Basics of LD

Q: What are learning disabilities?

A: For school purposes in the United States, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines learning disability in these ways:

(i) General. The term means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.

(ii) Disorders not included. The term does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage (Section 300.7(c)(10) of 34 CFR Parts 300 and 303)

In other words, students with learning disabilities (LD) have difficulty acquiring basic skills or academic content. Learning disabilities are characterized by intra-individual differences, usually in the form of a discrepancy between a student’s ability and his or her achievement in areas such as reading, writing, mathematics, or speaking. Although they cannot be the primary problem, some students with LD also have difficulties with social relations. Intra-individual differences are differences within a student across academic areas. For example, a student with a LD may be quite successful in math computation and listening comprehension but may read poorly. Other students with LD may read and speak well but have difficulty expressing their thoughts in writing.

It is important to understand that learning disabilities are defined differently by different groups. The concept of “learning disability” has one meaning for the general public, but a different meaning for professionals. Furthermore, different professional groups use different definitions of learning disability. The definition used here is based on the US federal government’s laws and regulations. The World Health Organization and the US American Psychiatric Association use different definitions.

Q: What does "discrepancy" mean?

A: People often talk about "discrepancy" when they discuss learning disabilities.

Discrepancy refers to a difference between ability and achievement. A student with a learning disability may, in general terms, seem quite capable of learning but have unexpected difficulty in one or more of the academic areas. Originally, the concept of discrepancy was probably used to differentiate between students who had low achievement because of low ability (i.e., individuals with low ability or IQ) and those whose low achievement was unexpected (i.e., individuals with normal ability).

Although the federal definition does not direct them to do so, many schools require a numeric discrepancy between ability and achievement test scores for a student to be identified as having LD. Usually the discrepancy is based on a comparison of scores from standardized IQ and academic achievement tests. Sometimes schools use a formula to determine whether the discrepancy is large enough to qualify a student for LD services. Sometimes teams charged with determining eligibility consult a table with rows and columns that compares IQ and achievement (this amounts to a formula, too).

The concept of a discrepancy—unexpected underachievement—has been a part of learning disabilities throughout most of its history, but it became controversial in the 1990s. Some authorities in LD contend that, for example, there is no evidence of difference in the acquisition of reading skills between children with and without a discrepancy. They also argue that requiring a child to have a discrepancy works against giving special instructional services to very young children; if the services could be provided when they are young, then the problems might be prevented. DLD's booklet on response to instruction, Thinking about Response to Intervention and Learning Disabilities: A Teacher's Guided, discusses these issues. 

Q: Do children outgrow learning disabilities?

A: Often, learning disabilities continue throughout an individual’s life.

Students do not “grow out” of them; rather, with appropriate guidance and instruction, they may learn ways to overcome the difficulties that learning disabilities present. For example, students who have difficulty learning to read during the early school years may—given powerful instruction geared to their needs—acquire fundamental reading skills, but most of them are likely to also require powerful instruction to learn more advanced decoding skills, foundational strategies for comprehending what they have read, advanced strategies for making inferences about text, and so forth. That is to say, there is no magic bullet that cures LD. Most students with LD require continuing help with how to adapt to learning situations.

Still, many individuals with LD can learn how to do quite well in many occupations. There are popular accounts of great stories of individuals with learning disabilities who despite the odds have done quite well. Of course, though these stories are inspiring, they are just anecdotes. They represent the special cases in which individuals with marvelous talents have done quite well, just as have other individuals who did not have LD.  

Q: What causes learning disabilities?

A: The causes of learning disabilities are complex and not well understood.

In fact, the causes of learning disabilities may be as diverse as the types of learning disabilities. Students may have problems with early-, intermediate-, or advanced reading; early- intermediate-, or advanced-computation; early-, intermediate-, or advanced-written expression; recall of simple or related concepts; attending to relevant versus irrelevant aspects of lessons or activities; and so forth. Those problems may be the result of many different causes.

Recent research has discovered differences in the brain structure and functioning of readers with learning disabilities but this is only a beginning. Learning disabilities may be caused by hereditary, teratogenic (e.g., alcohol, lead, cocaine), medical (e.g., premature birth, diabetes, meningitis), and environmental (e.g., malnutrition, poor prenatal healthcare) factors.

Researchers seeking to base instruction on the cause of an individual’s learning disability have so far not been successful. Apparently, rather than determining the cause of a student’s problems, it is more important to determine the individual’s unique educational needs and design instruction that has the best chance of helping him or her to meet those needs.

Q: How many children have learning disabilities?

A: Authorities’ estimates range from 0.5% to 30%.

Various studies have put the prevalence around 6-8% percent of the school-age population. Each year, the U.S. Department of Education reports the number and percentage of school-age children receiving special education for learning disabilities in public schools. For the school year 1998-1999, just under 4.5% of 6- to 21-year olds (2.8 million) in US schools had been identified as having learning disabilities. More recently, that percentage has declined. In 2005, 2008, and 2011, the comparable percentages were 4.15, 3.85, and 3.4%. There is a great amount of debate about the reasons for this change in prevalence.

Q: Aren’t learning disabilities a modern excuse for poor school performance?

A: The term “learning disability” came into use relatively recently.

Although Sam Kirk and Barbara Bateman had used it in print a year earlier, a speech by Kirk to a group of concerned parents in 1963 is often cited as the basis for using the term to describe these children. However, the difficulties that students faced due to learning disabilities were not new. Before the term was used widely, labels such as mild mental retardation, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, perceptual impairment, neurological impairment, and slow learner described children having similar difficulties in school. Now, many of these difficulties have been subsumed by learning disabilities.

Q: What types of difficulties should I look for in my classroom?

A: Characteristics vary with age and sometimes with content area.

It is important that you assess the importance of any particular behavior in relation to the student’s age and peers. Some of the behaviors that might make you suspect that a student has a learning disability appear in the following lists. Please understand that no one of these problems is diagnostic; that is, many children and youths show these problems from time to time. Use the problems listed here as hints rather than markers.


Does the child have difficulty (delayed development)

  • Learning the alphabet?
  • Rhyming words?
  • Connecting spoken sounds with letters?
  • Counting and learning numbers?
  • Being understood when he or she speaks to a stranger?
  • Using scissors, crayons, and paints?
  • Reacting too much or too little to touch?
  • Using words or, later, stringing words together into phrases?
  • Pronouncing words?
  • Walking forward or up and down stairs?
  • Remembering the names of colors?
  • Dressing him- or herself without assistance.

Elementary School

Does the child have difficulty

  • Reading accurately?
  • Learning new vocabulary?
  • Speaking in full sentences?
  • Understanding the rules of conversation?
  • Retelling stories?
  • Remembering newly learned information?
  • Playing with peers?
  • Moving from one activity to another?
  • Expressing thoughts verbally or in writing?
  • Holding a pencil?
  • Writing letters and numerals by hand?
  • Computing math problems at his or her grade level?
  • Following directions?
  • Remembering routines?
  • Learning new skills?
  • Understanding what he or she reads,
  • Succeeding in one or more subject areas?
  • Drawing or copying shapes?
  • Understanding what information presented in class is important,
  • Modulating voice (may speak to loudly or in a monotone)?
  • Keeping materials neat and assignments organized?
  • Remembering and sticking to deadlines?
  • Understanding how to play age-appropriate games?

Adolescence and Adulthood

Does the individual have difficulty

  • Remembering newly learned information?
  • Staying organized?
  • Understanding what he or she reads?
  • Getting along with peers or coworkers?
  • Finding or keeping a job?
  • Understanding jokes that are subtle or sarcastic?
  • Making appropriate remarks?
  • Expressing thoughts verbally or in writing?
  • Following directions?
  • Using basic skills (such as reading, writing, spelling, and math)?
  • Using proper grammar in spoken or written communication?
  • Remembering and sticking to deadlines?

If someone is concerned about a student, she or he should discuss her or his observations with appropriate school personnel. It is helpful to document the conditions under which the student has difficulties (What tasks were involved? In what sort of environment were problems observed? What instruction was provided to the student about how to accomplish the tasks?). Note which instructional situations are problematic, together with an indication as to which methods or approaches are most successful with that student. Teachers' observations and anecdotal records of the child, together with their normal classroom records, are valuable in solving problems.

Q: How do schools determine if a child has a learning disability?

A: Determining whether a student has a learning disability is a multi-step task, and it is accomplished differently in different locales.

The process usually begins with the concerns of a teacher or parent (or the student him- or herself) about a student’s difficulty in learning a basic skill or understanding content. Teachers and others collect specific information about student performance and confer with school-based teams to develop strategies for help in the classroom. If these strategies produce positive results, the case is closed. If difficulties persist, a teacher, a parent, or the student could refer the case for special education evaluation. Once a referral is made, schools must follow the guidelines and procedures outlined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. (For more specific information about a particular school’s procedures, contact the special education chairperson or representative at that school or at the local education agency's central office.)

Once a referral is received, the school conducts a formal evaluation of the student. In the case of a suspected learning disability, the evaluation usually includes assessments of intellectual potential, academic achievement, emotional functioning, hearing and vision, social functioning, and performance in the classroom.

When the assessments are completed, a “group of qualified professionals and the parent of the child” examines the results (IDEA, Section 300.534 of 34 CFR Parts 300 and 303). Both the specific strengths and the specific weaknesses of the student are identified. If the results reveal learning difficulties that meet the local criteria, the team will identify the student as having a learning disability.

Q: How does a school determine if a student has a learning disability when English is his second language or he has limited English proficiency?

A: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act explicitly prescribes evaluation procedures for students who have English as a second or other language.

In describing evaluation procedures, IDEA requires that

(a)(1) Tests and other evaluation materials used to assess a child under Part B of the Act

(i) Are selected and administered so as not to be discriminatory on a racial or cultural basis; and

(ii)  Are provided and administered in the child’s native language or other mode of communication, unless it is clearly not feasible to do so.

(2) Materials and procedures used to assess a child with limited English proficiency are selected and administered to ensure that they measure the extent to which the child has a disability and needs special education, rather than measuring the child’s English language skills. (Section 300.532 of 34 CFR Parts 300 and 303)

Please also see the position paper authorized by DLD's board entitled "Essential Components of Special Education for English Language Learners With Learning Disabilities" and written by Janette Klingner and colleagues.

Q: What is Response-To-Intervention or RTI?

A: Some educators concerned about Learning Disabilities believe that it is possible to correct the learning and behavior problems of many students in general education classrooms without having to identify students as having a disability. (Information for this item taken from Fuchs, Mock, Morgan, & Young, 2003; Vaughn & Fuchs, 2003. These articles are available to Members in Volume 18, Issue 3 of Learning Disabilities Research and Practice. Members sign in here to access the full articles.)

They suggest that by employing techniques and procedures with known effectiveness and monitoring the effects of those techniques and procedures, students' difficulties can be remedied without resorting to special education services. One version of this approach was championed by some early leaders in Learning Disabilities under the term "pre-referrral intervention teams," but it is known today as a "response-to-intervention" or "response-to-instruction" (RTI) approach.

In an RTI approach, students receive special services in general education classrooms. The benefits of the services are monitored and, if the student makes sufficient progress with the special services, he or she continues with general education instruction. If the student does not thrive under the special conditions, then a formal referral for special education services is initiated. Advocates of the RTI approach believe that using such an approach is preferable to determining eligibility based on a discrepancy between ability and achievement and that it will help students with learning problems to succeed while allowing those who have substantial problems to have access to special education.

This system of identification can take various forms in the schools. Two such forms are called the Problem Solving Approach and the Standard Protocol Approach. These forms are summarized in the accompanying table.

Please also see the position paper authorized by DLD's board entitled "Intensive Interventions for Students With Learning Disabilities in the RTI Era" and written by Sharon Vaughn and colleagues.




Step Name Description Example
Step 1 Problem Identification Student problems are identified and described in observable, measurable terms. Information is collected about the problem. Student reads at 25 words per minute but peers in class read at 50 words per minute. Student gains .5 words per min on average each week. Class average gain is 1.5 words per week.
Step 2 Problem analysis Verify the problem. Identify factors contributing to the problem. Develop a plan. Student has difficulty with sound-symbol relationships. Student to receive one-to-one tutoring in a phonics-based program.
Step 3 Plan implementation Plan implemented. Observations of plan implementation made and feedback given. Tutor meets with student 15 minutes each day. Implements Lindamood Program. Student oral reading performance improves slightly. Tutor begins meeting with student for 30 mins each day.
Step 4 Problem evaluation Effectiveness of intervention evaluated. If ineffective, modifications made, intervention intensified, or referral to special education made. Student increases to 35 words per minute but peers at 75. Increase in oral reading averages .5 words per week but class average is 1.5 words. Student referred to special education.


Step Name Description Example
Step 1   Teachers identify students struggling in content area. Students identified by teachers as poorest readers in class or who score in lowest 15th percentile of standardized reading test.
Step 2   Students identified by teachers all receive same intervention. Progress is monitored. Students receive one-to-one tutoring for 30 minutes per day. Students below the 40th percentile on a basic skills assessment referred to step 3.
Step 3   Students who do not make progress in Step 2 receive more intensive (but same) intervention. Progress is monitored. Students receive an additional 8-10 weeks of tutoring. Students still in bottom 30th percentile referred to Step 4.
Step 4   Students who still do not make progress are referred for special education.  

According to IDEA, schools may use alternative means of identification for students with learning disabilities. How school districts implement these alternative means is not prescribed and may not be exactly like the examples given. Regulatory language from the Department of Education may be more specific about how school districts should implement RTI.

Q: What types of assistance can a general educator get to help meet the needs of students with learning disabilities in the regular classroom?

A.Support services vary by schools, districts, and states.

General education teachers may get support for instruction in their classrooms from special educators in two ways: collaborative consultation and co-teaching. In collaborative consultation, a special educator works with the general educator to plan instruction and accommodations for students with learning disabilities but the general educator provides the instruction and accommodation during her instruction in the classroom. In co-teaching, the general and special educator plan instruction and accommodations to meet the needs of the students with learning disabilities in the class and the two teachers then teach together in the general education classroom. Both situations require teachers to work together to meet the needs of students with learning disabilities so responsibilities should be negotiated.

Q: Is Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD or ADHD) the same as a learning disability?

A: Attention Deficit Disorder and learning disabilities are not synonyms.

Students with ADD or ADHD have a hard time paying attention and concentrating (inattention), sitting still (hyperactivity), and controlling impulsive behavior (impulsivity). Though some students with learning disabilities exhibit impulsive or inattentive behaviors, these behaviors are often not exhibited to the same extent as by students with ADD. Some students who have learning disabilities also have ADD, but many students who have learning disabilities do not. In the US, students whose primary problems are with attention may receive special education services without being formally identified as having LD.

For complete information on children served under the IDEA visit the Office of Special Education Programs at the U.S. Dept. of Education.

Listing of LD characteristics was adapted from the National Center for Learning Disabilities.