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Education of Individuals with Learning Disabilities

The term learning disability was first introduced in the early 1960s. Up until that time, children with relatively normal intelligence who experienced learning difficulties were referred to as minimally brain injured, slow learners, dyslexic, or perceptually disabled. Despite their learning problems, these children had not received special attention in schools. Parents' unyielding efforts to get their children's educational needs addressed played a major role in the United States federal government's recognition of specific learning disability as a special education category in the late 1960s. The learning disability category has since become the largest category of special education in the United States, accounting for over half of all students identified by public schools as needing special education services.

Since the formal inception of the learning disability category in the 1960s, those working in that field have grappled with issues of definition, identification, treatment, and placement. A definition of learning disabilities that provides unambiguous identification criteria does not yet exist; however, there is growing consensus regarding some aspects of a definition (e.g., presumption of central nervous system dysfunction; association with underachievement and psychological process disorders; variance within and among individuals). In practice, the principal method for determining identification is discrepancy: the difference between ability–usually measured by standardized intelligence tests–and achievement–usually measured by standardized achievement tests. Many authorities, however, object to the reliance on discrepancy because of invalid assumptions and unreliable scores.

Students with learning disabilities, like other students with disabilities, receive special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (originally passed in 1975 as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act). Early attempts (i.e., in the mid-1960s to early 1970s) to alleviate the academic problems of students with learning disabilities involved a focus on perceptual motor training (e.g., tracing embedded figures, connecting dots) in isolation of academic skills. Most teachers no longer use these types of exercises, as research failed to demonstrate their effectiveness. The end result of individuals' and organizations' capitalizing on the appeal of "quick fixes" and "cures" is the emergence of other questionable treatments. In the 1980s, tinted lenses and the Neural Organization Technique–the manual manipulation of the skull–were purported to be effective treatments for severe reading problems.

Notwithstanding some ineffective methods, much progress has been made to identify effective means of addressing the learning needs of students with disabilities. Extensive research syntheses summarized by Sharon Vaughn, Russell Gersten, and David J. Chard indicate that students with learning disabilities learn best when they are taught in small groups (i.e., six or fewer), wherein teachers control tasks to ensure high levels of student success and use procedures to teach students self-questioning (e.g., What do I think this story is about? What mathematical operation should I use to solve this problem?). Best practices in writing instruction, for example, include explicit teaching of the steps in the writing process, explicit teaching of the structure of various types of writing, and guided feedback. Unfortunately, many special educators are inadequately trained to meet the needs of exceptional students; as a result, many instructional practices validated by research are not reaching students.

The most appropriate setting in which to provide special education services is an issue of considerable debate. For most students with learning disabilities, services are provided in general education classrooms as a result of the controversial trend toward policies of inclusion (i.e., placing students with disabilities in general-education classrooms for most or all of the school day). Advocates of full inclusion, such as the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, declare that all students, regardless of disability, belong in general education classrooms; others, including the Learning Disabilities Association of America, advocate that decisions regarding placement should be made on an individual basis to optimize academic and social gains for students with disabilities. In accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a full continuum of alternative placements, ranging from general-education classrooms to home instruction, must be available to students with disabilities. To date, evidence indicates that the preservation of the continuum of placements is in the best interest of students with learning disabilities. As special educators of the twenty-first century improve teacher training and refine and replicate research efforts, the educational needs of students with learning disabilities will be met by the most qualified teachers, through the most effective means, in the most appropriate settings.


HALLAHAN, DANIEL P., and KAUFFMAN, JAMES M. 2000. Exceptional Learners: Introduction to Special Education, 8th edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

HALLAHAN, DANIEL P.; KAUFFMAN, JAMES M.; and LLOYD, JOHN W. 1999. Introduction to Learning Disabilities, 2nd edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

KAUFFMAN, JAMES M. 1999. "Commentary: Today's Special Education and Its Message for Tomorrow." The Journal of Special Education 32:244–254.

KAVALE, KENNETH A., and FORNESS, STEVEN R. 2000. "What Definitions of Learning Disability Say and Don't Say." Journal of Learning Disabilities 33:239–256.

KIRK, SAMUEL A. 1962. Educating Exceptional Children. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

VAUGHN, SHARON;GERSTEN, RUSSELL; and CHARD, DAVID J. 2000. "The Underlying Message in LD Intervention Research: Findings from Research Syntheses." Exceptional Children 67:99–114.

WORRALL, RUSSELL S. 1990. "Detecting Health Fraud in the Field of Learning Disabilities." Journal of Learning Disabilities 23:207–212.



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