Children and youth with learning disabilities typically have average to above average intelligence but also have problems perceiving (making sense of) or using information that results in a pattern of uneven abilities and observable weaknesses in reading, writing, speaking, listening, problem solving, mathematics, and social skills. In other words, they are really good at some tasks and they struggle a great deal with others. Their intelligence provides them great potential to excel and become successful in many careers. Walt Disney, Thomas Edison, and Albert Einstein are all said to have had a learning disability and became famous despite their challenges.
A Specific Learning Disability (SLD) is characterized as a neurodevelopmental disorder (a pattern of difficulties associated with the growth and development of the brain) resulting from an interaction of genetic and environmental factors that affect how the brain perceives, processes, and uses information. The Learning Disabilities Association of Canada (LDAC) defines SLD as a number of disorders that may affect how information is learned, organized, stored, understood, or used by individuals who otherwise demonstrate at least average thinking or reasoning skills. SLD can be best understood as a form of academic underachievement that is significantly below what is expected for an individual’s age and development, despite classroom instruction and other interventions that should improve these difficulties.
Characteristics of SLD
SLD results from weaknesses in one or more cognitive processes related to identifying, remembering, understanding or learning fundamental academic skills. An important defining feature of SLD is that the ongoing academic difficulties are not the result of an intellectual disability (low intelligence); a neurological, motor, vision or hearing disorder; or external factors such as socio-economic status, lack of opportunity, cultural or linguistic differences, frequent school absences, poor instruction, or simply a lack of motivation.
Children with reading SLD may have difficulty with reading accuracy (e.g., difficulty identifying, sounding out, and reading single words), reading rate or fluency (e.g., slow, hesitant, and choppy reading that interferes with comprehension), or reading comprehension (e.g., difficulty understanding the meaning of the words or sentences that are read). A child with a word reading problem may have a hard time sounding out words or remembering what whole words look like. Another child may remember or sound out words, but they read slowly and can’t remember what the sentence is about. Another child can read words well and quickly, but may not know the definitions of words, which interferes with comprehension. Lastly, some children just have a hard time understanding both oral and written language in general, so their reading comprehension is also limited.
Children with math SLD may have difficulty mastering number sense (e.g., difficulty understanding magnitude, amount, or relationships between numbers), math fluency (e.g., difficulty memorizing or recalling math facts), math calculation (e.g., difficulty with computation, carrying out the steps in an equation or the procedures required for accurate calculation), or math reasoning (e.g., difficulty applying mathematical concepts, facts, or procedures to solve quantitative problems, often presented verbally). Many children have a difficult time knowing the difference between number amounts and can’t estimate what their answers might be. Some children perform generally well in math but get lost attempting to carry out math steps in a multi-step problem. Others can’t remember their math facts (6 x 4 = 24), so they have to compute it on paper or in their head, which slows them down. Finally, some children have a difficult time applying math equations to math word problems, so they can’t translate the words into numbers, or can’t figure out what the sentences are asking them to do in terms of computation.
Children with written expression SLD may have difficulty with spelling, grammar and punctuation accuracy, or may struggle with the clarity or organization of their writing. When children write, they have to plan what they are going to say, organize their thoughts, write down the sentences, reread the sentences to see if they “sound good,” and revise the sentences so that the entire written piece makes good sense. This is a struggle for children who are inattentive, disorganized, impulsive, or don’t check their work.
Children with oral language SLD may have difficulty with phonological awareness (e.g., poor awareness of sounds in spoken language), semantics (e.g., poor vocabulary),
receptive language (e.g., understanding spoken language), expressive language (e.g.., the use of language), or grammar and syntax (e.g., difficulty with verb tense, word order, and sentence structure). These children have a hard time following oral instructions and giving oral presentations and also have poor conversational skills.
While some propose that SLD is a lifelong condition, recent research suggests that specific and targeted interventions can actually change how the brain is “wired,” allowing children with SLD to use the same brain areas to read, write, and calculate as children without learning disabilities. That is why it is important to understand the type of SLD a child has, and provide instruction or targeted interventions that can help them overcome the problem.
Assessment of SLD
An SLD diagnosis is often done by a psychologist who uses a combination of medical, educational, psychological, and family history information. Formal assessment includes the use of norm-referenced tests (tests that compare the performance of the child being tested with the performance of other individuals of the same age and grade), interviews with parents and teachers, observations of the child within and outside the classroom, and other sources of information such as student work samples and school records. Although one of the primary indicators of SLD is the difference between the individual’s score on an intelligence test and his or her present classroom achievement, there is currently no agreement about how great this difference should be in order to be considered an SLD.
Historically, psychologists have relied on the ability-achievement discrepancy model as a means for determining the difference between an individual’s score on a norm-referenced intelligence test (e.g., an IQ test) and their actual academic performance as measured by their performance on a norm-referenced academic test. Over the past few years, two models have emerged as an alternative to ability-achievement discrepancy for identifying SLD. The first is called response-to-intervention (RTI) and the second is called processing strengths and weaknesses (PSW).
RTI was developed as an assessment technique to detect learning problems and monitor student progress with respect to the general education curriculum. While RTI is a good approach for detecting learning difficulties and for addressing the educational needs of many children, it does not tell us why a child may be struggling or what types of interventions are best for a particular individual.
Recently, research-based alternatives to SLD identification have emerged; most have adopted PSW. These alternative approaches minimize reliance on IQ in SLD identification and instead focus on interpretation of performance on a variety of cognitive and neuropsychological measures. These alternative PSW approaches have been advocated by some of the top scholars in the field as the preferred method for SLD identification. The PSW models include assessment of psychological processes (e.g., cognitive skills) that are predictive of specific academic skills, and focus on the identification of individual cognitive and academic strengths and weaknesses. Once the strengths and weaknesses are identified, specific intervention strategies aimed at addressing the cognitive and academic weaknesses and enriching their strengths can be developed based on all available data and teacher and parent input. In other words, the PSW model tells us what the problem is and how best to help children overcome it.
It is important to note that neither the ability-achievement discrepancy nor RTI approaches consider cognitive strengths and weaknesses in developing instructional approaches or interventions. Instead, children are more likely to get more of the same instructional approach that was not successful to start with; that instructional approach will simply be applied with greater intensity.
Interventions for SLD
The literature offers many evidenced-based interventions for addressing the difficulties of many children with specific learning disabilities. The following provides some brief examples.
Reading is the most important skill to master in school. To be a good reader, children need to be able to read individual words, interpret words in light of what they know, decode messages, relate their ideas to the ideas presented in a text, and construct personal meaning from what they read. Word identification, which is critically important for effective reading, requires among other things the ability to differentiate between letters, associate letters with sounds, build vocabulary, and recognize words automatically. Strategies that have been shown to develop both word identification and reading fluency include exposing children to words more frequently to facilitate their automatic use, encouraging students to use context clues to determine word meanings, teaching students how to properly use dictionaries, and utilizing paired and repeated readings exercises, which consist of guided oral reading with immediate error correction. Paired, or partner, reading may also include listening and previewing whereby a less proficient reader listens to a more proficient reader prior to independently reading the same passage. For identifying important information when reading, children can be taught how to use highlighters to identify such things as main characters, settings, events, problems, and resolutions. This information can be used to form story maps that can provide a visual framework to improve reading comprehension.
Children need to have good attention, concentration and memory as well as adequate language skills and numerical reasoning to be successful in mathematics. The most important mathematical skills to master include numeration, calculation, computation, measurement and problem solving. Strategies shown to be effective in developing mathematical ability include the use of concrete materials to illustrate math concepts, providing teacher-directed instruction, relating math concepts to their everyday situations, teaching essential math terminology, supplementing verbal presentations with drawings and diagrams, promoting memorization of basic facts, and providing materials and instruction that are in accordance with the child’s language and cognitive development. Interventions aimed at improving mathematical fluency may include explicit timing and performance feedback within a peer-tutoring context, and may also incorporate positive practice overcorrection, which requires students to repeat a response numerous times after making an error to reinforce learning. Reciprocal and class-wide peer-tutoring interventions utilizecollaborative learningand combine group contingencies and self-management strategies to improve mathematics performance and engagement during math instruction. These strategies have been shown to improve computation skills as well as student perceptions of their own academic skills and academic motivation. Effective interventions for improving math problem-solving skills may include strategy instruction whereby students learn a series of steps to facilitate conceptual understanding and problem solving.
Writing is a primary form of communication and, like reading, is a very important skill to master in school. Effective writing requires, among other things, the ability to form and space letters and words, spell words, construct sentences with adequate vocabulary for expressing ideas, have knowledge and information about various topics, be able to structure and organize information, have goals and objectives for writing, and know how to monitor and improve the writing process.
Strategies shown to be effective in developing writing ability include providing children with extensive practice in writing, getting students to write about something they know, providing models and opportunities for editing and revising, and building a positive attitude toward writing. Written-expression interventions that target spelling may focus on concretely demonstrating the sound segments that make up words as well as directly manipulating features of words to help students make connections between sound and print. Collaborative learning is also frequently utilized to assist with spelling and written expression as a way to provide structured practice and immediate performance feedback. A promising new approach to improving writing performance combines explicit teaching of compositional strategies with instruction in self-regulatory procedures, including goal setting, self-instruction, and self-monitoring. Finally, some children need help with using a pencil or pen to write letters on paper. This can be done with the help of an occupational therapist or methods like tracing letters or writing letters within the squares on graph paper.
Oral Language Interventions
The major difficulties children with SLD have with oral expression include the discrimination of sound patterns, finding words to use in communication, adjusting communication to the person with whom they are speaking, and recognizing and understanding various verbal and nonverbal cues. Some strategies known to effectively address these difficulties are providing guidance and practice with respect to various aspects of social communication, providing skill training and role-playing practice, developing speaking and listening skills with respect to formulating words and sentences and clarifying what has been said, and developing vocabulary. These children often need the assistance of someone trained in speech and language pathology, often referred to as a speech therapist.
Social Skills and Peer Relations
Some children with SLD have significant social difficulties. For these children, direct instruction within natural settings with respect to social perception, reasoning, communication skills, and conflict resolution has been shown to be effective. Increasing children’s opportunities for social interaction, reinforcing appropriate social behaviors, and fostering acceptance among their peers have been effective intervention strategies. There are several social skills training programs, and many focus on solving problems effectively when there are conflicts between peers or between children and adults.
Planning and Delivering Instruction
Children and youth with SLD require teachers who can meaningfully engage them in each lesson, monitor their academic development and achievement, facilitate successful learning experiences, provide structure and guidance, and build student ownership in learning, Teachers need to integrate curriculum content and the learning processes, continually monitor and assess readiness, performance and growth, and provide differentiated instruction for meaningful learning by way of direct and mediated instruction (e.g., modeling, guided practice, feedback., student control), cognitive strategy instruction (e.g., activating prior knowledge, developing conceptual awareness and understanding, facilitating memory and problem solving) and collaborative learning ( e.g., informal and formal groupings , peer coaching).
One way to plan and monitor individual academic achievement is through the use of progress monitoring. A common form of progress monitoring, curriculum-based measurement (CBM) provides a quick method for obtaining information on student progress and compares individual student data to data of other students in the class. This data can then be analyzed to help practitioners, administrators, and teachers determine whether student goals need to be modified and whether selected instructional or intervention strategies are beneficial. Whatever instructional approach or intervention is attempted, it is good to collect information on student progress to determine if it is working, should be modified, or stopped altogether.
Emerging Issues and Future Directions
While research supports the use of general SLD interventions to assist with improving skills for students who are struggling academically, the long-term benefits of these interventions remains unclear. There is a growing body of research demonstrating that targeted interventions can improve academic skills. By utilizing a more comprehensive assessment approach when identifying the underlying cause of an SLD, practitioners can better predict the specific cognitive weakness that should be targeted through individualized interventions. This information can provide parents and teachers with valuable information about individual learner differences, and provide struggling children with the necessary resources to help them succeed — both in and out of the classroom.
Science has made great strides in understanding brain functioning and how it governs thinking and learning. As briefly outlined earlier, one important discovery that brings new hope for children with SLD and other disorders is the finding that the brain can and does change readily — a concept called neuroplasticity. This refers to the brain’s natural, lifelong ability to change in response to the environment. This knowledge has led to groundbreaking new interventions for SLD that take advantage of the brain’s ability to change. Further research may lead to additional new treatments that target the actual causes of SLD, rather than simply offering coping strategies to compensate for weaknesses.
While this is encouraging, it is important to note that plasticity works both ways: if we do not provide any intervention, or even worse, make the wrong intervention, the brain can actually create problematic or dysfunctional pathways that then become automatic. Once they are automatic, these pathways are highly resistant to intervention. In other words, if we let children learn the wrong skills or use other ways to learn that are ineffective, it takes much more time and resources to help them relearn the right way. That is why we need to find the right intervention for the child’s specific needs as early as possible, and to ensure that all children receive interventions that will help them ultimately overcome their academic struggles. In this way, we ensure they can become successful in school and life in general.