Subtyping LD

Have you been hearing a lot about subtypes of LD lately? Perhaps it’s just that I’ve been especially alert to it, but it seems I’ve heard a lot of mentions about subtypes of Learning Disabilities in the last few weeks. I want to write a longer, more thorough discussion of the topic, but I’ve found myself repeating a few foundational comments, so I thought I ought to post them here and let others have a go at them.

First, the idea of subtypes of LD is essentially a given. It has to do with the heterogeneity of LD. Because LD is essentially an umbrella category for a diverse array of learning disabilities (note the plural), there are bound to be subgroups. Some students will have problems primarily with reading, some primarily with arithmetic and mathematics, some with writing, others with combinations of these. That makes for lots of subgroups right there. That is, one could start with dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia!

Second, authorities studying attention, memory, perception and other processes they consider to be associated with Learning Disabilities have been on the hunt for subtypes based on those processes for as long as I have been reading the literature in LD. Early on, a lot of it was relatively seat-of-the-pants searches for patterns in scores on popular tests (“jagged profiles”), and these searches were often driven more by they theory of the searcher than by the evidence itself. However, research became much more sophisticated in the 1980s, when several folks (including Don McKinney and Reid Lyon) used modern research methods and sophisticated statistical analyses to identify subtypes of students with Learning Disabilities based on data rather than hunch. For example, Speece et al. (1985) identified seven different subtypes of students with Learning Disabilities based on differences in their social behavior (independence, extroversion, task orientation, considerateness, dependence, introversion, distractibility, hostility), two of which were pretty similar to their normal peers. In many of these studies, subtypes that the researchers identified proved to be stable and valid, but they didn’t have much utility for guiding instruction. (For those who are interested in some of the subtyping research of the 1980s, I have appended a few references.)

And, that’s the third point. For subtyping research to be of substantive value, it has to help us improve services. It’s great if it helps people such as I “understand” LD better. I like learning about Learning Disabilities. But, the real place where the rubber meets the road is improving outcomes for individuals with Learning Disabilities. The measuring stick for the success of sub-typing research isn’t just that we can do it—I know we can do it—but that it provides guidance to better services, to better instruction, that it has diagnostic validity.

It turns out, so far at least, that the search for subtypes hasn’t gotten us any farther toward helping students learn any better than the basic powerful instructional methods that we should be applying anyway. We should start with ensuring that students, whether they have Learning Disabilities or not, experience the very best educational environments that we can muster, the kinds of environments that we know predict the best outcomes in the long run for the vast majority of students. If that sounds like great Tier 1 instruction, then you’re getting my drift.

And in those super-duper settings, we should systematically monitor students’ academic and social performance on a regular basis; if we see some students who aren’t quite keeping pace with the kind of progress that predicts successful outcomes, we should quickly—no waiting!—start scheduling extra help for them: Make sure that they get the extra repetitions, more supports, supplemental materials, smaller groups, and such. And we should keep monitoring these students’ progress even more closely.

And if the trajectory of progress, the trend line, does not start trending toward the success range, then the educators in charge should call together a team composed of the child’s parents or guardians and some highly skilled special educators and related-services folks and they should examine the child’s case and decide whether she needs special education and, if she does, what unique special education needs she has, how to meet those needs, how to know if those needs are being met, and so forth (i.e., determine eligibility and, if needed, develop an IEP).

When it gets down to it, once a student has been identified as eligible for special education because of Learning Disabilities, she’s a subtype of one. What do you think?

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Feagans, L., & Appelbaum, M. I. (1986). Validation of language subtypes in learning disabled children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 78, 358-364. doi: 10.1037/0022-0663.78.5.358

Lyon, G. R., & Watson, B. (1981). Empirically derived subgroups of learning disabled readers: Diagnostic characteristics. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 14, 256-261.

McKinney, J. D., & Speece, D. L. (1986). Academic consequences and longitudinal stability of behavioral subtypes of learning disabled children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 78, 365-372. doi: 10.1037/0022-0663.78.5.369

Rourke, B. R., & Strang, J. D. (1983). Subtypes of reading and arithemtical disabilities: A neuropsychological analysis. In M. Rutter (Ed.), Developmental neuropsychiatry. New York: Guilford.

Speece, D. L., McKinney, J. D., & Appelbaum, M. I. (1985). Classification and validation of behavioral subtypes of learning-disabled children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 77, 67-77. doi: 10.1037/0022-0663.77.1.67

1 Response to “Subtyping LD”

  • In our school district in the middle school, the way a student is typed as LD is when the psychologist assesses using cognitive tests and the special ed teacher compares how the student is doing academically. THe special ed teachers have no assessments and do not even seem to understand what a learning disability is. For example, I am a speech/language pathologist and assessed a student who has a severe expressive language disability especially in the area of problem solving. Because we are in a title school, the student gets good grades and so they want to place him out of sped as he cannot have a learning disability if he is doing well in the classes. In COlorado, there is a label called SPecific Learning Disability This is the new label:
    Specific Learning Disability means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. Specific learning disability does not include problems that are primarily the result of: visual, hearing, or motor disabilities; significant limited intellectual capacity; significant identifiable emotional disability; cultural factors; environmental or economic disadvantage; or limited English proficiency. The specific learning disability prevents a student from receiving reasonable educational benefit from general education alone.

    Criteria: The student meets the following criteria (s.08(6)(B)(II); 300.309):

    The student does not achieve adequately for the student’s age or to meet State-approved grade-level standards in one or more of the areas identified below, when provided with experiences and instruction for their age or State-approved grade-level standards, and
    The student does not make sufficient progress to meet age or state-approved grade-level standards in the area(s) identified when using a process based on the student’s response to scientific, research-based intervention.
    All areas that meet both conditions above:

    oral expression
    listening comprehension
    written expression
    basic reading skills
    reading fluency skills
    reading comprehension
    mathematical calculation
    mathematical problem-solving

    I am very frustrated in the middle school. Any advice?

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