You are currently viewing Specific Learning Disorders (SLD) Overview

Dyslexia (Reading)

Dysgraphia (Writing)

Dyscalculia (Math)

What is a specific learning disorder/learning disability?

There is more than one definition for specific learning disorder/learning disabilities due to different criteria used to determine eligibility for adult services.  Both terms have the same meaning.  Below are the two most relevant to ABE.

From the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 04) (reauthorized in 2004; applies to Special Education): “Specific Learning Disability” (SLD) 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. The term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. The term does not include a learning problem that is primarily the result of vision loss or blindness, hearing loss or deafness, physical handicap, mental retardation, emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.

NOTE: IDEA protects only those ABE students with documented disabilities less than 22 years of age, who have an Individual Educational Plan (IEP) and attend adult secondary programs co-funded by K-12.


From the National Joint Commission of Learning Disabilities (NJCLD): “Learning disabilities” is a general term that refers to a heterogeneous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical abilities. These disorders are intrinsic to the individual, presumed to be due to central nervous system dysfunction, and may occur across the life span. Problems in self-regulatory behaviors, social perception, and social interaction may exist with learning disabilities, but do not by themselves constitute a learning disability.

Although learning disabilities may occur with other handicapping conditions (for example, sensory impairment, mental retardation, serious emotional disturbance) or with extrinsic influences (such as cultural differences, insufficient or inappropriate instruction), they are not the result of those conditions or influences.

NOTE: This definition is preferred for adults because it recognizes that LD is not just school-based. It is life-long and can also impact performance and success in work and life.

The National Institute for Literacy (2009) published six consensus statements in Learning to Achieve:  A Review of the Research Literature on Serving Adults with Learning Disabilities from the US Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP).  OSEP organized several research and policy organizations, parents, and state and local practitioners to construct amenable statements regarding the nature of specific learning disabilities as follows:

  1. The concept of specific learning disabilities is valid and is supported by strong converging evidence.
  2. Learning disabilities are neurologically based and intrinsic to the individual.
  3. Individuals with learning disabilities show intra-individual differences in skills and abilities.
  4. Learning disabilities persist across the life span, though manifestations and intensity may vary as a function of developmental stage and environmental demands.
  5. Learning disabilities may occur in combination with other disabling conditions, but they are not due to other conditions, such as mental retardation, behavioral disturbance, lack of opportunities to learn, primary sensory deficits, or multilingualism.
  6. Learning disabilities are evident across ethnic, cultural, language, and economic groups.

The consensus statements were put into the following definition:  “The central concept of SLD involves disorders of learning and cognition that are intrinsic to the individual.  SLD are specific in the sense that these disorders each significantly affect a relatively narrow range of academic and performance outcomes.  SLD may occur in combination with other disabling conditions, but they are not due primarily to other conditions, such as mental retardation, behavioral disturbance, lack of opportunities to learn, or primary sensory deficits.”

What is LD?

  • At least average ability to learn as measured by intellectual or cognitive functioning tests
  • Significant difficulty with information processing (receiving or input, processing or integration, storing or memory, producing or output) as measured by intellectual or cognitive functioning tests, observation, interview, or checklists
  • Significant difficulties with listening, speaking, reading, writing, math, or reasoning as measured by academic achievement tests

 What is not LD?

  • Significant visual (seeing), auditory (hearing), or physical (motor) problems
  • Low ability as measured by intellectual or cognitive functioning tests
  • Severe emotional problems or mental health disorders
  • Lack of schooling, educational opportunity, or cultural differences

A pattern has emerged from ABE assessments over the years: many intellectual quotient (IQ) or cognitive functioning scores of referred students have fallen in the low ranges of ability (standard scores of 60-79) rather than in ‘at least average’ ranges of ability (a standard score of 80 or better). According to definition, low academic achievement cannot be due primarily to low ability; however, it is often not easy to differentiate between low ability and a learning disability.

Adults with LD are very diverse and unique. They present a variety of characteristics that exist on a continuum ranging from mild to severe. Other factors such as problems with self-esteem, self-management, and limited schooling, educational opportunity, or low literacy skills may “suppress” academic ability test results. Many ABE students are experiencing learning difficulties that interfere with learning, work, and life, but their standard scores do not necessarily fit the ‘rule-in’ criteria established around definitions for SLD or LD.

A common profile for American-born students identified with LD from ABE assessments is the following:

  • History of learning problems beginning in the early grades
  • Reported special education services
  • Family history of LD
  • Stronger oral language or verbal skills
  • Stronger hands-on or performance skills
  • Lifelong, persistent difficulties with reading, writing, math, reasoning, or organizational skills
  • Secondary problems with self-esteem, self-management, depression, anxiety, motivation
  • History of unemployment or underemployment

A contrasting profile for foreign-born students not identified with LD from ELL assessments is the following:

  • Little to no school in native country
  • Little to no reading/writing skills in native language
  • Language differences
  • Limited exposure to English instruction
  • Poor attendance
  • Advanced age
  • Stress (including PTSD)
  • Persistent mental health disorders

Specific Learning Disorders


Research primarily in the K-12 field indicates that 80-90% of persons diagnosed with specific learning disabilities are at risk for poor reading achievement. Dyslexia is one type of a reading disability or reading difficulty, but much more complicated than just reversal of letters, numbers, or directions.

The International Dyslexia Association (IDA) had developed the following definition:

“Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”

Dr. Sally Shaywitz, author of Overcoming Dyslexia – A New and Complete Science-Based Program for Reading Problems at Any Level (2003), lists the following clues to dyslexia for adults:

  • Mispronunciation of names of people or places
  • Difficulty remembering names of people or places
  • Confusion with names or words that sound alike
  • Difficulty with word retrieval
  • Limited spoken vocabulary compared to listening vocabulary
  • Childhood history of reading and spelling difficulties
  • Word reading that requires great effort
  • Lack of fluency
  • Slow reading rate
  • Avoidance of oral reading
  • Substitution of made-up words for words that cannot be pronounced
  • Extreme fatigue from reading
  • Preference for books with figures, pictures, charts, or graphs
  • Preference for books with fewer words on a page or lots of white space
  • Extreme difficulty with spelling
  • Preference for less complicated words in writing


Another type of specific learning disability is dysgraphia, or writing disability. Dysgraphia and dyslexia may be related because significant language processing problems can impact both reading and spelling – although there is less incidence of dysgraphia. Dysgraphia specifically impacts spelling and writing because the basic prerequisite skills for motor movement and letter formation are inefficient. This causes an energy drain that may greatly interfere with the overall writing process.

The writing process is very complex. There is no one place in the brain that is responsible for writing, but rather it requires cooperation from several parts of the brain. Most often dysgraphia will include a combination of difficulties such as:

  • Illegible handwriting
  • Poor letter formation
  • Poor pencil grip
  • Irregular spacing
  • Misspelling of words
  • Poor idea organization or sequencing
  • Incorrect grammar or word usage
  • Limited expression of ideas
  • Very slow rate of writing


The third type of specific learning disability is dyscalculia, or math disability. It has been estimated that about 6% of school-age children experience significant math difficulties. Although this is less than the estimated incidence for reading or writing difficulties, today’s world calls for strong mathematical knowledge and reasoning skills. Dyscalculia may manifest in the following ways:

  • Difficulty recognizing number patterns
  • Difficulty understanding math concepts
  • Difficulty understanding math language
  • Difficulty learning and retaining math facts and/or math procedures
  • Poor calculation skills
  • Poor problem solving skills
  • Visual-spatial confusion