The following article written by Dr. Richard Cooper appeared in the Pennsylvania Adult Education Newsletter "What’s the Buzz," Vol.18, No 4, March 1999.

Learning Differences

     The field of learning disabilities and adult literacy is changing as you read this. New research is producing exciting information about the functions of the brain and their relationship to learning differences. Systematic long term studies and new brain scan technology have accelerated the body of knowledge about learning disabilities. Research projects funded through the National Institute of Health which compare individuals who are good readers to those who are poor readers have found differences in the way the brain processes written language. Another study found that adults with reading problems who have learned to read use different areas of their brains for reading than those who have no problems.

     One aspect of the research into reading disabilities has identified phonological awareness (what I refer to in my training as the structure of language) as the primary indicator of reading skills. Individuals who have phonological awareness, either because they made the connection between the sounds in words and the symbols which they represent or because they learned those relationships, become good readers. Individuals who do not have such awareness tend to be poor readers. Phonological awareness does not just mean teaching phonics but rather teaching the basic concepts of language, sounds, word and sentence structure.

     A part the current research projects is an attempt to redefine learning and attention problems. Current definitions of learning disabilities are deemed inadequate. This is understandable since this is a young field of study and there are many disciplines involved. The current research projects will produce better definitions and probably subtypes of learning disabilities and attention problems which will reduce the confusion that adult educators often find when trying to understand adults who have difficulties learning. (For a summary of the research projects funded by the National Institute of Health see:

     As the findings from research about learning disabilities continue to add to our knowledge about how these individuals learn, we will continually need to adapt our basic assumptions and our instructional techniques to match the findings. The research will undoubtedly confirm some of the current ideas about learning disabilities and instructional techniques and force educators to rethink their methods.

     In spite of all the emphasis that now is being placed on reading, adult educators need to keep in mind that reading problems are not the only ways that learning differences affect individuals. These differences can also limit skills development in math, oral communication, logic, organization, social skills and other areas of functioning.

     Adult educators need to keep in mind that only a minority of the individuals who have learning differences are disabled. Those who have severe problems meet the criteria under the American with Disabilities Act of having an impairment in a major life function. Most of the individuals in adult education programs who have learning differences can learn, especially when they are taught using methods which rely on their strengths rather than their weaknesses. Our challenge as adult educators is to learn as much as we can about how our adult students might learn differently than most teachers do and find instructional techniques which match their ways of processing information. The research findings that demonstrates that people with reading problems learn to read differently than the norm supports the philosophy of using "what ever works" in the teaching of reading. In other words one size does not fit all. We need to continue to develop alternative instructional techniques and learn from each other how to help adults with learning differences to improve their basic academic skills.