Chapter 4: Processing: The Key To The Mystery

Words to know for chapter Four:

Process – how your brain uses information

Compensate – using a strength to make up for a weakness
Storage – putting something away for safe keeping

Retrieval – getting something out of storage
Sensory – using your senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste)

– using your brain

Sequencing – putting details in order Conceptual – understanding concepts and deep meaning

Holistic – looking at the “whole thing” instead of the parts

– using your mind to “fill in” missing information

– a path used for information to travel

– a method used for processing information

“For the next step in this mystery, we will need to explore the dark and dangerous caverns of your brain. We will follow the same pathways that information travels to find out how your brain operates. You might want to wear gloves….this could get messy.”

“Follow me………”

As we have learned, having a learning disability means that information gets “stuck” or confused while going through, or being “processed” by your brain.

But what is “processing”???

There are many, maybe hundreds of ways in which your brain processes different kinds of information. But we will just focus on two main types of processing that are believed to be most responsible for learning:

  • Sensory processing – how your brain uses information from your senses   (vision, hearing, touch, smell, taste)
  • Cognitive processing – what your brain does after the information comes in through the senses

Entering the brain – The sensory channels:

Information is provided in many different ways but first enters the brain through the 5 sensory processing channels or “modalities” which include:






These channels are the first areas where information processing difficulty can occur.

But, how often do you really taste or smell things in school? And, even though you sometimes touch or feel things in school, you aren’t going to have trouble learning just because things don’t “feel” right. So really, the main sensory processing areas that can cause you trouble in school are:

  • Visual: does your brain understand what you see?
  • Auditory: does your brain understand what you hear

Important clue!!!!! Sensory processing is different from how well you see or hear. A person with a visual processing disability is actually able to see as well as anyone else, but his or her brain has difficulty making sense of visual information. For such a student, auditory information is usually processed much faster and better.

Other sensory processing channels including smell, taste, and touch can be important alternative processing channels but are seldom, if ever found to be primary areas of information processing disability. The sense of touch can be especially important and will be discussed further when we investigate “Haptic” processing.

Right now. let’s look closely at visual and auditory processing.

Visual Processing involves how well your brain can use visual information. When you see something, especially something complex, do you understand it quickly and easily. Can you “visualize” things (like pictures, shapes, words, etc.) in your head? Can you remember information that you see?

Visual Processing includes:
seeing differences between things remembering visual details filling in missing parts in pictures remembering general characteristics visual-motor coordination visualization and imagination organization of your room, desk, etc. art

People with a general visual processing disability often experience most learning difficulty in the areas of math and spelling because they have trouble “visualizing” words, letters, symbols, etc.

Specific difficulties may include:

– writing

poor handwriting poor spelling (cannot visualize the words)

– math

difficulty visualizing problems difficulty with cluttered worksheets

– reading

slow speed poor comprehension

– general

poor organization/planning/neatness difficulty rechecking work for accuracy difficulty learning by demonstration difficulty learning by video

Do you think Visual Processing is a strength or a weakness for you?

Auditory processing involves how well you can understand auditory information. Can you “keep up” when people talk very fast? Can you tell voices apart easily (even on the phone)? Can you imagine the voices of familiar people in your head? Can you remember information that your hear?

Auditory Processing includes:
hearing differences between sounds/voices remembering specific words or numbers remembering general sound patterns Understanding even when you miss some sounds blending parts of words together music

People with a general auditory processing disability usually have most difficulty with general reading, general writing, and language (understanding and expressing). Specific difficulties may include:

– reading

poor decoding of new words poor comprehension

– writing

poor spelling/mechanics poor sentence structure

– communication

difficulty with expression poor receptive language

– general

difficulty following oral directions difficulty learning in lectures

Do you think Auditory Processing is a strength or weakness for you?

Don’t forget!!! Auditory and visual processing involves much more than whether you can see and hear.

What is important is how well your brain is able to understand and use the information after you see and hear it.

Now lets go deeper into the brain.

The 2 main cognitive processing channels:

After information is processed through the sensory channels, it is passed along to the cognitive processing areas for further understanding, storage (memory), and later retrieval. Although there are thought to be many different specific types of cognitive processing, research about the brain suggests that two of the most important processing areas are found in the two sides or “hemispheres” of the brain. Let’s look closely at these:

Left Brain Right Brain


Sequential/organizational processing is the main filing system in your brain and is done in the left hemisphere. It involves organizing and memorizing specific bits of information including facts, figures and formulas.

This is very much like a computer organizes and stores information. How well do you remember details (like names, addresses, facts, etc.)? How organized are you?


Conceptual/holistic processing involves looking for “the big picture”, overall patterns and underlying concepts for use in higher-order thinking, creating, and reasoning.

Conceptual/holistic filing is like throwing things into boxes with very general labels. Do you see “the big picture”? Do you understand general ideas? Are you creative and inventive?

In general, the right side of the brain does most of the thinking, reasoning, and creating. The left side organizes these thoughts and ideas for efficient storage and expression.

Left Brain Right Brain

For most people, both sides of the brain work together very well. But for many LD students, one half of their brain works much better than the other half. This causes problems learning certain kinds of information.

For example, if your right brain works much better (or faster) than your left brain, you have lots of wonderful ideas but can’t get them organized well (or fast enough) for expression (especially in writing).

On the other hand, if your left brain works better (or faster) than your right brain, you are very good at memorizing and organizing details but have trouble generating new ideas or understanding concepts.

Now let’s see how these two processing areas affect learning.

Sequential/Organizational (left-brain) processing includes:
Short-term memory for details long-term retrieval of details fine-motor coordination finding the words you want to say or write organization of your thoughts and materials writing mechanics (spelling, punctuation) reading speed/sounding out new words attention to details putting words and thoughts in order

People experiencing a general Sequential/Organizational disability often have most learning difficulties in the areas of basic reading, math computation, expressive language, and writing mechanics. Specific difficulties may include:

– handwriting

speed/clarity letter reversals spelling/mechanics letters in wrong sequence (order)

– reading

decoding (sounding our words) speed/fluency remembering details attention/concentration

– math

remembering formulas/steps

– communication

finding words for verbal or written expression

– general

planning lengthy assignments remembering details paying attention – easily distracted by surroundings remembering names of people or objects following specific directions

Is sequential/organizational processing a strength or weakness for you?

Conceptual/Holistic (right-brain) processing includes:

memory for general themes or ideas


spatial awareness

general knowledge

inferential thinking


conceptual understanding


reading comprehension

use of context




People experiencing a general conceptual/holistic processing disability often perform quite well during early school years but later experience much difficulty with reading comprehension, math reasoning, and creative writing. Specific difficulties may include:

– reading

understanding irony, inferences, sarcasm general comprehension

– math

generalizing to new situations story problems

– written language

creative writing

– communication

general language comprehension understanding humor

– general

global/general awareness attention – may focus too much on a specific area

Is conceptual/holistic processing a strength or weakness for you?

The final processing area for us to explore is Processing Speed. This refers to how fast information travels through your brain.

All LD students experience some processing speed difficulty when required to process information through their weakest “channel” or “modality”. But for other LD students, a general weakness in processing speed causes difficulty in all modalities.

It is like having your brain work at 40 miles per hour when the rest of the world (and all the information around you) is going 55 miles per hour. You just can’t keep up.

Processing Speed affects:

  • short-term memory (with time pressure)
  • long-term retrieval (with time pressure)
  • talking speed, word-finding
  • writing speed
  • reading speed
  • attention
  • reasoning (with time pressure)
  • general response speed

People experiencing a general Processing Speed disability often have learning difficulties in all academic areas due to their inability to process all types of information quickly. Specific difficulties may included

– reading

reading speed ability to stay focused while reading

– math

completing a series of problems

– written language

writing speed mechanics clarity (with time pressure)

– communication

delays in responding slow, deliberate speech word-finding difficulties

– general

coping with implied or expressed time pressures always “a step behind” difficulty maintaining attention to tasks exceeding time limits during tests  trouble with social pressures to perform “faster”

Is processing speed a strength or weakness for you?

Sensory + Cognitive = Perfect Partnership

Important!! Every task that you do requires a combination of sensory and cognitive processing. Remember, all information first enters the brain through at lease one of your senses, then goes on to the cognitive processing areas for understanding and storage. So both types of processing are used.

For example, if you look up a phone number in the telephone book you first use visual processing to get the information into your brain, then sequential processing to remember the order of the specific numbers.

So, if you have a problem with this task, it could be caused by either visual processing weakness or sequential processing weakness.

On the other hand, if you have trouble remembering numbers that someone says to you, that problem could be caused by either auditory or sequential weakness.

Here’s another example. Pretend you have just witnessed a bank robbery.

Let’s list the different things you might have “witnessed” along with the type of processing you would have used:

What you witnessed
Processing Used A man running visual + conceptual wearing green sweater visual + sequential and a mask visual + sequential He was short and thin visual + conceptual He said, “out of my way!” auditory + sequential He had a gruff voice auditory + conceptual Sounded like he was limping auditory + conceptual

Looks like your “witnessing” helped to capture this dangerous


You can see from this example that specific observations involve “sequential” processing but general observations are more “conceptual”.

As these examples demonstrate, you actually use several different processing areas for most tasks.

The overlap between processing areas may make it seem that you experience difficulty in several areas. That’s ok. What we are looking for is the one area that causes you the most difficulty most of the time.

The overlapping relationships between the sensory and cognitive processing modalities is shown below:

Important clue!! If you have a weakness in one channel or modality, the others modalities become “strengths” that you can use to “compensate”. For example, if Auditory processing is a weakness, Visual processing is probably a pretty good strength. And if Sequential processing is a weakness, Conceptual processing is probably a strength. This relationship will become very important when we explore ways of making learning easier for you.

“So, we have discovered that the main areas of information processing disability include”:





Processing speed

“And we have learned that every learning task requires a combination of at least one area of sensory processing and one area of cognitive processing. Some tasks actually required several different types of processing at the same time!”

“Have we uncovered your area of greatest processing difficulty?”

Most LD students will recognize one of the 5 processing areas discussed in this chapter as their biggest problem.

Once in a while an LD student will have a very specific processing weakness that does not fall into one of the areas covered in this chapter. If this is the case for you, please consult your case manager or school psychologist to find out more about your processing style.

What about Haptic Processing?

Many LD specialists refer to haptic processing as being very important for LD students. Haptic processing involves learning through touch, feel, and movement. And indeed, many LD students are able to learn very well through their “haptic” channel. But haptic processing is not really a separate processing area but is actually a combination of the sense of touch and the conceptual/holistic processing modality. In other words, a student with strong conceptual/holistic processing and a good sense of touch will learn very well “haptically”. But, since very little “haptic” information is available in school, haptic processing is not considered an area of disability. But you certainly may be a very good “haptic learner”.

“Well, detectives. Since processing is the “key” to this mystery, then it would seem that the mystery has been solved! Right?”

“Wrong! I have “peeked” ahead (as any good detective would) and found many more pages to explore. There must still be more to this exciting mystery!”

“Let’s continue, shall we?”

Review Questions:
1. What are the five areas of “sensory” processing discussed in this chapter?

2. Which two sensory processing areas are most important for learning?

3. How is “visual processing” different from how well you can “see”?

4.  How is “auditory processing” different from how well you can “hear”?

5. Can your other senses (touch, smell, taste) be used for learning?

6. What are the two “cognitive” areas of information processing discussed in this chapter?

7. Which cognitive processing modality is best used for memorizing specific facts?

8. Which cognitive processing modality is most “creative” at developing new ideas or inventions?

9. Why does “processing speed” affect all LD students?

10. What combination of processing areas is required to learn a list of spelling words?

Return to Table of Contents
Proceed to Chapter 5 -Using Accommodations

Published with Permission Of Writer: Scott L. Crouse, Ph.D. A website dedicated to the advancement of practical knowledge and understanding about the often mysterious world of Learning Disabilities. 

Copyright � 1996 Scott L. Crouse