Understanding Specific Learning Disabilities

All kids can learn
Beth Melton

In Colorado, about 4% of all students and 43% of students on an IEP have a specific learning disability (SLD). Colorado and the Federal IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) use this term to describe a disability which may manifest itself in "the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations." It includes "perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia" but does not include any learning challenge caused by visual, hearing, or motor problems or intellectual disability, emotional disturbance, or cultural, environmental, or economic disadvantages. In this post, I share some basic information about SLD and some strategies that teacher can use to ensure equitable support for students with SLD.

Here are the most important things for a classroom teacher at any level to understand about learning disabilities

1. The most common types of specific learning disabilities

There can be a lot of confusion (and sometimes disagreement) about the terminology used to describe various specific learning disabilities. This is because different states, the federal government, doctors, and schools sometimes use different terms. Regardless of the terminology used, the most common types of specific learning disabilities are learning challenges associated with reading, writing, and math (with reading disabilities - often called dyslexia - being the most common). Use the links below to learn more about each of these disabilities.

Dyslexia (SLD-Reading)

Dyscalculia (SLD-Math)

Dysgraphia (SLD-Writing)

2. Not all students with SLD qualify for an IEP under Special Education law

Parents are often confused when their child has received a diagnosis (most often for dyslexia) from a private practice outside of the school system (from Children's Hospital, for example) and still doesn't qualify for an IEP. This can be frustrating for parents, and as classroom teachers, we don't always fully understand why this happens. Generally, it is because of the eligibility criteria mandated by law and policy. This is an in-depth guidance document from the Colorado Department of Education that details the primary criteria that should be used for determining SLD. This article, written by a Speech Language Pathologist in Michigan details the same issue in an easy-to-understand way. In short, if a child has a learning disability but does not have significant struggles in school, then they cannot be provided services under an IEP. However, as a teacher, it is critical to remember that this only means that this child is not legally entitled to special education services it does NOT mean that this student doesn't need support above and beyond what is provided to all students. 

3. Accommodations vs. Modifications vs. Intervention

There are three primary types of support that a student (with or without an IEP) might receive. Any student who needs additional support might receive only one of these supports or they might receive some combination. This should be based on the needs of the student as determined by a support team (which may be an IEP team, an RtI team, an MTSS team, or just the classroom teacher and a parent).

Accommodations are generally physical or environmental changes that allow a student to access the same task as other students. Accommodations may include:

Extra time

Frequent breaks

Preferential seating (e.g., sit near the teacher, near the front, etc.)

Visual cues for directions

Giving directions in small groups or individually

Reading a test out loud

Listening to a text instead of reading it

For more information and examples of accommodations, check out this list. Generally, if a student is still expected to complete an equivalent task and you are making changes that provide access to that task, it is an accommodation. Accommodations can be appropriate for any student that might benefit from them, depending on the task, purpose, and accommodation used. On most standardized tests (SAT, CMAS, etc.), a student needs a formal document that will allow them to access accommodations - the type of document that is accepted varies depending on the test.

Modifications change what a student is expected to learn or demonstrate. Modifications are generally reserved only for students on IEPs, and are usually required because of a student's disability. Some examples of modifications might be:

Completing fewer problems

Writing a shorter paper

Completing an alternate project or assignment

Learning different material (i.e., working on addition while the rest of the class works on multiplication)

Being graded on a different scale from classmates

Because modifications create a significant change in what a student will complete, they should only be utilized when deemed necessary by an IEP team to ensure that a student's right to an equitable education is not being unduly impacted.

Interventions are designed to give a student extra support in order to learn content. Interventions must be used by any student who needs them to master content, although the intensity or frequency of the intervention should be varied according to the student's need. Examples of intervention include:

Pulling students into small groups for a brief re-teaching of concepts taught in class

Utlizing multisensory techniques to reinforce/reteach concepts

Working with students to provide more structure for assignments (e.g., underlining key words together to support writing a summary)


Individual point systems for behavior modification

This article shares more about what types of activities might be considered interventions.

4. Best Practices

Regardless of a child's disability status and his or her eligibility for Special Education services, some best practices are universally applicable and supportive of students. Making these practices a regular part of your teaching can help to ensure that all students have a strong foundation for success - and are often necessary for students with specific learning disabilities:

Multisensory education, especially in reading, spelling, and math

Explicit instruction

Cooperative learning

Graphic organizers (great examples here, here, and here)

Clear instructions


Overall, our students with learning disabilities have needs that are the responsibility of all educators - not just the special education teacher, and we owe it to them to understand those needs and do what we can to support them.