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Journal Issue: Special Education for Students with Disabilities Volume 6 Number 1 Spring 1996

Learning Disabilities
G. Reid Lyon


Learning disabilities, sometimes inappropriately conceptualized as a "mild" disorder, may be anything but—they may be persistent and may not respond to general instruction or to inappropriate (for example, whole language) instruction. Unless identified early on and taught by expert teachers using detailed and intensive approaches emphasizing teaching both in phonological awareness and phonics instruction, children who learn poorly in the third grade can be expected to learn poorly throughout middle- and high-school grades. Unfortunately, the majority of children with learning disabilities are still not identified until the third or fourth grade and do not receive appropriate and timely reading instruction. In turn, those students with learning disabilities who graduate from high school are destined for few post-school opportunities. The minority of children with LD who received appropriate early intervention have not been identified for long-term follow-up so their long-term outcomes are speculative, but there is reason for optimism in their significantly improved short-term outcomes.

At present, the long-term outcomes for the majority of individuals with learning disabilities who did not receive appropriate early reading instruction are frequently bleak. It is known from the epidemiological data cited earlier that 75% of the children with disabilities in reading who are not identified until the third grade continue to have reading disabilities in the ninth grade.24 In a recent review, Martin70 reported that a considerable percentage (26.7%) of high school students identified as having learning disabilities drop out of school prior to graduation. Another 16% of students with learning disabilities exit school for "unknown" reasons without a diploma. Equally disturbing, Fairweather and Shaver71 found that only 17.1% of the individuals with learning disabilities whom they followed for three to five years after high school were enrolled in any postsecondary course, including vocational courses. Only 6.7% of the students with learning disabilities participated in two-year higher education programs, and only 1.8% participated in four-year programs.

While these data suggest that individuals with learning disabilities do not markedly improve their academic skills (particularly reading skills) and face limited educational and vocational opportunities, it should not be concluded that individuals with LD cannot be taught. They can, but, as stated throughout this paper, interventions are most likely to be successful if applied early and carried out by expert teachers.