What is Specific Learning Disability?

tags: Center for Innovation and Leadership in Special Education Linking Research to Classrooms: A Blog for Educators

By Lisa Carey & Maureen van Stone
January 5, 2016


As most American educators know, there is a federal law that governs the provision of special education and related services for eligible children with disabilities named The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Under IDEA, only children with “specific learning disability” will qualify for special education and related services.

To qualify a student, a team of school personnel and parents/guardians will review data, records, and assessments to determine if there is an educational impact derived from a qualifying disability. This means that there can be a clinical diagnosis of disability without an educational qualification of disability under IDEA, which can be a source of confusion for educators and parents/guardians.

Given that a clinical diagnosis does not equal an educational qualification, in order to answer the question, What is specific learning disability?” it is helpful to look at both the IDEA and clinical definitions.

Specific Learning Disability Under IDEA:

IDEA defines specific learning disability as a “disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.”

On October 23, 2015, the United States Department of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to clarify that dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia are conditions that could qualify a student as having specific learning disability under the IDEA and that these terms can be used in the evaluation, eligibility determination, and Individualized Education Program (IEP) documents.

The law also includes exclusions to qualifying for special education and related services under IDEA, such as intellectual disability, sensory or motor disabilities, emotional disabilities, and environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage. These exclusions are meant to direct students toward disability codes that are a better indication of their area of disability (such as an intellectual disability or physical disability), as well as prevent misidentification of a disability due to ethnic or racial diversity.

To qualify for special education and related services, there must be an educational impact that requires specially designed instruction. This means that a student with a mild learning disability who is able to compensate for their weaknesses without specially designed instruction may not qualify, despite having a clinical diagnosis. For example, a child may have a significant weakness with phonics, indicated by difficulty with decoding and spelling, yet the child may be able to use a large sight word vocabulary and superior executive function skills to remain on grade level without intervention or specially designed instruction. Thus, the IEP team may decline to qualify such a student for special education and related services.

Clinical Diagnosis of Specific Learning Disability:

In order to be clinically diagnosed with a learning disability, a child must present with persistent learning difficulties that negatively affect their academic or daily living activities and are confirmed by “standardized academic measures and a comprehensive clinical assessment.”1 There are three domains that can be impaired:

  • Reading: Impairment can impact word reading accuracy, reading rate/ fluency, and/or reading comprehension.
  • Written Expression: Impairment can impact spelling accuracy, grammar and punctuation accuracy, and/ or clarity of organization of written expression.
  • Mathematics: Impairment can impact number sense, memorization of arithmetic facts, accurate or fluent calculation, and/or accurate math reasoning.

A child's symptoms can be classified as moderate, mild, or severe. The clinician must also rule out other possible explanations for deficits in these academic learning areas, such as intellectual disability, normal variations in academic success (e.g., access to education), sensory disorders, other neurological disorders (e.g., traumatic brain injury or a stroke), and psychotic disorders.

Additionally, neurodevelopment and context are also considered. For example, a child given very difficult tasks at a young age with minimal scaffolding will present as more severely impacted than a child who has been tasked with age-appropriate academics and offered scaffolding and alternative pathways for learning. While schools may focus on grade-level appropriateness, clinicians will use chronological age norms to assess a child’s abilities in comparison to their same-aged peers.

Neuroscience and Learning Disabilities:

Both IDEA and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM V) highlight that learning disabilities are psychological disorders with a neurodevelopmental basis, meaning that learning difficulties arise from differences in the brain. It is unknown what causes these brain differences, although there is some evidence that they may be, at least in part, genetic.2

With regard to reading learning disabilities, researchers note that the human brain evolved thousands of years prior to the development of written language; therefore, the human brain never developed to read.3 Students who learn to read fluently and comprehend with relative ease are those whose brains have been able to recruit other neurological circuits for sight and language with greater efficiency.3

Less is known about math learning disabilities; however, they appear to be tied to deficits in processing and analyzing three-dimensional space and may arise from injury or inefficient networking in the areas of the brain responsible for spatial processing.4

In all cases of specific learning disabilities, interventions as well as classroom supports can improve a student’s ability and minimize the impact of contextual demands on their academics.2,3


1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

2. Dehaene, S. (2009). Reading in the brain: The new science of how we read.  London, England: Penguin Books.

3. Wolf, M. (2007). Proust and the squid: The story and science of the reading brain.  New York, NY: Harper Collins.

4. Mazzacco, M. M.,  Feigenson, L.,  Halberda, J. (2011). Impaired acuity of the approximate number system underlies mathematical learning disability (Dyscalculia).  Child Development, 82, 1224-1237. 


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