Learning disabilities are most often defined by describing a discrepancy between ability and performance. Children with learning disabilities are of average to above-average intelligence (or IQ), but performance assessments and standardized tests indicate that their classroom achievement fails to match their evident ability. Because learning disabilities relate specifically to classroom performance, they are rarely identified before a child enters school and confronts academic instruction.
It can be difficult to determine the cause of a learning disability, and the matter is often confusing for both parents and teachers. Learning disabilities are frequently identified when no other reason for academic failure can be found, such as a hearing or visual problem, behavioral problem, or mental deficiency.
A Working Definition
Many professions have contributed to a working definition of learning disabilities: educators, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, linguists, and lawyers. Defining and describing learning disabilities are matters of ongoing discussion in the field of special education. Some researchers are committed to finding a neurobiological basis for the condition, whereas others believe that learning disabilities are, for the most part, environmental in origin. Although this debate will certainly continue, as teachers we can be most effective when we agree on a broad definition that allows us the greatest amount of flexibility. The National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities defines learning disabilities in this way:
A general term that refers to a heterogeneous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning or mathematical abilities. These disorders are intrinsic to the individual, presumed to be due to central nervous system dysfunction and may occur across the life span. Problems in self-regulatory behaviors, social perception and social interaction may exist with learning disabilities but do not by themselves constitute a learning disability.
Using this definition, a teacher has the flexibility to recommend that a student be screened for a learning disability once it is determined that other variables—such as poor eyesight, hearing problems, and environmental factors—are not responsible for the child’s struggles in the classroom.
Categories and Prevalence of Learning Disabilities
Even if educators agree on a definition like the one just offered, the term learning disabilities covers a wide variety of academic and psychological difficulties. To put it another way, a learning disability can affect a considerable range of cognitive abilities that children need to develop preacademic skills and to succeed in school in general (Chalfant & Van Dusen, 1989; Smith, 1995). Students with learning disabilities have been found to lack skills in visual perception, visual discrimination, auditory processing, and other areas of language use and communication. They can have difficulty understanding numbers, making sense of letters on a page, or understanding cause-and-effect relationships. They may face obstacles in just one area of academics or in several, seemingly unrelated, areas. Thorough evaluation is necessary to understand each child’s unique set of learning challenges.
Students with learning disabilities often experience academic failure in school. The national dropout rate for students with learning disabilities during the 1998–1999 school year was about 27 percent (U.S. Department of Education, 2000). By comparison, the dropout rate for nondisabled youth is about 11 percent (National Center for Education Statistics, 2000). According to the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation, 30 percent of students with a learning disability graduate from high school with a traditional diploma, versus 77 percent of nondisabled youths (National Center for Education Statistics, 2000).
The learning-disabled population is the largest group of students with disabilities. Referring to Table 1.1 in chapter 1, you can see that an estimated 5 to 10 percent of all U.S. school-age students have learning disabilities. Other sources place the figure even higher or lower—-3 to 15 percent of the total school-age population (National Center for Education Statistics, 2001; National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2001). Because the term learning disabilities includes such a wide range of disabling conditions, the exact meaning of the percentages is often difficult to determine.
The federal government, along with many special educators, uses the term specific learning disabilities—a helpful reminder that giving a child the label “learning disability” does not help unless we can specify the condition more exactly. At least six categories of learning disabilities have been identified:
- Auditory-language. An auditory-language difficulty is a perceptual problem in which a child may take a long time to comprehend or follow directions. The student with an auditory learning disability is physically able to hear, but “hears” in a different way. Click here to lear about LD and ELL
- Visual-spatial. Some visual-spatial disorders involve an inability to understand color or see a difference between the foreground and the background. A student may also have trouble visualizing directions in space, and this can significantly affect the ability to learn to read. For example, the letters b, d, p, and q are all formed in essentially the same way. Those who lack a sense of spatial relationships and directionality are unable to tell these letters apart.
- Motor-related. A child with motor-related learning disabilities has difficulty with either fine or gross motor coordination or both. The student is unable to perform isolated, coordinated movements. This problem is evident in many settings—in the classroom, on the playground, at home, and elsewhere. In using technology, the child can have difficulty with handwriting, keyboards, and mouse control.
- Organizational. A student with an organizational learning disability may have trouble locating the beginning, middle, or end of an assignment. Drafting an outline is difficult because the child cannot narrow down and organize information. Such weaknesses make it difficult or impossible for the student to assemble materials for papers or for oral presentations.
- Academic difficulty. An example of academic difficulty is a student in math class who has problems with order and placement of numbers or who switches processes, such as long division and multiplication. Another example is a history student who has difficulty with the concept of time and cannot understand the order of events in relation to their dates of occurrence. Academic-specific learning disabilities are common among students with learning disabilities. Special education teachers often see students who are, for instance, gifted in mathematical calculation and reasoning but have significant deficits in written language and spelling.
- Social skills disorders. The student with a social skills disorder has trouble with skills such as taking turns and understanding how to effectively interpret facial expressions. Such children are unable to perform social activities consistent with their chronological age and intelligence. Although social skills are not typically seen as being within the realm of the classroom teacher, these difficulties can significantly impair a child’s ability to succeed in the classroom.
Because learning disabilities cover a wide range of functional and learning difficulties, you will need a full spectrum of instructional techniques and strategies to teach effectively. These students have such varied sets of perceptual and communicative skills that no “one size fits all.” A student may understand how to perform a fractions problem but need a “rhyme” to remember how to add two numbers with regrouping.
When you teach a student with a learning disability, your lesson designs must be especially innovative, creative, and flexible. You must understand and respond to the unique nature of each child’s learning disability—and be prepared to change a lesson plan in midstream if it is not working. Every lesson, therefore, should include the opportunity to monitor for understanding and provide ongoing feedback to students on their performance.
Proven techniques for working with learning-disabled students include the remedial approach, the task analytic approach, project-based learning, direct instruction, multisensory and interdisciplinary techniques, and experiential learning approaches. The best learning environment for any student (with or without a learning disability) is one that combines these techniques appropriately. For a more detailed description of instructional techniques for students with learning disabilities, read Janet Lerner’s book, Learning Disabilities: Theories, Diagnosis, and Teaching Strategies.
Now we take a brief look at four of the above techniques—the remedial approach, task analysis, project-based learning, and direct instruction.
The Remedial Approach
Teaching the student with a learning disability can be described as an intervention process. The instructional activities must mediate the student’s difficulties using a variety of tools and techniques. During school-based intervention, teachers attempt to reduce the student’s learning difficulties and to include him or her in the normal planned curriculum as much as possible. Intervention involves determining both what the student must learn and how to teach it, on a day-to-day or lesson-by-lesson schedule.
Teaching students with learning disabilities has also been called remedial teaching. When Samuel Kirk (1963) first described learning disabilities, he discussed remedial teaching as involving ten steps:
- Discover the special needs of the child.
- Develop annual goals and short-term objectives.
- Analyze the tasks to be taught.
- Begin instruction at the child’s level.
- Decide how to teach.
- Select appropriate awards for the child.
- Provide the opportunity for the student to experience success.
- Give time for extended practice.
- Provide the student with feedback.
- Continuously measure the student’s progress.
Gifted Students with Learning Disabilities: Identification and Accommodation