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

Learning Disabilities
G. Reid Lyon


The past decade has witnessed a significant improvement in the quality of research on learning disabilities. Much of this recent research has been longitudinal in nature, thus opening the door to the identification of better predictors of different types of LD, their prevalence, their developmental course, and their response to intervention. Specifically,


  • The definitional issues addressed in this article continue to be the single greatest impediment to understanding learning disabilities and how to help children and adults with LD.
  • Maintaining the term "learning disabilities" makes little sense for scientific purposes, clinical purposes, or school policy purposes. Instead, the field must grapple with the clear need to address each type of learning disability individually to arrive at clear definitional statements and a coherent understanding of etiology, developmental course, identification, prevention, and treatment.
  • Reading disability in the form of deficits in phonological awareness is the most prevalent type of learning disability and affects approximately 17% of school-age children to some degree.
  • While other factors will, no doubt, be identified as contributing to reading disability, deficits in phonological awareness will most likely be found to be the core deficit. Research during the past decade has shown that deficits in phonological awareness can be identified in late kindergarten and first grade using inexpensive, straightforward testing protocols, and the presence of these deficits is a strong indicator that reading disability will follow.
  • Although it is now possible to identify children who are at-risk for reading failure, and some of the instructional conditions that must be in place from the beginning of formal schooling are understood, it is still true that the majority of LD children are not identified until the third grade. Therefore, policy initiatives should focus on the dissemination of existing early identification and early intervention programs.
  • Interventions for reading disability must consist of explicit instructional procedures in phonological awareness, sound-symbol relationships, and meaning and reading comprehension, and should be provided by expert teachers in the kindergarten and first-grade years.
  • In general, teachers remain seriously unprepared to address individual differences in many academic skills but particularly in reading. However, teachers cannot be expected to know what they have not been taught, and clearly colleges of education have let students down. Regrettably, being unprepared takes a toll on teachers. Many teachers worry about their failures with hard-to-teach students, become frustrated, lose confidence, and leave the profession, or discontinue attempting to teach children with special needs. This cycle of events calls for honest and aggressive reform in higher education.
  • While early intervention is necessary, it should not be assumed to be sufficient to address the multiple manifestations of learning disability. Even those students who receive appropriate phonological instruction at a young age may require continuous and intensive support to deal with other co-occurring disorders.
  • When policymakers consider "inclusionary" models of instruction, they must consider carefully whether those models can provide the critical elements of intensity and the appropriate duration of instruction, along with teacher expertise in multiple teaching methods and in accommodating individual learning differences.