Learning Disabilities Essay

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Puzzling is the term teachers use to describe students with learning disabilities.  They tell us that these students look entirely normal, seem intelligent, carry on intelligent conversations that they dont appear to any different than other students. Yet these students have difficulty doing certain tasks not all- in school.  Some have difficulty reading; others perform poorly in spelling; still others make frequent mistakes in math.  Teachers in many schools tell us that these students are very hard to teach that they simply do not learn in the same ways or as easily as others their age.  They tell us that these students have special needs and are not easy to teach in large classes in which most other students perform reasonably well.  They tell us that modifying instruction so that these students can profit from teaching is an intricate process.

Because of the heterogeneous nature of this group of children, the concept of specific learning disabilities has been hard to define or describe in few sentence or by a numerical score such as an IQ or by a decibel loss. Furthermore, because the field has been of interest to educators, psychologists, psychiatrists, neurophysiologists, pediatricians, ophthalmologists, optometrists, speech pathologists, and others, the problem has been viewed in each of those disciplines from different perspectives. Hence there is really the need for several definitions for learning disabilities and thus we can conclude that its definition is defined in case to case basis.

Historically, the following terms were used to name children with Learning disabilities:

â–  perceptually handicapped

â–  brain injured

â–  neurologically impaired

Then, there came two broad aspects of concern in defining and or identifying those children:

The definition of learning disabilities in an educational term has derived its heritage from:

â–  neurology

â–  psychology

â–  speech pathology

â–  ophthalmology

â–   remedial reading

            Wiederholt (1984) has traced the history of Learning disability and has delineated three dimensions of disorders namely:

(1) disorders of the spoken language studied primarily by neurologists and

ophthalmologists such as;

â–  Samuel Kirk developed a test, the Illinois Test of Psycholinguistic Abilities, for use in describing language functioning and developing remedial programs.

â–  Grace Fernald established a clinic at UCLA where she perfected remedial reading and spelling techniques.

â–  Goldstein, Werner and Strauss as pioneers of the field which listed the

following behavioral characteristics that differentiated between those with and

those without brain injuries: excessive motor activity, hyperactivity,

awkwardness and consistently poor motor performance, erratic behavior, poor

organization, high distractibility and faulty perceptions (like reversals) and

â–  Samuel Orton was a neurologist who believed that lack of cerebral dominance was a cause of language disorders. (In normal individual either the left or right side of the brain has dominance in controlling specific functions.)

â–    Cruickshank focused his efforts on the study of brain-injured children, specifically children with cerebral palsy.

â–  Getman, Marianne Frostig, Newell Kephart, and Ray Barsch focused on the correlation of perceptual disorders and developed remedial procedures ranging from optometric eye exercises, tracing and copying patterns, and differentiating figure from background in a puzzle, to making angels in the snow.

            Today, there are various provinces in Canada that have established programs for learning disabilities which was instituted for example by

â–  The Ontario Ministry of Education

â–  Saskatchewan Department of Education

â–  Halifax Board of Education and

â–  Quebec Ministry of Education

But the most widely used definitions is the one incorporated by the

Learning Disabilities Association of Canada or LDAC (2002) which state that, the term

Learning Disabilities refer to a number of disorders which may affect the

acquisition, organization, retention, understanding or use of verbal or nonverbal

information. These disorders affect learning in individuals who otherwise

demonstrate at least average abilities essential for thinking and/or reasoning. As

such, learning disabilities are distinct from global intellectual deficiency.

Learning disabilities result from impairments in one or more processes related to

perceiving, thinking, remembering or learning. These include, but are not limited

to: language processing; phonological processing; visual spatial processing;

processing speed; memory and attention; and executive functions (e.g. planning

and decision-making).

Further, LDAC mentioned that learning disabilities range in severity and may interfere with the acquisition and use of one or more of the following:

Further, the U.S. Department of Education regulation further states that a student has a specific learning disability if:

or more of several specific areas when provided with appropriate learning experiences;

To summarize, all these definitions of learning disabilities, it includes the following major concepts:

    (These processes refer to intrinsic prerequisite abilities, such as memory, auditory

     perception, visual perception, oral language, and thinking.)

reading (word-recognition skills and comprehension), and mathematics (calculation and reasoning.)

impairments; motor handicaps; mental retardation; emotional disturbance; or economic, environmental, or cultural disadvantage.

     his or her low level of achievement.  In other words, there is evidence of


            The various definitions of learning disabilities have several elements in common:

In identifying individuals with learning disabilities, the following common characteristics must be observed:

â–  Disorders of attention: Hyperactivity, distractibility, poor concentration ability, short attention span;

â–  Poor motor abilities: Poor fine and gross motor coordination, general awkwardness and clumsiness, spatial problems;

â–  Perceptual and information processing problems: Difficulty in discrimination of auditory and visual stimuli, auditory and visual closure, and sequencing;

â–  Oral language difficulties: Problems in listening, speaking, vocabulary, and linguistic competencies;

â–  Failure to develop and mobilize cognitive strategies for learning: Lack of organization, active learning set, metacognitive functions;

â–  Reading difficulties: Problems in decoding, basic reading skills, and reading comprehension;

â–  Written language difficulties: Problems in spelling, handwriting, and written composition;

â–  Mathematics difficulties: Difficulty in quantitative thinking, arithmetic, time, space, and calculation facts; and

â–  Inappropriate social behavior: Problems in social skills deficits, emotional problems, and establishing social relationships.

There are also other practical classification schemes that are useful:

(1) the academic learning disabilities ( reading, arithmetic, handwriting, spelling, and written expression)

(2) the developmental learning disabilities: ( attention, memory, perceptual skills,

thinking skills, and oral language skills)

A somewhat more systematic way to look at characteristics of students with learning disabilities is to look at those factors referenced in screening devices.  The following outline reflects the types of difficulties often observed in learning disabled students:

(1) significantly different classroom behaviors

(2) significantly below-average performance in auditory comprehension and listening

(3) significantly below-average performance in spoken language

(4) significant academic problems

(5) orientation difficulties

III. Intervention for Learning Disabilities. This knowledge of the characteristics of learning disabled students is one basis for intervention. Thus, we have seen that children with learning disabilities compose quite a diverse group.  It should be no surprise then to find that the teaching and strategies approaches designed to help those children are also quite a diverse. But it is possible to cluster the various approaches into three broad educational strategies:

â–  Ysseldyke and Salvia (1984) have advanced tow theoretical models namely: (a) analyzing the childs abilities and disabilities and (b) analyzing the task and the direct training of the terminal behavior or task.

This view is supported by behavioral analysts who advocate (1) finding out what the child can and cannot do in a particular skill, (2) determining whether or not the child has the behaviors needed to succeed in the task, (3) defining the goals in observable terms, and (4) organizing a systemic remedial program using reinforcement techniques. The applied behavior analysts do not infer processes or abilities that underlie difficulties but rely solely on the childs interactional history and the current behavior and environmental situation.  They feel that their approach, which is task oriented and observable, is the most parsimonious approach, and to some it is the only approach needed.

Quay (1983) discussed the relative efficacy of ability or process training.  He stated that three approaches to remediation have evolved: (1) remediating a disability so that learning will be facilitated at a later date, (2) training and ability or process for its own sake, and (3) direct training of the task.  He concludes that the direct instruction method (task training) should be tried first and then discarded in favor of other methods if direct instruction is not successful.

Raschke and Young (1986) support this approach.  They compared the behavior analysis model with the diagnostic-prescriptive model. They state that neither approach alone has the answer and propose what they call a dialectic-teaching approach into one system. Essentially the model assesses the abilities and disabilities of the children (intraindividual diffences), makes task analyses of the skills to be learned, and prescribes remediation in the functions and skills to be developed. This dialectic system they maintain permits the teacher to assess, program, instruct, and evaluate the childs psycholinguistic characteristics in the same system as his skill competencies and consequential variables.

Hence, the task of developing a definition of learning disabilities proved to be a formidable challenge.  Indeed, defining this population is considered such an overwhelming task that some have likened learning disabilities to Justice Potter Stewarts comment on pornography: impossible to define, but I know it when I see it.

Thus, defining learning disabilities in a way acceptable to all has continued as a debatable issue since the inception of the field.  Although a number of definitions have been generated and used over the years, each has been judged by some to have some shortcomings.   There are many types of disabilities, each of which may require a unique diagnosis and a unique remedial method.


            The definitions of learning disabilities are numerous and so varied that it is difficult to present taxonomy or even a specific list of these different definitions.  The definition of learning disabilities is a problem in much of the nations throughout the world. This problem first came out when some parents in the United States became concerned because their children who were not learning in school were rejected from special education since they were not mentally retarded, deaf or blind, or otherwise handicapped.  Their children were called by various names such as; neurologically handicapped, brain-injured, aphasodic, dyslexic, and perceptually handicapped.

In spite of its current widespread use, the term learning disability is vulnerable to misunderstanding and misuse. The condition is difficult to define operationally since the designation learning disability is an umbrella term for a variety of deviations that are not included in traditional categories of exceptional children. Also it has been confused with general learning problems that are common to some degree in most children. In addition, it has been misused to include educational retardation, which is found in slow learning children and in children who have not learned because of poor teaching or absence from school. Another vulnerability of the term comes from the difficulty in drawing an explicit line between normal and abnormal.  Some allowances must be made for biological and psychological diversity, and considerable variation in abilities is accepted as normal.

So, the question now is, If there are objections to the term learning disabilities, why use it?  Why not use some other term? Well and good, if a better term can be found.  Other terms are either too specific or too broad.  Dyslexia for example, only refers to severe reading disability and it is not the only learning disability.  Brain injury has little or no educational relevance.  Perceptual handicaps exclude children with language disorders.

Hence, the label learning disability has evolved to encompass the heterogeneous group of children not fitting neatly into the traditional categories of handicapped children. And that, substantial number of children show retardation in learning to talk, do not acquire other communication skill, do not develop normal visual or auditory perception, or great difficulty in learning to read, to spell, to write, or to make arithmetic calculations. Some of them even, are not receptive to language but are not deaf, some are not able to perceive visually but are not blind, and some cannot learn by ordinary of method of instruction but are not mentally retarded. Although such children are from a heterogeneous group and fail to learn for diverse reasons, they have one thing in common: they do not perform as well in school as they could.

Discussing the problem and the difficulties of names for these children, Kirk (1963) explained that sometimes classification labels block our thinking. He further stated that it is better to state that a child has not learned to read than to say the child is dyslexic. So he advised that the name should be functional.  He suggested further that since the parents were interested in service to their children, it might be preferable to use a term related to teaching or learning and that the term learning disability might be preferable over the currently used terms such as cerebral function and brain injured. The term learning disabilities were agreed by these parents and they consider it more appropriate since it implied teaching and learning and since they were interested primarily in service for their children.

So, one of the major problems of definition is that a learning disability is not as obvious or homogenous as blindness or deafness. There are many types of disabilities, each of which may require a unique diagnosis and a remedial method may vary differently from another condition also termed a learning disability. It is no wonder that many students, teachers, and parents have become confused about the term learning disability and the characteristics of children so labeled. This confusion appears to be international and is illustrated by the remarks of a teacher who, in testifying to a government committee studying the subject (Learning Difficulties in Children and Adults, 1986), stated:

            I find myself asking the following questions:  What does the term learning difficulty mean?  Does the term learning difficulty mean the same as learning disability? How about the term dysfunction? What does the term minimal brain dysfunction mean? Do they all mean the same? Certainly, all these labels are not necessary, or are they? Does labeling a child with learning problems create more problems? It all becomes a bit confusing¦The terminology changes often, varies from state to state and from country to country.

Out of these definitions, came my own definition of learning disability: Learning disability describes a result rather than the cause of the learning disability.  Therefore, the conditions we call a learning disability is defined in terms of the students difficulties what he can and cannot do in school and focuses primarily on the academic performance.  So, one cannot be labeled as learning disabled if he has not yet started formal schooling as the label learning disabled indicates that a student is having unusual learning difficulties and involves speculations to possible causes, but it specifically indicates that the primary cause cannot be a condition such as mental retardation, hearing or visual impairment, and so on.

Learning disabilities should be identified in the formal school context. Thus, preschoolers should not be labeled as learning disabled as growth rates are so unpredictable at young age,  In addition, very young children who appear to have problems may be identified under a noncategorical label, such as developmentally delayed.  For many children, learning disabilities first become apparent when they enter school and fail to acquire academic skills.  The failure often occurs in reading, but also happens in mathematics, writing, or other school subjects.  Among the behaviors frequently seen in the early elementary years are inability to attend and concentrate; poor motor skills, as evidenced in the awkward handling of a pencil and in poor writing; and difficulty in learning to read.     In the later elementary years, as the curriculum becomes more difficult, problems may emerge in other areas, such as social studies or science.  Emotional problems also become more of an impediment after several years of repeated failure, and students become more conscious of their poor achievement in comparison with that of their peers.  For some students, social problems and inability to make and keep friends increase in importance at this age level.

A radical change in schooling occurs at the secondary level, and adolescents find that learning disabilities begin to take a greater toll.  The tougher demands of the junior and senior high school curriculum and teachers, the turmoil of adolescence, and the continued academic failure may combine to intensify the learning disability.  Adolescents are also concerned about life after completing school.  They may need counseling and guidance for college, career, and vocational decisions.  To worsen the situation, a few adolescents find themselves drawn into acts of juvenile delinquency.  Because adolescents tend to be overly sensitive, some emotional, social, and self-concept problems often accompany a learning disability at his age.  Most secondary schools now have programs for adolescents with learning disabilities.

Many teachers in Canada suggested that we abolish the label learning disability, and merge it with the emotionally disturbed and the educable mentally retarded and only deal with the child from an instructional point of view by defining learning tasks so that they can be taught step by step.  I strongly opposed with this suggestion.  Though maybe it is possible for the child with severe learning disability, but this approach is not sufficient to mild learning disabilities students.

This is one of the greatest sources of controversy about the identification issues. The question of how much academic and learning retardation is evidenced before an individual should be identified as learning disabled.  Aside from identifying children with learning disability, it is very important to judge the extent of a childs learning disability as either mild or severe.  Determining the level of severity is helpful in placement and in planning teaching delivery.  I strongly suggest that students with mild learning disabilities should be given different remediation from those of students who have severe learning disabilities.

At this point, it is very crucial to differentiate the two cases.  Mild learning disabilities describe the problems of many students.  Students with mild learning disabilities usually have a disability in just one or two areas of learning, and although they need supportive help and special teaching, they can probably get along at least for part of the day in the regular classroom. So, within the regular classroom, the regular teachers should often make changes in instruction that will benefit these students.

On the other hand, students with sever learning disabilities pose a very different problem and they require quite different educational services.  These students are likely to lag significantly in several areas of learning and to have concomitant social, emotional, or behavioral problems.  They need the environment of a special classroom, should contact mainly with one teacher, and should be given special services for most of the day.  Because of the intensity of their problems, the special class should be given fewer students than the regular classroom.  I suggest the 1:3 teacher to student ratio is the best to maximize and hasten the remediation process.  However, students with severe learning disabilities can gradually be mainstreamed for special subjects or activities or placed in the resource room, or even back in the regular classroom as their progress permits.

 Because of these definitions; teachers, guidance councilors, and other school personnel, play the biggest role in identifying, diagnosing, remediating or treating this kind of disability within the school context.  So any teaching/service delivery should best meet the requirements needed to serve properly learning disabled students within the regular classroom.  Hence, learning disabled students should be treated or given remediation within the given school context with the greatest help of the regular classroom teacher but the guidance of the learning disabilities specialist.  So, it is implied that each school should have a learning disabilities specialist.

With this, a change in the administrative arrangements for the placement for instruction of children with learning disabilities is a must.   It is important to take note that in the past, the rapid growth of special education was in the direction of removing atypical children from the mainstream of regular classroom and placing them into special education programs. Even the regular education supported this movement which maybe because the responsibility of educating children with a variety of learning problems is transferred to the domain of special education, and that would really lighten the work load of regular teachers.   But that should not be the case and I do not support that movement.

The trend should be reversed and all students with learning disabilities should be brought back into the regular classroom with the regular students and in the hands of the regular teacher with the help of the learning disabilities specialist.    A number of movements and researches support this claim.

The influential movement that supports this claim is the REI or the regular education initiative led by Madeline Will, the director of special education in the U.S. Office of Special Education in 1986.  She stated that this initiative is designed to promote collaborative efforts among regular and special educators and shared responsibility (Will, 1986).  In this initiative, regular and special educators were encouraged to pool their talents and coordinate their efforts in planning and teaching.   I greatly support this initiative as the underlying premise of this concept is that students learning disabilities can be more successfully taught in the regular education classroom than in special education classes or resource room.

By promoting the merging of special and regular education, the regular education initiative reflects a major change in the way students with learning disabilities are identified, assessed, and educated. The approach is supported by many special educators (Lloyd, Singh, & Repp, 1991; Maheady & Algozzine, 1991; Biklen & Zollers, 1986; Greer, 1988; Reynolds, Wang & Walberg, 1997).    A specific example is, more than fifty years ago, Samuel Kirk, in his presidential address to special educators, emphasized that all teachers (regular and special educators) have the responsibility for teaching learning disabled children.  Kirk implored that every teacher ¦ is a teacher of learning disabled children (Kirk, 1941).  He further wrote the following:

Actually the education of exceptional children is not wholly the responsibility of any one group of teachers ¦.

It is hoped that in the future all special class teachers will not only be responsible for the education of children in their classroom, but will take on the added responsibility of contributing their knowledge and special skill to the regular classroom teacher ¦ who (has0 many learning disabled children in (the) classroom. (Kirk, 1941)

In 1968, Lloyd Dunn wrote an influential article about the benefits of

having special educators work with regular teachers in serving learning disabled

children (Dunn, 1968).

Another view to change the administrative arrangement in special education is to group children with different disabilities together for instruction.  This categorical system in special education historically evolved as the field of special education developed.  Each category of disability (such as visual impairment, hearing impairment, mental retardation, orthopedic disabilities, speech disorders, emotional disturbance, and learning disabilities) became established individually over the years when there was sufficient interest in that particular area of exceptionality.  This concept emphasizes the common characteristics among students with disabilities and the common instructional methods for teaching students with various disabilities.  In this system, students with learning disabilities, behavior disorders, and mental retardation are often grouped together.

Some parents and special educators are concerned that children with learning disabilities might be lost in the shuffle of this kind of placement, if such classes become a dumping ground for students with a variety of unrelated problems.  The resulting diversity of learning and behavior problems would impede teachers in helping students with learning disabilities.

But this view is also opposed by a number of authors and has even provoked unusual levels of confusion, emotion, and debate within the special education community (Jehkins & Pious, 2001).  Moreover, other special educators and parents, express concern regarding the regular education initiative movement and caution that more study is needed before making full-scale and far-reaching changes in procedures and policies that will affect the lives of students with learning disabilities (Lloyd et al., 1991; Journal of Learning Disabilities, 1988; Cannon, 1988; Kaufman, Gerber, & Semmel, 1998; McKinney & Hocutt, 1988, Lerner, 1997).

But these opposing views have no substance and should be disregarded altogether.  Fuchs & Fuchs (2000) have conducted research on the perceptions of and attitudes toward the regular education initiative among both regular and special educators.  These studies suggest that neither regular nor special education teachers are dissatisfied with the current special education delivery system.  In fact, the teachers favored the resource room model over the consultant model.  Many of the teachers saw no improvement in the achievement levels for either special or regular education students as a result of the regular education initiative reforms.  The success of the initiative depends on the support of regular and special teachers (Semmel, Abernathy, Butera, & Lesar, 1991; Coates, 1989).  Moreover, the research prove that merely shifting the responsibility from the resource room teacher to the regular or a consultant is not enough to ensure the success of the reform.

Hence, major policy changes in regular education profoundly affect students with learning disabilities.  Several recent national study commissions on the poor quality of schools serving the learning disabled students.  It is my fear that, most schools pursuit for academic excellence standards will left behind students with learning disabilities or they will be the losers.  Being unable to meet the educational standards set by the pursuit-of-excellence movement, some students with learning disabilities will be denied a high school diploma and thus be denied the opportunity to complete their schooling.  Further, if regular teachers are held accountable for the academic excellence of their students, they will be reluctant to accept the responsibility for hard-to-teach students.  Some special educators predict that the push for excellence may serve to widen the schism between regular and special education (Pugach & Sapon-Shevin, 1997).

Hence, it is my challenge to educators and healthcare professionals to undergo another education reform movement where school curriculum requirements for the learning disabled should be added to the current curriculum standards for the regular students. So in this recommendation for curriculum changes, a greater consideration should be given for the learning disabled students.  But this should be within the context of the regular education curriculum.

This approach is same with the integration of regular and special education.  Some special educators also are now urging that the integration process should be taken much further that the current special education system should be drastically restructured and that regular and special education should be merged into a single system (Kauffman & Trent, 1991).  Such educators cite several reasons for changing the current system.  Special education, they maintain, is not effective when it occurs outside of the regular classroom.  In addition, the physical separation of students with disabilities is demeaning and degrades instruction.  These special educators maintain that integrated special education is more effective than separate programs.

So the delivery options for teaching students with learning disabilities should also include regular classes and resource room classes.  This approach is concomitant to the observation that successful adults with disabilities have learned to function comfortably in society as it exists an unrestricted environment composed of all people.  To promote experiences in the greater society, it must be ensured that, to the extent appropriate, students with disabilities should have experiences in school with regular (or non-special education) students.

Since society includes the family, parents too should not be forgotten as an important element in the entire complex.  Parents are a vital component in the students education. These parents of children with learning disabilities need help in accepting their situation.  Mental health professionals should help make parents be aware that the problem must be faced both by the child and by other members of the family.  In addition to an honest acceptance of the disability, there must be recognition that improvement is often a slow process.

So any approach concerning children with learning disability should establish healthy parental attitudes and ensure parent-teacher cooperation is of course, very necessary.  Parent support groups and family counseling are effective in assisting parents understand their children and their problems and in finding ways to help their children within the home.  In addition, parent-teacher conference can become a bridge between the home and school and can involve parents in the educational process.

Learning disabilities is now at a crossroads, as it seems to have been throughout its thirty-year history.  Many innovative ideas are only in their beginning stages and will develop more fully in the years to come.

The approach I suggested as discussed in this paper is one of those ideas.  It is very important for this approach that more students with learning disabilities are served through regular education.  In addition, there should be more collaboration between special and regular educators.  A consequence of all of these shifts is that the responsibilities of learning disabilities teachers will change to meet the new demands.


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