The term learning disorders refers to the problems or difficulties that some students experience in acquiring the necessary knowledge or skills that lead to academic achievement. Explanations for learning disorders are contested. Early understandings of problems in learning were psychological in nature and based on the medical model. Recently, sociological critiques of psychomedical approaches have led to new educational perspectives.
The medical model suggests that symptoms of a disease are the visible manifestations of an underlying pathology, requiring an accurate diagnosis to define appropriate treatment of the pathology and result in a cure.
A psychological approach to learning disorders based on the medical model sees the symptom of the “disease” as low achievement. The underlying pathology is a categorical label (e.g., learning or intellectual disabilities). Through educational assessment diagnosing the condition, treatment in the form of intervention targets the underlying pathology in order to cure the condition.
The most widely recognized category of learning disorder is learning disability, a term coined by Samuel Kirk in 1962 to refer to any limitation beyond intelligence that prevents individuals from a successful learning experience; that is, those for whom conventional categories such as intellectual disabilities could not explain their failure. Kirk described learning disabilities as a retardation or disorder in areas of school achievement such as reading or mathematics. Based on the medical model, he suggested that cerebral dysfunction or emotional disturbance caused learning disabilities. Given the difficulty in detecting the nature of the underlying cerebral dysfunction, Kirk suggested that exclusionary criteria could differentiate learning disabilities from other causes of failure. He stated that the failure was not the result of intellectual disabilities, sensory deprivation, or cultural or instructional factors.
Since Kirk first introduced the term, a number of definitions of learning disabilities have emerged, but they generally adhere to his central tenets. For example, the initial public policy definition developed as part of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1977 stated that learning disability means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes in understanding or using language, spoken or written, which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, read, spell or do mathematical calculations. The term includes such conditions as perceptual handicaps, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. The term does not include children who have learning problems which are primarily the result of visual, hearing or motor handicaps, of mental retardation, or emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.
Although learning disability is a general term subsuming a wide range of conditions, some researchers and advocacy groups refer to more specific categories of disorders or disabilities, such as the following.
- Dyslexia refers specifically to disorders with the written language (reading and spelling). Its use is common in Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, where its distinction is as a neurological impairment as opposed to an intellectual disability.
- Aphasia refers to a disorder in acquiring or using language. Children or adults can have difficulties in understanding language (receptive language) or in speaking (expressive language).
- Dysgraphia refers to the inability to produce written text.
- Dyscalculia refers to a disorder in the ability to perform mathematical tasks.
Social Critiques of Learning Disorders
Social analysts suggest that labels such as “learning disabilities,” “dyslexia,” or “learning disorders” and the identification and labeling of students as “learning disabled” are more social constructions than examples of neuropathology.
First, such categories create arbitrary distinctions between children who are “disordered” and those who are “normal.” This is problematic in that research shows that no hard boundaries exist between the characteristics of children identified as experiencing learning disorders and those of other children who fail in school or of younger normally achieving children.
Second, researchers consistently have problems in attempting to document logical links in the medical model as it applies to children in classrooms. Many children fail to demonstrate any evidence of underlying neurological impairment or pathology so that a severe discrepancy between performance and potential substitutes for evidence of pathology. Additionally, questions remain about the adequacy of assessment techniques to “diagnose” underlying pathology.
Finally, one of the most serious limitations of the medical model is the lack of educational interventions that target the presumed pathology and are efficacious in enhancing the development of children experiencing problems in learning. Effective interventions for children identified as learning disabled are the same as successful ones for all other children.
Educational perspectives offer an alternative to both psychomedical and social analyses of learning disabilities. In the past 3 decades, experts have been remarkably productive in identifying key factors that underpin success in learning and in developing instructional programs that enhance the learning of all students—including those identified as having learning disabilities.
From an educational perspective, because children vary on multiple dimensions that affect learning along a continuum, failure to learn arises from an interaction of children’s individual characteristics and the instructional programs provided to them. The appropriate response to failure is not a psychological or educational “treatment” but implementation of programs with demonstrated efficacy in promoting achievement.
In the case of reading and learning disabilities, the continuum of necessary skill acquisition is the same for children identified with learning disabilities or dyslexia as for all other children. The key to learning to read is phonological awareness, the ability to detect and manipulate the sound structure of language. Phonological awareness develops before the ability to read and is a powerful predictor of later reading ability. Sensitivity to rhyme is one of the earliest phonological skills to develop, followed by awareness of initial sounds. Among both children with learning disabilities and those without learning disabilities, poor readers often demonstrate core deficits in phonological processing. However, explicit instruction in phonological awareness can address these deficits and promote reading for both groups of students.
A second reason that many children fail to learn to read is the nature of early reading instruction. Effective reading instruction should teach children how to use their knowledge about letter-sound correspondences to work out unfamiliar words (phonics). Students need a systematic, structured program that teaches how to decode text. Phonics-based programs can successfully teach students to read, regardless of their assigned categorical label.
Other effective instructional approaches include minimizing distracting elements in programs so that children can focus easily on the key elements of the task. Finally, teachers should ensure that students have sufficient practice in skills so that they master each step in the learning sequence.
- Kirk, Samuel A. 2007. Educating Exceptional Children. 11th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- National Reading Panel. 2000. “Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction.” NIH Publication No. 00-4769. Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/documents/report.pdf).
- Spear-Swerling, Louise and Robert J. Sternberg. 1999. Perspectives on Learning Disabilities. Boulder, CO: Westview.
- Stanovich, Keith E. 1986. “Matthew Effects in Reading: Some Consequences of Individual Differences in the Acquisition of Literacy.” Reading Research Quarterly 21:360-407.
- Torgesen, Joseph K., ed. 1990. Cognitive and Behavioral Characteristics of Children with Learning Disabilities. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.
- S. Office of Education. 1977. “Education for All Handicapped Children Act.” Federal Register 42.
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