• Michelle Mason, Ph.D.

Specific Learning Disabilities


Because it is Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) month, I thought that I would review what SLD are in educational terms. In a nutshell, people with SLD have a discrepancy between their intelligence and their achievement in an area of learning (reading, writing, and/or math—also oral expression and listening comprehension, but these are less common). Generally, a person with SLD has average or above average intelligence and is not performing at that level in reading, writing, and/or math. However, a person with below average intelligence can also have a learning disability if they have a discrepancy (but may be designated as having an intellectual disability).

In order for a child to get services for SLD at school, the child may be tested. In the current law (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act 2004), students can be designated as having an SLD without testing; specifically, children who have been given an intervention (Response to Intervention) can receive an IEP and special education services without testing. However, to get the most information about your child’s strengths and challenges, having an assessment is a good idea.

You can have your child tested privately, but personnel at the school district where your child attends would still assess the child prior to having them get services. Plus, it is free. So, you should contact the school before getting a private evaluation. However, if you don’t agree with the evaluation, you can request an Independent Educational Evaluation, which should be paid for by the school district.

If suspected of having a SLD (and with your consent), your child will be tested using achievement tests, an IQ test, visual processing, and auditory processing tests. To be identified as having a SLD, there needs to be a discrepancy between the IQ score and one or more of the standard scores on the achievement tests. What do you mean by discrepancy you are probably asking yourself? In a nutshell, the difference between the IQ score and standard score of one or more assessments must be 18-22 points (the district determines the point difference). So, for example, if your child has a 100 IQ (average) and a 78 or lower on any of the subtests of the assessment, then they would be considered to have a SLD in those areas.

Beyond having a discrepancy, your child has a processing issue (visual and auditory), then they may be eligible for an IEP and for special education services. The caveat is that these learning issues cannot be due environmental factors or other disabilities.

As mentioned above there are several areas where students can be designated as having a specific learning disability. Unfortunately, I have frequently seen school districts use criteria from the old version of the Individuals with Education Disabilities Act 1997 instead of the 2004 law. You may want to ensure that all these areas will be assessed.

  1. Oral expression—The ability to express and compose words and sentences with proper grammar, vocabulary, and social conventions. In other words, a person can communicate with others in “proper English.”

  2. Listening Comprehension—The ability to understand oral language.

  3. Written Expression—The ability to spell and to use punctuation, capitalization, grammar, planning, organization, editing, and revising.

  4. Basic Reading Skill— The ability to read words in isolation and in passages; and able to understand the relationship between letters and sounds.

  5. Reading Fluency Skills—Being able to read quickly, smoothly, and with appropriate expression.

  6. Reading Comprehension—Understanding what is read at one’s grade level.

  7. Mathematics Calculation—Utilizing basic skills, such as counting, adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing.

  8. Mathematics Problem Solving—Being able to reason mathematically, and being able to apply reasoning to math problems.


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