Learning Disabilities

Megan Fenerty, Katie Johnston, and Maryann Schuppe



At a conference in 1963, Samuel Kirk, one of the pioneers in the field of special education, coined the phrase” learning disabilities” as a way of settling a disputed controversy regarding children with average to above average intelligence who were experiencing significant learning difficulties. These difficulties were unpredicted and without apparent explanation and most significantly, they were not the result of mental retardation, impairments of hearing or vision, motor disorders and medical conditions.
Almost 50 years later, learning disabilities are still a controversial and often misunderstood educational issue.

Brief History of Learning Disabilities:

The first references to what would later become learning disabilities targeted reading difficulties. In 1877, the term "word blindness"; is coined by German neurologist Adolf Kussamaul to describe "a complete text blindness…although the power of sight, the intellect and the powers of speech are intact." Later in 1887, German physician Rudolf Berlin refines the definition of reading problems, introducing the term "dyslexia" to describe a "very great difficulty in interpreting written or printed symbols." In 1895, ophthalmologist James Hinshelwood describes in medical journal, The Lancet, the case of acquired word blindness, where a 58-year-old man awoke one morning to discover that he could no longer read. Hinshelwood continued to study word blindness in children, and advocated for early identification of these children by teachers. (LDonline, 2010).
As did most of his colleagues who ended up dedicating their careers to the study of learning disabilities, Dr. Kirk began his career in the early 1930s working with mentally retarded children in institutional settings. At the time, children who had what we later be termed “learning disabilities” were considered feebleminded. The fact that they could not or would not learn as other children, despite the absence of any obvious defect made these children suspect and maligned. As the reading researcher Marion Monroe observed in 1932, “psychology and education had two primary explanations for children who did not learn under normal instructional circumstances. They were either lazy or stupid.” (Dansforth, S., 2009).
At the time, the study of mental deficiency was framed within the intellectual testing methods of French psychologist, Alfred Binet. Later, Lewis M. Turman of Stanford University refined the test and called it the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test, a precursor to the modern day I.Q. test. Turman and Henry Goddard of the Vineland Training School in New Jersey believed that intelligence was “a unitary, innate intellectual trait that remained unchanged over time and greatly dictated the course of a person’s and economic and social career.” (Dansforth, S., 2009).
A radical concept in thinking of about mental deficiencies occurred when Drs. Newell Kephart and Heinz Werner at the Wayne County Training School in Northville, Michigan, studied the psychological effects of brain injury in a group of mentally retarded children. Among the symptoms observed were distractibility and hyperactivity. Their work culminated in the 1947 publication of “Psychopathology and Education of the Brain Injured Child.”
These studies in the 40 and 50’s led to many theories revolving around brain injury and brain dysfunction, but there was little agreement among learning professionals and researchers. Parents were eager to find solutions and more palatable labels for their children who continued to have learning difficulties. When Dr, Kirk first used the term “learning disabilities” in 1963, there was finally an identity of sorts to this previously undefined occurrence.
In 1969, Congress passed the Children with Specific Learning Disabilities Act, which is included in the Education of the Handicapped Act of 1970 (PL 91-230). This is the first time federal law mandated support services for students with learning disabilities. Then in 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-142) was passed, which mandated a free, appropriate public education for all students. This became IDEA in 1990. In 2004, IDEA was reauthorized, and among the many new provisions for special education students, were new and specific objectives for identifying and implementing instruction to children with learning disabilities.

Definition of Learning Disabilities
Two of the most significant areas of confusion and disagreement within the field of learning disabilities relate to definition and identification. The definition has been a topic of debate because in the eyes of many learning professionals, concepts inherent in the definition--as well as those excluded--greatly affect assessment, evaluation, identification, placement, and service. In 1975, Congress passed Public Law 94-142, now known as IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), which defined learning disabilities. Although the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) included many changes to the identification procedures, the definition remained the same.

The federal definition of learning disability is as follows:

GENERAL-- The term “specific learning disability” means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using language, spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.
DISORDERS INCLUDED­—Such term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.
DISORDERS NOT INCLUDED­— Such term does not include a learning problem that is primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage. (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 10997, Sec.602 (26), p. 13.)
It should be noted that this definition provided the original basis for legislation and funding that resulted in the establishment of educational programs for students with learning disabilities, as well as progressive changes in teacher training. (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 1991). However, many professionals and organizations believed that this definition was not clear enough and, in fact, misleading.
In particular, the references to the areas of psychological process; omission of the following concepts: intrinsic nature of LDs, acknowledgment of central nervous system dysfunction, life-long disability, self-regulation and social interaction problems; and the inclusion of a confusing and unclear exclusionary clause. (Hallahan, D. 2009).
In 1990, the National Joint Committees on Learning Disabilities formally adopted the current definition and in doing so, developed the following five constructs to help define learning disabilities and clear up the ambiguities. (National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities. (1998). Operationalizing the NJCLD definition of learning disabilities for ongoing assessment in schools. Asha, 40 (Suppl. 18), in press.)

The Five Constructs

1. Learning disabilities are heterogeneous, both within and across individuals. Intra-individual differences involve varied profiles of learning strength and need and/or shifts across the life span within individuals. Inter-individual differences involve different manifestations of learning disabilities for different individuals.

2. Learning disabilities result in significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, and/or mathematical skills. Such difficulties are evident when an individual’s appropriate levels of effort do not result in reasonable progress given the opportunity for effective educational instruction and with the recognition that all individuals learn at a different pace and with differing effort. Significant difficulty cannot be determined solely by a quantitative test score.

3. Learning disabilities are intrinsic to the individual. They are presumed to be related to differences in central nervous system development. They do not disappear over time, but may range in expression and severity at different life stages.

4. Learning disabilities may occur concomitantly with other disabilities that do not, by themselves, constitute a learning disability. For example, difficulty with self-regulatory behaviors, social perception, and social interactions may occur for many reasons. Some social interaction problems result from learning disabilities; others do not. Individuals with other disabilities, such as sensory impairments, attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, mental retardation, and serious emotional disturbance, may also have learning disabilities, but such conditions do not cause or constitute learning disabilities.

5. Learning disabilities are not caused by extrinsic influences. Inconsistent or insufficient instruction or a lack of instructional experience cause learning difficulties, but not learning disabilities. However, individuals who have had inconsistent or insufficient instruction may also have learning disabilities. The challenge is to document that inadequate or insufficient instruction is not the primary cause of a learning disability. Individuals from all cultural and linguistic backgrounds may also have learning disabilities; therefore, assessments must be designed acknowledging this diversity in cul ture and language, and examiners who test children from each background must be sensitive to such factors and use practices that are individualized and appropriate for each child.

Taking into account the above considerations, the NJCLD definition reads accordingly:
Learning disabilities is a generic term that refers to a heterogeneous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical abilities. These disorders are intrinsic to the individual, presumed to be due to central nervous system dysfunction, and may occur across the life span. Problems in self-regulatory behaviors, social perception, and social interaction may exist with learning disabilities but do not by themselves constitute a learning disability. Although learning disabilities may occur concomitantly with other handicapping conditions (for example, sensory impairment, mental retardation, serious emotional disturbance), or with extrinsic influences (such as cultural differences, insufficient or inappropriate instruction), they are not the result of those conditions or influences. (National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities, 1990).


Identification processes for determining learning disabilities have been in transition during the past ten years, especially with the reauthorization of IDEA in 2004. The traditional method of identification had been achievement–ability discrepancy: determining if there was a wide enough gap between intellectual ability and academic performance was reason to label a child learning disabled. With the sweeping changes of IDEA 2004 and No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a government preferred process of response to intervention (RTI) was instituted. A discussion of this topic in more detail follows.
Most Common Learning Disabilities
Dyslexia – a language-based disability in which a person has trouble understanding written words. It may also be referred to as reading disability or reading disorder.
Dyscalculia – a mathematical disability in which a person has a difficult time solving arithmetic problems and grasping math concepts.
Dysgraphia – a writing disability in which a person finds it hard to form letters or write within a defined space.
Auditory and Visual Processing Disorders – sensory disabilities in which a person has difficulty understanding language despite normal hearing and vision.
Nonverbal Learning Disabilities – a neurological disorder which originates in the right hemisphere of the brain, causing problems with visual-spatial, intuitive, organizational, evaluative and holistic processing functions.

Facts about learning disabilities
• Fifteen percent of the U.S. population, or one in seven Americans, has some type of learning disability, according to the National Institutes of Health.
• Difficulty with basic reading and language skills are the most common learning disabilities. As many as 80% of students with learning disabilities have reading problems.
• Learning disabilities often run in families.
• Learning disabilities are distinct from other disabilities such as mental retardation, autism, deafness, blindness, and behavioral disorders which are not learning disabilities. They are also not a result of gaps in education or insufficient teaching.
• Attention disorders, such as Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and learning disabilities often occur at the same time, but the two disorders are not the same. (LDOnline, 2010)

An Analysis on the Perspectives of Identifying Learning Disabilities: Achievement-Ability Discrepancy Model vs. Response To Intervention Model

As stated under the definition of learning disabilities (LD), one of the two areas of confusion and disagreement in the field of LD relates to the identification of LD. According to an October 2000 publication of “Discrepancy Approaches for Identifying Learning Disabilities: Quick Turn Around Project Forum” by Judy A. Schrag, “This population [of students labeled as learning disabled] now makes up more than half of all students with disabilities served under the provisions of IDEA” (4). Conversation in the field has shifted towards the identification of learning disabilities because of the astounding increase in the number of students who are labeled as learning disabled. Identification becomes an issue simply because this is arguably far too many students being identified as learning disabled. The issues regarding the identification of LD include over-identification, variability, specificity, conceptual considerations, discrepancy issues, early identification, and local implementation (Scruggs & Mastropieri, 2002). An analysis of the achievement-ability discrepancy model of identification and the response to intervention model of identification allows us to better examine these shortcomings of identification as well as seek alternate methods so that students with and without LD are being best served.

Achievement-Ability Discrepancy Model
Historically the most predominantly and often used model of the identification of LD is the achievement-ability discrepancy model (Mastropieri, 1987; Kavale, 2001; Schrag, 2007). A simple definition of the achievement-ability discrepancy model is a method of identification of LD “indicated by the presence of a difference between aptitude and achievement, represented in the federal regulatory definition as a severe discrepancy between IQ and achievement test scores” (Fletcher et. al., 2004, p. 305). In other words, if a student’s IQ scores and achievement test scores exhibit a large enough statistical discrepancy, then the student can be labeled as learning disabled. Although there is no one achievement-ability discrepancy indicator commonly used among all educators, various methods exist for calculating achievement-ability discrepancies (see Horn & O’Donnell, 1984). This method has been discussed in terms of advantages and disadvantages in recent years.
Using the achievement-ability discrepancy method for the identification of LD has advantages that have allowed this method to persist since LD was federally defined. The four main arguments for the use of the achievement-ability discrepancy model are that the federal government mandates this in their discussion of LD and therefore all fifty states are currently using methods of achievement-ability discrepancy for the identification of LD (Schrag, 2007; Kavale, 2001; Fletcher et. al., 2004), there is an element of efficiency and convenience when using a mathematical formula for the identification of LD (Kavale, 2001), there is an abundant amount of various achievement-ability discrepancy indicators available for use (Horn & O’Donnell, 1984), and many argue that LD can not be identified without some assessment of cognitive processes (Fletcher et. al., 2004; Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2005). In short, these advantages of the achievement-ability discrepancy model allow for comparison across states, utility of multiple forms of achievement-ability discrepancy analyses, and a direct connection to the definition of LD as a discrepancy between the cognitive ability of students and their achievement in school.
While advantages of using the achievement-ability discrepancy model for identifying LD exist, many current practitioners argue that there are many more disadvantages to this model. The most significant disadvantage to the use of this model is the “wait to fail” culture it imposes on students. In the article “Alternative Approaches to the Definition and Identification of Learning Disabilities: Some Questions and Answers” (2004), Fletcher et. al. describes the “wait to fail” mode as, “The IQ discrepancy criterion is potentially harmful to students as it results in delaying intervention until the student’s achievement is sufficiently low so that the discrepancy is achieved” (310). That is, by the time the identification of LD is made, students have already experienced instruction for far too long with out any interventions necessary to keep the student achieving at a normal rate. Other prominent disadvantages of the achievement-ability discrepancy model include the degree of measurement and statistical error in discrepancy formulas that will result in the misidentification (either over- or under-) of LD (Scruggs & Mastropieri, 2002; Mastropieri, 1987; Fletcher et. al., 2005), the significant consumption of resources and funds to carry out testing (Fletcher et. al., 2004), and the inconsideration of socioeconomic or environmental advantage or disadvantage of students around the nation (Horn & O’Donnell, 1984).

Response to Intervention Model
Due to the well-publicized and controversial nature of the achievement-ability discrepancy model of identifying LD, there has been a more recent shift to the implementation of the response to intervention model (Mastropieri, 2005). The response to intervention model can be defined as a cyclical approach to instruction using “progress monitoring, curriculum-based evaluation, and benchmark assessments used in reading, language arts, and math” (Vaughn, RTI2.gif, p. 58). In the general education classroom, students move through tiers of instruction, the lowest being all general education students to the highest being special education students receiving the most interventions (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2005).
By using the response to intervention model of identification of LD, proponents argue that many of its advantages address the disadvantages of the achievement-ability discrepancy model. Most of the suggested advantages of the response to intervention model focus on the broader range of instruction and services available to students with LD. Arguably the main advantage of this model is the opportunity to provide early intervention to students. Fletcher et. al. (2004) explain there is a “shift from waiting for students to meet the IQ-discrepancy criteria to identifying students who need intervention as early as possible and providing it immediately” (311). Other significant advantages of the response to intervention model include the shift of focus from eligibility to providing effective instruction (i.e. less time is devoted to identification and more time is devoted to instruction), the identification of LD is no longer dependent on the referral of the teacher, and special education services are no longer the only route to assistance (Fletcher et. al. 2004).
With the recent emphasis on response to intervention as an overall instructional method, there are also many disadvantages practitioners have proposed. Because response to intervention is a grand and time-consuming pedagogical practice, there is a remarkable need for many adequate and knowledgeable special and general educators to implement it (Vaughn, 2006; Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2005). The method simply will not be successful if attention is not paid to the number of well-trained educators needed to implement the program. Furthermore, the response to intervention method of identifying LD must be feasible across all academic areas and grade levels, or else purpose is lost (Vaughn, 2006). Lastly, many professionals in the field argue that LD as a category of disability will no longer be real. Sharon Vaughn (2006) explains, “…if students are not identified based on “within-individual deficits” using traditional assessments of cognitive functioning and/or processing difficulties, then they will not be considered to have a “true” disability” (59). This last disadvantage questions the very existence of LD as a real category of disabilities, and in turn the services students who have an LD receive will disappear.

Based upon the analysis of these two models of the identification of learning disabilities, many advantages and disadvantages exist. However, there is a significant disadvantage to all methods of the identification of LD simply because there is no standardized and common method in any state or school—everyone does it differently. According to Scruggs and Mastropieri in “On Babies and Bathwater: Addressing the Problems of Identification of Learning Disabilities”, “…differing and inconsistent identification arises from the problems in conceptualizing the definition of learning disabilities” (156). Others argue that the debate surrounds measurement (Mastropieri, 1987). However, it is also agreed upon by most professionals in the field that any one method of identification should not be the sole determining factor in the identification of LD. In fact, Fletcher (2005) writes, “It is useful to conceptualize models that incorporate response to [intervention] as extensions of low achievement models” (550). Therefore, it is suggested that there is not one “best” method to the identification of LD, however a combination of methods will yield the best possible results for the student.

Future Research, Controversies, and Implications for Teachers, Schools, and Students

When discussing Learning Disabilities there are controversial areas or areas that have increasingly come to be under more research. This current research will undoubtedly mean many new implications for schools, teachers, students, and their families. The topics to follow consist of the move from the achievement-ability discrepancy model to response to intervention and the change in age from fourteen to sixteen at which to create an individual transition plan for secondary students. There are also several other areas of future research and implications discussed.

Response to Intervention and the Achievement-Ability Discrepancy Model
As response to intervention has only recently begun to gain momentum over the achievement-ability discrepancy model, there are still many areas available for research involved in RTI. There is a great amount of research needed in the procedural areas of RTI, such as how often students should be monitored (NJCLD 2010). Other areas include how RTI can be used to improve students’ mathematics and problem solving skills, how it can reduce over-identification of students, and exactly how it will be used in helping to determine if students have a Learning Disability (NJCLD 2010).
In the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities paper, Comprehensive Assessment and Evaluation of Students With Learning Disabilities, a study finds that when gauging student outcomes, there is no difference between shorter assessments conducted more often and those conducted only a few times each year (Jenkins, Graff, & Miglioretti, 2009 in NJCLD 2010). This research contributes to creating more efficient and productive assessment schedules for teachers and educators using RTI (Jenkins 2009). Other procedural areas of future investigation in RTI include how strong and precise the intervention needs to be, if it is cost effective, and the “maintenance of change over time” (NJCLD 2010).
A review of nine studies that focused on Multi-Tier Interventions and Response to Interventions for Students Struggling in Mathematics, found that there is great potential for future research of RTI in mathematics instruction. The studies reviewed were separated into three categories including, “First and Second Grade Tier 2 Instruction, Third Grade Tier 1 and 2 Instruction, [and] Using RTI to Build Conceptual Fluency and Quick Retrieval of Arithmetic Facts” (Newman-Gonchar 2009). Tier 2 first and second grade instruction showed to improve students’ scores, tier 1 in the third grade studies improved students scores, with students with mathematics and reading disabilities improving the least, thus indicating they may need a more intensive type of instruction (Newman-Gonchar 2009). Tier 2 instruction in third grade proved to reduce students who were “at-risk” for or have mathematics disabilities, with only one study not showing significant improvements, suspect of the small sample size (Newman-Gonchar 2009). In the last studies reviewed, “Using RTI to Build Conceptual Fluency and Quick Retrieval of Arithmetic Facts” (Newman-Gonchar), it was found that when using RTI less students where recommended for evaluation for special education and that of those evaluated more were found to be eligible. However, it was also found that the percentage of “students of minority ethnicity evaluated and identified as needing services did not appear to change” (Newman-Gonchar 2009). While these studies show improvement in students’ mathematics, they are still very new, as research in this area has only just begun.
There are many implications for teachers and schools that accompany the rise in the use of response to intervention. One implication is that teachers will need to become familiar with the aspects and procedures of RTI, including how and when to move students through the tiers. Special educators will need to be familiar with these, as well as extremely knowledgeable about tiers 3 and/or 4 (Mastropieri 2005). There is also the need for teachers and schools to be well versed in the components, procedures, and the “purpose, potential, and limitations of [the] data” (NJCLD 2010) associated with RTI, as well as how to explain and interpret this data for parents and students. It is also important that response to intervention not be the only component when discerning if a student may have a learning disability and the “process does not replace the need for a comprehensive evaluation” (NJCLD 2010). This is because “RTI lacks the ability to provide clear identification of LD” (Mastropiere 2005). However, the information gathered from the RTI process is extremely valuable in determining whether a student has a learning disability (NJCLD 2010).

Individual Transition Plan Age Change (14 to 16)
IDEA (2004 in NJCLD 2010) requires that students with disabilities begin their individual transition plans at age 16 instead of at the previous age of 14. Although there is an age increase, IDEA still indicates that transition planning can begin earlier if it is needed (Madaus 2006). The need for transition planning for students with disabilities is great as “the number of students with disabilities actually enrolling in postsecondary education continues to lag well behind the number of students without disabilities who matriculate” (Wagner, Newman, Cameto, Garza, & Levine 2005 in Madaus 2006). This is important, as the influence of a college degree on later life is great (Madaus 2006). This speaks, as well, to the importance of transition planning for students who may need more support to ensure they attend college. This delay in planning for students with disabilities creates questions about how effective and successful the students’ transition to college will be (NJCLD 2010).
The implications of this age change falls mainly on special educators, the IEP team, and the school, however, also on parents, and the student, as they too should be aware that transition planning could begin before age 16. It is necessary that school personnel be familiar with when the transition planning should start within their state, as well as also being aware that the process could be started earlier than the age of 16 (Madaus 2006). Planning should begin early when deciding what classes’ students should take, especially when discussing mathematics or foreign language classes, as they will make a difference in the students’ future college career (Brinckerhoff et al., 2002 in Madaus 2006).

Other Areas of Research and Implications

Several other areas of research, as recommended by the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (2010), includes:
· continued research in the most recent and effective assessments to diagnose students with learning disabilities,
· research on the most effective assessments of students who are culturally and linguistically diverse (especially since these students are over represented in special education),

Other implications for schools, teachers, and families, as recommended by
the NJCLD (2010), include:
· continued professional development for all teachers and staff that work with students with disabilities on “assessment, evaluation, and program planning processes” (NJCLD 2010), as well as on transitioning students from school to adult life,
· education on identifying students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, as this “requires sensitivity, knowledge, and skill” (NJCLD 2010),
· an increase in instruction and information provided to families and students on assessment, data, and future planning.

Other Resources:

LD online is a resourceful website for learning disabilities and ADHD for educators, parents, and students.
The National Center for Learning Disabilities
Learning Disabilities Association of America
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke published this “quick guide” to learning disabilities.



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