ERIC Identifier: ED321156
Publication Date: 1990-00-00
Author: Lowry, Cheryl Meredith
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse
on Adult Career and Vocational Education Columbus OH.
Teaching Adults with Learning Disabilities. ERIC Digest No. 99.
Adult educators concur that youngsters with learning disabilities (LD) do not
simply outgrow them. They become adults with LD, and many of them participate in
adult education programs. This ERIC DIGEST discusses the number of adult
learners with LD, identifies relevant issues, describes intervention strategies,
and suggests specific techniques that adult educators can use with their LD
The number of adults with LD in adult education
is not easy to estimate because extrapolating from the number of school children
receiving LD services (4.84 percent in 1987-88) may result in a fair estimate of
learning disabled adults in the population but not of those in adult education.
Adults with LD may comprise as many as 80 percent of the students in adult
basic education programs (Ross 1987), but a smaller percentage of students in
other adult education settings, such as corporate training programs and
continuing education, are estimated to have LD (Ross-Gordon 1989).
Teachers may observe the following characteristics in adult learners who have
LD (HEATH Resource Center 1989):
1. Pronounced difficulty with reading, writing, spelling, and number
concepts, although other skills are average to superior
2. Poorly formed handwriting that may be printing instead of script and that
may have uneven spacing between words
3. Difficulty in listening to a lecture and taking notes at the same time
4. Severe difficulty in sticking to simple schedules, repeatedly forgetting
things and losing things
5. Confusion about up and down and right and left
6. Excessive anxiety, anger, or depression because of frustration when coping
with social situations
7. Misinterpretation of the subtleties in language, tone of voice, or social
Nonetheless, Ross-Gordon (1989) points out that many adults with LD exhibit
strengths that enable them to compensate for their disabilities and to perform
successfully even without supportive services.
Among the most serious issues concerning adults with
LD are the lack of an agreed-upon definition of LD and the scarcity of competent
assessment tools to identify adults who have them.
Since the term learning disability was first
used in 1963 (Ross 1987), most definitions of LD have been developed to describe
children in academic contexts, rather than to describe adults in a variety of
work and personal life settings. That is true even of the definition of learning
disability most often cited, which was accepted for the Education of All
Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (Ross-Gordon 1989).
A definition that does stress the lifelong impact of LD and its potential
effects on multiple aspects of a person's life was approved by the Association
for Children and Adults with LD in 1986. It defines specific LD as a chronic
condition of presumed neurological origin, which selectively interferes with the
development, integration, and/or demonstration of verbal and nonverbal
Specific LD, the definition says, exists as a distinct handicapping condition
and varies in its manifestations and in degrees of severity. The definition
states that the condition can affect self-esteem, education, vocation,
socialization, and daily living activities ("ACLD Description" 1986).
As that definition reflects, the theories of LD that have prevailed assume
that individuals with LD have difficulty learning because of some difference in
information processing (Ross-Gordon 1989). That difference is assumed to have a
neurological basis. Recent brain research has substantiated the
neuropsychological theory of LD, even though the neurological basis of
individual LDs cannot be verified by current assessment procedures (ibid.).
When thinking about the assessment of adults
with LD, Ross-Gordon (1989) suggests, adult educators should be aware of the
scarcity of diagnostic tools appropriate for adults, the importance of enlisting
the adults' assistance in the assessment process, and the fact that assessment
is useful only to the extent that it helps adults live more fully.
She recommends that testing be used only as part (and perhaps not the most
important part) of a comprehensive assessment process. The assessment process is
more beneficial when the adult contributes information about personal goals and
learning strengths and weaknesses. Not only is the information itself important,
but shifting the process from testing to discovery and problem solving increases
the adult's involvement and can decrease the negative aspects of testing
Using assessment instruments to find out whether an adult student has LD has
limited value if the information gleaned cannot be acted upon by, for instance,
arranging instruction to help the student learn or making him or her eligible
for resources or services. That is, the advantages of having identified an LD
student must be weighed against the negative effects of testing and labeling.
Ross (1987) encourages adult educators to ask themselves how they can use more
sophisticated educational practice to meet the needs of learners without
Ross-Gordon (1989) categorizes
intervention strategies for adults with LD according to their goals:
1. Basic skills remediation, the model often used in adult basic education
2. Subject-area tutoring, such as preparation for the General Educational
3. Compensatory modification that involves changing the environment or the
conditions under which learning takes place or helping the adult develop
alternative means of accomplishing a goal
4. Cognitive or learning strategies training (learning to learn)
5. Instruction in survival skills
6. Vocational exploration and training
Because no single approach has been demonstrated as ideal, designers of
programs often combine two or more approaches (Ross 1987). Teachers can make the
most of a student's own pattern of learning strengths and weaknesses by
combining skill building, compensatory techniques, and learning strategies.
As with intervention strategies, no
single set of teaching techniques is likely to meet the needs of all adults with
LD. The following techniques have been suggested (Clearinghouse on Adult
Education and Literacy 1989; Ross 1987, 1988; Ross-Gordon 1989).
1. Assess individuals' learning styles and
teach to the stronger modality or style
2. Use multisensory techniques when teaching groups
3. Create opportunities for concrete and experiential learning as well as for
abstract and reflective learning
4. Make abstract concepts more concrete by having students handle materials,
relating new information to everyday life, and demonstrating tasks
5. Teach new concepts concretely because it is often easier for LD students
to learn the theory after learning its practical applications
1. Talk to students about what
techniques work best
2. Use language experience approaches and materials from their home and work
3. Build on students' strengths
4. Give frequent, positive, and explicit feedback
5. Help students recognize success
1. Teach transferable strategies such
as listening, paraphrasing, SQ3R (survey, question, read, recite, review), error
monitoring, note-taking methods, sentence combining, and paragraph organizing
2. Teach memory techniques such as chunking and mnemonics
3. Discuss the situations in which the strategies will be useful and discuss
which strategies will be useful across situations
1. Teach techniques such as tape recording and
word processing, use computer-assisted instruction, and develop aids students
can carry with them (such as a list of number words they will need to write
2. Encourage students to obtain note-takers, readers, tutors, and recorded
1. Help students identify organizational
2. Make clear transitions from one topic or task to another
3. Use color coding whenever possible
4. Break lessons into manageable parts
5. Help students set realistic goals
6. Make directions specific, concrete, and understandable
7. Make changes in the schedule, assignments, or examinations orally and in
8. As a check for accuracy, have the student repeat verbally what has been
This ERIC Digest is based on the following
Ross-Gordon, Jovita M. "Adults with Learning Disabilities: an Overview for
the Adult Educator." Information Series no. 337. Columbus: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Adult, Career, and Vocational Education, Center on Education and Training for
Employment, The Ohio State University, 1989. (ERIC No. ED 315 664).
"ACLD Description: Specific Learning Disabilities." ACLD Newsbriefs,
Clearinghouse on Adult Education and Literacy. "Instructional Strategies for
Adults with Learning Disabilities." Washington, DC: Division of Adult Education
and Literacy, U.S. Department of Education, 1989.
HEATH Resource Center. "Resources for Adults with Learning Disabilities.
Washington, DC: American Council on Education, 1989. (ERIC No. ED 311 671).
Ross, Jovita Martin. "Learning and Coping Strategies of Learning Disabled ABE
Students." Adult Literacy and Basic Education 12, no. 2 (1988): 78-90. (ERIC No.
EJ 403 358).
Ross, Jovita Martin. "Learning Disabled Adults: Who Are They and What Do We
Do with Them?" Lifelong Learning 11, no. 3 (1987): 4-7, 11. (ERIC No. EJ 361