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General Information about Learning Disabilities

Fact Sheet Number 7 (FS7), 1997



National Information Center
for Children and Youth with Disabilities


Definition of Learning Disabilities



Educational Implications




Learning and Other Disabilities

Related Articles

Learning Disabilities

A Parent's Guide to Accessing Programs for Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers with Disabilities

Definition of Learning Disabilities

The regulations for Public Law (P.L.) 101-476, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), formerly P.L. 94-142, the Education of the Handicapped Act (EHA), define a learning disability as a "disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using spoken or written language, which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or to do mathematical calculations."

The Federal definition further states that learning disabilities include "such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia." According to the law, learning disabilities do not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities; mental retardation; or environmental,cultural, or economic disadvantage. Definitions of learning disabilities also vary among states.

Having a single term to describe this category of children with disabilities reduces some of the confusion, but there are many conflicting theories about what causes learning disabilities and how many there are. The label "learning disabilities" is all-embracing; it describes a syndrome, not a specific child with specific problems. The definition assists in classifying children, not teaching them. Parents and teachers need to concentrate on the individual child. They need to observe both how and how well the child performs, to assess strengths and weaknesses, and develop ways to help each child learn. It is important to remember that there is a high degree of interrelationship and overlapping among the areas of learning. Therefore,children with learning disabilities may exhibit a combination of characteristics.

These problems may mildly, moderately, or severely impair the learning process.

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Many different estimates of the number of children with learning disabilities have appeared in the literature (ranging from 1% to 30% of the general population). In 1987, the Interagency Committee on Learning Disabilities concluded that 5% to 10% is a reasonable estimate of the percentage of persons affected by learning disabilities. The U.S. Department of Education (1994) reported that more than 4% of all school aged children received special education services for learning disabilities and that in the 1992-93 school year over 2 million children with learning disabilities were served. Differences in estimates perhaps reflect variations in the definition.

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Learning disabilities are characterized by a significant difference in the child's achievement in some areas, as compared to his or her overall intelligence.

Students who have learning disabilities may exhibit a wide range of traits, including problems with reading comprehension, spoken language, writing, or reasoning ability. Hyperactivity, inattention, and perceptual coordination problems may also be associated with learning disabilities. Other traits that may be present include a variety of symptoms, such as uneven and unpredictable test performance, perceptual impairments, motor disorders, and behaviors such as impulsiveness, low tolerance for frustration, and problems in handling day-to-day social interactions and situations.

Learning disabilities may occur in the following academic areas:

  1. Spoken language: Delays, disorders, or discrepancies in listening and speaking

  2. Written language: Difficulties with reading, writing, and spelling

  3. Arithmetic: Difficulty in performing arithmetic functions or in comprehending basic concepts

  4. Reasoning: Difficulty in organizing and integrating thoughts

  5. Organization skills: Difficulty in organizing all facets of learning

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Educational Implications

Because learning disabilities are manifested in a variety of behavior patterns, the Individual Education Program (IEP) must be designed carefully. A team approach is important for educating the child with a learning disability, beginning with the assessment process and continuing through the development of the IEP. Close collaboration among special class teachers, parents, resource room teachers, regular class teachers, and others will facilitate the overall development of a child with learning disabilities.

Some teachers report that the following strategies have been effective with some students who have learning disabilities:

  • Capitalize on the student's strengths

  • Provide high structure and clear expectations

  • Use short sentences and a simple vocabulary

  • Provide opportunities for success in a supportive atmosphere to help build self-esteem

  • Allow flexibility in classroom procedures (e.g., allowing the use of tape recorders for note-taking and test-taking when students have trouble with written language)

  • Make use of self-correcting materials, which provide immediate feedback without embarrassment

  • Use computers for drill and practice and teaching word processing

  • Provide positive reinforcement of appropriate social skills at school and home

  • Recognize that students with learning disabilities can greatly benefit from the gift of time to grow and mature

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Cronin, E.M. (1994). Helping your dyslexic child: A step-by-step program for helping your child improve reading, writing, spelling, comprehension, and self-esteem. Rocklin, CA: Prima. (Telephone: (916) 786-0426.)

Journal of Learning Disabilities. (Available from Pro-Ed, 8700 Shoal Creek Boulevard, Austin, TX 78758. Telephone: (512) 451-3246.)

Kratoville, B.L. (Ed.). (1996). Directory of facilities and services for the learning disabled (16th ed.). Novato, CA: Academic Therapy Publications. [Telephone: 1-800-422-7249 (outside CA); (415) 883-3314).]

Lab School of Washington. (1993). Issues of parenting children with learning disabilities (audiotape series of 12 lectures). Washington, DC: Author. [Telephone: (202) 965-6600.]

Silver, L. (1991). The misunderstood child: A guide for parents of children with learning disabilities (2nd ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill. (Available from McGraw Hill Retail, 860 Taylor Station Road, Blacklick, OH 43004. Telephone: 1-800-262-4729.)

Smith, S. (1995). No easy answers (Rev. ed.). New York, NY: Bantam Books. (Available from Bantam, 2451 South Wolf Rd., Des Plaines, IL 60018. Telephone: 1-800-323-9872.)

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Council for Learning Disabilities (CLD)

P.O. Box 40303
Overland Park, KS 66204
(913) 492-8755

Division of Learning Disabilities

Council for Exceptional Children
1920 Association Dr.
Reston, VA 22091-1589
(703) 620-3660
Web address: http://www.cec.sped.org

Learning Disabilities Assn. of America (LDA)

4156 Library Road
Pittsburgh, PA 15234
(412) 341-1515; (412) 341-8077
E-mail: ldanatl@usaor.net
Web address: http://www.ldanatl.org

National Center for Learning Disabilities

381 Park Avenue South, Suite 1401
New York, NY 10016
(212) 545-7510
(800) 575-7373
Web address: http://www.ncld.org

Orton Dyslexia Society

Chester Building, Suite 382
8600 LaSalle Road
Baltimore, MD 21286-2044
(410) 296-0232
(800) 222-3123 (Toll Free)
E-mail: info@ods.org
Web address: http://www.ods.org

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Update, June 1997

This fact sheet is made possible through Cooperative Agreement #H030A30003 between the Academy for Educational Development and the Office of Special Education Programs. The contents of this publication do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

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