Teasing Apart Learning Problems


I have a teenage daughter who has tested as gifted. Her reading, verbal, and comprehension skills are excellent, but she’s not good at grammar. She struggles to complete algebra word problems yet does well analyzing complex geometry problems. She’s become very frustrated with herself. What is the best path forward?

B.G., North Easton, MA

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Marcia Eckerd, Ph.D

Marcia Eckerd is an evaluator, consultant, and therapist who specializes in working with children with NLD and autism-spectrum disorders

The issue of complex learning issues that are difficult to tease apart is relevant to many children with LD. Schools often look at the main skills (e.g., reading, reading comprehension or math operations) and if those are fine, they conclude there’s no problem. Obviously that’s not the case with your daughter. She is a highly intelligent student giving good effort, yet still struggling in some areas.

Kids can have apparently contradictory strengths and weaknesses. In this case her verbal language skills (reading and comprehension) are strong, but her grammar skills are weak. Grammar can be a highly specific learning disability, and there are different theories about it. It’s not clear from the question if the grammatical challenge is in oral expression, written language, or both. I suggest you explore this further with a Speech and Language specialist.

Similarly, your daughter may do well with math operations (straightforward math problems) and geometry, but struggle with word problems. That’s not uncommon. The word problem challenge is interesting:

With word problems, switching between language and math, and visualizing words in terms of mathematical concepts (very different from reading comprehension) require executive function skills; in geometry, the visual relationships are tangibly presented. Evaluation tests such as the Rey Complex Figure might shed more light on this problem.

Your case illustrates a critical point. A child can be bright and have strong skills and still have very specific learning disabilities. This can result in poor performance that is not indicative of your child’s capabilities and can be extremely frustrating.

Different children handle this frustration in different ways: some keep driving forward, some get anxious or depressed, some give up. The worst outcome is when kids such as your daughter are placed in classes at the level of their lowest production.

What’s needed are an evaluation by a speech and language therapist and further neuropsychological assessment by someone who can dig deeper than the standard battery of tests. 

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