Specific Learning Disablility and Dyslexia

Parents often ask me whether they should get a diagnosis of dyslexia after their child has qualified for special education services under the category “Specific Learning Disability.” The answer to this question is: “No, you do not need to get a diagnosis of dyslexia as dyslexia and a specific learning disability are basically two different terms for the same thing.” Here are some key points:

  • Specific Learning Disability (SLD) is the term used by educators and is the term used in the Individuals with Disability Education Act (IDEA).
  • Dyslexia is the medical term used by the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-V (DSMV-V).
  • Both Specific Learning Disability and Dyslexia are terms for when a person has a reading disorder.
  • Schools can diagnose a specific learning disability and provide intervention and special education services for a reading disability. Typically, the school psychologist and special education teacher will administer a series of standardized tests to determine if the student has a SLD.
  • Before diagnosing a SLD, the school based team must prove that low reading results are not due to a lack of research based instruction.
  • The same researched-based phonics type approach and interventions will be used whether the reading disorder is labeled dyslexia by an outside psychologist and a specific learning disability by the school. (That is, getting the extra dyslexic label won’t give you any services that are not provided for with SLD label.)

I hope this helps! Please let me know if you have any questions.

Special Education is a Service

Your child or students may be receiving special education services.

I want to emphasize:

Special education is a service. Special education does not refer to a place, and it does not refer to a person.

These services may be offered in a variety of settings ranging from the least restrictive, in the general education classroom, to more restrictive, such as a separate classroom. Some students flourish in a more restrictive environment, and some students flourish in a less restrictive environment; it is highly individualized.

As a rule:

The environment should best meet the needs of the student in the least restrictive environment (LRE).


Reading and Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD)

Learning to read is especially difficult for children with specific learning disabilities. Most people are familiar with the term dyslexia, but the educational term for what most people think of as dyslexia would fall under the category, “specific learning disability” (dyslexia is a medical term; specific learning disability is an educational term).

A specific learning disability is: a disorder of learning and cognition that is intrinsic to the individual; it is specific in that it affects a narrow range of academics. It is presumed to be due to a central nervous system function, and may occur across a person’s life span.

The U.S. Federal Criteria for Specific Learning Disabilities is:

34 CFR 300.8 Child with a disability.
(10) Specific learning disability
(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 an 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 mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.

The majority of children that qualify for special education services qualify under the category “specific learning disability.”  With regards to reading and specific learning disabilities, teaching phonics is still the best research-based approach, but this teaching must explicit and prolonged.

Reading Instruction Ends at About Third Grade

By fourth grade, students are expected to read to learn, and are no longer taught how to read. What does this mean if your student or child is a struggling reader?

You need to continue direct instruction in teaching reading. Realize, at this point, your child or student will need additional instruction, be it through a resource teacher, or private instruction. There are many good computer programs out there that are systematic and deal with phonics. It will help, if you as a parent or teacher, understand the principles behind teaching reading. (Many teachers who have not taught younger students do not understand teaching reading).

More on Phonemic Awareness

For many of us, reading has never been a struggle; we just learned to read and became better with practice. For me personally, I was never taught to read through a phonics based approach–I basically learned by sight.

For others, however, and especially children with learning disabilities, learning to read can be a painful process. Most children with processing difficulties in reading are of average intelligence. As a result, they learn quickly and do understand that they have a problem most students don’t have.

These students need extra intervention, and for these students, learning systematically the process of sounds and syllabication is necessary.

Whether your child has a learning disability or is just learning to read–pretty much all schools use a phonics based approach when teaching reading.

You can practice phonemic awareness with your child/students by: practicing rhyming, learning the individual letter sounds, practicing breaking words up into syllables (e.g. happy is /hap/ /py/), and practicing saying letter sounds out loud and then blending (e.g. cat is the three sounds /c/ /a/ /t/ and then blend to say “cat”).

(A lot of books on reading and programs like Reading Mastery use the phrase, “Say it fast” to prompt students to blend sounds).