Research Review: What Is a Learning Disability and What does it Look Like? Part 1

Learning Disability… What does that mean?

A Learning Disability is the most common “diagnosis” given in public school settings. Here are the specifics from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that students must show in order to be considered “learning disabled” (I know, that’s very abstract).

  1. On-going difficulties in reading, writing, or mathematics.
  2. Academic scores need to be below average.
  3. Most states are still using a discrepancy model through intelligence and academic test scores (is the student’s ability to be successful in the U.S.’s model of education, higher than their ACTUAL performance in the classroom). However, the current trend is to move to a model called Response to Intervention. That means a student must be showing inadequate progress on re-teach time in the general education classroom.

Here the specifics that a student cannot show in tandem of these:

  1. The student’s struggles cannot be due to a lack of quality instruction.
  2. The student’s struggles cannot be due to a lack of english language knowledge.
  3. The student’s struggles cannot be primarily due to an emotional disability, intellectual disability, visual/hearing disabilities, or motor deficits.
  4. The student’s struggles cannot be due to cultural or economic disadvantages.

Here’s my personal thoughts: Did you notice anything concrete in those guidelines for determining an educational diagnosis for students? Unfortunately you cannot just take a blood sample or brain scan to find a “learning disability.” It’s a fairly abstract pro

cess, and it is greatly relying on the general education teacher to identify the student as having a need. Unlike other disabilities, a doctor can not pinpoint it and say, you’re daughter/son has it.

Additionally, a “learning disability” when diagnosed by educators, may not necessarily mean your student is incapable. It may simply mean they need a different curriculum than their peers. Labeling a student with a disability sounds very finite, but I have removed about 40% (just a rough estimate) of my students with learning disabilities from special education to general education.

If you are a parent looking for help: Remember that Special Education is not a magical wand. Sometimes pulling a student out of the classroom can cause regression in skills. Other times student show wild success. Unfortunately it depends on the classroom teachers, an appropriate reading program for the student (which can be tricky!), and how the student is preforming. If you very nervous about what your student needs, try reaching out to a parent advocate group.

Start here for advocacy help: Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates

If you are an educator: Remember that just because a student has failing grades or low state test scores, doesn’t mean they need specialized instruction. They may just need support in the classroom. Since research is mixed on whether pull-out (where a student is taken from the general education setting) or inclusion (student is helped within the general education setting), be cautious before quickly making an educational decision. I typically lean towards keeping the student in the classroom. (This is based on research that shows that students in special education are less likely to graduate than their peers, and when low performing students are lumped together, they typically loose ground faster than they gain it.)

Click here for one Research Sample with mixed reviews on inclusion.

My thoughts for anyone: Providing interventions in the classroom are critical for diagnosing a student. There has to be attempts to re-teach the student and they continue to not grasp the skill. That’s when I feel confident to give the student a different curriculum than their peers.


Types of Learning Disabilities


Now according to the Nation Center for Learning Disabilities, you can break down a disability into reading, math, writing, or auditory. Depending on what state and public school district you live in, you may not be able to serve a student who showed weakness in reading comprehension (understanding the text) and basic reading skills (actually reading the text). As a parent make sure you have all the areas your student is struggling tested for. Check and make sure the school district is looking at both basic reading and comprehension (however, some schools are not as stringent about this).

Note: While private schools can honor an IEP, typically they do not diagnose learning disabilities. This occurs in a public or public charter school setting. An IEP is a federal and state legal document that is attached to public schools. This does not mean you have to accept public schools for your child’s special education needs.

Continuing on: The Center also broke down the types like this:

A Learning Disability in Reading: Dyslexia

A Learning Disability in Math: Dyscalculia

A Learning Disability in Writing: Dysgraphia

In my experience, I a lot of people get hung up on the Dyslexia label. Not 100% sure why that is. Dyslexia literally means: a struggle to read. The reason why school districts do not hand out dyslexic labels is because it falls under the reading disability umbrella. Students with dyslexia benefit from the same instruction as students with reading disabilities… because it’s the same thing. Get it? This applies to math and writing disabilities too.

There has been loads of reading program research from Orton Gillingham, Scholastics Corrective Reading and System 44, a program called Higher Steps from the University of Utah, Wilson’s reading program, and more. Here’s what is the same about these reading systems: they are all systematic and explicit in teaching students to read words. Because these research based programs work for most students with reading struggles, these reading strategies are used with small groups of students who may have slightly varied needs.

For instance, Corrective Reading Program has auditory practices and reduce the amount of auditory instructions. It limits the language used to help students focus on just reading the words and practicing getting the sounds correct.


This obviously is just part of Learning Disabilities. If you are feeling lost keep reading my subsequent posts on this topic or ask a question on this blog post.

Referenced Article from the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.