so that the student in unable to compose grammatically correct sentence. Dyscalcula, or developmental mathematic disorder, is any problem relating to recognizing numbers to understanding concepts such as multiplication or probability, or problems with reasoning.

Learning disabilities that do not fit inside a noted category are simply referred to “other” learning disabilities. These can include certain memory or motor skills disorders. And although ADHD is not typified as being a learning disability, it can interfere in such a way that a student’s learning is seriously compromised, either because of inability to pay attention to a text or in class, or a difficulty organizing or completing assignments.

Although it is frequent for some students to have a combination of learning disorders, it is essential to keep in mind that a learning disability only affects a targeted area of learning. A student with LD is just as capable of learning as one without; however, the learning must be more specialized for the specific needs of the student to be addressed. Learning disabilities are diagnosed when a student’s capabilities and their performance level do not line up correctly. Often this is measured by I.Q. scores and scores on aptitude tests. If there is a twenty percent discrepancy between the two scores, the student is identified as learning disabled. Often students with LD are often of above or well above average intelligence.

BookHowever, for students with LD, making it to a four year college as competitive as Oberlin is a feat in and of itself. Unlike some other disabilities, LD is a handicap that is not immediately apparent, and can often go undiagnosed for years. The untreated disorder can make school difficult to impossible, many students experience self-confidence problems, and many end up dropping out of school. Success in education depends on a student’s access to a learning environment receptive to his or her needs and resources such as personal tutors who concentrate in working with LD. For a student with LD, success can often be determined by the student’s socio-economic class, where a private school can devote more time to give specialized help or with the money to pay for assistive computer technology or a personal tutor.

At the college level the need for assisting students with LD is just as important. These students require individual attention, such as time extensions on papers and exams, note-takers in their classes, tape recordings of books or lectures, and tutors. Professors and tutors also must be sensitive to the requests of students with LD, and must be prepared to help the students with the information covered. Because of the range of students in their abilities to process information, professors and tutors have to flexible and willing to repeat information or rephrase it in a new way. The more resources students have available to them, and the more sympathetic their professors are, the greater the likelihood is of the students’ academic success.

The resources that Oberlin has for helping students with LD are fairly limited. There are no learning disability specialists on staff, nor are there courses offered specifically for students with LD. The office of Student Academic Services offer note-takers to accompany students to class, the opportunity for extensions on papers and the removal to a time-limit on quizzes and exams, and peer tutors. It is a program designed to accommodate students with LD, but not to help them overcome their issues. And with things such as the new amendment on the credit/no entry system, it is clear that Oberlin is not even doing all it can to accommodate these students.

This semester I tutored an Oberlin student who, at the age of nine, was diagnosed as having a specific learning disability in the areas of reading, writing and spelling mechanics. For the sake of privacy, I will refer to this student as Eli. Prior to entering fourth grade, Eli attended a private school, where he received a more personal education and performed well. However, when he switched to a public school in the fourth grade, he began to quickly fall behind the other students and it was not long before the school psychologist diagnosed him as being learning disabled. After diagnosing LD, an Individualized Education Program (IEP) is often drafted, which is a document outlining the specifics of the learning disability and highlights the strengths of the student and the skill that need to be developed. Eli’s IEP says that:

Test results revealed that [Eli’s] academic achievement in the areas of Reading Comprehension, Math Reasoning, Math Calculation and Spontaneous Writing falls in the above average and well above average ranges… [His] scores in the areas of Basic Reading (word identification) and Spelling fall in the below average range… Although his comprehension is good his reading is likely to be somewhat slow and labored due to problems with word attack skills and reading fluency. His difficulty with writing mechanics may adversely affect his performance in the following areas: note-taking, test-taking, completion of class assignments (including homework, research papers and other projects which require writing).

Eli’s LD targets areas of spelling and reading, having to do decoding words out of context and recognized unfamiliar words, especially with certain letter combinations such as dr, gr, gl, wh, ay and ed, to name a few. Eli identifies the problem in himself as one of spelling. “I’ll never have higher than a fourth grade spelling level,” he says. “There are some words that I’ll never learn how to spell, or that I can’t recognize because I can’t see how they’re spelled.” I have noticed in our own work together that Eli also has difficulties with subject-verb agreement, and using correct suffixes.

BooksTo overcome and work with his LD, Eli has worked with private specialized tutors all his life. In order to compensate for his reading difficulties, Eli has mastered the rules of English grammar, and the first thing that he does when he begins reading a sentence is to find the subject, the verb and the direct object. Next he targets the adjectives and begins to reconstruct the sentence in his mind in such a way that he can understand it. Obviously, the longer the sentence, the more time consuming the task, and often one sentence will drive him to the dictionary four times. He expresses frustration with how slow this process often is and says, “All my life I knew that I had to work harder than everyone else. I had to work extra out of class and every assignment always takes me three times as long.” He has learned to utilize computer resources, such as programs that are able to scan a text-book and read it aloud to him, to help him with reading, as well as spell-checker for writing, but these are not always sufficient.

Eli came to Oberlin this year after transferring out of Wabash College. He has been disappointed with the resources that Oberlin has to offer. At Wabash there was an office dedicated to students with learning disabilities, and they were able to provide him with a special computer that is capable of operating the scan and read program, as well as a professional tutor. He was enrolled in a remedial reading and writing class. At Oberlin he has found it more problematical to acquire the help that he needs. He had to buy his own computer, although he was supplied with the software. He says he understands the philosophy behind the peer-tutoring program, but he feels that students like him would be better served by working with someone better trained. As he said to me, “I think you are a fabulous person, but the help you can offer me is limited. You can’t help to teach me to acquire new skills, and you don’t have the training to help me strengthen the skills that need work.” The work that Eli and I do together is primarily focused on proofreading, and I have felt frustrated at times when we cannot move beyond that.

Through working with Eli, I have also seen that not all Oberlin professors are willing to take the time to help him, and that his needs, and the needs of students like him, are not always accounted for. In the SAS pamphlet for professors working with students with LD it says, “In dealing with abstract concepts, paraphrase them in specific terms and illustrate them with concrete examples, personal experiences, hands-on models, and such visual instruction as charts and graphs,” and to “avoid overly complicated language in examination questions.” However, this semester Eli was assigned a two page essay, and the topic was as follows: “Although the Iliad is often viewed as a celebration on Homeric values, Homer’s vision of mature, fully-evolved, manhood is actually a critique of those values. Discuss.” Eli had particular problems with this essay question. Attempting to take it apart grammatically, he found himself struggling to find the antecedent of those (as in “those values”), and could not see the link between the main clause and the subordinate clause. He also had issues with the definitions of “fully-evolved” and “mature.” When he went to his professor to try and get the question explained, he was told that, “It’s only a two page essay. Go to the Writing Center.” Eli and I worked for over a week on this essay, drafting the best way to approach the question, and again and again I tried explaining to him what I felt the question was asking him to do. And although he did eventually write an essay he was pleased with, and receive a B on it, his professors said that he hadn’t fully addressed the essay topic and “to please do so next time around.” It is situations like these make higher-education more challenging for a student with LD, and these situations can be easily avoided.

When I asked Eli what the toughest part was about having LD, he told me, “The hardest thing is that I know I’m not at my true potential. I can learn so much, but by the simple fact that I can’t read well, I can’t take in the world around me. My spelling is limited, so when I write, even though I have these big, great ideas, I can’t express them.” When you look at the hurdles he has had to overcome to make it to where he is today, his success seems inspiring, but his struggles are not going to go away. His IEP says that, “These factors have not adversely affected [Eli’s] ability to learn and achieve in school.” But he knows that in order to achieve with LD, he needs extra help, and that many of the ways other students learn simply will not work for him.

Tutoring Eli all semester has forced me to really examine how much I have access to that I take for granted. Before working with him I felt that students with LD who have made it to the college level know what it takes for them to learn and be successful. But I’ve realized that this knowing what you need is not enough, because the college curriculum and high standards are designed in a very narrow fashion and serves students with particular abilities. And especially at Oberlin, where there are writing and mathematical requirements to be met, the curriculum is not designed to be flexible for student with disabilities in a given area. As Jennifer Wewers says in her essay on tutoring students with dyslexia, “…for dyslexics, the writing process may actually present itself as ‘not natural.’ I imagine that the teaching of rigid and strict notions of academic discourse that most students encounter throughout their educational careers, would only add to the feeling of dyslexic students that writing is an alienating activity.” She goes on to say that as writing tutors “we should understand the need for special care in working with this category of writers.”[6] As a peer tutor, I had no training when I first sat down with Eli, and even though he knows exactly what he needs from a tutor, I simply cannot provide him with all the help a specialized tutor could, because the knowledge isn’t there. However, with creativity, patience, and flexibility, we do manage to work well together.

For peer-tutors working with students with LD, it is essential to keep certain things in mind. One is that the disorder of every student is different, even if it may fall under a heading of disabilities; the idiosyncrasies of each disorder present an infinite number of combinations of strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, the needs of every student are different. To this Wewers says, “Certain assumptions about how we expect a tutoring session to be conducted may need to be revised… The danger does not lie in tutors’ having a general approach to conducting sessions, but in how the tutors use those general approaches as a foundation.”[7] Another major point that Wewers mentions, and one that I want to stress, is that a student with LD may have self-confidence problems or feel inadequate in the area their LD targets, and thus it is key that a tutor listens to the student and is responsive, patient and willing to work slow and try different tactics and approaches, but avoids being patronizing or condescending at all costs. A student with LD has an original mind, and has the ability to make connections that may not initially appear logical first. These students provide invaluable additional voices to the classroom, and if an academy is willing to go the extra step to grant the students with the help and resources they need to overcome their disorders, everyone will profit.


[1] “LD Fast Facts,” About LD, National Institute for Learning Disabilities, 1999-2002.

[2] “Teaching the Learning Disabled Student,” A Guide To Teaching College Students With Disabilities, Oberlin College Student Academic Services.

[3] Sharon Neuwirth, Learning Disabilities, The National Institute of Mental Health, June 1, 1999.

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Jennifer Wewers, “Writing Tutors and Dyslexic Tutees: Is There Something Special We Should Know?”, Working With Student Writers, ed. Leonard A. Podis and JoAnne M. Podis (New York: Peter Lang. 1999) 232.

[7] Wewers, 233