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What is a Specific Learning Disability and How is it Discovered?

What is a Specific Learning Disability and How is it Discovered?

By Kim Fratto Education Specialist
Special Education
Utah State Office of Education

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There are many facets to a specific learning disability; for school age students, the definition that is used by Utah public schools is found in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). So, that is best place to start.

What is a Specific Learning Disability?

According to IDEA a Specific Learning Disability (SLD) is 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.”

“SLD” 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 CFR §300.8 (c)(10).”

In the 2014 State of Learning Disabilities report, SLD is described as an “unexpected, significant difficulty in academic achievement and related areas of learning and behavior in individuals who have not responded to high-quality instruction and for whom struggle cannot be attributed to medical, educational, environmental or psychiatric causes” (National Center for Learning disabilities; Third Edition, 2014).

Who Helps Determine if a Student Needs Special Education Services?

Student 1

Student performance data is some of the information that can be used to help a school team determine if a student is in need of a referral for special education services.

School teams are generally comprised of the student’s general education teacher, parents or guardian, at least one person qualified to conduct an individual diagnostic examination of students: School psychologist, Speech Language Pathologist, Special education teacher, reading specialist, math specialist and a representative of the Local Education Agency (LEA).

Utah LEAs have the option of using one of three methods as outlined in IDEA and USOE Special Education rules to determine if a student is eligible to receive services under the educational classification of SLD. The three methods are:

(A) Response to Intervention (RTI): A process based on a student’s response to scientific, researched-based intervention. RTI is defined as the “practice of providing high quality instruction and intervention matched to student needs and using learning rate over time and level of performance to make important educational decisions,” (NASDSE, 2006, p.5).


(B) The Discrepancy Method: Identification of a severe discrepancy between intellectual ability and achievement. As part of eligibility determination for SLD, a LEA may choose to use Utah’s current discrepancy model as described under Special Education Rules II.J.(c)(4)(H). In determining eligibility, the discrepancy report is one data source that is considered along with all other evaluation data collected as part of a comprehensive evaluation.


(C) A Combination of RTI and Discrepancy: It is important to note that all three methods must include all the elements of a comprehensive evaluation including the additional considerations outlined for SLD determination (II.H.10 (b)). All components of the evaluation must be carefully considered, documented and discussed with the parent or guardian.

For additional information on procedures for identifying a specific learning disability to determine if a student requires special education services, refer to Utah’s Special Education Rules and SLD Guidelines or idea.ed.gov.

What Are the Types of Learning Disabilities?

Student 6

The most common types of learning disabilities impact the areas of reading, math and written expression. SLD is the largest disability category in the nation and in the state of Utah. Nationally there are 2.4 million students identified with learning disabilities under IDEA; that equates to approximately 5 percent of the total public school enrollment, (National Center for Learning Disabilities; Third Edition, 2014). In 2013, Utah had 66,121 students identified with disabilities of those identified 31,964 were identified as having an SLD, (Utah Child Count Data, Dec. 1, 2013). “SLD was once the fastest growing category in special education, increasing more than 300 percent between 1976 and 2000. The SLD category has been declining at a rate of nearly 2 percent annually since 2002”, (National Center for Learning Disabilities; Third Edition, 2014, p.12).

Why Are Fewer Students Identified as Having A Learning Disability?

Reasons for the decline in eligible students may be attributed to “the expansion of early childhood education, improvements in reading instruction, and a shift in the way SLD is identified. The use of the RTI method may result in greater numbers of struggling students receiving early assistance in general education and ultimately reducing the need for special education classification,” (National Center for Learning Disabilities; Third Edition, 2014, p. 13). Information regarding Utah’s use of RTI for reading and mathematics can be found in Utah’s 3-Tier Model for mathematics Instruction and Utah’s 3-teir Model of Reading Instruction at www.schools.utah.gov

Why Don’t All Students With Learning Difficulties Receive Special Education?

It is important to note that not all students with learning difficulties are eligible for an/or receive special education. Students who receive special education are formally identified as having a disability that affects their educational performance and requires specialized instruction as outlined by IDEA. There is often confusion between a diagnosis of a disability by an outside medical provider and a determination of eligibility for services according to IDEA requirements. A medical diagnosis does not automatically qualify a student for services under IDEA. There is a difference in the methods that are used in public schools and those used by evaluators in private practice. In addition, public schools and private evaluators are governed by different government agencies, boards and regulations which define learning disability.


Public school systems typically rely on a team approach to analyze data from a comprehensive evaluation with formal evaluations using aptitude and discrepancy to determine eligibility (Method A) or data from a student’s response high quality instruction and intervention matched to his/her need (Method B) to determine eligibility under IDEA. Evaluators in private practice usually refer to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM IV) or the International Statistical Classification of Diseases (ICD 10). Both the ICD and DSM methods of diagnosis rely heavily on an evaluator’s professional judgment…terms used to name and describe learning disabilities in these systems are different from those used in IDEA in public schools, learningdisabilities.about.com

What Laws Exist to Protect Students With Learning Disabilities?

Student 9
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

    Although the methods and information from schools and outside evaluators may differ, it is important to consider all data when determining if a student will be found eligible for special education services under IDEA. Legal protections for students and adults with learning disabilities can be found in three federal laws. These laws ensure that all citizens receive the needed and appropriate services, as well as fair treatment in public schools, post-secondary education settings and the workplace, (National Center for Learning Disabilities; Third Edition, 2014, p. 5). The three laws are IDEA (Part B) which provides special education and related services to children and youth with disabilities from 3-21 years of age.


    Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act

    Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in programs that receive federal funds and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), is a civil rights law that protects people from discrimination in the workplace, schools and other environments.

  • What Does This Mean for Parents? What Does This Mean for Students Age 3-22?

    If your student is found eligible for services under IDEA, work with your child’s school team to develop the Individual Education Plan (IEP) for your child. Review the data from the comprehensive evaluation so that you are informed and knowledgeable about your child’s strengths and needs. This information should be provided by your student’s school team prior to the determination of eligibility meeting.

    Parents play a critical role in developing and supporting the implementation of the IEP. In addition to outlining a student’s areas of strengths and needs, the IEP outlines a plan for special education (specialized instruction) and related services, if needed. Keeping communication open and focused on student growth while working with the school team to follow your child’s progress and make changes as needed are critical steps for parents in helping to ensure that students reach their individual goals.

    It is important for teams of students, parents, and educators to work together set goals that are attainable with the appropriate level of expectation for students to improve educational performance.

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