Recurring Themes in LD

Although the formal history of Learning Disabilities is relatively often traced to the famous speech given by Sam Kirk in 1963 at the founding meeting of the Association for Children with Learning Disabilities (Note 1), there are recurring themes that have echoed in the 50-100 years leading up to the legal recognition of Learning Disabilities and in the years since the 1960s when the field took formal shape. Chapter 1 of a 1990s edition of Introduction to Learning Disabilities (Note 2) provides earlier versions and detailed summaries of these themes. This document provides synopses of my current take on them (as of 10 Jan 2009).

  1. Learning Disability is an interdisciplinary field of research and practice that is international and multicultural in scope.
    Teachers in both regular and special education classrooms are responsible for helping students with Learning Disabilities. In addition to educators, professionals from other disciplines (psychology, medicine, speech pathology and audiology, law, advocacy groups, etc.) are involved in the field. Also, Learning Disabilities are increasingly recognized and treated in countries with well-developed systems of universal public education.
  2. Neurological dysfunction may be presumed or suspected, but Learning Disabilities have a variety of possible causes.
    In part, the field of Learning Disabilities emerged from the work of researchers—including physcians—who identified symptoms of known brain injury that were similar to behaviors of people with learning disabilities. Also, the presumption of neurological dysfunction stems from the fact that there is often no other plausible explanation for a child’s failure to learn. Did the neurological dysfunction occur because of genetic anomalies? Might environmental toxins, especially during pre-natal and early childhood periods, cause the neurological dysfunctions? Could it be that a child’s early behavioral experiences—extend and diversity of language stimulation—produce neurological dysfunction? Because each of these is a legitimate hypothesis, advocates should be circumspect about promoting one or another. Indeed, because there are myriad possible causes, an especially important idea is that Learning Disabilities may be the result of complex interactions between biophysical and environmental factors.
  3. Learning Disability is in part a social construction.
    One perspective on Learning Disabilities claims they are a phenomena constructed by social contexts such as the demands of school and employment, that they have no psychological foundation. There is some truth to this idea: If there were no schools, emphasis on mastering academic skills and content would be diminished, and students who had difficulty with those competencies would be less obvious. Of course, in a world requiring that they work for a living, those individuals might have difficulty mastering requisite competencies for employment, too. (Perhaps we would call the Employment Disabled.) Still, the charge that Learning Disabilities are determined arbitrarily is a misleading one. To be sure, with other phenomena (e.g., low birth-weight, mental retardation), society makes arbitrary decisions about when conditions are atypical enough to say that they exist or don’t exist (how many grams? what IQ?), so this perspective makes some sense. Society constructs such concepts, however, so that it can dispense scarce resources where they are needed. If educators did not have some decision rules, however arbitrary, for determining who is eligible to receive special education services, how would educators distribute those services? Would we simply stop providing them? Would we distribute services randomly to every nth student, regardless of her competency?
  4. Learning Disabilities designate a heterogeneous group of disorders.
    Learning Disabilities encompass difficulties in such areas as reading, spelling, writing, mathematics, spoken language, socialization, and nearly every other curriculum area and social expectation. Just as is the case with people who do not have disabilities, no two individuals with Learning Disabilities are exactly alike. Only some students with Learning Disabilities have problems with reading, and only some of them have problems with the decoding aspects of reading. Learning Disability ≠ dyslexia. Nor does it equal dyscalculia. Knowing that an individual has Learning Disabilities only tells one a little about that person.
  5. Learning Disabilities vary in severity and pervasiveness.
    Severity and pervasiveness of Learning Disabilities are related to changes in the definition of LD and of our understanding of the developmental course of these problems. Although students with severe difficulties were more often diagnosed in the early stages of the field, more students with less severe difficulties are now being determined to have Learning Disabilities. Questions about how severe problems must be before they qualify an individual for special education are related to other themes described here (e.g., the social construction of LD).
  6. Individuals with Learning Disabilities often have intra-individual differences.
    A highly uneven profile of development across ability and achievement categories is often a criterion for designating a Learning Disability. There is substantial controversy, however, about how intra-individual differences should be assessed and how much of a difference constitutes Learning Disabilities. One of the reasons that this theme has recurred is the importance to many people about differentiating between Learning Disabilities and Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. People generally presume that students with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities have a flatter” profile (i.e., are more likely to have depressed scores across the range of academic areas) than those with Learning Disabilities”
  7. Individuals with specific Learning Disabilities form a very diverse group.
    Not only are Learning Disabilities manifested in different ways, but the population of individuals with LD spans gender and age as well as racial, socioeconomic, and ethnic groups. Sadly, Learning Disabilities are an equal-opportunity problems; they may occur in wealthy or poor, minority or majority, English-speaking or non-English-speaking, families, or just about any other group one can name.
  8. Learning Disabilities may coexist with other disabilities or with giftedness.
    Some disabilities come in multiples and disabilities seldom affect every area of functioning. In the strict sense, individuals with some other disorders (e.g., mental retardation) cannot be identified as having Learning Disabilities. However, there are many overlaps among the characteristics of individuals with Learning Disabilities, Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, and Intellectual and Developmental Disorders. Moreover, many advocates stress the concept of LD among individuals identified as gifted.
  9. Students with Learning Disabilities must learn systematic approaches to tasks.
    Most (if not all) individuals with Learning Disabilities often approach tasks in unsystematic, disorganized ways. Extensive work on interventions has revealed that teaching students with LD to handle tasks strategically—i.e., in a systematic fashion—is very often beneficial.
  10. A primary responsibility of educators is to minimize the contribution of poor teaching to Learning Disabilities.
    Analyses of teaching and learning have long indicated that the apparent disabilities of children can actually be a consequence of teachers’ failure to provide effective instruction. These analyses are based on the idea that what usually passes for effective instruction may actually compound difficulties students had prior to instruction. Although such analyses are difficult (if not impossible) to prove, they are made more plausible when research reveals that some methods of instruction produce lower rates of failure than other methods. This is fundamental assumption of the effort to use response-to-instruction (or -intervention; RtI) methods in the identification of students with Learning Disabilities. Until education can provide virtually faultless instruction, we can expect to have difficulty distinguishing between those students whose learning problems are the result of what is sometimes called “dyspedagogia” and those whose problems stem from other factors (e.g., biophysical risk factors).
  11. Learning Disabilities are developmental disorders persisting over the life span.
    There is increasing evidence that Learning Disabilities are developmental disabilities, that is, that they are evident early in many children’s lives and that they persist into adulthood. To the extent that this is true, LD probably is not curable in the sense that a disease or unfortunate life circumstance might be.
  12. Advances in the field of Learning Disabilities come through careful, persistent research.
    Parents, teachers, and others concerned with the well-being of students with LD must carefully examine the reliability of the evidence on which recommended practices are based, connect new evidence to the body of research that preceded it, and be cautious about claims of breakthroughs. Perhaps in part because of the relative youth of LD and the heterogeneous nature of the disorders subsumed under the term, LD has been beset with many quick cures and nearly miraculous treatments. Like patent medicine in the old West, these have almost never proved effective. Beneficial treatments usually require careful, painstaking implementation and extended, consistent application.


  1. Although Professor Kirk is often said to have “coined the term ‘Learning Disability'” in his 1963 speech, the record shows that he and Barbara Bateman had used the term “Learning Disability” in a 1962 publication in Exceptional Children.
  2. Much of the content for this page is drawn from a book entitled Introduction to Learning Disabilities (2nd ed.) by Dan Hallahan, Jim Kauffman, and me. I am grateful to my colleagues that they let me publish this revised version of it and that they allowed me to work with them in authoring the book. The most recent version would be cited as
    Hallahan, D. P., Lloyd, J. W., Kauffman, J. M., Weiss, M. P, & Martinez, E. A. (2005). Learning disabilities: Foundations, characteristics, and effective teaching (3rd ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

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