apple Learning Styles and Working with Special Learning Difficulties

Learning Styles

A Learning Style is a person’s characteristic or preferred method of understanding, acquiring, processing, storing and recalling information in learning situations. While most of us can learn by any of these methods, many believe that we usually have a preferred way to learn. There is controversy over the validity of this theory and many different learning style models have been developed. One of the most common and widely-used models, the VAK Learning Styles, categorizes three types of learners:

  • Visual – Visual learners think in pictures and prefer to learn through what they see (visual aids such as overhead slides, diagrams, handouts, etc.).
  • Auditory Auditory learners learn best through what they hear (listening to lectures, discussions, tapes, etc.).
  • Kinesthetic or Tactile Tactile/kinesthetic learners prefer to learn through moving, touching, and doing (active exploration of the world; science projects; experiments, etc.).

One popular VAK test is the Barsch Learning Style Inventory. It can be downloaded or answered online through many educational facilities. Do a web search to bring up both online and print-based versions.

Here are a couple of other learning style websites to get you started.

By assessing the learning styles of students, we can adapt instruction methods to best fit each learner’s learning style and choose appropriate learning activities. Identifying their learning style can help learners focus on what works best for them. Note: MTCU requires us to document the learner’s preferred style of learning in the learner file.

Learning Disabilities

LDs – which is short for learning disabilities – affect one or more of the ways that a person takes in, stores, or uses information. LDs come in many forms and affect people with varying levels of severity. Between 5 and 10 percent of Canadians have LDs. (Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario

Research tells us that 30 to 60% of adult literacy learners have some kind of learning disability (LD). LDs can influence a learner’s listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, math, and/or social skills. There are many different kinds of LDs and they affect each person differently. LDs are not an illness, nor can they be cured. However, people can cope with LDs by using their areas of strength to compensate and by using assistive devices such as technology.

As literacy practitioners, we cannot diagnose learning disabilities – that is the role of a psychiatrist, certified psychologist or other licensed specialist. However, given that about half of LBS learners may have learning disabilities, we should be looking for and addressing LDs in our intake and assessment process. One way to do this is to ask if the learner was ever ‘identified’ with an LD while in school. If this was the case, a copy of the learner’s IEP (Individual Education Plan) would be very beneficial in setting up the learner’s literacy plan. For more on IEP’s, go to the IEP 101 Online Workshop for Parents and Students in the Resources – Online Courses section of the Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario (LDAO) website.

Discussing learning disabilities in more detail is beyond the scope of this module. For more information about learning disabilities, we again recommend LDAO’s site or those of the associations for other provinces. These organizations have a wealth of resources and provide many links to valuable tools and information.

If an LD has previously been diagnosed, or if you suspect one, you can work with the learner to incorporate strategies that may lead to greater success. You can learn about strategies and about screening for learning disabilities, thanks to two resources produced by Literacy Link South Central. The first one is Learning Disabilities Training: A New Approach and the second is Learning Disabilities Training: Phase II. Both resources are available for download in their entirety in PDF format at

Another comprehensive resource is the CanLearn Practitioners Toolkit for working with adults with ADHD, Learning Disabilities and literacy (reading) challenges. This web-based resource has videos and online practitioner learning modules, as well as two pdf resources

Mental Health

There are many studies that show a link between difficulties learning and mental health. A number of the clients and learners that you will work with will have some type of mental health conditions or disorders, whether diagnosed or not. Some of these may be either caused by a lack of literacy skills, leading to poor self-esteem and depression, etc. or the cause of their low literacy skills.

Yes I Can – A Mental Health Guide for Adult Literacy Facilitators (2017) is a resource developed by Project READ Literacy Network Waterloo-Wellington. This guide provides information and strategies for supporting adult learners living with mental health conditions or disorders. It can be downloaded from the Learning Networks of Ontario site. Also available:

  • Webinar Recording for “Yes I Can – A Mental Health Guide for Adult Literacy Facilitators” – this webinar recording offers more information about the Mental Health Guide resource and how to use it in the learning environment.
  • Q & A Chat Summary from Mental Health Guide webinars – This Q&A – Chat Summary provides a summary of the questions and answers that were discussed during the Mental Health Guide webinars.

Questions and Activities for Reflection

  1. Take one of the learning style inventories mentioned. What did the inventory say your preferred learning style was? How accurate do you feel the results were? How might knowing your learning style help you in learning new things?
  2. Download Literacy Link South Central’s Learning Disabilities Training: Phase II Screening Tools, Strategies and Employment.  Read the section on the three most common learning disabilities. How might knowing the distinctions help you in your assessment of learners?
  3. Using the resource mentioned in #2, read about intellectual disabilities. How would you distinguish between learning disabilities and intellectual disabilities?
  4. Watch the Webinar Recording for “Yes I Can – A Mental Health Guide for Adult Literacy Facilitators”.
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