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Specific Learning Disorder

Created on August 5, 2017. Last updated on March 7th, 2020 at 05:11 pm

Children and teens with a specific learning disorder are often quite bright, capable individuals who otherwise have difficulties learning and using specific academic skills.  They typically struggle with impairment in one or more academic areas, like reading, written expression, and/or mathematics. Difficulties may include inaccurate or slow/effortful word reading, difficulty understanding the meaning of what is read, difficulty spelling, difficulty expressing ideas through writing, difficulties mastering number facts or calculations, and/or difficulty with mathematical reasoning. These difficulties are generally reflected in academic skills and achievement that is usually well-below what would be expected based on age and overall intelligence. Specific learning disabilities often become apparent during the elementary school years and can persist into adulthood. Again, it is important to note that specific learning disabilities are not reflective of overall intelligence or ability, but rather, difficulty learning or using a specific academic skill-set. Of note, some practitioners and school systems continue to refer to specific learning disorder with impairment in reading as “dyslexia” or to specific learning disorder with impairment in mathematics as “dyscalculia.”

Identification and Effective Therapies

Parents or school personnel may notice that a child is having difficulty with a particular academic skill or that a child is spending more time than would be expected in completing assignments. In school, response-to-intervention (RTI) frameworks have been shown to be effective in identifying and treating youth with specific learning disabilities. RTI uses universal screening and monitors learning progress in all children in the classroom. Those who do not pass the screening may be at risk for learning disorders and are provided additional instruction and/or psychoeducational evaluation; if they do not improve, more intensive intervention or special education services, including an individualized education plan (IEP), may be provided. Research has found that language ability in kindergarten is a strong predictor of reading outcomes in later grades, stressing the importance of early identification and intervention.

Specific learning disability interventions involve explicit instruction in skills needed to read, write, and perform math functions. These skills include phonological awareness and letter or number knowledge. Research has shown that increasing intervention duration by the number of sessions and providing 1:1 or small group instruction as opposed to large group intervention may be more effective for children with specific learning disabilities. Reading interventions have yielded positive results when they use the same structured lessons for each child. For math impairment, interventions are most effective when the content is targeted to the individual’s needs. Additionally, children receiving intervention earlier tend to have had better long-term academic outcomes.

Related Difficulties

Children with a specific learning disability with problems performing in one academic area may be at higher likelihood to have another specific learning disability with impairment in a second domain. Children with specific learning disabilities may also be more likely to have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).


Catts, H. W., Nielsen, D. C., Bridges, M. S., & Liu, Y. (2016). Early identification of reading comprehension difficulties. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 49(5), 451-465.

Cirino, P. T., & Willcutt, E. G. (2017). An introduction to the special issue: Contributions of executive function to academic skills. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 50(4), 355-358.

Monei, T., & Pedro, A. (2017). A systematic review of interventions for children presenting with dyscalculia in primary schools. Educational Psychology in Practice, 33(3), 277-293.

Wanzek, J., Stevens, E. A., Williams, K. J., Scammacca, N., Vaughn, S., & Sargent, K. (2018). Current evidence on the effects of intensive early reading interventions. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 51(6), 612-624.

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