Learning Disability

A student with a specific learning disability is experiencing achievement in a specific subject area (oral expression, listening comprehension, written expression, basic reading skills, reading comprehension, mathematics calculation, or mathematics reasoning) that is significantly below expectations based on his chronological age, measured intelligence, and appropriate educational experiences. Learning disabilities are neurologically based, which means that a person interprets information differently than is typical (sometimes referred to as a processing deficit). When a student is not succeeding in a specific area there are several things to rule out

  • The student must have average intelligence and be capable of learning at an age appropriate level (i.e. the student does not have an intellectual disability).
  • The student must have had sufficient educational experiences (i.e. the student is not behind peers due to truancy).
  • The student is not failing solely due to effects of another disorder.
  • The student is not failing solely due to a cultural, economic, or environmental disadvantage.

IDEA 2004 Definition

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 the 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. Specific learning disability 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.

How is a Learning Disability Identified?

Professionals are currently debating how to identify a learning disability in a student.  In fact, it is a hot topic in the field of School Psychology and opinions vary greatly. Determination of a Specific Learning Disability currently varies from state to state and sometimes even within a state. The federal law currently accepts two models of identifying a learning disability:

Discrepancy Model

The discrepancy model is the traditional way to diagnose a learning disability. A professional will give a cognitive assessment (intelligence test). When a student has a learning disability, typically one area emerges as a significant weakness. This is referred to as a processing deficit because the assessment revealed that the student has does not process information as efficiently in one area. For example a processing deficit in visual motor ability indicates that the child has difficulty interpreting visual information which could impact reading and decoding words. A professional also administers achievement tests to measure the students educational achievement compared to others at his/her age. This should assess oral expression, listening comprehension, written expression, basic reading skills, reading comprehension, mathematics calculation, and mathematics reasoning. The results of the achievement test are then compared to the cognitive assessment. Typically a student’s educational achievement is at the same level as his/her ability. When a learning disability is present, the student is not achieving to his/her potential in a content area. It is believed that the processing deficit found in the cognitive testing is the reason for this discrepancy. See SPED testing.


Response to Intervention involves early identification of students who are at risk for learning problems. Careful monitoring is conducted on all students and especially when a student is struggling. Research based interventions are conducted and closely monitored with the student. When a student continues to struggle despite a variety of interventions, he or she may have a Learning Disability.

NOTE: Many school psychologists recommend a combined approach and do not solely side with RTI or the discrepancy model in identifying a Learning Disability. See the Learning Disabilities Association of America’s position on RTI www.ldaamerica.org/about/position/rti.asp

  • U.S. Department of Education: (2006) Building the Legacy: IDEIA 2004. Retreived from www.idea.ed.gov

Leave a Reply