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Learning Disabilities

What is Nonverbal Learning Disability?

The nonverbal learning disability syndrome was first identified in the early 1970s. It is quite different from what we usually think of as a “learning disability.” Children with this problem may have difficulty when first learning to read but then master the basics of reading quite well. They may even do well overall in school while in the elementary grades, but then begin to have more trouble in junior and senior high school, as subjects become more complicated or abstract. Often these children just seem to have more trouble getting along in life than others their age. While every child is different, common characteristics of nonverbal learning disability include the following:

  • Clumsiness or poor coordination
  • Difficulty with visual-spatial organizational tasks
  • Difficulty recognizing faces which should be familiar
  • Poor handwriting
  • Difficulty with math
  • A poor sense of direction
  • Trouble finishing homework assignments in the allotted time
  • Tendency to make inappropriate social comments
  • Difficulty relating in an age-appropriate manner to other children
  • Incessant talking
  • An aversion to anything novel
  • Difficulty seeing the “big picture.”

Nonverbal learning disability involves three general categories of difficulty:

  • Motor – lack of coordination, balance problems, difficulty with writing or drawing
  • Visual-spatial and organizational skills – poor ability to visualize things, poor visual recall, faulty spatial perceptions and/or difficulties with spatial relations
  • Social – poor ability to comprehend nonverbal communication, or trouble “reading people”; difficulty adjusting to transitions and novel situations; poor social judgment and difficulties with age-appropriate social interaction.

A child identified with nonverbal learning disability may be puzzled or mystified by much of life and can be predisposed to:

  • Depression
  • Withdrawal
  • Panic attacks
  • Anxiety
  • Obsessive-compulsive behaviors.

Attention problems frequently co-exist with this syndrome.

What can be done to help these children?

  • Academic assistance and accommodations in the classroom
  • Social skills training to improve social interaction and self-esteem
  • Occupational therapy to improve perceptual-motor skills
  • Psychological support or counseling to address emotional issues

Information for Parents About Reading Development and Reading Difficulties

Individual assessment is important to determine each child’s specific type or combination of reading problems.

1. The first “basic” ability is phonological awareness (“the conscious awareness that words are composed of separate sounds and the ability to identify and manipulate those sounds” – Hall & Moats, 1998, p. 321).

For more information, see Partnership for Reading
Early rhyming and language games can help young children to establish phonemic awareness, e.g., W. Blevins Phonemic Awareness Songs & Rhymes and Phonemic Awareness Activities (Scholastic Trade Books, 1999). Tested remedial approaches are Lindamood-Bell LIPS at or (800) 233-1819; Sounds Abound or Phono-graphix (available as a book called Reading Reflex. See M. J. Adams’ Phonemic Awareness in Young Children (1997, Paul Brookes), or S. Hall & L. Moats’ Straight Talk about Reading (Contemporary, 1998) for more.

2. Phonemic decoding comes next (the ability to associate word-sounds
with printed letters or letter-groups).

A program that parents can use to help reinforce these skills is N. Traub, “Recipe for Reading” (Educators Publishing, 2000). Reading specialists use a variety of phonics-based methods such as the Lindamood, Orton-Gillingham, or Wilson programs. Software for home and school use includes Earobics (, SoundReading (, Great Leaps (, and Reading SOS ( Reader Rabbit and Jumpstart Phonics can be fun for practice.

3. Some children master phonemic decoding, but remain very slow at Rapid Naming (quickly “calling to mind” the sound, or word, that corresponds to a picture or printed text). They are accurate but very slow readers. Some also have word-finding problems in conversation (cannot “call to mind” a precise word to express their thought).

See Dyslexia, Fluency and the Brain (2001) edited by M. Wolf (York Press), or the article by Wolf, M., Miller, L., & Donnelly, K. (2000) Journal of Learning Disabilities, 33(4), 375-386. Fluency problems require specific reading remediation strategies. For example, a computer program called RAVE-O is being developed by Dr. Wolf at Tufts University to treat this type of problem.

4. Once basic reading/decoding skills are established, “emergence in literature” or “meaning-based approaches” also are very important. However, research has shown that “whole language” or “reading recovery” approaches, which avoid or de-emphasize phonics instruction, are not an effective way to teach basic reading skills.

5. Training of the instructor is as important as the program or “curriculum.” Most good, experienced reading teachers use a “balanced” or “flexible” approach that includes both phonics instruction and meaning-based strategies. Intensity of practice also is important; an hour a week may be useless; an hour a day may be necessary (in short segments for younger kids).

6. Read to children and encourage them to “read along” with you or with a tape. The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease recommends good “read-alouds” for all age levels. Provide a model – having parents and older siblings set aside a time to read to themselves, no matter what the content (comics, sports magazines, novels, etc.), is very important. Have books and magazines around the house. Give kids a bookshelf of their own, a reading light over their bed or chair, and a bookshelf or rack in the bathroom. Visit the library often.

7. For children who are diagnosed with dyslexia, the National Library System Talking Books (books on tape) may be helpful. Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic records books including textbooks. Both of these resources are free to qualified applicants.

1.) For parents and teachers, excellent information about reading disability is available on the web at LD Association of Minnesota and International Dyslexia Association and in two recommended books, Susan Hall, Louisa Moats, & Reid Lyon, Straight Talk about Reading (Contemporary, 1998); and Starting Out Right: A guide to promoting children’s reading success, by the National Reading Council (1998, National Academy Press).

2.) For a comprehensive, technical review of research on early reading skills and remediation, see Marilyn Jager Adams, Beginning to Read (MIT Press, 1990). A shorter but fairly comprehensive review of scientific research on reading instruction is available in the journal, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, November 2001, Vol. 2, No. 2, “How psychological science informs the teaching of reading.”

3.) For children who have already developed solid phonemic awareness and phonological decoding skills, some strategies for reinforcing reading comprehension are suggested in: Katherine Maria, Reading Comprehension Instruction: Issues and Strategies (York, 1990), & Lynn Rhodes & Nancy Shanklin, Windows into Literacy (Heinemann Press, 1993).

4.) For children who have mastered reading but still cannot spell, consult L. Moats’ (1987) Spelling: Development, Disabilities, and Instruction. Susan Setley’s book, Taming the Dragons: Real Help for Real School Problems, has lots of great spelling tricks (Hawthorne Educational Services, 1-800-542-1673).

5.) Inclusion Resources: Methods for educating students with dyslexia in the regular classroom setting are described in books such as Susan Weinbrenner, “Teaching Kids With Learning Disabilities in the Regular Classroom. (Browse the library or books for additional resources on “inclusion and learning disabilities”).

Adapted from and thanks to
Karen E. Wills, Ph.D., LP, ABPP
Pediatric Neuropsychology
Department of Psychology
Children’s Hospitals and Clinics
2525 Chicago Avenue South (mailcode 17-301)
Minneapolis, MN 55404
(612) 813-6344