Children's Voice Mar/Apr 2008

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Exceptional Children
Navigating Learning Disabilities and Special Education

Learning Styles Versus Learning Disabilities

By Sheldon Horowitz

Truth be told, learning disabilities (LD) are not easily explained. Individuals with LD can have significant challenges in more than one area of skill development and performance, and because learning doesn't take place in a vacuum, social-emotional and behavioral issues often mask or exacerbate the effects of LD.

As individuals are exposed to new information and experiences and build strategies to work around their areas of struggle, the effects of their learning disabilities can change, for better or worse. Add a person's overall personality, motivation, and opportunities to the mix, and it is clear LD cannot be easily captured in a simple explanation. LD affects everyone differently. Hence, the appeal of talking about learning styles in the same breath.

Not Everyone with a Preferred Style of Learning Has LD

Look at the children and adults with whom you have regular contact. Think about how they appear to organize themselves for learning and whether they accomplish tasks with ease or difficulty.
  • Linda is a phone person. She is terrific at remembering people's names and has a knack for keeping calendar dates, appointments, and callback numbers in her head.

  • Sam dislikes talking on the phone and struggles to retrieve people's names, but he never forgets a face and writes everything down, typically remembering details without referring to notes.

  • Erin is annoyed by long explanations, has little interest in reading, and is a hands-on person, preferring to ask for information as needed and getting the job done without sharing thoughts, pausing for reflection, or asking for feedback.
Do any of these individuals have LD? Maybe.

Determining whether a person has a learning disability involves formal assessment and careful documentation, including investigating prior school experience, responses to instruction, skill mastery, information processing strengths and weaknesses, motivation, and more. Information about learning styles can, however, be very helpful in orchestrating opportunities for success in school, at work, and in the community.

Learning Styles Explained

Too many theories about unique learning styles exist to summarize here, but they almost always share the same core principle: Individuals respond to and use different types of information and approaches when engaged in learning. The most common terms that describe these language styles, along with their underlying assumptions and characteristics, are:
  • Auditory (linguistic). Spoken language is a preferred way of absorbing and responding to information.

  • Visual (spatial). The individual needs visual information, such as printed words, maps, charts, and environmental cues, for ease of learning.

  • Kinesthetic. Engaging in hands-on activity and getting feedback from physical sensations are important and helpful in facilitating learning and demonstrating skills mastery.
Review the National Center for Learning Disabilities' fact sheets on auditory processing, visual processing, executive function, and information processing disorders (available free at or for information about how features of these learning styles map onto specific learning disabilities.

Self-Knowledge of Learning Styles Can Lead to Success

Knowing how an individual learns best, in different subject areas and given different performance demands, can be helpful.
  • Students can (and should!) speak with teachers about the features of instruction that work best for them, and request classroom practices be adjusted to enable their success.

  • Parents can support school efforts and provide types of practice, structure, and support at home that reflect preferred learning styles and lead to greater independence and school success. Discuss learning style preferences during teacher conferences and IEP meetings.

  • Educators can tailor and modify instruction to ensure the needs of students with highly stylized learning preferences are met, in addition to providing services and supports that address the challenges posed by specific learning disabilities.
Sheldon Horowitz EdD is Director of Professional Services at the National Center for Learning Disabilities, New York, New York. NCLD provides essential information to parents, professionals, and individuals with LD; promotes research and programs to foster effective learning; and advocates for policies that protect and strengthen education rights and opportunities. This article was adapted from a Research Roundup column in LD News, September 2007. Visit for more information about LD and resources for families, educators, and more. For permission to reproduce this article, or to contact Dr. Horowitz, e-mail © 2004, 2005, 2007 National Center for Learning Disabilities. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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