Understanding Learning Disabilities (page 2)
Misconceptions about learning disabilities abound. At TeachingLD.org, the Division for Learning Disabilities promotes a balanced view of learning disabilities based on the best scholarship available. We hope that these questions and answers will help teachers and others interested in the topic to obtain a solid foundation for their views of learning disabilities.
Q: What are learning disabilities?
A: For school purposes, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines learning disability in these ways:
(i) General. The term means 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 an 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.
(ii) Disorders not included. The term 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 (Section 300.7(c)(10) of 34 CFR Parts 300 and 303)
In other words, students with learning disabilities (LD) have difficulty acquiring basic skills or academic content. Learning disabilities are characterized by intra-individual differences, usually in the form of a discrepancy between a student’s ability and his or her achievement in areas such as reading, writing, mathematics, or speaking. Although they cannot be the primary problem, some students with LD also have difficulties with social relations. Intra-individual differences are differences within a student across academic areas. For example, a student with a LD may be quite successful in math computation and listening comprehension but may read poorly. Other students with LD may read and speak well but have difficulty expressing their thoughts in writing.
It is important to understand that learning disabilities are defined differently by different groups. The concept of “learning disability” has one meaning for the general public, but a different meaning for professionals. Furthermore, different professional groups use different definitions of learning disability. The definition used here is based on the US federal government’s laws and regulations. The World Health Organization and the US American Psychiatric Association use different definitions.
Q: What does "discrepancy" mean?
A: People often talk about "discrepancy" when they discuss learning disabilities. Discrepancy refers to a difference between ability and achievement. A student with a learning disability may, in general terms, seem quite capable of learning but have unexpected difficulty in one or more of the academic areas. Originally, the concept of discrepancy was probably used to differentiate between students who had low achievement because of low ability (i.e., individuals with low ability or IQ) and those whose low achievement was unexpected (i.e., individuals with normal ability).
Although the federal definition does not direct them to do so, many schools require a numeric discrepancy between ability and achievement test scores for a student to be identified as having LD. Usually the discrepancy is based on a comparison of scores from standardized IQ and academic achievement tests. Sometimes schools use a formula to determine whether the discrepancy is large enough to qualify a student for LD services. Sometimes teams charged with determining eligibility consult a table with rows and columns that compares IQ and achievement (this amounts to a formula, too).
The concept of a discrepancy--unexpected underachievement--has been a part of learning disabilities throughout its history, but it became controversial in the 1990s. Some authorities in LD contend that, for example, there is no difference in the acquisition of reading skills between children with and without a discrepancy. They also argue that requiring a child to have a discrepancy works against giving special instructional services to very young children; if the services could be provided when they are young, then the problems might be prevented.
Q: Do children outgrow learning disabilities?
A: Often, learning disabilities continue throughout an individual’s life. Students do not “grow out” of them; rather, with appropriate guidance and instruction, they may learn ways to overcome the difficulties that learning disabilities present. For example, students who have difficulty learning to read during the early school years may--given powerful instruction geared to their needs--acquire fundamental reading skills, but most of them are likely to also require powerful instruction to learn more advanced decoding skills, foundational strategies for comprehending what they have read, advanced strategies for making inferences about text, and so forth. That is to say, there is no magic bullet that cures LD. Most students with LD require continuing help with how to adapt to learning situations.
Q: What causes learning disabilities?
A: The causes of learning disabilities are complex and not well understood. In fact, the causes of learning disabilities may be as diverse as the types of learning disabilities. Students may have problems with early-, intermediate-, or advanced reading; early- intermediate-, or advanced-computation; early-, intermediate-, or advanced-written expression; recall of simple or related concepts; attending to relevant versus irrelevant aspects of lessons or activities; and so forth. Those problems may be the result of many different causes.
Recent research has discovered differences in the brain structure and functioning of readers with learning disabilities but this is only a beginning. Learning disabilities may be caused by hereditary, teratogenic (e.g., alcohol, lead, cocaine), medical (e.g., premature birth, diabetes, meningitis), and environmental (e.g., malnutrition, poor prenatal healthcare) factors.
Research seeking to base instruction on the cause of an individual’s learning disability has not been successful. Apparently, rather than determining the cause of a student’s problems, it is more important to determine the individual’s unique educational needs and design instruction that has the best chance of helping him or her to meet those needs.
Reprinted with the permission of the Council for Exceptional Children. © 2006-2007 Council for Exceptional Children (CEC). All rights reserved.
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