Learning Disabilities Overview: Update 2002. ERIC
by Boudah, Daniel J. - Weiss, Margaret P.
He lets out a sigh and slouches in his chair. Arms folded, he glares
at the book with a furrowed brow. After a moment, the boy glances at his
friend sitting across the aisle, leans forward to the book once more, and
runs his index finger along the lines of text. His lips contort in an attempt
to silently sound out the words that stare back at him. He stops again,
purses his lips, looks to the front of the room, and raises his hand. When
the boy's history teacher walks over to the side of his desk, the boy quietly
asks, "What does fed-er-al-ism mean?"
This boy is one example of a student with learning disabilities (LD).
Individuals with LD typically look like their peers, but differ from them
as well as others with LD in many ways. For example, one person with learning
disabilities may have strengths in math and reasoning, yet weaknesses in
understanding and communicating what he or she hears or reads. Another
person with LD may demonstrate very different strengths and weaknesses.
Individuals with LD generally have average or above average intelligence,
yet they often do not achieve at the same academic level as their peers.
Their weaker academic achievement, particularly in reading, written language,
and math, is perhaps the most fundamental characteristic of individuals
with LD. Significant deficits often exist in memory, metacognition, and
social skills as well. Let's look a bit more closely at each of these areas.
Individuals who have LD in reading have difficulties decoding or recognizing
words (e.g., letter/sound omissions, insertions, substitutions, reversals)
or comprehending them (e.g., recalling or discerning basic facts, main
ideas, sequences, or themes). They also may display other difficulties
such as losing their places while reading or reading in a choppy manner.
Some researchers argue that a difficulty with phonological awareness or
phonological processing-recognizing sound segments in the spoken word-underlies
reading disabilities, and this capability is requisite for understanding
the relationship between written letters and sounds (Torgesen & Wagner,
Another term sometimes used in conjunction with reading disabilities
is dyslexia. Dyslexia may be best understood as a type of reading disability.
During early childhood, children with dyslexia have difficulties learning
spoken language. Later in their school years, children with dyslexia have
trouble decoding and spelling words and, consequently, are likely to experience
comprehension problems also.
A reading disability affects every aspect of an individual's life, from
the early years of school when children learn to read, to later years when
students are expected to read in order to learn specific content, and into
the community, home, and workplace where every person needs to acquire
and understand written information.
For students with LD, problems in written language can occur in handwriting,
spelling, sentence structure, vocabulary usage, volume of information produced,
and organization of written ideas. Moreover, individuals who have difficulties
in one area may demonstrate strengths in others. Many students with LD
in reading also have difficulty writing, since both areas are language-based
(receptive and expressive). Difficulties with writing affect a student's
achievement in virtually every content area. For example, students with
writing difficulties may understand concepts in science or social studies,
but be unable to express their understanding on an essay exam or in a lab
report. They may also demonstrate considerable understanding in group or
class discussions, but later turn in a homework assignment on the same
material that lacks clarity or organization.
Poor math achievement may appear in difficulties differentiating numbers
and copying shapes (poor visual perception), recalling math facts (memory
problems), writing numbers legibly or in small spaces (weak motor functions),
and relating math terms to meaning (poor understanding of math-related
vocabulary). Other weak areas may include abstract reasoning (solving word
problems and making comparisons) and metacognition (including identifying,
using, and monitoring the use of algorithms to solve math problems).
Some people with LD have weaknesses in working memory also. They have
a difficult time processing information so that it can be stored in long-term
memory. For example, some students with learning disabilities will "study"
by staring at notes or reading vocabulary words over and over again, which
are ineffective learning strategies. Consequently, difficulties in working
memory can lead to difficulties in long-term memory when a person needs
to search for and retrieve knowledge in a timely, organized manner.
Individuals with LD may also have deficits in metacognition, the awareness
of how one thinks and the monitoring of one's thinking. Research suggests
that many individuals with LD do not know many effective cognitive strategies
for acquiring, processing, storing, and demonstrating understanding of
information. Weaknesses in metacognition then affect their understanding
of when, where, and why their known strategies are important, as well as
their proficiency in selecting and monitoring the use of strategies (Mercer,
SOCIAL AND BEHAVIORAL CHARACTERISTICS
Students with LD may demonstrate social or behavioral challenges as
well. Some exhibit fewer socially acceptable behaviors than peers, are
unable to predict consequences for behaviors, misinterpret social cues,
or are less likely to adapt their behavior to different social situations
They are sometimes neglected or rejected by peers. Coupled with academic
weaknesses, this experience can lead to lowered self-perceptions of competence
or worth among older individuals with LD. Others who have LD have difficulty
sitting at a desk for long periods of time in order to attend to classroom
tasks and may develop social or behavioral problems in response to their
frustration with learning tasks.
More than 50 percent of the students receiving special education services
in the United States have LD. The number of students identified as having
LD and receiving special education services has more than doubled since
the original passage of IDEA in 1975. Some educators estimate that between
5 and 10 percent of children between ages 6 and 17 have LD.
No one is quite sure what causes LD. Some evidence indicates that LD
may "run in families," but that is not always the case. Environmental factors,
from inadequate learning environments to exposure to harmful substances,
may lead to LD. Recent studies using imaging technology have found differences
in brain structure between students who have reading disabilities with
oral language difficulties and those without disabilities.
Research indicates that the best instructional practices for students
with LD include direct instruction of specific skills and learning strategy
instruction (Swanson & Hoskyn, 1998). Students with LD should be explicitly
taught to complete a variety of academic tasks in a step-by-step fashion.
When taught correctly, learning strategy interventions and direct instruction
provide students with appropriate modeling, practice, and feedback to master
skills and cognitive strategies for independent use in a variety of situations
in and outside of school. Successful strategy and direct instruction programs
include Self-Regulated Strategy Development for writing, learning strategies
curriculum in reading, writing, and memory from the Strategic Instruction
Model, Direct Instruction programs in reading and math, mnemonic strategies
for all content areas, and self-monitoring strategies.
Most students with LD receive the majority of their education in the
general education classroom. However, a continuum of school services should
be available to meet each individual student's needs. Support in the general
education classroom can exist in the form of a special educator co-teaching
with or serving as a consultant to the general educator. Students may also
receive services in a resource room or a special classroom. In addition,
special schools are available for students whose needs cannot be met in
the regular school. The Individualized Education Program team determines
where a student with learning disabilities will receive special education
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Council for Learning Disabilities http://cld.cuesta.com/cld
Division for Learning Disabilities, Council for Exceptional Children
LD Online http://www.ldonline.org
Learning Disabilities Association http://www.ldanatl.org
National Center for Learning Disabilities http:// www.ncld.org