On Learning Differences

Vol. 3, No. 1 - Information on Learning Differences Online Spring/Summer 2004


In This Issue

Dyslexia: New Definitions, A New Overview and Treatments

Strategies for Teaching Reading and English Language Studies to Students With or Without Learning Disabilities

Facilitating the Adjustment to College

Overcoming a Math Deficit

Book Review

In Memorium - Dr. Richard L. Masland

Conference Information

About The Editor

Sharing Ideas

Notification of Change of Address

Permission to Copy from Visions on Learning Differences

Please see other issues

Hilda Coyne, Editor


Now that the academic year has ended, many will have the time to review the information in this issue, filled with exciting new data in the field of learning differences. Since 20% of the population has a learning difference, this data is beneficial to educators and allied professionals.

The latest research based definitions of dyslexia, overviews and treatments as described in the first article have greatly benefited professionals and students with learning differences. With the information provided in the article below, professionals will be able to understand, identify and assist students better to make significant progress in alleviating their learning differences and achieving their potential.

Next, Dr. Marcia Henry has provided a wonderful online service, free to educators, offering valuable methods and lesson plans to reading and language instructors of mainstream and learning different students.

Chris Kolb provides some helpful suggestions for assisting college students to maximize their experience, and there is a delightful presentation by a young student who had struggled for years with math deficits, and is replacing fear and failure with optimism and success.

In addition, you may welcome information on upcoming conferences. Please continue to share this newsletter with colleagues, and your interesting information, photos, and articles with the editor. Enjoy your summerr.


  by Hilda Coyne.

Recent studies at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (Lyon, 2003), Harvard Medical School (Rosen, 2003), and elsewhere (Tomey, 2003), have redefined dyslexia. These new definitions, when combined, state that dyslexia is a sensory and cognitive processing disorder, with accompanying phonological deficits, and slowed visual and auditory temporal processing of low level stimuli, that affects reading, speech, writing, and math. Alleviating these newly identified visual and auditory information processing deficits allows dyslexic individuals to absorb information better. Greater absorption tends to permit the individuals with dyslexia to comprehend more easily and retain best that which they read and learn, leading to an increase in their ability to paraphrase verbally and express ideas more effectively in writing.

The interventions, strategies and techniques discussed here alleviating these deficits are those I have developed in my practice as a learning specialist. Practical application has demonstrated the value of strengthening sensory pathways, and strengthening the visual and auditory pathways simultaneously is especially beneficial, generally allowing students to acquire a solid foundation, develop age appropriate academic skill levels, become independent learners, and reach their potential more easily than in the absence of these interventions.


Blakeslee (1991) reported that individuals with dyslexia may have difficulty processing position, shape, motion and images in low contrast colors, for instance, grey pencil on white paper, and tend to process high contrast colored, still images most easily. Pollatsek (1993) stated that individuals with learning deficits may superimpose the images as they read a sentence from left to right.

To alleviate such difficulties, these students may use colored transparencies to facilitate visual perception, and colored index cards to track reading per line. These devices tend to improve visual processing by facilitating accuracy per line, prevent line-skipping, and increase comprehension and reading speed.

I have also noted that students with difficulty perceiving material written in low contrast colors may read, take notes, highlight, and copy best using their preferred colors when they contrast highly to the background. Furthermore, flash cards for such students are most effective when the instructor or student uses markers or inks that contrast strongly with the color of the card. Another memory aid is to write each syllable or letter of a particular word in English or a foreign language in a different color.

In addition, I have found that the use of high contrast colors may strengthen the perception of students with math deficits. These students often fail to process a portion of the problem. For example, one former student confused the signs of operation, while another had difficulty processing diagonally when carrying or borrowing. Yet another found the sum of 1 1/3 + 1 1/3, when written in a vertical format, to be 2 1/3 because he was unable to process information in the lower right quadrant of his visual field. Color coding the signs of operation, or other portions of the problem which students miss or misperceive, facilitates processing for some students, as does outlining the computation in carrying, borrowing or double digit multiplication.

In addition to color-coding, to stimulate and strengthen the visual pathway, I may provide some students with manipulatives such as a colorful maze enclosed in plastic that contains a ball the students guide through the maze, or other manipulatives suitable for children or adults, as needed. These objects often have three-dimensional forms and high contrast colors, and generally have movable parts. I may also suggest easy art or craft projects having these properties, such as clay modeling, collages and simple mobiles.

After completing a number of these assignments, some students when reading reported that their visual processing cleared, first from left to right, next from the top to the bottom of the page, and then diagonally when completing math problems that include carrying or borrowing. My observation of student work corroborated those reports of improvement. In reading and writing, reversals of letters often cleared first, then superimpositions, transpositions, substitutions and omissions. Finally, line-skipping within the paragraph decreased in English and foreign language studies. Additionally, diagonal processing improved in mathematical computations.


Rosen (2003) has listed difficulties that students with auditory processing problems encountered, and Oglethorpe (1996) has described similarities in the effect of these deficits in both speech and music. In addition to standard techniques of remediation, such as multi-sensory instruction, I may recommend listening to various forms of music, for example, classical, New Age, or in some cases, the SAT words in Rap, depending on the age, interests and requirements of the student. I also may suggest interactive musical exercises, for instance, listening to Music Maestro, a game that assists students in identifying instruments by sound. Some students may sing or learn to play instruments such as keyboards by using booklets that accompany those instruments or by engaging in formal music studies. The instruments students play, however, need not be complex; they may be percussion instruments played along with tapes, records, CDs, or the radio. Alternatively or in addition to the above, clapping or dancing to the beat of the music also seems to improve auditory processing and auditory motor integration. I have observed that students who learn to recognize their mistakes in music often identify and correct their mistakes in language faster than students not engaged in these activities.

Once pathways for learning are stronger and students process information more accurately, they are able to fill in gaps in linguistic and mathematical basics, such as phonics and times tables, which had previously eluded them. To further develop their listening comprehension, I encourage older students to take notes from documentaries or other videos as such students can control the flow of information. With practice, they not only take more detailed notes in class, but generally improve their scores on auditory perception tests as well as on tests of academic subjects.


Johnson (2000) stressed the value of critical thinking and described ways it can be taught, for example, by organizing and applying data. To develop critical thinking skills, I encourage students to analyze a given subject from multiple spatial and chronological perspectives. For instance, some students analyze the elements and compositions of paintings, comparing them to others with similar subject matter. Older students study the social sciences and/or current events in relation to comparable historic situations or possible future developments. I have observed that these exercises in thinking help students process information more quickly than those who do not do them.


Relating new information to what the student learned previously is often necessary both for understanding concepts and remembering them. Levine (1990) shared helpful suggestions for improving memory in students with learning differences, for example, categorizing, pairing and linking data. I have found, for instance, that presenting definitions and examples of parts of speech one at a time, in sequence, demonstrating their relationships to one another, with frequent repetition and review, tends to strengthen memory. Reading and sequencing events in a paragraph is also useful. I have observed that most students who complete these exercises are able to recall and sequence entire paragraph content where they were unable to do so before.


Hashimoto (2002) indicated that the pathways may be mutually reinforcing. In fact, I have noticed that students who practice reading orally and silently, and listen to material read to them progress more quickly both in reading comprehension and in listening comprehension than those who practice reading in only one style. More generally, I have found in my research that it is the mutual reinforcement of all of the above strategies that seems to be especially effective.



According to the International Dyslexia Association, the more common characteristics of dyslexia include difficulties with reading, speech, writing, and math. While some learning different students struggle to recall the elements of basic skills, for instance, phonics and times tables, many often learn best when clinicians and instructors present information in more than one stage. Generally, students who follow such strategies acquire the ability to process information better with or without those strategies.

Vail (1992), stated that many individuals who succeed in the three-dimensional sphere, e.g., architecture, experience difficulty with two-dimensional tasks. I have observed that students with learning differences who relate letter sounds first to three-dimensional, colorful objects, then to colorful pictorial representations, and finally to flash cards with letters only are able to master symbol to sound relationships they found difficult previously.

For another example, many educators teach reading fluency and spelling by segmenting a word into syllables, then reconnecting them. One method is to write each syllable in a different color, alternating the hot colors of red and orange with the cool colors of blue, purple, and green. Some students find syllables easier to read and remember better when the instructor writes them in contrasting hot and cool colors, while other students learn best from a three-stage presentation. The instructor may begin with a word written in contrasting colored syllables, next write the word in a single color, and finally write the word in a color with a low contrast to the background (Figure 1). In a like manner, a student may learn to spell and to write with greater accuracy by following a similar three-stage strategy when writing a word (Figure 2).

Figure 1
Figure 2

Furthermore, reading comprehension generally increases when the instructor gives the student a high level of interest, low level of language text that parallels the information in the required text. Additionally, the student may use a three-stage strategy, reading in three styles. He or she may read a portion aloud, next read a portion silently, then listen to a portion someone reads to him or to her. Reading comprehension also tends to increase when the student paraphrases the text verbally and in writing, and answers review questions periodically rather than waiting until he or she has read the entire book.

In addition, some students may not copy accurately when the instructor writes the word in a color with a low contrast to the background. For example, the student may not process well a word written in grey pencil, or black or blue ink on white paper when trying to connect bridge letters such as "w" or "v". (Figure 3). Once the example is written in a brilliant color that provides a high contrast to the color of the paper, the student appears to perceive the example better and to copy it more easily (Figure 4).

Figure 3
Figure 4

The color tends to be more important than the size of the letters as illustrated above. Some students, however, may not process information visually well enough to copy from a high contrast colored example when the instructor presents it in only one stage. These students seem to benefit most from instruction offered in multi-stage presentations.

In the following example, the student tried to copy the word "most." He was not able to form the letter "s" after the bridge letter "o", although the instructor provided the writing sample in a brilliant color that had a high contrast to the background (Figure 5). When the student first traced the cool color (purple) writing sample with a hot color (red) marker and next copied it using the same marker, he was able to copy the word in grey pencil on white paper with greater proficiency (Figure 6).

Figure 5
Figure 6

Furthermore, some students who reviewed addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division tables in a color-coded review were better able to commit them to memory. Those students generally learned these operations in basic and more advanced math (for example, fractions) best when instruction began with three-dimensional, high contrast colored models; was followed by high contrast colored, two-dimensional presentations written in colored ink, marker, or chalk; and concluded with low contrast colored, two-dimensional forms. Using high contrast colored, three-dimensional models and shapes cut from high contrast colored transparencies to represent math problems pictorially, as well as color coding that portion the students did not perceive, assisted them in alleviating these problems in both one to one and classroom settings.

Learning different students also may have difficulty when studying art if they follow a traditional approach, first sketching with grey pencil on white paper, next using color, and then adding the third dimension in ceramics and sculpture. For instance, S.P., a 13 year old learning different student, using acrylic paints, first portrayed a low contrast colored model of purple flowers with only two stems in a blue, primarily straight-sided, narrow vase (Figures 7 and 8). Within an hour, she portrayed her second subject more accurately from a high contrast colored model (Figures 9 and 10).

Figure 7
Figure 8
Figure 9
Figure 10

Many of those students seem to overcome these tendencies when they begin art instruction with three-dimensional, high contrast colored subjects and media. They next progress in art studies by using high contrast colors in a two-dimensional format. They may then advance to two-dimensional presentations using low contrast color combinations, e.g. gray pencil on white paper.

Students who incorporate art and music activities in their studies generally acquire a solid foundation in basic skills and tend to progress more rapidly than those who do not incorporate these activities.


Students with learning differences often experience chronic academic failure. Listening to music which relaxes or uplifts the students tends to alleviate anxiety and attention deficits, and facilitate learning, respectively (Balthazar 1998; Campbell 2000).

In addition, some students might need more guidance to achieve independence. They may qualify for accommodations such as untimed testing or specialized academic placement, require course substitutions or waivers, need direction in organizing time and materials, or benefit from referrals for treatment of medical and/or emotional-social problems.


The study consisted of 13 middle and high school students with learning differences in 1997, and 14 in 2003. The students in 2003 were assigned an integrated system of interventions that incorporated techniques to strengthen visual and auditory processing to develop a strong foundation and skills in academic subjects, acquired through data presented in three-stage strategies. All students received the Reading, Spelling, and Arithmetic subtests of the Revised Wide Range Achievement Test, and the Oral, Silent, and Listening Comprehension subtests of the Spadafore Diagnostic Reading Test at two-month intervals. Figure 11 shows the greater increase in improvement that the students in 2003 achieved in basic skills and comprehension as compared to the students in 1997.

Figure 11


As students strengthen their visual and auditory pathways, process information more accurately, and acquire linguistic and mathematical foundations, they attain more age appropriate test scores in academic achievement. When I began assisting students with learning differences, the majority of them made steady progress although I used few interventions to strengthen sensory pathways, and seldom introduced information in multi-stage presentations, appropriate for students with learning differences. Once I assembled and applied the integrated system of interventions described above, many of my students experienced significant increases in their rates of progress.


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2004 Hilda Coyne All rights reserved