Learning Disabilities: An Overview
Find out more about the different types of learning disabilities, how they're identified, and what types of instruction support students with LD.
What is a learning disability?
Some individuals, despite having an average or above average level of intelligence, have real difficulty acquiring basic academic skills. These skills include those needed for successful reading, writing, listening, speaking and/or math. These difficulties might be the result of a learning disability.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law, defines a learning disability as a condition when a child's achievement is substantially below what one might expect for that child. Learning disabilities do not include problems that are primarily the result of intellectual disabilities, emotional disturbance, or visual, hearing, emotional or intellectual disabilities.
Many children with LD have struggle with reading. The difficulties often begin with individual sounds, or phonemes. Students may have problems with rhyming, and pulling words apart into their individual sounds (segmenting) and putting individual sounds together to form words (blending). This makes it difficult to decode words accurately, which can lead to trouble with fluency and comprehension. As students move through the grades, more and more of the information they need to learn is presented in written (through textbooks) or oral (through lecture) form. This exacerbates the difficulties they have succeeding in school.
What are the types of learning disabilities?
- Reading disabilities (often referred to as dyslexia)
- Written language disabilities (often referred to as dysgraphia)
- Math disabilities (often called dyscalculia)
Other related categories include disabilities that affect memory, social skills, and executive functions such as deciding to begin a task.
Here is information on the more common forms of LD.
Dyslexia (difficulty reading)
- Focus attention on the printed symbols
- Recognize the sounds associated with letters
- Understand words and grammar
- Build ideas and images
- Compare new ideas to what you already know
- Store ideas in memory
A person with dyslexia can have problems in any of the tasks involved in reading. However, scientists found that a significant number of people with dyslexia share an inability to distinguish or separate the sounds in spoken words. Some children have problems sounding out words, while others have trouble with rhyming games, such as rhyming "cat" with "bat." Yet, scientists have found these skills fundamental to learning to read. Fortunately, remedial reading specialists have developed techniques that can help many children with dyslexia acquire these skills. However, there is more to reading than recognizing words. If the brain is unable to form images or relate new ideas to those stored in memory, the reader cannot understand or remember the new concepts. Other types of reading disabilities can appear in the upper grades when the focus of reading shifts from word identification to comprehension.
Dysgraphia (difficulty writing)
Writing too, involves several brain areas and functions. The brain networks for vocabulary, grammar, hand movement, and memory must all be in good working order. A developmental writing disorder may result from problems in any of these areas. For example, a child with a writing disability, particularly an expressive language disorder, might be unable to compose complete and grammatically correct sentences.
Dyscalculia (difficulty with mathematics)
Arithmetic involves recognizing numbers and symbols, memorizing facts, aligning numbers, and understanding abstract concepts like place value and fractions. Any of these may be difficult for children with developmental arithmetic disorders, also called dyscalculia. Problems with number or basic concepts are likely to show up early. Disabilities that appear in the later grades are more often tied to problems in reasoning.
Other related conditions
Many aspects of speaking, listening, reading, writing, and arithmetic overlap and build on the same brain capabilities. It is not surprising that people can be diagnosed with more than one learning disability. For example, the ability to understand language underlies learning to speak. Therefore, any disorder that hinders the ability to understand language will also interfere with the development of speech, which in turn hinders learning to read and write.
For a thorough discussion of related disorders, read Are Learning Disabilities the Only Problem? You Should Know About Other Related Disorders by Larry Silver.
Sometimes the media, the public, and even educators confuse autism with learning disabilities. They are two separate disorders. According to the Autism Society of America, autism is a developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and affects a person's ability to communicate and interact with others. Autism is defined by a specific set of behaviors and is a "spectrum disorder" affecting individuals differently and to varying degrees. There is no known single cause for autism, but increased awareness and funding can help families today.
Learn more in our autism spectrum disorder section.
How are learning disabilities identified?
Traditionally, evaluators used the results from the assessments to determine if there was a discrepancy between the child's ability and achievement. In practice, this often meant waiting for the child to fail before a child was eligible for special education services. Today a greater effort is being made to respond to a child's special learning needs before he or she falls too far behind. This effort is called Response to Intervention.
Response to Intervention
Response to Intervention uses a tiered approach to assist students struggling in school. In Tier 1, scientific, research-based instruction is provided to all students. In Tier 2, a student whose performance is below that of his peers receives more intensive instruction from a trained specialist in a small-group setting, usually while the child stays in class. In addition, the student participates in a carefully designed intervention. In Tier 3, students who continue to have difficulty, despite the Tier 2 intervention, undergo a comprehensive evaluation. The results of the evaluation help determine whether the student is eligible to receive special education services. Each tier includes careful and consistent progress monitoring.
What is effective instruction for students with LD?
Students with learning disabilities benefit from instruction that is explicit and well sequenced. Effective teachers help students with LD learn how to use strategies for managing their assignments. For example, a teacher might teach students to use a graphic organizer that outlines the important information from a text. A different type of organizer might be used to help students remember to bring home the right supplies for a homework assignment.