Sometimes, when someone has a long history of problems with reading, writing, or mathematics, an evaluation for a learning disorder would be helpful. A Specific Learning Disorder with Impairment in Reading, Writing, or Math can explain consistent problems in academic performance, including attentiveness/distractibility while doing schoolwork, poor test taking, and low self-confidence and anxiety.

Learning disorders occur when there’s a deficit in skills required for academics, whether skills are the basic building blocks needed for noticing and processing information or whether they’re skills required for overarching understanding and analysis. Reading disorders—sometimes called dyslexia—may occur when there’s difficulty with learning the rules of sounding out words (decoding), with effortlessly recalling sight words (fluency), or with understanding what was read (comprehension).

Math disorders—formerly called dyscalculia—can result from a weakness in visual-spatial reasoning, leading to problems with easy quantity estimation and comparison, understanding graphs and charts, and even lining up math problems. Other weaknesses may relate to problems with learning basic math facts (math fluency), with conceptually understanding math operations, and with understanding word problems (which may be related to a reading disorder as well).

Writing is one of the most complex activities we do, simultaneously requiring language skills, visuomotor skills, organizational skills, and creativity. A writing disorder can stem from many points along that process. Dysgraphia typically refers to problems with the physical act of writing letters and numbers, where handwriting can be slow, inconsistent, or illegible. The effort involved in laborious writing can interfere with writing rules, from spelling and punctuation to grammar to coherent written arguments. Some problems exist even without handwriting difficulties, however, and these are usually more related to problems with written expression. People with a writing disorder have a very hard time taking their mental thoughts or verbal sentences and putting them down on paper.

In all of these areas, it’s important to evaluate abilities at every step on the path from seeing/hearing information to efficiently processing it as information to responding to it appropriately. A thorough evaluation will also consider other factors that may be at play, including attention deficits, anxiety about school performance, and language difficulties.