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Learning Disability - What Is It?

Understanding Learning Disabilities Is Key to Dealing with Them


Updated April 13, 2012

A Learning disability is a disorder in learning that may affect a child’s ability to learn in reading, math, written language, oral expression, or listening comprehension. In most cases, it is not possible to determine what actually causes a A Learning disability is a disorder in learning that may affect a child’s ability to learn in reading, math, written language, oral expression, or listening comprehension. In most cases, it is not possible to determine what actually causes a learning disability. However, there are risk factors associated with them. The most dominant theory about the cause of learning disabilities is that they are caused by differences in the way the brain processes information. A learning disability may affect people in different ways. However, it commonly affects people’s ability to perceive, process, and use information to solve everyday problems and perform tasks such as reading and math. People with the disorder may learn at a much slower pace and may need specially designed instruction to learn effectively. Specially designed instruction is different from the traditional “stand and deliver lecture” style of teaching in that it may involve individual and small group learning with specially designed materials and strategies. Specially designed instruction may also include therapies such as speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and counseling.

Learning disabilities cannot be cured, but providing early intervention and specially designed instruction can teach a child how to compensate for the effects of the disability and reduce the severity of their impact on the child’s life.

The most common learning disability is in reading. An estimated 70-80% of students with learning disabilities have disabilities in reading. Disabilities in reading are also sometimes referred to as dyslexia. Learning disabilities may affect any one or more subskill areas of reading such as phonemic awareness, sound-symbol correspondence, decoding, fluency, sight word recognition, oral reading, and reading comprehension.

Another type of learning disability is in the area of math, also sometimes called dyscalculia. Math disorders can affect a child’s ability in any area of math including number awareness, number symbol correspondence, calculation ability, math logic, and problem solving or applied math.

Learning disabilities can also affect writing skills, and it is not uncommon for reading and writing learning disabilities to co-exist because of the close link between the skills used in both subject areas. Writing learning disabilities are sometimes referred to as dysgraphia. Writing disorders may involve sensory deficits, fine motor problems, difficulty with letter symbol correspondence, basic word construction and sentence construction skills, and the ability to write passages in a logical, appropriately detailed sequence with correct grammar and punctuation.

Learning disabilities can also affect expressive and receptive language skills. People with receptive language skill deficits have difficulty perceiving spoken language and making sense of information that is conveyed. People with expressive language skill deficits have difficulty expressing their thoughts verbally.

In the public school system, there are two main ways of determining if a child has a learning disability. First is the Aptitude-Achievement Discrepancy method. This involves assessment of a child’s intellectual functioning through an intelligence test and assessment of skills through comprehensive achievement testing. Scores are compared to determine if there is a significant difference between the child’s intellect, or IQ, and his performance on a specific skill area such as reading, writing, math, and language. If there is a statistically significant difference, a learning disability may be diagnosed.

Although the aptitude-achievement discrepancy method has been widely used for many years, it is not without criticism. Many researchers rightly point out that the method forces schools to “let kids fail” before they are identified as having a problem. This delays the critical early intervention that research shows is so important in meeting the needs of learning disabled children. Researchers also point out that children may still have processing deficits that substantially impact their performance in school and ability to learn even if no severe aptitude-achievement discrepancy exists.

More recently, public schools have begun to implement a more intervention oriented diagnostic process called response to intervention, or RTI. RTI models involve providing different levels of instructional interventions to students and measuring their effectiveness. Learn more about response to intervention.

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