Specific Learning Disabilities


Our nation’s special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines a specific learning disability as…

“(i) General. 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 to do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.
(ii) Disorders not included. Specific learning disability does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of intellectual disability, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.”

[34 Code of Federal Regulations §300.7(c) (10)]


Learning Disabilities refer to a number of disorders which may affect the acquisition, organization, retention, understanding or use of verbal or nonverbal information. These disorders affect learning in individuals who otherwise demonstrate at least average abilities essential for thinking and/or reasoning. As such, learning disabilities are distinct from global intellectual deficiency. Learning disabilities result from impairments in one or more processes related to perceiving, thinking, remembering or learning. These include but are not limited to: language processing; phonological processing; visual spatial processing; processing speed; memory and attention; and executive functions (e.g., planning and decision-making).

Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA, 2019)


Learning disabilities range in severity and may interfere with the acquisition and use of one or more of the following:

  • oral language (e.g. listening, speaking, understanding);
  • reading (e.g. decoding, phonetic knowledge, word recognition, comprehension);
  • written language (e.g. spelling, written expression and writing fluency); and
  • mathematics (e.g. computation, problem solving, number sense and math fact fluency, spatial sense and verbal mediation of math concepts).

Learning disabilities may also involve difficulties with organizational skills, social perception, social interaction and perspective.

Learning disabilities may include:

  • Auditory Processing Disorder
  • Dyscalculia
  • Dysgraphia
  • Dyslexia
  • Dyspraxia
  • Language Processing Disorder
  • Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities
  • Visual Perceptual/Visual Motor Deficit
  • Memory
  • ADHD*
  • Executive Functioning

*Approximately 20 to 30 percent of children with ADHD also have a specific learning disability.

ADHD is not considered to be a learning disability. It can be determined to be a disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), making a student eligible to receive special education services. However, ADHD falls under the category “Other Health Impairments” and not under “Specific Learning Disabilities.”

(LDA, 2019)


In 2016, the most prevalent disability category of students ages 6 through 21 served under IDEA, Part B, was specific learning disability (specifically, 2,336,960, or 38.6 percent, of the 6,048,882 students ages 6 through 21 served under IDEA, Part B). (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, Office of Special Education Programs, 40th Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2018). 

Other facts about LD:

  • 60% of adults with severe literacy problems have undetected or untreated learning disabilities, according to National Assessment of Adult Literacy.
  • Because learning disabilities (LD) cannot be seen, they often go undetected. Recognizing LD is even more difficult because the severity and characteristics vary.
  • A learning disability is a neurological condition that affects the “wiring” in the brain. This interferes with an individual’s ability to store, process, or produce information.
  • An individual with LD may have difficulty reading, writing, spelling, reasoning, recalling, and/or organizing information.
  • LD often runs in families.
  • LD should not be confused with other disabilities such as intellectual disabilities, autism, deafness, blindness, and behavioral disorders. None of these conditions are learning disabilities.

(LDA, 2019)


Researchers think that learning disabilities are caused by differences in how a person's brain works and how it processes information. Children with learning disabilities are not "dumb" or "lazy." In fact, they usually have average or above average intelligence. Their brains just process information differently.

Center for Parent Information & Resources (CPIR, 2015)

Poor diet, too much television, and kids “just being lazy” are not causes of learning disabilities, although one-third of the respondents in a recent study thought these were accurate.

(LDA, 2019)


There is no way to prevent a child from having learning disabilities. While LD has been linked with genetics, not all children with LD have family members with LD. Early diagnosis and appropriate adaptations are the best ways to avert problems in school and later in life.

(LD Online, 2019)


There is no one sign that shows a person has a learning disability. Experts look for a noticeable difference between how well a child does in school and how well he or she could do, given his or her intelligence or ability. There are also certain clues that may mean a child has a learning disability, a few of which are listed below. Most relate to elementary school tasks, because learning disabilities tend to be identified in elementary school. A child probably won't show all of these signs, or even most of them. However, if a child shows a number of these problems, then parents and the teacher should consider the possibility that the child has a learning disability. When a child has a learning disability, he or she:

  • may have trouble learning the alphabet, rhyming words, or connecting letters to their sounds;
  • may make many mistakes when reading aloud, and repeat and pause often;
  • may not understand what he or she reads;
  • may have real trouble with spelling;
  • may have very messy handwriting or hold a pencil awkwardly;
  • may struggle to express ideas in writing;
  • may learn language late and have a limited vocabulary;
  • may have trouble remembering the sounds that letters make or hearing slight differences between words;
  • may have trouble understanding jokes, comic strips, and sarcasm;
  • may have trouble following directions;
  • may mispronounce words or use a wrong word that sounds similar;
  • may have trouble organizing what he or she wants to say or not be able to think of the word he or she needs for writing or conversation;
  • may not follow the social rules of conversation, such as taking turns, and may stand too close to the listener;
  • may confuse math symbols and misread numbers;
  • may not be able to retell a story in order (what happened first, second, third); or
  • may not know where to begin a task or how to go on from there.

If a child has unexpected problems learning to read, write, listen, speak, or do math, then teachers and parents may want to investigate more. The same is true if the child is struggling to do any one of these skills. The child may need to be evaluated to see if he or she has a learning disability.

(CPIR, 2015)

The Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA) provides information pages for many of the different types of learning disabilities.

(LDA, 2019)


The ways in which children are identified as having a specific learning disability have changed over the years. Until recently, the most common approach was to use a “severe discrepancy” formula. This referred to the gap, or discrepancy, between the child’s intelligence or aptitude and his or her actual performance. However, in the 2004 reauthorization of IDEA, how LD is determined has been expanded. IDEA now requires that states adopt criteria that:

  • must not require the use of a severe discrepancy between intellectual ability and achievement in determining whether a child has a specific learning disability;
  • must permit local educational agencies (LEAs) to use a process based on the child’s response to scientific, research-based intervention; and
  • may permit the use of other alternative research-based procedures for determining whether a child has a specific learning disability.

Basically, what this means is that, instead of using a severe discrepancy approach to determining SLD, school systems may provide the student with a research-based intervention and keep close track of the student’s performance. Analyzing the student’s response to that intervention (RTI) may then be considered by school districts in the process of identifying that a child has a learning disability.

There are also other aspects required when evaluating children for SLD. These include observing the student in his or her learning environment (including the regular education setting) to document academic performance and behavior in the areas of difficulty.

(CPIR, 2015)

A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found a wide variance in special education numbers across the states. The report found that states establish their own eligibility criteria for determining the presence of a Specific Learning Disability (SLD). “… states may determine their own processes for identifying and evaluating children. As a result, a child eligible for services in one state may be ineligible in another.”

(“Special Education: Varied State Criteria May Contribute to Differences in Percentages of Children Served, Government Accountability Office, GAO-19-348, April 2019) 
(LDA, 2019)


The most common treatment for learning disabilities is special education. Specially trained educators may perform a diagnostic educational evaluation assessing the child's academic and intellectual potential and level of academic performance. Once the evaluation is complete, the basic approach is to teach learning skills by building on the child's abilities and strengths while correcting and compensating for disabilities and weaknesses. Other professionals such as speech and language therapists also may be involved. Some medications may be effective in helping the child learn by enhancing attention and concentration. Psychological therapies may also be used.

(National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS, 2019)


Learning disabilities can be lifelong conditions. In some people several overlapping learning disabilities may be apparent. Other people may have a single, isolated learning problem that has little impact on their lives. It is very important to get help immediately. Most learning disabilities affect reading and language skills. If these children receive appropriate help in the early grades, most of them will become skilled, independent readers. When help is delayed, it becomes harder and harder for children to catch up.

(NINDS, 2019) 
(LD Online, 2019)

The National Association for Learning Disabilities (LDA, 2019) reports that:

  • 60% of adults with severe literacy problems have undetected or untreated learning disabilities, according to National Assessment of Adult Literacy.
  • Because learning disabilities (LD) cannot be seen, they often go undetected. Recognizing LD is even more difficult because the severity and characteristics vary.


Learning disabilities clearly affect some of the key skills in life—reading, writing, doing math. Because many people have learning disabilities, there is a great deal of expertise and support available. Take advantage of the many organizations focused on LD. Their materials and their work are intended solely to help families, students, educators, and others understand LD and address it in ways that have long-lasting impact.

Tips for Teachers:

  • Find out and emphasize what the student's strengths and interests are.
  • Give the student positive feedback and lots of opportunities for practice
  • Provide instruction and accommodations to address the student's special needs. Including: breaking tasks into smaller steps, and giving directions verbally and in writing; giving the student more time to finish schoolwork or take tests; letting the student with reading problems use instructional materials that are accessible to those with print disabilities; letting the student with listening difficulties borrow notes from a classmate or use a tape recorder; and letting the student with writing difficulties use a computer with specialized software that spell check, grammar checks, or recognizes speech.
  • Learn about the different testing modifications that can really help a student with LD show what he or she has learned.
  • Teach organizational skills, study skills, and learning strategies. These help all students but are particularly helpful to those with LD.
  • Work with the student's parents to create an IEP tailored to meet the student's needs.
  • Establish a positive working relationship with the student's parents. Through regular communication, exchange information about the student's progress at school.

Tips for Parents:

  • Work with your child at home – read to your child every day; show them that reading can be fun. Play word games! Set an example by giving your child a chance to see you reading and writing at home.
  • Join others who care – join other parents, professionals, and LD organizations to help increase awareness of the issue, dispel popular misconceptions, and help establish educational systems that provide for the needs of children with learning disabilities.
  • Work with professionals – there are many trained professionals who may be able to help your child (audiologist, educational consultant, educational therapist, learning disabilities specialist, occupational therapist, pediatrician, psychiatrist, clinical and educational psychologists, and speech and language therapists.
  • Helping with schoolwork – show an interest in your child’s schoolwork; help your child organize homework before starting; establish regular times and environments in which to study and do homework; encourage your child to ask questions; relate your child’s schoolwork to everyday life.
  • Helping your child become a better reader – practice the relationships between letters and words; help your child understand that language is made up of sounds, syllables, and words; teach letter sounds; sound out new words and encourage your child to spell by speaking each sound aloud; notice spelling patterns.

(CPIR, 2015) 
(LD Online, 2019)

Assistive technology can also help many students work around their learning disabilities. Assistive technology can range from “low-tech” equipment such as tape recorders to “high-tech” tools such as reading machines (which read books aloud) and voice recognition systems (which allow the student to “write” by talking to the computer). To learn more about AT for students who have learning disabilities, visit LD Online’s Technology section, at: http://www.ldonline.org/indepth/technology

The Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA) provides information pages and resources for parents, educators, adults, and other professionals.

(LDA, 2019)


Council for Exceptional Children 
Division for Learning Disabilities 
3100 Clarendon Blvd, Suite 600, Arlington, VA 22201-5332 
P: 888-232-7733 TTY: 866-915-5000

Teaching LD, Information & Resources for Teaching Students with Learning Disabilities is made available online by the Division for Learning Disabilities (DLD), one of 17 special interest groups of the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC).

Since the early 1983, DLD has worked on behalf of students with learning disabilities and the professionals who serve them to meet the needs of more millions of school-aged children and youth currently identified as having learning disabilities in the United States. Members of DLD have also sought to advance services for individuals with learning disabilities in many other countries around the world, as well. DLD was among the first organizations to endorse evidence-based practice and continues to support the use of methods, materials, techniques, procedures, and approaches that have substantial research foundations.

Supported primarily by volunteers, DLD strives to serve its members through a variety of activities that include print publications, an annual conference, grants and awards, and this Web site. In addition, DLD supports subdivisions in many states. Please explore this section to learn more about the many facets of our organization.

Council for Learning Disabilities (CLD) 
11184 Antioch Road 
Box 405 
Overland Park, KS 66210 

The Council for Learning Disabilities (CLD) is an international organization composed of professionals who represent diverse disciplines, is committed to enhancing the education and quality of life for individuals with learning disabilities across the life span. CLD accomplishes this by promoting and disseminating evidence-based research and practices related to the education of individuals with learning disabilities. In addition, CLD fosters (a) collaboration among professionals; (b) development of leaders in the field; and (c) advocacy for policies that support individuals with learning disabilities at local, state, and national levels.

International Dyslexia Association (IDA) 
40 York Road, 4th Floor 
Baltimore, MD 21204 

The International Dyslexia Association (IDA) is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping individuals with dyslexia, their families and the communities that support them. IDA is the oldest learning disabilities organization in the nation -- founded in 1949 in memory of Dr. Samuel T. Orton, a distinguished neurologist. Throughout our rich history, our goal has been to provide the most comprehensive forum for parents, educators, and researchers to share their experiences, methods, and knowledge.

Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA) 
P.O. Box 10369 
Pittsburgh, PA 15234 

Since 1963, LDA has provided support to people with learning disabilities, their parents, teachers and other professionals. At the national, state and local levels, LDA provides cutting edge information on learning disabilities, practical solutions, and a comprehensive network of resources. These services make the Learning Disabilities Association of America the leading resource for information on learning disabilities. LDA believes that every person with learning disabilities can be successful at school, at work, in relationships, and in the community -- given the right opportunities. Today, LDA is the largest non-profit volunteer organization advocating for individuals with learning disabilities and has over 200 state and local affiliates in 42 states and Puerto Rico.

National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) 
1 Thomas Circle NW, #700 
Washington, DC 20005 

The National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) works to ensure that the nation's 15 million children, adolescents and adults with learning disabilities have every opportunity to succeed in school, work and life. NCLD provides essential information to parents, professionals and individuals with learning disabilities, promotes research and programs to foster effective learning and advocates for policies to protect and strengthen educational rights and opportunities.

Learning Ally 
20 Roszel Road 
Princeton, NJ 08540 

Formerly known as Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D), Learning Ally has its roots in providing vinyl recordings of textbooks for returning soldiers who were blind. Moving from vinyl disks, to tapes, to CD’s, and now a mobile app, Learning Ally continues to be on the forefront of technology to ensure our students have state of the art solutions specifically designed to seamlessly integrate into the classroom and at home. Our transition from a library to a solution that helps drive student engagement and outcomes was based upon deep research to understand the needs of educators and students we serve. Today, our innovation is cultivated in Learning Ally Labs, where we mine student usage data and learning behaviors, learn what teachers need and what works in the classroom, and develop relationships with world-class researchers to build better resources for both our educators and students.

Other Selected Resources

University websites:

NCEO Online Accommodations Bibliography 
This database allows one to search a compilation of empirical research studies on the effects of various testing accommodations for students with disabilities. Search for specific accommodation research studies by typing in keywords. Brief summaries provide information on accommodations, participants, dependent variables, and major findings of the study. It is maintained by the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO).

Self-Regulated Strategy Development in Writing 
Story and Opinion Essay Writing for Students with Disabilities or Severe Difficulties in the Early Elementary Grades. This site provides detailed lesson plans for teaching the self-regulated use of writing strategies for story writing (the W-W-W strategy) and early opinion essays (the TREE strategy) as well as support materials developed for 2nd and 3rd graders. The materials were developed by the Maryland Literacy Research Center at the University of Maryland.


Get Ready to Read! (GRTR!) 
A national initiative to build the early literacy skills of preschool-age children. The initiative provides an easy-to-administer, research-based screening tool to early childhood educators, child care providers, and parents in order to help them prepare all children to learn to read and write. GRTR!'s program vision is that all preschool children will have the skills they need to learn to read when they enter school. This Web site is a part of NCLD's initiative to provide parents, educators, health-care professional and advocated with information to help build early literacy skills by integrating emergent literacy screening and learning activities into routine early childhood education, child-care and parenting practices.

Put Reading First: Helping Your Child Learn to Read 
This brochure, designed for parents of young children, describes the kinds of early literacy activities that should take place at school and at home to help children learn to read successfully. It is based on the findings of the National Reading Panel and was produced by the Partnership for Reading: National Institute for Literacy; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; and U.S. Department of Education.

LD Online 
LD OnLine works in association with the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (NJCLD). It is a national educational service of public television station WETA in Washington, D.C. It is operated in association with the Coordinated Campaign for Learning Disabilities and is made possible by generous support from Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes®. LD Online offers online services and produces video programs dedicated to improving the lives of children and adults with learning disabilities and ADHD. LD Online features thousands of helpful articles on learning disabilities and ADHD, monthly columns by noted experts in the field, a free and confidential question and answer service, active bulletin boards, and a Yellow Pages referral directory of professionals, schools, and products.

Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to Read 
This booklet summarizes for teachers what researchers have discovered about how to teach children to read successfully. It describes the findings of the National Reading Panel Report and provides analysis and discussion in five areas of reading instruction: phonemic awareness; phonics; fluency; vocabulary; and text comprehension. Each section suggests implications for classroom instruction as well as other information; produced by The Partnership for Reading: National Institute for Literacy; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; and U.S. Department of Education.

Taking the First Step: A Guide for Parents of Students with Learning Disabilities 
This 12-page (PDF) booklet offers basic information about learning disabilities and resources to help parents see that their child achieves his or her full potential. It was produced by the Coordinated Campaign for Learning Disabilities.

Thinking About Inclusion and Learning Disabilities: A Teacher's Guide 
Produced by the Division for Learning Disabilities, this teacher’s guide highlights the most current thinking and research on learning disabilities and inclusion and explains what a classroom is like to a child with learning disabilities. The guide also shows teachers how their classroom structures and instructional practices affect their students.

What Works: Five Promising Remedial Reading Intervention Programs 
This booklet provides background information about research-based programs that, when properly implemented, have a track record of raising student achievement significantly--particularly for at-risk students; produced by the American Federation of Teachers.

Last modified January 2020.