Academic Skills Disorders

Students with academic skills disorders often lag far behind their classmates in developing reading, writing, or arithmetic skills. The diagnoses in this category include:

• developmental reading disorder

• developmental writing disorder

• developmental arithmetic disorder

Developmental reading disorder (also known as dyslexia) is quite widespread, affecting between 2 percent and 8 percent of elementary school children. The ability to read requires a rich, intact network of nerve cells that connect the brain's centers of vision, language, and memory. While a child can have problems in any of the tasks involved in reading, scientists have found that a significant number of children with dyslexia share an inability to distinguish or separate the sounds in spoken words. For example, a child might not be able to identify the word "cat" by sounding out the individual letters, c-a-t, or to play rhyming games. Fortunately, remedial reading specialists have developed techniques that can help many children with dyslexia acquire these skills. However, there is more to reading than recognizing words. If the brain cannot form images or relate new ideas to those stored in memory, the reader will not be able to understand or remember the new concepts. This is why other types of reading disabilities can appear in the upper grades when the focus of reading shifts from word identification to comprehension.

Writing, too, involves several brain areas and functions. The brain networks for vocabulary, grammar, hand movement, and memory must all work well if the child is to be able to write well. A developmental writing disorder may be caused by problems in any of these areas. A child with a writing disability, particularly an expressive language disorder, might be unable to compose complete, grammatical sentences.

Arithmetic involves recognizing numbers and symbols, memorizing facts such as the multiplication table, aligning numbers, and understanding abstract concepts like place value and fractions. Any of these may be difficult for children with developmental arithmetic disorders. Problems with numbers or basic concepts are likely to show up early, whereas problems that appear in the later grades are more often tied to problems in reasoning.

Many aspects of speaking, listening, reading, writing, and arithmetic overlap and build on the same brain capabilities, so it is not surprising that people can be diagnosed as having more than one area of learning disability. For example, the ability to understand language underlies the ability to learn to speak. Therefore, any disorder that interferes with the ability to understand language will also interfere with the development of speech, which in turn hinders learning to read and write. A single problem in the brain's operation can disrupt many types of activity.

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