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Understanding Learning Disabilities

Essentials on education data and analysis from research authority AEL.

About one in 20 K-12 students is classified as having a specific learning disability. These students are served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Most spend at least part of their day in a regular classroom.

Students classified as having a specific learning disability are not mentally retarded. In fact, learning disabled students can also be gifted. However, these students may have difficulties in one or more academic areas, particularly reading, written language and math. Learning disabilities (unlike developmental delays) are cognitive problems that are likely to continue throughout life. Learning disabilities can be managed but not "cured."

Students are often classified as learning disabled when they score significantly lower on academic achievement tests than they do on IQ tests. Although the federal definition of "specific learning ability" does not specify how large the gap must be in order to qualify a student for services, schools often use a local formula to determine who qualifies for IDEA services.

Students with learning disabilities present special challenges to regular classroom teachers. For one thing, under the "learning disabilities" umbrella is a broad range of learning difficulties including dyslexia, difficulty putting ideas in written form, weak abstract reasoning, a poor working memory, and deficits in metacognition (awareness of how to acquire, process, store and demonstrate understanding of information).

Also, when teachers encounter bright students who have learning disabilities, it may appear that the problem is lack of student effort. Students with learning disabilities may have average or above-average intelligence. Some may seem knowledgeable and insightful during class discussion but turn in unorganized, poorly written papers. If a learning disability is involved, often what these students need is not increased effort but more practice and know-how in how to learn.

Some instructional strategies that benefit students with learning disabilities can be incorporated into the general curriculum, benefiting other students as well. For example, the use of graphic organizers, such as concept maps, has been shown to yield achievement benefits across content areas and grade levels. Other accommodations may be specific to the student's learning disability. For example, a student who has writing difficulties might be allowed to use a word processor with speech recognition software for written assignments.

When Lee Swanson and associates conducted a comprehensive review of 30 years of learning disabilities intervention research in 1999, they found two categories of interventions that seemed to produce large gains in student achievement: direct instruction of specific skills and learning strategy instructions. These approaches require teachers to explicitly teach academic tasks in a step-by-step fashion and to provide students with modeling, practice and feedback to master skills and cognitive strategies that can be transferred to settings outside of the school.

What can districts do to put research findings into practice?

Professional development for regular classroom teachers can raise teachers' awareness and understanding of a range of learning disabilities and help teachers differentiate instruction to accommodate the specific needs of individual students.

Ongoing collaboration and consultation between regular and special education teachers is essential to effective implementation of students' individualized education programs.

Ongoing assessment of school climate and student achievement can guide effective modifications in professional development and collaborative practice.

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