Learning Disabilities (page 4)
Prevalence and Definitions of Learning Disabilities
Learning disabilities (LD) is a general term describing a group of learning problems. Students with LD are highly represented in general education classes, as LD is the largest single disability area. Approximately 4.3% of all school-age children are classified as having learning disabilities (U.S. Department of Education, 2002a), or 49.2% of the children requiring special education services in the schools. About twice as many males as females are identified as having learning disabilities (Oswald, Best, Coutinho, & Nagle, 2003).
Learning disabilities is used as an umbrella term to refer to a group of individuals with average or above-average intelligence who nonetheless have difficulties with academic tasks. The federal definition is given as follows:
“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 may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations. The term includes such conditions as perceptual handicaps, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. The term does not include children who have learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor handicaps, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage. (Federal Register, 1977, p. 65083)
The standard that learning problems are not the result of sensory, motor, intellectual, emotional, or sociocultural influences is sometimes referred to as an exclusionary clause.
Over the years, many definitions of learning disability have been proposed by various task groups and professional organizations (Hallahan & Mock, 2003). Most definitions share components with the federal definition.
Most states previously required the presence of a discrepancy between ability and achievement to support identification of a learning disability. For example, Edward had a Full Scale IQ (Intelligence Quotient) score of 101 and a standard score of 85 on a test of reading achievement. This amounts to a discrepancy of 16 standard score points between ability (the IQ test) and achievement (the reading achievement test), where the Full Scale IQ is average (about the 50th percentile), and the reading achievement score is substantially lower (about the 15th percentile). Other evidence in support of the presence of learning disabilities was also usually required (Mercer & Pullen, 2005). According to the most recent IDEA amendments, states may no longer require schools to use discrepancy criteria. Instead, schools are encouraged to determine whether students respond to research-based intervention, as described in a following section (Wright & Wright, 2005).
Maria is a 12-year-old girl of average intelligence and has a pleasant, cooperative disposition. She tries hard to succeed in school but has great difficulty reading independently. She writes slowly, using simple statements and words that are easy for her to spell. Her writing is labored and does not accurately reflect her thinking.
Maria receives assistance with her reading and writing in the resource room four days a week. Mr. Harrison, Maria’s teacher, has prioritized Maria’s class assignments. Mr. Harrison does not require that she read or write independently to participate in class activities. In social studies, for example, when the class is given an assignment to read parts of the textbook, Maria is allowed to read together with a classmate. The classmate reads questions from the assignments aloud, and Maria is allowed to write simple answers to the questions or to dictate longer answers to her partner. Mr. Harrison uses clear, structured presentations to maximize Maria’s understanding of the lessons. Finally, Maria’s performance is systematically monitored to ensure that she is learning adequately and that the need for further adaptations is examined. By the second semester, Maria’s reading and writing skills have improved enough that she is encouraged to independently complete reading and writing assignments when possible but to ask a classmate or teacher for specific assistance when required.
Causes of Learning Disabilities
The specific causes of learning disabilities remain unknown but are generally believed to be associated with brain function. Three major factors—organic, genetic, and environmental—have been hypothesized as possible causes. Organic factors include indications of brain differences in size or functioning perhaps due to differences during the development of the brain. Recent medical advances in detecting brain dysfunctions have yielded evidence for a neurological basis that may be linked to possible causes of LD (Fletcher et al., 2002). Possible genetic factors include heredity, in that students with reading problems often have other family members with similar problems, and that identical twins are more likely than fraternal twins to share learning disabilities (Thomson & Raskind, 2003). Finally, environmental factors such as poor diet and nutrition and exposure to toxins such as alcohol, smoke, and cocaine, either prenatally or postnatally, may contribute to learning disabilities (Mercer & Pullen, 2005).
Issues in Identification and Assessment of Learning Disabilities
One controversial issue involves whether students classified as learning disabled represent a truly specific category; that is, that they are distinguishable from students who are simply low achievers (e.g., the bottom 25% in achievement). Some researchers have maintained that there are few meaningful differences between the two groups of students (Fletcher et al., 2002). However, Fuchs, Fuchs, Mathes, Lipsey, and Roberts (2002) conducted a meta-analysis (research synthesis) of 86 studies comparing students with LD and low-achieving students in reading and found that students with LD generally scored considerably lower than low-achieving students. Debate on this issue continues.
Another related issue is the use of IQ–achievement discrepancy criteria. Lyon et al. (2001) argued that discrepancy criteria are not conceptually sound, are vulnerable to measurement error, and inhibit early identification of learning disabilities. In addition, MacMillan and Siperstein (2002) suggested that schools may not always apply discrepancy criteria correctly in identifying students with LD. Nevertheless, students with learning disabilities are generally thought to experience serious academic problems in spite of average or above-average general ability, and therefore could be expected to demonstrate some type of discrepancy (Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2002b). However, schools are no longer required to use IQ-achievement discrepancy criteria for identification.
As an alternative to discrepancy criteria, schools are now encouraged to employ a response-to-intervention (RTI) approach, where general education teachers implement scientifically-based practices and use curriculum-based measurement to document student progress on a regular basis. Students who prove to be “treatment resisters” (do not show adequate progress in spite of extra attention) may be eligible for more intensive interventions or referral to special education (Gresham, 2002). These criteria are now specifically encouraged in the new IDEA amendments (Wright & Wright, 2005).
RTI procedures are also associated with some controversy. Specific implementation procedures have not yet been developed, the degree to which RTI discriminates between learning disabilities and other disabilities such as mental retardation is not known, and procedures for identification are less clear in areas other than early reading (Fuchs, Mock, Morgan, & Young, 2003; Gerber, 2005; Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2005; Scruggs & Mastropieri, 2002). However, these issues may be addressed in the future, as schools begin to implement RTI procedures.
Characteristics of Learning Disabilities
Individuals with learning disabilities possess a variety of characteristics that distinguish them from other students. However, not all individuals with learning disabilities have all the characteristics described in this article.
Language and Literacy
Many students with learning disabilities experience difficulties with both expressive and receptive language, including the following:
- Discriminating between sounds (e.g., mistakes “cat” for “cap”)
- Misunderstanding grammar (including use of certain pronouns and prepositions)
- Understanding subtleties in language
- “Word finding” abilities or retrieving appropriate words when needed (Faust, Dimitrovsky, & Shacht, 2003)
Most students with learning disabilities have significant reading problems (Mercer & Pullen, 2005). Many students with learning disabilities lack phonemic awareness—the awareness that words are made up of individual speech sounds (Mann, 2003). Reading problems result when such students are unsuccessful at learning the sound codes represented by the letters in the alphabet and at applying those codes for successful reading (“decoding”). These individuals often have slow and labored oral reading abilities, are not inclined to read for pleasure, and lack any effective strategies for fluent reading. Reading comprehension difficulties frequently accompany decoding problems (Fletcher et al., 2002).
Other literacy problems encountered by students with learning disabilities include handwriting, spelling, and written composition (e.g., Graham, 2004; Gregg & Mather, 2002).
It is estimated that two-thirds of students with learning disabilities have mathematics disabilities (Fuchs & Fuchs, 2003; Mastropieri, Scruggs, Davidson, & Rana, 2004). Students may exhibit difficulties in learning math facts, rules, procedures, or concepts, and in personal math such as managing money (Geary, 2003).
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