The following text is an adapted from: Boundless.com (n.d.) Textbooks/ Boundless Psychology/Neurodevelopmental Disorders/Specific Learning Disorder. CC-BY-SA 4.0
Specific learning disorder includes difficulties in general academic skills, specifically in the areas of reading, mathematics, or written expression.
Specific learning disorder is a classification of disorders in which a person has difficulty learning in a typical manner within one of several domains. Often referred to as learning disabilities, learning disorders are characterized by inadequate development of specific academic, language, and speech skills. Types of learning disorders include difficulties in reading (dyslexia), mathematics (dyscalculia), and writing (dysgraphia).
Dyslexia, sometimes called reading disorder, is the most common learning disability; of all students with specific learning disabilities, 70%–80% have deficits in reading. The term “developmental dyslexia” is often used as a catch-all term, but researchers assert that dyslexia is just one of several types of reading disabilities. A reading disability can affect any part of the reading process, including word recognition, word decoding, reading speed, prosody (oral reading with expression), and reading comprehension.
Dyscalculia is a form of math-related disability that involves difficulties with learning math-related concepts (such as quantity, place value, and time), memorizing math-related facts, organizing numbers, and understanding how problems are organized on the page. People with dyscalculia are often referred to as having poor “number sense.”
The term “dysgraphia” is often used as an overarching term for all disorders of written expression. Individuals with dysgraphia typically show multiple writing-related deficiencies, such as grammatical and punctuation errors within sentences, poor paragraph organization, multiple spelling errors, and excessively poor penmanship.
DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria
The diagnosis of specific learning disorder was added to the DSM-5 in 2013. The DSM does not require that a single domain of difficulty (such as reading, mathematics, or written expression) be identified—instead, it is a single diagnosis that describes a collection of potential difficulties with general academic skills, simply including detailed specifiers for the areas of reading, mathematics, and writing. Academic performance must be below average in at least one of these fields, and the symptoms may also interfere with daily life or work. In addition, the learning difficulties cannot be attributed to other sensory, motor, developmental, or neurological disorders.
The causes of learning disabilities are not well understood. However, some potential causes or contributing factors are:
- heredity. Learning disabilities often run in the family—children with learning disabilities are likely to have parents or other relatives with similar difficulties.
- problems during pregnancy and birth. Learning disabilities can result from anomalies in the developing brain, illness or injury, fetal exposure to alcohol or drugs, low birth weight, oxygen deprivation, or premature or prolonged labor.
- accidents after birth. Learning disabilities can also be caused by head injuries, malnutrition, or toxic exposure (such as to heavy metals or pesticides).
The following text is an excerpt from: Educational Psychology. Chapter 5 Authored by: Kelvin Seifert and Rosemary Sutton. Located at: https://open.umn.edu/opentextbooks/BookDetail.aspx?bookId=153. License: CC BY: Attribution
A specific learning disability (or SLD) is a specific impairment of academic learning that interferes with a specific aspect of schoolwork and that reduces a student’s academic performance significantly. An LD shows itself as a major discrepancy between a student’s ability and some feature of achievement: the student may be delayed in reading, writing, listening, speaking, or doing mathematics, but not in all of these at once. A learning problem is not considered a learning disability if it stems from physical, sensory, or motor handicaps, or from generalized intellectual impairment. It is also not an LD if the learning problem really reflects the challenges of learning English as a second language. Genuine LDs are the learning problems left over after these other possibilities are accounted for or excluded. Typically, a student with an LD has not been helped by teachers’ ordinary efforts to assist the student when he or she falls behind academically—though what counts as an “ordinary effort”, of course, differs among teachers, schools, and students. Most importantly, though, an LD relates to a fairly specific area of academic learning. A student may be able to read and compute well enough, for example, but not be able to write.
LDs are by far the most common form of special educational need, accounting for half of all students with special needs in the United States and anywhere from 5 to 20 per cent of all students, depending on how the numbers are estimated (United States Department of Education, 2005; Ysseldyke & Bielinski, 2002). Students with LDs are so common, in fact, that most teachers regularly encounter at least one per class in any given school year, regardless of the grade level they teach.
Defining learning disabilities clearly
With so many students defined as having learning disabilities, it is not surprising that the term itself becomes ambiguous in the truest sense of “having many meanings”. Specific features of LDs vary considerably. Any of the following students, for example, qualify as having a learning disability, assuming that they have no other disease, condition, or circumstance to account for their behavior:
- Albert, an eighth-grader, has trouble solving word problems that he reads, but can solve them easily if he hears them orally.
- Bill, also in eighth grade, has the reverse problem: he can solve word problems only when he can read them, not when he hears them.
- Carole, a fifth-grader, constantly makes errors when she reads textual material aloud, either leaving out words, adding words, or substituting her own words for the printed text.
- Emily, in seventh grade, has terrible handwriting; her letters vary in size and wobble all over the page, much like a first- or second-grader.
- Denny reads very slowly, even though he is in fourth grade. His comprehension suffers as a result, because he sometimes forgets what he read at the beginning of a sentence by the time he reaches the end.
- Garnet’s spelling would have to be called “inventive”, even though he has practiced conventionally correct spelling more than other students. Garnet is in sixth grade.
- Harmin, a ninth-grader has particular trouble decoding individual words and letters if they are unfamiliar; he reads conceal as “concol” and alternate as “alfoonite”.
- Irma, a tenth-grader, adds multiple-digit numbers as if they were single-digit numbers stuck together: 42 + 59 equals 911 rather than 101, though 23 + 54 correctly equals 77.
With so many expressions of LDs, it is not surprising that educators sometimes disagree about their nature and about the kind of help students need as a consequence. Such controversy may be inevitable because LDs by definition are learning problems with no obvious origin. There is good news, however, from this state of affairs, in that it opens the way to try a variety of solutions for helping students with learning disabilities.
Assisting students with learning disabilities
There are various ways to assist students with learning disabilities, depending not only on the nature of the disability, of course, but also on the concepts or theory of learning guiding you. Take Irma, the girl mentioned above who adds two-digit numbers as if they were one digit numbers. Stated more formally, Irma adds two-digit numbers without carrying digits forward from the ones column to the tens column, or from the tens to the hundreds column. Exhibit 4 shows the effect that her strategy has on one of her homework papers. What is going on here and how could a teacher help Irma?
Directions: Add the following numbers.
Three out of the six problems are done correctly, even though Irma seems to use an incorrect strategy systematically on all six problems.
Exhibit 4: Irma’s math homework about two-digit addition
Behaviorism: reinforcement for wrong strategies
One possible approach comes from the behaviorist theory. Irma may persist with the single-digit strategy because it has been reinforced a lot in the past. Maybe she was rewarded so much for adding single-digit numbers (3+5, 7+8 etc.) correctly that she generalized this skill to two-digit problems—in fact over generalized it. This explanation is plausible because she would still get many two-digit problems right, as you can confirm by looking at it. In behaviorist terms, her incorrect strategy would still be reinforced, but now only on a “partial schedule of reinforcement”. Partial reinforcement schedules are especially slow to extinguish, so Irma persists seemingly indefinitely with treating two-digit problems as if they were single-digit problems.
From the point of view of behaviorism, changing Irma’s behavior is tricky since the desired behavior (borrowing correctly) rarely happens and therefore cannot be reinforced very often. It might therefore help for the teacher to reward behaviors that compete directly with Irma’s inappropriate strategy. The teacher might reduce credit for simply finding the correct answer, for example, and increase credit for a student showing her work—including the work of carrying digits forward correctly. Or the teacher might make a point of discussing Irma’s math work with Irma frequently, so as to create more occasions when she can praise Irma for working problems correctly.
Metacognition and responding reflectively
Part of Irma’s problem may be that she is thoughtless about doing her math: the minute she sees numbers on a worksheet, she stuffs them into the first arithmetic procedure that comes to mind. Her learning style, that is, seems too impulsive and not reflective enough. Her style also suggests a failure of metacognition, which is her self-monitoring of her own thinking and its effectiveness. As a solution, the teacher could encourage Irma to think out loud when she completes two-digit problems—literally get her to “talk her way through” each problem. If participating in these conversations was sometimes impractical, the teacher might also arrange for a skilled classmate to take her place some of the time. Cooperation between Irma and the classmate might help the classmate as well, or even improve overall social relationships in the classroom.
Constructivism, mentoring, and the zone of proximal development
Perhaps Irma has in fact learned how to carry digits forward, but not learned the procedure well enough to use it reliably on her own; so she constantly falls back on the earlier, better-learned strategy of single-digit addition. In that case her problem can be seen in the constructivist terms. In essence, Irma has lacked appropriate mentoring from someone more expert than herself, someone who can create a “zone of proximal development” in which she can display and consolidate her skills more successfully. She still needs mentoring or “assisted coaching” more than independent practice. The teacher can arrange some of this in much the way she encourages to be more reflective, either by working with Irma herself or by arranging for a classmate or even a parent volunteer to do so. In this case, however, whoever serves as mentor should not only listen, but also actively offer Irma help. The help has to be just enough to insure that Irma completes two-digit problems correctly —neither more nor less. Too much help may prevent Irma from taking responsibility for learning the new strategy, but too little may cause her to take the responsibility prematurely.
(Seifert & Sutton, 2009)
Technology for Students with Learning Disabilities
[TheDOITCenter], (2015, Aug. 20). Working Together: Computers and People with Learning Disabilities. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/-uaEdaD5wJE Creative Commons Attribution license (reuse allowed)
The following section is an excerpt from: Center for Parent Information and Resources, (2015), Learning Disabilities (LD). Newark, NJ, Author. Retrieved 3.28.19 from https://www.parentcenterhub.org/ld/ (public domain)
When Sara was in the first grade, her teacher started teaching the students how to read. Sara’s parents were really surprised when Sara had a lot of trouble. She was bright and eager, so they thought that reading would come easily to her. It didn’t. She couldn’t match the letters to their sounds or combine the letters to create words.
Sara’s problems continued into second grade. She still wasn’t reading, and she was having trouble with writing, too. The school asked Sara’s mom for permission to evaluate Sara to find out what was causing her problems. Sara’s mom gave permission for the evaluation.
The school conducted an evaluation and learned that Sara has a learning disability. She started getting special help in school right away.
Sara’s still getting that special help. She works with a reading specialist and a resource room teacher every day. She’s in the fourth grade now, and she’s made real progress! She is working hard to bring her reading and writing up to grade level. With help from the school, she’ll keep learning and doing well.
What are Learning Disabilities?
Learning disability is a general term that describes specific kinds of learning problems. A learning disability can cause a person to have trouble learning and using certain skills. The skills most often affected are: reading, writing, listening, speaking, reasoning, and doing math.
“Learning disabilities” is not the only term used to describe these difficulties. Others include:
- dyslexia—which refers to difficulties in reading;
- dysgraphia—which refers to difficulties in writing; and
- dyscalcula—which refers to difficulties in math.
All of these are considered learning disabilities.
Learning disabilities (LD) vary from person to person. One person with LD may not have the same kind of learning problems as another person with LD. Sara, in our example above, has trouble with reading and writing. Another person with LD may have problems with understanding math. Still another person may have trouble in both of these areas, as well as with understanding what people are saying.
Researchers think that learning disabilities are caused by differences in how a person’s brain works and how it processes information. Children with learning disabilities are not “dumb” or “lazy.” In fact, they usually have average or above average intelligence. Their brains just process information differently.
There is no “cure” for learning disabilities. They are lifelong. However, children with LD can be high achievers and can be taught ways to get around the learning disability. With the right help, children with LD can and do learn successfully.
What Are the Signs of a Learning Disability?
While there is no one “sign” that a person has a learning disability, there are certain clues. We’ve listed a few below. Most relate to elementary school tasks, because learning disabilities tend to be identified in elementary school. This is because school focuses on the very things that may be difficult for the child—reading, writing, math, listening, speaking, reasoning. A child probably won’t show all of these signs, or even most of them. However, if a child shows a number of these problems, then parents and the teacher should consider the possibility that the child has a learning disability.
Characteristics of SLD
When a child has a learning disability, he or she:
- may have trouble learning the alphabet, rhyming words, or connecting letters to their sounds;
- may make many mistakes when reading aloud, and repeat and pause often;
- may not understand what he or she reads;
- may have real trouble with spelling;
- may have very messy handwriting or hold a pencil awkwardly;
- may struggle to express ideas in writing;
- may learn language late and have a limited vocabulary;
- may have trouble remembering the sounds that letters make or hearing slight differences between words;
- may have trouble understanding jokes, comic strips, and sarcasm;
- may have trouble following directions;
- may mispronounce words or use a wrong word that sounds similar;
- may have trouble organizing what he or she wants to say or not be able to think of the word he or she needs for writing or conversation;
- may not follow the social rules of conversation, such as taking turns, and may stand too close to the listener;
- may confuse math symbols and misread numbers;
- may not be able to retell a story in order (what happened first, second, third); or
- may not know where to begin a task or how to go on from there.
Additional Evaluation Procedures for LD
Now for the confusing part! The ways in which children are identified as having a learning disability have changed over the years. Until recently, the most common approach was to use a “severe discrepancy” formula. This referred to the gap, or discrepancy, between the child’s intelligence or aptitude and his or her actual performance. However, in the 2004 reauthorization of IDEA, how LD is determined has been expanded. IDEA now requires that states adopt criteria that:
- must not require the use of a severe discrepancy between intellectual ability and achievement in determining whether a child has a specific learning disability;
- must permit local educational agencies (LEAs) to use a process based on the child’s response to scientific, research-based intervention; and
- may permit the use of other alternative research-based procedures for determining whether a child has a specific learning disability.
Basically, what this means is that, instead of using a severe discrepancy approach to determining LD, school systems may provide the student with a research-based intervention and keep close track of the student’s performance. Analyzing the student’s response to that intervention (RTI) may then be considered by school districts in the process of identifying that a child has a learning disability.
There are also other aspects required when evaluating children for LD. These include observing the student in his or her learning environment (including the regular education setting) to document academic performance and behavior in the areas of difficulty.
This entire fact sheet could be devoted to what IDEA requires when children are evaluated for a learning disability. Instead, let us refer you to a training module on the subject. It’s quite detailed, but if you would like to know those details, read through Module 11 of the Building the Legacy curriculum on IDEA 2004. Identification of Specific Learning Disabilities is available online at the CPIR,
What About School?
Once a child is evaluated and found eligible for special education and related services, school staff and parents meet and develop what is known as an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. This document is very important in the educational life of a child with learning disabilities. It describes the child’s needs and the services that the public school system will provide free of charge to address those needs.
Supports or changes in the classroom (called accommodations) help most students with LD. Common accommodations are listed in the “Tips for Teachers” section below. Accessible instructional materials (AIM) are among the most helpful to students whose LD affects their ability to read and process printed language. Thanks to IDEA 2004, there are numerous places to turn now for AIMs. We’ve listed one central source in the “Resources Especially for Teachers” section.
Assistive technology can also help many students work around their learning disabilities. Assistive technology can range from “low-tech” equipment such as tape recorders to “high-tech” tools such as reading machines (which read books aloud) and voice recognition systems (which allow the student to “write” by talking to the computer). To learn more about AT for students who have learning disabilities, visit LD Online’s Technology section, at: http://www.ldonline.org/indepth/technology
Tips and Resources for Teachers
Learn as much as you can about the different types of LD. The resources and organizations listed below can help you identify specific techniques and strategies to support the student educationally.
Seize the opportunity to make an enormous difference in this student’s life! Find out and emphasize what the student’s strengths and interests are. Give the student positive feedback and lots of opportunities for practice.
Provide instruction and accommodations to address the student’s special needs. Examples:
- breaking tasks into smaller steps, and giving directions verbally and in writing;
- giving the student more time to finish schoolwork or take tests;
- letting the student with reading problems use instructional materials that are accessible to those with print disabilities;
- letting the student with listening difficulties borrow notes from a classmate or use a tape recorder; and
- letting the student with writing difficulties use a computer with specialized software that spell checks, grammar checks, or recognizes speech.
Learn about the different testing modifications that can really help a student with LD show what he or she has learned.
Teach organizational skills, study skills, and learning strategies. These help all students but are particularly helpful to those with LD.
Work with the student’s parents to create an IEP tailored to meet the student’s needs.
Establish a positive working relationship with the student’s parents. Through regular communication, exchange information about the student’s progress at school.
(CPIR, 2015, LD)
Other readings to include in your summary:
Characteristics of dyslexia and teaching strategies
- International Dyslexia Association (IDA). (2017) Dyslexia in the Classroom What Every Teacher Needs to Know.– you will want to save this comprehensive resource for future reference.
In the Project IDEAL reading, focus on the Impact on Learning section which is part of the characteristics of the disability. Project Ideal always has a listing of related organization for the Supports and Related Service Providers section of the summary. The Assistive Technology listed is very appropriate for students with general SLD.
- Project IDEAL, (n.d.) Specific Learning Disabilities. Retrieved from http://www.projectidealonline.org/v/specific-learning-disabilities/
Understood.com has a good amount basic information on dyscalculia and dysgraphia. These resources will help you with the characteristics and strategies sections of the summary.
- Understood. (n.d). Understanding Dyscalculia. Retrieved from https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/dyscalculia/understanding-dyscalculia
- Understood, (n.d.) Understanding Dysgraphia. Retrieved from https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/dysgraphia/understanding-dysgraphia
Go to the course Disability Summary Overview for SLD for specific instructions on developing your SLD summary.