Learning Disabilities



What is Dyslexia?

     An individual with dyslexia has difficulty with written letters and words. Most commonly, a person with dyslexia has difficulty learning to read and spell words. They commonly add, omit, substitute, shift or repeat sounds in words (reading) or letters in words (spelling). These reading and spelling difficulties occur despite adequate teaching, home environment, motivation, intelligence, and sensory acuity (vision, hearing, and touch).

     Dyslexia is a medical diagnosis, made by a qualified physician or psychologist. Schools commonly do not use the diagnostic medical term dyslexia. Rather, the equivalent term in an educational setting is a specific learning disability (SLD). A specific learning disability in reading generally means the same as dyslexia, difficulty with reading words. However, SLD's can also indicate other learning difficulties besides reading, such as a specific learning disability in mathematics or written expression (Dysgraphia). However, this educational term (SLD) is misleading, as rarely do children with an SLD diagnosis lack the ability to read. Rather, they are not being taught in the methods in which they are able to learn to become accurate and fluent readers. The good news is that 30 years of research clearly indicates that an individual's reading ability can be dramatically improved after proper instruction and methodology in these deficient reading skills!

What causes Dyslexia?

       A single cause of dyslexia has not been universally identified. However, over 30 years of research indicates that one  primary cause of dyslexia is poorly developed phonological awareness. Phonological awareness is the ability to judge the number, order, and sameness or difference of sounds in words. Phonological awareness typically develops well before children are taught letters. Phonological awareness first develops during learning to speak. It helps a child be able to hear a word and learn to repeat it correctly. Another example of early phonological awareness is the ability to rhyme words (which typically develops around 3 years of age). Thus, well before children are taught letters and their sounds (commonly called phonics instruction), the brain typically learns to hear, see and feel the differences between individual sounds and sounds put together in the form of words. Individuals with poorly developed phonological awareness (and ensuing difficulty with reading) have developmental dyslexia.

       Developmental dyslexia, or a strong likelihood of developing dyslexia, is believed to result from an uncommon development of the brain before birth. This uncommon development of the brain results in a brain that is not well organized to learn the sound structure of the English language, e.g. the poor organization hinders the development of good phonological awareness. Again, phonological awareness develops before learning what sounds each alphabet letter or letters makes (phonics instruction). When letters are being taught in school, then most individuals with dyslexia will learn the specific sound for each letter or letters. However, when these sounds are put together to form a word, then the difficulty begins. To most individuals with dyslexia a word is like a solid chunk of sound. Thus, children and adults with dyslexia have great difficulty dividing a word into its individual sounds. Likewise, individuals with dyslexia typically have trouble sounding out new or unfamiliar words. This difficulty sounding out words puts individuals with dyslexia at a distinct disadvantage for developing fluent and accurate reading skills. However, dyslexia is not common only to English. Research on dyslexia has found it to exist in most any language that has graphic shapes (letters) that are associated with a sound or sounds of a language.

 Is there a cure for dyslexia?  

     There is no cure for dyslexia. However, the primary cause of dyslexia, phonological awareness, can be greatly improved through very specific, frequent, and intense (more than an hour per day) instruction, using  Scientifically-Based Researched published programs that have been solidly proven to be effective in large scale research studies. Significant improvements in phonological awareness and its highest level of development (called comparator function) provide the foundation for greatly enhancing the reading skills of individuals with dyslexia. Well-designed research shows that children as young as 4 and 5 years of age can be reliably diagnosed as being likely to develop dyslexia (after reading instruction begins). Likewise, longitudinal research shows that early intervention (beginning in Kindergarten) can greatly reduce the reading difficulties of children at risk for dyslexia. In contrast, a significant amount of research shows that poor reading skills are unlikely to be a maturation problem, as rarely do poor reading skills greatly improve just because of age. Thus, parents who are told to "wait and see" if a child gets better at reading or falls further behind are being significantly misguided. The sooner proper intervention is started, the greater the benefit for the individual with a reading difficulty.

How prevalent is dyslexia?     

     It has been estimated that ten to thirty percent of the population may have poor phonological awareness skills. Likewise, this same range of individuals are believed to have mild to severe forms of dyslexia. Dyslexia is not reliably related to intelligence, race, or gender.

What are some of the signs that a child may have dyslexia?   

     A delay in learning to talk, difficulty learning the alphabet, trouble learning to rhyme words, problems dividing word   into their separate sounds, speech errors occurring beyond typical age appropriateness that involve adding, substituting, shifting or omitting sounds in words, weak language comprehension, poor fine-motor skills, sloppy handwriting, and messy eating skills are all indicators of the potential for developing poor phonological awareness and dyslexia. Current research shows that children at the age of 4 and 5 years of age who show these early indicators of dyslexia should be properly tested right away, even prior to beginning reading instruction. Unfortunately, contrary to the results and recommendations of well-designed research studies, many schools and educators encourage parents to wait until nearly fourth grade before referring a child for a diagnostic assessment, if at all. Waiting until 2nd or 3rd grade puts the child at a large disadvantage, as by this point they will likely be significantly behind their peers in reading skills and now have a much larger gap between their abilities and that of their peers. The larger the gap between a child's reading skills and his/her peers' skills, the more intervention will be necessary to help the child reach their grade level and potential reading ability. Similarly, the longer one delays seeking proper diagnosis and treatment, the greater the risk that the individual will develop a poor self-esteem, behavior problems, and poor motivation towards school.

Will dyslexics ever learn to read? 

     With well-researched instructional programs (focused on developing phonological awareness and its application to reading, spelling and speech) and proper environmental supports, individuals with dyslexia can learn to read, and read very well. Research shows that reading skills can improve more than 4-5 grade levels for children with even moderate to severe dyslexia. Improvements in phonological awareness and reading skills can occur regardless of the age of the individual with dyslexia; yes, even adults with dyslexia can benefit from proper instruction. However, the older an individual is the greater the likelihood that his/her poor phonological awareness and reading skills have inhibited the development of other academic/language skills, such as vocabulary, grammatical writing skills, and oral speaking abilities. Nevertheless, following proper reading instruction and remediation of other deficient academic/language skills, not only is college an option for many individuals with developmental dyslexia, but also a larger range of employment opportunities are available, due to having better developed reading, writing, speech and comprehension skills


What You Need to Know About IDEA 2004
Specific Learning Disabilities: Discrepancy & Response to Intervention Models
by Peter Wright, Esq. & Pamela Wright, MA, MSW

Identifying Children with Specific Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities account for nearly half of all children enrolled in special education programs. This led experts in the field to question the models for identifying children with learning disabilities.

Experts in the field of learning disabilities believe that many children identified with specific learning disabilities are “victims of poor teaching. The statement that many children identified as LD are “teaching disabled” is often accurate. Almost all children can learn to read if taught appropriately, but many do not get the help they need because their teachers are not adequately prepared. (Early Warning System by G. Reid Lyon and Jack M. Fletcher)

When Congress reauthorized IDEA, they changed the law about how to identify children with specific learning disabilities. IDEA 2004 says schools “shall not be required to take into consideration whether a child has a severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability in oral expression, listening comprehension, written expression, basic reading skill, reading comprehension, mathematical calculation, or mathematical reasoning.” (Section 1414(b)) (See Wrightslaw: IDEA 2004, page 88)

Abandon Discrepancy Models

In the Commentary and Explanation to the proposed special education regulations, the U. S. Department of Education describes reasons why discrepancy models should be abandoned:

The IQ-discrepancy criterion is potentially harmful to students as it results in delaying intervention until the student’s achievement is sufficiently low that the discrepancy is achieved. For most students, identification as having an SLD occurs at an age when the academic problems are difficult to remediate with the most intense remediation efforts (Torgesen, et. al., 2001)

… the “wait to fail” model does not lead to “closing the achievement gap for most students placed in special education. Many students placed in special education as SLD show minimal gains in achievement and few actually leave special education. (Donovon & Cross, 2002).

Adopt "Response to Intervention" or "Response to Instruction" (RTI) Models

IDEA 2004 states, “In determining whether a child has a specific learning disability, a local educational agency may use a process that determines if the child responds to scientific, research-based intervention…” (Section 1414(b)(6)(B)). (See Wrightslaw: IDEA 2004, page 88)

In the explanation and commentary to the proposed IDEA 2004 regulations, the U. S. Department of Education “strongly recommends” that schools use a response to intervention model that

…uses a process based on systematic assessment of the student’s response to high quality, research-based general education instruction…that incorporate response to a research-based intervention…
Identification models that incorporate response to intervention represent a shift in special education toward the goals of better achievement and behavioral outcomes for students identified with SLD…” Commentary and Explanation of the Proposed Regulations for IDEA 2004

Diagnosing Learning Disabilities

Psychologists often diagnose learning disabilities by exclusion. If the a child has a disability that adversely affects educational performance, and the child is not retarded, does not have a visual, hearing or motor disability, is not emotionally disturbed, and is not negatively affected by environmental, cultural or economic disadvantages, it is likely that the child has a learning disability.

According to the proposed IDEA 2004 regulations, States “may prohibit the use of a severe discrepancy between intellectual ability and achievement,” and “must permit the use of a process that determines if the child respond to scientific, research-based intervention as part of the evaluation procedures,” and “may permit the use of other alternative research-based procedures for determining whether a child has a specific learning disability…”

Response to Intervention (RTI): Articles & Free Pubs . . . more articles

Fletcher, Jack M., W. Alan Coulter, Daniel J. Reschly & Sharon Vaughn. Alternative Approaches to the Definition and Identification of Learning Disabilities: Some Questions and Answers. From Annals of Dyslexia.
URL: http://www.aimsweb.com/_lib/pdfs/RTIannalsfinal.pdf

To ensure adequate instruction for students with LD, identification must focus on assessments that are directly related to instruction. Services for struggling students must focus on intervention, not eligibility. Special education must focus on results and outcomes, not eligibility and process. Identification models that include RTI will lead to better achievement and behavior outcomes for students with LD and those at risk for LD.

Fuchs, Douglas, Lynn Fuchs, Donald Compton, Joan Bryant, and National Research Center on Learning Disabilities. (2005) Responsiveness-to-Intervention: A New Method of Identifying Students with Disabilities - PowerPoint presentation from the Council for Exceptional Children Annual Convention.
URL: http://nrcld.org/presentations/CEC_April2005.ppt

Fuchs, Douglas, Lynn S. Fuchs. (2001) Responsiveness to Intervention: A Blueprint for Practitioners, Policymakers, and Parents in Teaching Exceptional Children.
URL: http://www.advocacyinstitute.org/resources/TEC_RtIblueprint.pdf

Describes a "three-tier" system (beginning in general education and ending in special education) that serves the early intervention and disability identification objectives of RBI. The focus is on standard tutoring protocols, not "problem solving model," because available scientific research supports this approach.

Kovaleski, Joseph & David P. Prasse. (2004) Response to Instruction in the Identification of Learning Disabilities: A Guide for School Teams. Published in NASP Communique, 32 (5).
The authors explain why response to intervention is a promising alternative to the traditional IQ-achievement discrepancy model for identifying students with learning disabilities and improving classroom instruction in general education.”
URL: www.nasponline.org/publications/cq325instruction.html

Lyon, G. Reid Lyon and Jack Fletcher. (2001) Early Warning System.
URL: http://www.educationnext.org/200212/22.html

The authors describe three factors that caused a dramatic increase in children identified with LD. (1) Remediation is rarely effective after 2nd grade. (2) Measurement practices work against identifying LD children before 2nd grade. (3) Federal policy and the sociology of public education allow ineffective policies to continue. The authors make a case for implementing effective early intervention programs.

National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities. (2005) Responsiveness to Intervention & Learning Disabilities.
URL: http://www.ldanatl.org/pdf/rti2005.pdf

Examines concepts, potential benefits, practical issues, and questions associated with responsiveness to intervention (RTI) and learning disabilities (LD). Includes questions about implementation, eligibility, parent participation, structure and components, professional roles and competencies, and needed research.

National Research Center on Disabilities. (2003) Response to Intervention Models, Identify, Evaluate & Scale.
URL: http://www.nrcld.org/html/research/rti/RTIinfo.pdf

Describes characteristics of Response to Intervention models: student-centered assessment and intervention models that identify and address student difficulties and use effective instruction, leading to improved achievement.


DIBELS - The Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) are standardized, individually administered measures of early literacy development. They are designed to be short fluency measures used to monitor the development of pre-reading and early reading skills. URL: http://dibels.uoregon.edu/

Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR) - established a review process to analyze reading curricula and materials; website has reports about reading programs.

National Center for Learning Disabilities - provides information to parents, professionals and individuals with learning disabilities, promotes research and programs to foster effective learning, and advocates for policies to protect and strengthen educational rights and opportunities.

National Reading Panel - The National Reading Panel published their findings on research based reading in two reports and a video, "Teaching Children to Read." They also identified effective instructional strategies for teaching students with reading difficulties.

Reading Rockets - a national multimedia project offering information and resources on how young kids learn to read, why so many struggle, and how caring adults can help.






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