Specific Learning Disability


The Federal (IDEA) definition of  specific learning disability is a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.

The Federal (IDEA) definition of  specific learning disability does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.


While a certain number of students struggle due to basic genetic limits and others struggle because of poor or inadequate instruction, the largest single cause of learning disabilities is weak underlying cognitive skills.

Research indicates that the causes of weak cognitive skills are diverse and complex. New evidence seems to show that most learning disabilities do not stem from a single, specific area of the brain, but from difficulties in bringing together information from various brain regions. Therefore, causes of learning disabilities may be as diverse as the types of learning disabilities



Prevention of learning disabilities before they occur involves reducing the chances of brain injury, improving teachers' skills in instruction and teaching parenting skills.

Primary prevention may reduce the number of children who have learning disabilities or lessen the severity of the disabilities. However, even if these preventive measures are implemented learning disabilities will still occur in some children.  More research is needed to explore the root causes of learning disabilities to be able to prevent them.



The federal definition of specific learning disabilities is open to a wide variety of interpretations. To more precisely quantify child learning disabilities and to qualify students for federal special education funds and services, a "deficit performance standard" has been widely adopted. In this model, a student's general IQ score is measured. Their academic performance is also tested using a variety of achievement tests. If the actual achievement level is 2 or more years behind the expected level (based on the IQ score), a specific learning disability is presumed to be present and the cause of the deficit.


Generally, a person with learning disabilities experiences difficulties in study skills, writing skills, oral skills, reading skills, math skills, and social skills.Children with learning disabilities may exhibit some of the following conceptual deficits:  

·        Doesn't make connections in similar learning concepts. E.g., 5+3=8 becomes an unknown when asked what 3+5 equals.

·        Has difficulty comparing things or classifying and sorting items according to a specific criteria

·        Time concepts present difficulty, before, after, tomorrow, last week etc.

·        Doesn't get jokes or ideas in humorous situations

·        Limitations in creativity and imagination

·        Slow to respond

·        Comments are often off track

·        Difficulty thinking in a logical or sequential manner

·        Difficulty with number concepts

·        Difficulty learning new skills, relying on memorization

·        Confusing basic words (dog, cat, run)

·        Poor coordination, 'accident prone', unaware of physical surroundings

·        Having a hard time learning the connection between letters and sounds (Phonetics)

Realizing their inabilities may result in low self-esteem which greatly affects the social skills of people with learning disabilities. They might have impulsive behavior and be disorientated in time.


Implementation of Instructional Strategies

Instructional strategies require a great deal of clarification and one to one support. Specific strategies include:

  • Always ask questions in a clarifying manner, and then have the students with learning disabilities describe his or her understanding of the questions.
  • Use an overhead projector or computer with an outline of the lesson or unit of the day.
  • Provide clear photocopies of your notes and overhead transparencies, if the student benefits from such strategies.
  • Provide students with chapter outlines or study guides that cue them to key points in their readings.
  • Provide a detailed course syllabus before class begins. Ask questions in a way that helps the student gain confidence.
  • Keep oral instructions logical and concise.
  • Frequently verbalize what is being written on the chalkboard.
  • Establish the clarity of understanding that the student has about class assignments.
  • Give assignments both in written and oral form.


Carefully selected assistive technology can be important component of instruction for children with specific learning disabilities. Assistive technology can be any device, piece of equipment or system that helps bypass, work around or compensate for an individual's specific learning deficits. Assistive technology doesn't cure or eliminate learning difficulties, but it can help the individual child reach his/ her potential because it may allow them to capitalize on strengths and bypass areas of difficulty. For example, a student who struggles with reading but who has good listening skills might benefit from listening to audio books.


Effects on Adolescents

Some children develop sophisticated ways of covering up their learning issues, so the problem doesn't get addressed until the teen years when schoolwork and other aspects of their lives get more complicated. For most teenagers, the first sign of learning disabilities occurs when they notice that there is a disconnect between how much they studied for a test and how well they performed.  Without proper intervention, these teens often end up frustrated and work far below their abilities. This leads to a loss of self-esteem and self-confidence.

Teenagers identified with learning disabilities are more likely then their non-disabled peers to drop out of high school, become juvenile delinquents, require treatment for substance abuse and have difficulty finding employment.


Effects on Adults

Adults with a specific learning disability exhibit characteristics that may cause problems in daily living.  Academic skills that were not mastered during the school-age years remain difficult. Problems may arise or continue in reading, math, spelling, and writing.


In each case, the source of the problem(s) may be the underlying dynamics of the learning disability including psychological processes.  These psychological processes include cognition, perception, language, attention, motor abilities, and social skills. These processes have a bearing on academic skills and may impact all areas of adult functioning at home, at work, or in the community.


It is important to note that many adults with learning disabilities are successful, such as Walt Disney, Alexander Graham Bell, and Winston ChurchillThey have succeeded in the professions, in business and industry, in politics and the arts, and some who have become well-known entrepreneurs. 



Research is continuing on the causes of learning disabilities. Preliminary findings are helping in the development of more effective preventive measures and teaching strategies. This research is in the following areas:


·        Genetic influences:  Experts have found that learning disabilities tend to run in families and they think that heredity could play a role. However, researchers are still debating whether learning disabilities are, in fact, genetic, or if they show up in families because children learn and model what their parents do.

·        Brain developmentSome researchers think that learning disabilities may be traced to brain development, both before and after birth. Problems such as low birth weight, lack of oxygen, or premature birth may have something to do with learning disabilities.

·        Environmental impacts:  Children are susceptible to environmental toxins (poisons) that may have an impact on learning disabilities.  Poor nutrition early in life also may lead to learning disabilities later in life.


Adopt "Response to Intervention" or "Response to Instruction" (RTI) Models

IDEA 2004 states, “when determining whether a child has a specific learning disability ... a local educational agency shall not be required to take into consideration whether a child has a severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability" ... a school "may use a process that determines if the child responds to scientific, research-based intervention as part of the evaluation procedures ..." (Section 1414(b)(6)). (SeeWrightslaw: Special Education Law, page 97)

In the explanation and commentary to the proposed IDEA 2004 regulations, the U. S. Department of Education “strongly recommends” that schools use a response to intervention model that

…uses a process based on systematic assessment of the student’s response to high quality, research-based general education instruction…that incorporate response to a research-based intervention…
Identification models that incorporate response to intervention represent a shift in special education toward the goals of better achievement and behavioral outcomes for students identified with SLD…” Commentary and Explanation of the Proposed Regulations for IDEA 2004

Wright & Wright (2011).  What You Need to Know About IDEA 2004 Specific Learning Disabilities: Discrepancy 

                                & Response to Intervention Models. Retrieved from 

                              <http://http://www.wrightslaw.com/idea/art/ld.rti.discrep.htm>. 21 July 2012.