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Lesson 4: Understanding Learning Differences (Grades 6 – 9)


Rationale : The purpose of this lesson is to increase understanding about learning differences and empathy for people who have them. Experts estimate that 6 to 10 percent of the school-aged population and nearly 40 percent of the children enrolled in the nation’s special education classes have a learning disability; yet most students don’t understand what learning disabilities are and those who learn differently frequently bear the stigma of being thought of as “slow,” lazy, or “weird.” During this lesson, students explore their own learning styles as the basis for understanding learning differences. Through simple brain research and articles, students learn the facts about learning differences, and through experiential exercises and personal testimony, students develop an appreciation for others with learning disabilities. The lesson concludes with a brief look at prominent historical and contemporary figures with learning differences and multiple intelligence theory in order to encourage an appreciation for brain diversity and emphasize the broad continuum of strengths and talents inherent in human beings.


  • Students will receive information about learning styles and identify their own dominant learning styles
  • Students will discover what learning disabilities are, how they are caused, and how they impact individuals
  • Students will experience various learning tasks that will increase their understanding of learning disabilities and their empathy for those who have them
  • Students will learn about successful people with learning disabilities and understand the idea of multiple intelligence

National Standards  ( .pdf format - 119 KB - requires Acrobat Reader)

 Age Range : Grades 6 - 9

 Requirements :

Techniques and Skills : analyzing visual images, brainstorming, cooperative group work, critical thinking, forming opinions, interpreting personal testimony, large and small group discussion, reading skills, writing skills

 Key Words : attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), auditory, brain diversity, brain scan, compensate, confidence, decode, dominant, dysgraphia, dyslexia, dysnumeria, empathy, genetic, heredity, Individualized Education Program (IEP), interpersonal, intrapersonal, kinesthetic, linguistic, metaphor, learning difference, learning disability, learning style, multiple intelligence, phoneme, phonics, remedial, Resource Room, self-esteem, spatial, verbal, visual

 Procedures :

 Note: In order to appropriately define language and guide student discussion on disability issues, it is recommended that teachers carefully read ADL’s resource sheets on disability prior to facilitating lessons w ith students. See the Resources section in the right-hand toolbar of this webpage for further reference.

 Part I: Learning Styles (30 minutes)

  1. Prior to the lesson , make the following preparations:

    • Prepare three sheets of chart paper and title them “Visual,” “Auditory,” and “Kinesthetic.” Divide each sheet into three columns and label them “Studying for a test,” “Learning a new game,” and “Finding a new place.”
    • Photocopy a class set of the following handouts back-to-back: Learning Styles Questionnaire and What is Your Dominant Learning Style?

  2.  Begin the lesson by telling students that you are going to administer a quiz, but not to worry—it is the kind with no right or wrong answers; in fact, they won’t even have to hand it in. Tell students that the survey will help them to explore the style of learning that is most effective for them. Distribute the Learning Styles Questionnaire and give students 5-10 minutes to fill it out. Note: Direct students to look only at the questionnaire and not to read the information on the back of the sheet.

  3.  While students are working, post the three sheets of chart paper (“Visual,” “Auditory,” and “Kinesthetic”) in different parts of the room. When students have completed tallying their responses at the bottom of the questionnaire, instruct them to turn their pages over and read, What is Your Dominant Learning Style?. Then direct students to move to the sheet of chart paper that reflects their dominant learning style (according to the questionnaire) and select a recorder for each group. Note: If dividing students into three large groups presents management difficulties, consider creating two groups for each learning style (six groups in all) or facilitating the following discussion as a whole class.

  4. Ask each group to discuss how they would typically approach each of the learning tasks listed on the chart paper and what strategies for taking in new information usually work best for them. As the group brainstorms, the recorder should list responses. For example, the “Visual” group might list the following responses:

  5.     Studying for a test

    • Reading notes
    • Creating charts, diagrams
    • Creating pictures in my mind to help me remember facts
        Learning a new game

    • Looking at diagrams and instructions
    • Watching others play
    • Watching a video or TV program
        Finding a new place

    • Reading or drawing a map
    • Having someone show me the route
    • Using landmarks to remember the way

  6. Bring the whole class back together and allow each group approximately two minutes to share their responses. Use one or more of the following questions to process the activity:

    • How were the results of the questionnaire consistent or inconsistent with your own ideas about the way you learn best?
    • Did you discover anything new about your learning style? What did you learn?
    • Will the questionnaire change the way that you approach new tasks? If so, how?
    • Why do you suppose that different people learn in different ways?
    • Do you think it would be better/easier if everyone learned in the same way? Why or why not?
    • Is one style of learning better than another? Why or why not?

Part II: Understanding Learning Differences (20-40 minutes)  

  1. Remind students that the learning styles questionnaire taken earlier highlighted our different ways of thinking and our various learning strengths and weaknesses. Point out that we all have different ways of learning, but that most of us are able to get by pretty well in school and in other learning situations. Suggest that some people’s learning differences are more severe and interfere with their ability to read, write, speak, and perform other tasks that are expected of them in school and other learning situations. Tell students that when learning differences are this serious, they are often referred to as learning disabilities.
  2. Write the term, LEARNING DISABILITIES, in the center of a sheet of chart paper. Ask students to share what they know about learning disabilities (definitions, types, what they have learned from their own experiences or heard from others, etc.) Write all of the students’ responses at the end of spokes emanating from the center. Do not discuss or edit the responses at this time—simply write them down verbatim. Allow approximately five minutes for this webbing exercise.

  3. Tell students that you are going to display a Mystery Photo. Project the image (using an LCD projector or a color transparency) and challenge students to guess what it is. After a few guesses, tell students that it is a picture of an adult brain and that the red segments represent areas that were active while a study subject performed a reading task. Project Brain Scans and explain to students that a team of medical researchers at George town University scanned the brains of 38 adults while performing reading tasks, and that half of these people have dyslexia (a learning disability that makes learning to read difficult) . Point out that the brain images reveal different regions of activation in people with and without dyslexia. Ask students what they think researchers learned from this.

  4. Explain to students that researchers believe that dyslexia and other learning disabilities occur because of the way the brain is formed and the way it processes the information it receives. Emphasize that people with learning disabilities are not less intelligent than others, but that their brains may actually be “wired” differently. Explain that for this reason, many people prefer the term learning difference (able to learn in different ways) over learning disability (not able to learn). Though both terms are acceptable, encourage students to try and use the term learning difference in the future.

  5. Return to the web created earlier around the term, LEARNING DISABILITIES. If students already noted brain or information processing differences, affirm their insight; otherwise, add this information to the web. If students included references to limited intelligence, cross them out and ask if there are any other ideas that need to be rethought (e.g., people with learning disabilities are lazy, unmotivated, careless, etc.) Encourage students to return to the web as the lesson proceeds in order to correct misconceptions and to add new information that they learn.

  6. Distribute the articles, Learning Disabilities and Matt’s Story. These articles can be read together in class or assigned as homework in order to increase students’ understanding about what learning disabilities are, what causes them, and how they impact students’ lives.

 Part III: Building Empathy for People With Learning Differences (30-50 minutes)

  1. Ask for a volunteer to stand at the front of the classroom and read My Struggle aloud. Tell students that is was written by a 9 th grade boy with learning differences. Allow students a few moments to silently reflect on this piece of writing. Ask them to think about one of the following metaphors and to discuss with a partner why Matt may have evoked this imagery to describe his school experience:

      a. tremendous, rocky mountain
      b. steep cliffs and jagged, slippery rocks
      c. grey and covered in dark, murky, cold clouds
      d. strong, howling, icy winds [that] contain frigid rain

  2. Allow a few students to share their thoughts with the whole class.

  3.   Tell students that, unlike physical disabilities, learning differences are usually invisible to us and it may therefore be harder to understand and empathize with the struggles of students like Matt . Lead students through one or more of the exercises below, which will help them to reflect on what it might feel like to have a learning difference. Depending upon the time available and the maturity of your students, these exercises can be facilitated by the teacher with the whole class at once or experienced autonomously by students in pairs or small groups.

  4. After students have experienced at least one of the exercises above, one or more of the following questions can be used to process their thoughts either through discussion or reflective writing:

    • How did it feel as you tried to accomplish the task?
    • How did time pressures or demands from the teacher/peers affect your ability to complete the task?
    • How do you think you would feel if this were not just an exercise, but a consistent experience with school work?
    • If you had a learning difference, how do you think it might impact your success at school, your self-esteem, and your relationships with others?
    • Do you sometimes assume that a student with learning differences is lazy or “stupid”? Do you feel any differently now?
    • Have you ever teased or excluded someone because of a learning difference? What might you do differently in the future?

Part IV: Multiple Intelligence (30-40 minutes)

  1. Divide the class into groups of about four students. Give each group a copy of Who Am I?? Tell students that this handout contains brief biographies of successful people (living and dead) with learning differences. Challenge each group to identify as many of the prominent figures as they can. After about five minutes, bring the groups together to see if they were able to collectively identify all of them:

    Answer Key: 1. Tommy Hilfiger ; 2. Richard Branson ; 3. Ann Bancroft ; 4. Pablo Picasso ; 5. Tom Cruise ; 6. Leonard Da Vinci; 7. Thomas Edison; 8. Whoopi Goldberg; 9. Patricia Polacco

    (Option: If this activity is too difficult for your students, post the names of the figures in the front of the room and challenge students to match them with each biography rather than to come up with the names on their own).

      Ask students if they were surprised to find any particular names among this list of people with learning differences. Ask if they noticed any commonalities among the profiles. Highlight that most of these individuals had very negative school experiences and were labeled by others as unintelligent and incapable; that many of the people in their lives were not able to see past their learning differences and appreciate their talents. Pose the following question:

    • So, is a learning difference a problem with the individual, or a problem with the people and society around him/her?

  2. Suggest to students that it is important to address the issue of learning differences at both levels. Read aloud or paraphrase the following information from the article, Learning Disabilities: Types, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Causes :

    “Students with learning differences will have difficulty in school, so they must get help to find other ways to learn. [At the same time,] American society does not provide enough educational opportunities for people who learn differently.”

    “Educational institutions can serve more people if they change to meet the needs of more types of learners. Dr. Mel Levine of the All Kinds of Minds Institute says that many children have brains that are wired differently…and so they learn differently. The problem is that standard schooling tends to assume that one kind of teaching will work for all kinds of students…In the best of all worlds, Levine would like educators to discover how each child learns best and what the individual’s strengths are…Every child can be successful in learning and in life, if someone just discovers and teaches to those strengths.”

    Tell students that a well known psychologist named Howard Gardner has come up with a way to describe our different strengths and the different ways in which we learn. Distribute the handout, Multiple Intelligence, and review it together as a class. Point out that although school most often focuses on verbal and mathematical intelligence, there are many other ways of being smart and successful.

  3. Ask students to discuss with a partner which types of intelligence are exhibited by the figures in the Who Am I?? activity from earlier. Ask them to discuss where they see themselves on this continuum of intelligence and what kinds of aspirations they have for the future that might capitalize on their strengths and talents?

  4. Conclude the lesson by reminding students to be open-minded and respectful of people with learning differences, and to appreciate “brain diversity” just as they would racial, ethnic, or religious diversity. Leave students with the following food for thought from Dr. Gordon F. Sherman, an expert on learning differences:

    “… brain diversity may benefit our species. History and science tell us environments inevitably change. Who knows what kinds of minds our species may need in the future? [Are learning differences] a biological mishap [or] nature’s design?”

 Extension Activity :

Follow up on the above exploration by reading aloud or assigning a book to students that addresses learning differences. Have students do reflective writing, develop book or research reports, read aloud to younger students, or engage in other projects that will deepen their understanding about learning differences. The following resources will help you to select appropriate titles:

The Promise of Never Again
  • In This Issue
Lesson Plans
  • Lesson 1: Getting To Know People with Physical Disabilities
(Grades K - 2)
  • Lesson 2: Experiencing Hearing Disability through Music
(Grades 2 - 4)
  • Lesson 3: Seeing the World through the Hands of People with a Visual Disability
(Grades 4 - 6)
Lesson 4: Understanding Learning Differences
(Grades 6 - 9)

  • Annotated Bibliography of Books for Middle Level Learners on Learning Differences and Disabilities
  • Web Links for Educators and Families About Learning Differences and Disabilities
  • Lesson 5: History of the Disability Rights Movement
(Grades 10 - 12)
  • ADA Signing Ceremony
  • Assessing Your School Environment for Access to People with Disabilities
  • Evaluating Children’s Books that Address Disability
  • A Brief History of the Disability Rights Movement
  • Communication Guidelines on Disability
  • Disability Glossary
  • Famous People with Disabilities
  • List of Disability-Related Organizations
A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE® Institute Recommended Multicultural and Anti-Bias Books for Children
A CLASSROOM OF DIFFERENCE Programs and Resources

 Words that Heal ©2005 Anti-Defamation League