Tips for parenting learning disabled children (part 3)

This is the last part of our three part article from LD Online on how to improve your parenting experience if your child has a learning disability.  You can scroll down to our previous posts to read the first two parts, or you may access the full article online at:

Engage the child in early literacy activities

Literacy refers to many oral language, reading, and writing activities, all of which are intertwined. Reading to children strengthens oral language and introduces them to various forms of discourse such as stories, fairy tales, and poetry. Reading signs, labels, or thank you notes helps them understand relationships between oral and written language and emphasizes meaning. Sometimes, children with language disorders do not like being read to because they cannot process all of the information. In these cases, we suggest that parents read the pictures and reduce the language level so that the child comprehends. Wiener (1988) recommends extensive reading of pictures to build vocabulary, descriptive language, and the basis for simple narratives. From a single action picture (e. g. , a child eating soup or cereal), one can ask countless questions about the objects, the actions, how things might taste, whether the soup is hot, the kinds of soup the child does or does not like, as well as simple inferential questions. Studies of older students with reading comprehension problems indicate they have difficulty answering inferential questions. Therefore, we introduce such questions in the early childhood years. For example, Do you think this boy likes the cereal? How do you know? Look at his face. While reading, we also suggest that parents stop periodically and ask the child questions about the story. Sometimes, it is helpful for the parent and child to take turns asking questions about the content. When looking at a can or carton of food, one might ask, Which word do you think says milk? Encourage the child to read signs such as stop, exit and words on doors such as boys, girls, push, etc. The groceries from the market can be used for many purposes including reading labels.

The primary goal is to make certain that children understand that reading is a meaningful act. It is not learning the alphabet. Although studies indicate that learning letter names predicts early reading, in some instances, we focus on the sounds of the letters rather than the names since the letter names do not really aid the reading process per se. Furthermore, remembering 26 non meaningful figures may be too difficult for some children.

Several studies in recent years have found that phonemic awareness is related to early reading. Therefore, we encourage parents to play listening games in which they identify objects that begin or end with a particular sound (i. e. , Find all the things that start with m, using the letter sound not the letter name). Blending is often difficult for poor readers so we ask children to point to the picture that goes with what I say – M – A – N. It is usually easier for children to recognize the object than to say or blend the sounds themselves, but both activities are beneficial. Rhyming games are also encouraged.

In order to strengthen visual processes and whole word recognition we suggest that when parents read to children they ask them to find letters or words that look the same. For an independent activity, we suggest the parent cut out a page from an old magazine or a page of print and ask the children to circle words that look the same. Parents might highlight a high frequency word such as the, and ask the child to find others that look the same.

Early writing is also an important part of literacy. By age 3, most children can draw a circle; by four they can draw a square, and by five they can draw a triangle as well as the rudiments of many letters and numerals. They also draw pictures of people, houses, and simple objects. Many preschoolers enjoy pretend writing, which is an important part of development. If one analyzes their scribbles carefully, it is possible to see wordlike strings of figures and drawings interspersed with letters. All of these activities should be encouraged. Do not try to achieve perfect copying or production of letters and numbers. Rather, let the child engage in writing as a communicative act. When children can copy letters, however, we use the opportunities that arise from going shopping. Encourage children to help write the grocery list by copying one or two words from empty cartons and boxes. Not only will the children feel helpful, but they will begin to realize that writing is an aid to memory – one of the important functions of writing. Invented spelling is also encouraged as a part of meaningful writing. When a child writes ILVU (I love you) on a note, be aware that this is good developmental spelling. The child is beginning to identify certain sounds and associating them with letters.

Many young children with learning disabilities have significant problems with visual-motor integration. Some do not know how to hold a pencil or draw the simplest figures. In these cases, an occupational therapist or specialist in learning disabilities may be needed. Parents can, however, assist by having children draw figures in sand, make designs with finger paint, etc. Often we suggest that parents purchase or make templates (stencils) from cardboard or styrofoam so the child can trace inside the boundaries. We make basic shapes and simple outlines of figures such as an apple, a kite, or a fish. As children trace around the boundaries of the figures, they learn the motor patterns and, when the stencil is removed, they see a product that is better than one they can produce from copy.

Encourage early mathematics and number activities

Introduce mathematics as a meaningful, pleasurable activity, not a rote memory skill. While most parents play simple counting games and sing number songs (all of which are helpful), we also recommend activities which strengthen the language of mathematics and one-to-one correspondence. Some children with learning disabilities have difficulty counting systematically; others have difficulty with words such as more, less, few and other relational terms. Encourage children to help estimate, measure, pour water or milk, not only to learn some of the quantitative terms but to help them acquire certain visual- spatial-motor skills.

Simple games with dominoes can be used to match quantities, to strengthen counting skills and one-to-one correspondence. When reading to children, have them note the numbers of the pages and say them. Some youngsters learn to count, but they do not learn how to read numerals.

Seriation (ordering objects according to size) is an important aspect of mathematics which parents can encourage. When children are given pots and pans of various sizes to stack in order, they are learning the rudiments of seriation. When they stack various size rings on a peg they also learn about the smallest and largest figures.

Simple problem solving can begin with activities such as setting the table. How many more forks do we need? Do we have enough spoons? These same types of activities can be used when playing games– Do we have enough players, cards? etc. Many simple board games with dice are excellent ways of teaching counting, one-to-one correspondence, and turn taking.

Help the child learn to play

Some learning disabilities interfere with a child’s ability to play and acquire social skills. One does not usually think about having to teach children how to play, yet consider the visual-spatial, language, and symbolic skills that are needed to play with blocks, a doll house, trucks and cars in garages, making sand castles, etc. While we do not want to make work out of play, in order for children to play unsupervised or to participate in groups, adults may need to show them how to stack blocks so they do not fall, to pretend, to dig in the sand, and to play simple games. We can prepare them for group activities by teaching the subskills in advance.

Throughout all of these activities, take time to enjoy the children and have fun. Laugh at incongruous situations, and allow for the learner’s leeway. Everyone makes mistakes and we can learn from them.

Encourage children to listen to music and to develop a sense of rhythm

Musical skills may come easily for some children with learning disabilities, in which case they can be used as a way to teach certain early reading skills such as rhyming. We often use songs the child knows (e. g. , Happy Birthday) as a way in to reading.

Other children need help in listening to rhythm, beat, and tempo so they can participate in group activities. In these cases, we encourage parents to clap or march with the children in time to the music.

Teach simple time concepts

Many students with learning disabilities have problems understanding the language of time, the calendar, saying days of the week, months of the year, telling time, and estimating time. Therefore, we recommend work in this area at many age levels. During the early childhood years, words such as early, later, today, tomorrow, etc. can be emphasized. Mark school days on a calendar with a special color, and perhaps keep simple weather journals illustrating sunny or rainy days with simple drawings of a sun or raindrops.

Provide structure for children with attention problems

Some, but not all, children with learning disabilities have problems focusing and maintaining attention. In these cases, we recommend structure, reduction of stimulation in the environment, and quiet, but firm discipline. The goal is not to punish, but to create an environment in which the children can succeed. They may need help with organization by breaking down complex tasks and by giving them an orderly sequence of activities. Develop each subskill to achieve automaticity. Create situations where parents and teachers can say Good Work!


Children with special needs often have special gifts – gifts such as sensitivity, perseverance, tenacity, and resilience. These gifts are far more important than perfect recitation of the alphabet or copying letters. All children can make progress, but the rate and amount of improvement varies. Try to build on the child’s strengths to build his or her sense of self-respect. Help the child realize the value of people in all walks of life as you go about daily routines. There is a place for everyone.

When things do not seem to go as well as expected, it is often helpful to contact teachers, physicians, and other specialists for suggestions. Parents need time out and opportunities to talk with parents of children with similar problems. Many communities have support groups that may be beneficial. Parents learn from each other and can share strategies that were most helpful for them.

About the author

Doris Johnson is a professor in the Department of Speech and Director of the Learning Disabilities Center at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois. Dr. Johnson served for many years as Chair of the LDA Professional Advisory Board.



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