Specific Learning Disabilities


Specific learning disabilities can be defined by a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using spoken or written language. This disorder may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, read, write, spell, and/or to perform mathematical calculations. The term includes such conditions as perceptual impairments, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, and developmental aphasia. The term does not include learning problems which are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor impairments; intellectual disabilities; emotional disturbance; or environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.

In determining the existence of a specific learning disability, the following must be present:

  1. Does not achieve at the proper age and ability levels in one or more of several specific areas when provided with appropriate learning experiences and age-appropriate instruction in one or more of the following areas:
    1. oral expression
    2. listening comprehension
    3. written expression
    4. basic reading skill
    5. reading fluency skills
    6. reading comprehension
    7. mathematics calculations
    8. mathematics reasoning
  2. Does not make adequate progress to meet age or grade-level standards in one or more of the prior areas identified when utilizing the process of the child's response to empirically based interventions; or a pattern of weaknesses and strengths have been determined to exist in performance, achievement or both, relative to age, state-approved grade-level standards, or intellectual development, as determined by certified assessment professionals.


Specific learning disabilities are considered a high-incidence disability. The U.S. Department of Education reports that there are over 2.8 million students being served for specific learning disabilities. This number of students is approximately 47.4% of all children receiving special education services.


Students with learning disabilities are very heterogeneous, meaning that no two students possess the identical profile of strengths and weaknesses. The concept of learning disabilities covers an extremely wide range of characteristics. One student may have a deficit in just one area while another may exhibit deficits in numerous areas, yet both may be labeled as learning disabled.

Over time, parents, educators, and other professionals have identified a wide variety of characteristics associated with learning disabilities. These include:

  • Academic problems
  • Disorders of attention
  • Poor motor abilities
  • Psychological process deficits and information-processing problems
  • Lack of cognitive strategies needed for efficient learning
  • Oral language difficulties
  • Reading difficulties
  • Written language problems
  • Mathematical disorders
  • Social skill deficits

Not all students will exhibit these characteristics, and many pupils who demonstrate these same behaviors are successful in the classroom. For students with a learning disability, it is the quantity, intensity, and duration of these behaviors that lead to problems in school and elsewhere. It should also be noted that boys are four times more likely to be labeled with a learning disability than girls. The reason for this has not yet been determined by researchers.

Impact on Learning

Learning disabilities are historically characterized as having a strong impact on psychological processes, academic achievement, and social/emotional development.

Psychological Processes

Psychological processes is a broad term that incorporates the wide range of thinking skills we use to process and learn information. The five psychological, or cognitive, processes that are affected by a learning disability are perception, attention, memory, metacognition, and organization.


Perception is the ability to organize and interpret the information experienced through the sensory channels, such as visual or auditory input. Perception is important to learning because it provides us with our first sensory impressions about something we see or hear. A student relies on his perceptual abilities to recognize, compare, and discriminate information. An example would be the ability to distinguish the letter "B" from the letter "D" based on the overall shape, direction of the letter, and its parts. Some children with learning disabilities reverse letters, words, or whole passages during reading or writing.


Attention is a broad term that refers to the ability to receive and process information. Attention deficits are one of the disorders teachers most frequently associate with individuals with learning disabilities. Teachers may describe their students with learning disabilities as "distractible" or "in his own world." The inability to focus on information can inhibit the student's ability to perform tasks in the classroom at the appropriate achievement level.


Memory involves many different skills and processes such as encoding (the ability to organize information for learning). Students with learning disabilities may experience deficits in working memory which affects their ability to store new information and to retrieve previously processed information from long-term memory.


Metacognition is the ability to monitor and evaluate performance. This process supplies many of the keys to learning from experience, generalizing information and strategies, and applying what you have learned. It requires the ability to:

  • Identify and select learning skills and techniques to facilitate the acquisition of information
  • Choose or create the setting in which you are most likely to receive material accurately
  • Identify the most effective and efficient way to process and present information
  • Evaluate and adapt your techniques for different materials and situations

A deficit in any of these skills can have a major impact on the ability of a student to learn new information and apply it to any situation.


Organization is the underlying thread of all these cognitive processes. The inability to organize information can affect the most superficial tasks or the most complex cognitive activities. Students with learning disabilities may have difficulties organizing their thought processes, their classwork, and their environment. Any deficit in these areas can have a detrimental effect on the academic success of the student.

Together, these five key processes enable us to receive information correctly, arrange it for easier learning, identify similarities and differences with other knowledge we have, select a way to learn the information effectively, and evaluate the effectiveness of our learning process. If a student has problems doing any or all of these things, it is easy to see how all learning can be affected.

Academic Achievement

Because of the effect on cognitive processes, students with learning disabilities may have difficulty in a variety of academic areas as well as social and emotional development. While a student with a learning disability may have difficulties in all academic areas, major problems are more often found in reading, language arts, and mathematics.


Reading is the most difficult skill area for the majority of students with learning disabilities. Learning disabilities in reading encompass a vast array of reading issues including dyslexia. Some of the most common reading disabilities are word analysis, fluency, and reading comprehension.

  • Word analysis includes the ability to associate sounds with the various letters and letter combinations used to write them, to immediately recognize and remember words, and to use the surrounding text to help figure out a specific word. Word analysis is a foundational skill for reading. For students with learning disabilities, it is a major issue to overcome to be a successful reader.
  • Fluency is the rate of accurate reading (correct words per minute). With processing and word analysis issues, a high rate of reading fluency is often quite difficult for a student with a learning disability.
  • Reading comprehension is the ability to understand written material. If a student with learning disabilities has difficulty reading written material, then comprehension will always be greatly affected. While problems with word analysis can affect reading comprehension, other factors that may contribute to problems with reading comprehension include the inability to successfully identify and organize information from the material.

Language Arts

Language arts is often another problematic academic area for students with learning disabilities. While language arts is a broad subject, students with learning disabilities have problems with three major skill areas that affect the entire subject. These include spelling, spoken language, and written language. Because of the close relationship of some of these skills to reading ability, they tend to be areas of great difficulty for many students with learning disabilities.

  • Spelling requires all the essential skills used in the word-analysis strategies of phonics and sight-word reading. The difficulties students with learning disabilities have in learning and applying rules of phonics, visualizing the word correctly, and evaluating spellings result in frequent misspellings, even as they become more adept at reading.
  • Spoken language, or oral language, is a deficit area for many students with learning disabilities, impacting both academic and social performance. Spoken language issues may include problems identifying and using appropriate speech sounds, using appropriate words and understanding word meanings, using and understanding various sentence structures, and using appropriate grammar and language. Other problem areas include understanding underlying meanings, such as irony or figurative language, and adjusting language for different uses and purposes.
  • Written language is often an area of great difficulty for students with learning disabilities. Specific problems include inadequate planning, structure, and organization; immature or limited sentence structure; limited and repetitive vocabulary; limited consideration of audience, unnecessary or unrelated information or details; and errors in spelling, punctuation, grammar, and handwriting. Students with learning disabilities often lack both the motivation and the monitoring and evaluation skills considered necessary for good writing.


Mathematics does not receive the same attention as reading and language arts, but many students with learning disabilities have unique difficulties in this subject area. Specific problems may include difficulty understanding size and spatial relationships and concepts related to direction, place value, decimals, fractions, and time and difficulty remembering math facts. Remembering and correctly applying the steps in mathematical problems (such as the steps involved in long division) and reading and solving word problems are significant problem areas.

Social and Emotional Development

It is important to realize that most social behaviors also involve learning. The characteristics that interfere with a student's acquisition of reading or writing skills can also interfere with his or her ability to acquire or interpret social behaviors. For example, individuals may have difficulties correctly interpreting social situations and reading social cues, and they may act impulsively without identifying the consequences of their behavior or recognizing the feelings and concerns of others.

Teaching Strategies

Students with learning disabilities are often served in regular classes by general education teachers with the support of a special educator. As with the education of any student with a disability, it is important that the general and special educators collaborate effectively in order to develop a set of teaching strategies for the student.

Teaching Strategies for Students with Perceptual Difficulties:

  • Do not present two pieces of information together that may be perceptually confusing. For example, do not teach the spelling of ie words (believe) and ei words (perceive) in the same day.
  • Highlight the important characteristics of new material. For example, underline or use bold letters to draw a student's attention to the same sound pattern presented in a group of reading or spelling words (mouse, house, round).

Teaching Strategies for Students with Attention Difficulties:

  • Maintain attention by:
    • Breaking long tasks or assignments into smaller segments (administer the smaller segments throughout the day)
    • Presenting limited amounts of information on a page
    • Gradually increasing the amount of time a student must attend to a task or lecture
  • Use prompts and cues to draw attention to important information. Types of cues include:
    • Written cues, such as highlighting directions on tests or activity sheets
    • Verbal cues, such as using signal words to let students know they are about to hear important information
    • Instructional cues, such as having a student paraphrase directions or other information to you
  • Teach students a plan for identifying and high-lighting important information for themselves

Teaching Strategies for Students with Memory Difficulties:

  • Teachers may need to teach the following memory strategies to students with learning disabilities:
    • Chunking is the grouping of large strings of information into smaller, more manageable "chunks". Telephone numbers, for example, are "chunked" into small segments for easier recall.
    • Rehearsal is the repetition, either oral or silent, of the information to be remembered.
    • Elaboration is the weaving of the material to be remembered into a meaningful context.
    • Categorization is when the information to be remembered is organized by the category to which it belongs. For example, all the animals in a list could be grouped together for remembering.

Teaching Word-Analysis Skills:

  • Phonics: Use structured phonics programs that:
    • Teach most common sounds first
    • Stress specific phonics rules and patterns
    • Expose the beginning reader only to words that contain sounds he or she has already learned.
  • Sight words:
    • Require the student to focus on all important aspects of the word (all letters, not just the first and last ones).
    • Have the student discriminate between the new word and frequently confused words. For example, if you are introducing the word "what" as a sight word, make sure the child can read the word when it is presented with words such as "that", "which", and "wait."
  • Context clues:
    • Control the reading level of materials used so that students are presented with few unfamiliar words.
    • For beginning readers, present illustrations after the text selection has been read.
    • Teach students to use context clues as a decoding strategy after they are adept at beginning phonics analysis.

Teaching Reading Comprehension:

  • Predictions can be based on pictures, headings, subtitles, and graphs. They can be used to activate the students' prior knowledge before reading, increase attention to sequencing during reading, and can be evaluated after reading.
  • Questions can be asked before reading to help students attend to important information.
  • Teachers may prepare an advanced organizer on the text to help focus students' attention on key material in the text. The student can review the organizer before reading and take notes on it while reading.
  • Self-monitoring or self evaluation techniques can be used when reading longer passages. For example, students can stop periodically and paraphrase the text or check their understanding.

Teaching Writing:

  • Provide effective writing instruction that includes daily practice on a range of writing tasks, teacher modeling, cooperative learning opportunities, follow-up instruction and feedback, and integrating writing activities across the curriculum.
  • Tailor writing instruction to meet the needs of individual children. Adaptations may include student-specific topics for instruction, one-to-one supplemental instruction, and adapting task requirements.
  • Intervene early on writing assignments.
  • Expect that each child will learn to write. Teacher's expectations, coupled with a supportive and positive classroom, can facilitate the writing performance of students with learning disabilities.
  • Identify and address academic and non-academic stumbling blocks such as behavior or social problems in the classroom.
  • Take advantage of technological tools for writing.

Direct Instruction:

Direct instruction commonly refers to:

  1. The identification and instruction of specific academic skills and
  2. The use of teaching techniques that have been empirically demonstrated to be effective with students with learning disabilities

Direction instruction teaching methods address the organization and presentation of instruction. The approach is very teacher-directed and includes an initial presentation based on the teacher first modeling the skill or response, then providing guided practice (leading), and, finally, eliciting independent student responses (testing).

Assistive Technology

Students with learning disabilities have a variety of difficulties in school. In order for many students with learning disabilities to be successful in school, assistive technology devices are used to accommodate the student's learning. Here are a few of the types of assistive technologies used for students with learning disabilities:


  • Text to Speech software
  • OCR software applications
  • Screen Reading software
  • Audio Books


  • Portable Word Processors
  • Auditory Word Processing Software
  • Word Prediction Programs
  • Graphical Word Processors
  • On-Screen Keyboards
  • Voice Recognition Software
  • Organizational/Outlining/Drafting Software
  • Online Writing Support

There are also an array of software packages that address specific academic areas (such as mathematics), daily living skills, and social skills.


Center for Disability and Development

Dept. of Educational Psychology
4225 Texas A&M University
College Station, TX 77843-4225

Email: cdd@tamu.edu
Web: cdd.tamu.edu

Division for Learning Disabilities (DLD)

The CEC Division for Learning Disabilities is a national professional organization consisting of teachers, higher education professionals, administrators, parents, and others. The major purposes of DLD are to promote the education, discuss current issues, encourage interaction among disciplinary groups, foster research, advocate exemplary professional training practices, and promote exemplary diagnostic and teaching practices for persons with learning disabilities.

The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC)
1110 North Glebe Road, Suite 300
Arlington, VA 22201-5704

Email: cec@cec.sped.org
Web: www.dldcec.org

International Dyslexia Association (formerly the Orton Dyslexia Society)

The International Dyslexia Association (IDA) is an organization that concerns itself with the complex issues of dyslexia. The IDA membership consists of a variety of professionals in partnership with people with dyslexia and their families and all others interested in The Association's mission. The IDA actively promotes effective teaching approaches and related clinical educational intervention strategies for people with dyslexia, support and encourage interdisciplinary research, facilitate the exploration of the causes and early identification of dyslexia, and disseminate research based knowledge.

Chester Building, Suite 382
8600 LaSalle Road
Baltimore, MD 21286-2044

Email: info@interdys.org
Web: www.interdys.org

LDOnline (Website Only)

LD OnLine.org is the world's leading web site on learning disabilities and ADHD, serving more than 200,000 parents, teachers, and other professionals each month. LD OnLine seeks to help children and adults reach their full potential by providing accurate and up-to-date information and advice about learning disabilities and ADHD.


Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA)

LDA is the largest non-profit volunteer organization advocating for individuals with learning disabilities and has over 200 state and local affiliates in 42 states and Puerto Rico. The membership, composed of individuals with learning disabilities, family members and concerned professionals, advocates for the almost three million students of school age with learning disabilities and for adults affected with learning disabilities. LDA's mission is to create opportunities for success for all individuals affected by learning disabilities and to reduce the incidence of learning disabilities in future generations.

4156 Library Road
Pittsburgh, PA 15234-1349

Email: info@ldaamerica.org
Web: www.ldaamerica.org

National Center for Learning Disabilities

The National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) has developed this comprehensive site to help: parents make informed decisions affecting their children who have a learning disability or who may be at risk for learning disabilities; educators gain access to authoritative information about research-based instruction, assessment and support services; child care providers and early childhood teachers understand early literacy skill development, recognize warning signs and respond to young children's needs; and advocates promote educational rights and opportunities for all individuals with learning disabilities.

381 Park Avenue South, Suite 1401
New York, NY 10016

Web: www.ncld.org

Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic

Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D) is a national nonprofit, volunteer organization that is the leading producer of accessible audiobooks for students with disabilities, such as visual impairments or dyslexia, that make reading standard print difficult or impossible. RFB&D serves 185,235 members worldwide by circulating 502,501 titles.

20 Roszel Road
Princeton, NJ 08540

Email: custserv@rfbd.org
Web: www.rfbd.org


Gargiulo, R.M. (2006). Special education in contemporary society: An introduction to exceptionality. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Turnbull, A., Turnbull, R. & Wehmeyer, M. L. (2007). Exceptional lives: Special education in today's schools. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.


Sign In Required

To access this section, please . If you don't have an account yet, . It's free!