Everyone is Welcome at the Writing Center:
Tutoring Students with Learning Disabilities
Everyone is welcome at the Writing Center. The Writing Center at the University of Pittsburgh is designed to help all students improve their writing. From the “good” writers to the “bad” writers, anyone can improve their writing skills. There are many challenges a Writing Center tutor faces; however, one of the unique challenges is working with a non-traditional student. Many students have learning disabilities and need special help and accommodations. This can be daunting for a tutor who is unfamiliar with learning disabilities. This essay will give a brief history and an overview of the possible situation a tutor may encounter, and how to handle such a situation.
There are many different kinds of learning disabilities a student might have. These disabilities are divided into two categories: mental disabilities and physical disabilities. Some mental disabilities include psychiatric disabilities, traumatic brain injuries, and Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Physical disabilities include orthopedic impairments, visual impairments, and hearing impairments. However, this is not a comprehensive list; there are many different types of disabilities a student can have, but those mentioned are some of the most common.
Individuals with disabilities have worked for decades to integrate into society. According to the National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities, 1 out of 5 people have a learning disability in the United States. A learning disability
affects people's ability to either interpret what they see and hear or to link information from different parts of the brain. These limitations can show up in many ways: as specific difficulties with spoken and written language, coordination, self control, or attention. Such difficulties extend to schoolwork and can impede learning to read, write, or do math. (ABCs of LD/ADHD)
Many schools and institutions follow the guidelines instituted by the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which states that no individual should be excluded or denied benefits from any federally assisted program or activity (Vocational Rehabilitation Act). This act was followed by the most recent Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 as “an act to establish a clear and comprehensive prohibition of discrimination on the basis of disability” (Americans with Disabilities Act). This expanded on the Vocational Rehabilitation Act to include all avenues, not just education.
The Vocational Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act are fundamental to the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Disability Resources and Services. Disability Resources and Services are dedicated to providing students with disabilities with an equal opportunity for education. In order to be eligible for assistance from Disabilities Resources and Services, a student must provide thorough documentation confirming his or her disability and therefore subsequent protection under the above acts. Much of the responsibility is placed on the student to supply this information, although the Disability Resources and Services can recommend a professional experienced in the possible area of diagnosis, such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, or neuropsychologist. Based on the testing and professional’s findings and recommendations, the Disability Resources and Services will then make the necessary arrangements for the student.
The University of Pittsburgh is a large public university, and therefore admits a variety of students. There were 26,795 students enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh’s main campus the fall of 2003, of those students, 17,413 were undergraduates (Fact Book). The Disability Resources and Services had 835 students registered for their services during the 2003 academic school year. Although this seems like a comparatively small fraction of enrolled students, it is a rapidly growing number, as approximately 110 new students were registered in the previous term. This number also only reflects the students who have sought assistance. Many people do not even take advantage of the services provided by the university. Students are not required to specify whether or not they have a disability when signing in at the Writing Center, so there aren’t any numbers specific to the University of Pittsburgh’s Writing Center. However, all Seminar in Composition students are required to take the Composition Tutorial component of the course in which they are to meet with a designated tutor at the Writing Center. Therefore the possibility of tutoring a student with a learning disability is not completely out of the question.
There are many varieties of learning disabilities from a difficulty understanding language to a difficulty using language. These difficulties do not mark a lesser intelligence just the necessity to approach material differently than another student. From prewriting to organization, proofreading and editing, a tutor will have to make some slight adjustments to how he or she approaches a tutorial. Students with learning disabilities at the University of Pittsburgh have to pass the same rigorous admissions requirements as all other students admitted, so there is some basic level of capability, it’s just how that capability is manifested that differs.
One thing to keep in mind when working with a student who has a learning disability is that they are going to need more specific help than perhaps another student who comes into the Writing Center. A student with a learning disability can come into the Writing Center at any stage of the writing process. Some may struggle with prewriting. For a student with a learning disability, finding a topic and getting started writing can be a challenge. Of all approaches to prewriting, freewriting is the hardest for a student with a learning disability. Many students with a learning disability cannot think in terms of “just writing” because they do not know how or what to write. Any attempts result in mass generalizations without the student ever weeding out specifics of his or her argument or point. Therefore freewriting should just be avoided. The best method to replace this strategy is a conversation between the tutor and the student, with the tutor asking relevant, in-depth and poignant questions relating to the subject matter. It may also be helpful if the tutor takes notes while talking to the tutee, particularly noting key words. This will help the student later, when he or she sits down to write the paper and they have a visual guide which includes their ideas.
Many students with learning disabilities also struggle with organization; this comes from a difficulty distinguishing between general and specific information and information germane to their topic. Due to this, creating a coherent and concise paper takes some effort. The tutor may find it helpful to create an outline with the student mapping out their ideas, giving the student a visual layout of their ideas and something to follow when ordering their ideas in an essay. It is best to verbalize as well as visualize the information and explanations the tutor is trying to convey, “writing advisors should always be doing and saying at the same time” (Neff 386). This reinforcement better helps a student with learning disabilities. Therefore, while creating an outline or drawing a cluster diagram, a tutor should talk through what he or she is doing, why and how it will translate into an essay. As recommended in any other tutorial, a tutor should discourage the five paragraph essay because it is not going to guarantee a successful piece of work. What may be applicable in one situation does not necessarily transfer to others. It is better, to instead ask simple and specific questions of the student to direct the direction and layout of his or her paper.
The process of polishing a paper can be a daunting task for any student, but a student with a learning disability has added limitations that can make the process even more frustrating. Many students with learning disabilities do not recognize errors as easily as their peers or the tutor. Most students, including those with a learning disability should be familiar with the Microsoft Word spell checker and grammar checker. Neither tools are flawless and some mistakes will go uncorrected, but these devices can provide a great tool for basic and blatant errors. The tutor should encourage the tutee to take advantage of both automatic correction tools, but should also warn the student of their inherent imperfections. A student with learning disabilities may not see an error until it is pointed out to them by either Microsoft Word or a tutor. The tutor needs to help the student find the error and then correct it. In Julia Neff’s article “Learning Disabilities and the Writing Center,” she explains, “editing must be specific and hands-on and must involve detailed explanations of what the advisor is doing” (Neff 387). This echoes the say and show technique previously mentioned. Another approach a tutor may choose to use is to read the essay or just a sentence aloud. Some students with learning disabilities can hear a mistake more easily than seeing it.
There are a wide variety of learning disabilities, and with them comes basic etiquette. The Disability Resources and Services created a list of some suggested good manners when interacting with people with disabilities. Some of the more relevant ones include:
- If you offer assistance, wait until the offer is accepted. Then listen or ask for instructions.
- Listen attentively when talking with people who have difficulty speaking and wait for them to finish. If necessary, ask short questions that require short answers, a nod or shake of the head. Never pretend to understand if you are having difficulty doing so. Instead, repeat what you have understood and allow the person to respond.
- Avoid use of derogatory or outdated terms or phrases to describe those with disabilities, such as: abnormal, defective, a victim of, afflicted with, suffering from, handicapped, or referring to the non-disabled as “normal”
- Do not refer to people by their disability, e.g., “John is an epileptic.” If a mention of the disability is appropriate, say “John is an individual with epilepsy.”
- Avoid patronizing statements such as, “I admire your courage,” or showing or expressing pity.
- Avoid showing revulsion or artificially avoiding a disabled person.
- Avoid generalizations such as “Deaf people can concentrate better than most people.” (Palombo)
When coming to the Writing Center, students do not have to specify having a learning disability or not, therefore a tutor could go through half an hour without ever knowing the student’s condition. If the student does not choose to volunteer such information, the tutor should not ask outwardly. If the tutor feels the need to know, he or she should approach it in terms of past experiences, suggests Wilma Palombo, Accessibility Specialist at the University of Pittsburgh. A tutor should ask the student what they did in high school, or how they dealt with an issue previously, in order to decide the best way to approach the same issue in a tutorial. However, it is in the student’s best interest to inform the tutor of any disabilities, so the tutor can proceed accordingly. If the student does choose to share their learning disability with the tutor, the tutor should respect their decision and privacy. Confidentiality in the Writing Center is very important, so a tutor should not discuss a student’s problems outside of the Writing Center, and if it becomes necessary, should be done in a professional manner.
If a tutor finds himself or herself in a tutorial with a student with learning disabilities, they are never completely on their own. One of the most knowledgeable resources is the student. The student has had the most experience with his or her disability and knows what he or she is or are not capable of, and how to work with his or her disability. A tutor should ask the student what strategies work best for him or her; if the student resists a suggestion, and then the tutor should listen to them because they know best. There are also other tutors in the Writing Center; some have had experience with students with learning disabilities, and can always be asked questions. For a group with more familiarity with learning disabilities, there is the center for Disability Resources and Services on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus, in which many specialists are available as resources for an inquiring tutor.
There are many possible accommodations that can be made for a student with learning disabilities. Some students may find the large open room at Pitt’s Writing Center too large and distraction to work efficiently. Some students need a quiet and clear work space in order for the tutorial to be most effective. Some students will need more than the 30 minute time blocks allotted each tutoring appointment. An hour long tutorial can be scheduled in cases when they are needed, or return visits can solve the problem, in which a problem is addressed in multiple appointments. However, more importantly than the environment or the time spent with the tutor is the tutor’s attitude. Many students, especially those with a learning disability find the writing process intimidating. If the tutor has a positive attitude the student is put at ease being at the Writing Center, and by encouraging the student, he or she may find the motivation to tackle the task facing them.
The Writing Center is a nondiscriminatory facility inviting all students, and faculty to take advantage of their services. This opens up a wide variety of tutees for any given tutor. Of the Writing Center visitors, some may have a learning disability that would require a tutor to approach a session differently than any of their other tutorials. Students with learning disabilities are students too, and make many of the same mistakes as a non-disabled student might. A patient and encouraging tutor can provide the same level of help to a student with learning disabilities as any other student. With a little confidence a tutor can guide a student with learning disabilities as easily and successfully as their other tutorials.
“ABCs of LD/ADHD.” Washington D.C.: WETA, 1996-2003. 6 Mar. 2004 <
Gillespie, Paula, and Neal Lerner. “Troubleshooting.” The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000.
National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (NICHCY). “Learning Disabilities.” Washington D.C.: WETA, 1996-2003. 6 Mar. 2004 <
Neff, Julie. “Learning Disabilities and the Writing Center.” The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing Center Theory and Practice. Needham Heights: Allyn and Bacon, 2001. 376-390.
Palombo, Wilma. Personal interview. 20 April 2003.
Stone, Joan. Personal interview. 20 April 2003.
“The University of Pittsburgh Fact Book 2004.” University of Pittsburgh, 2004. 16 April 2004 <
U.S. Congress. “The Americans Disabilities Act of 1990.” Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1990.
U.S. Congress. “The Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973.” Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1973.