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"Specific learning disability" means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations.

To aid schools and school psychologists in the understanding of what a learning disability is, the federal regulations pertaining to serving the learning disabled child (Volume 42, No. 250, of the Federal Register, Thursday, December 29, 1977) provide the following commentary:

"Those with specific learning disabilities may demonstrate their handicap through a variety of symptoms such as hyperactivity, distractibility, attention problems, concept association problems, etc. The end result of the effect of the symptoms is a severe discrepancy between achievement and ability. If there is no severe discrepancy between how much should have been learned and what has been learned, there would no be a disability in learning. However other handicapping and sociological conditions may result in a discrepancy between ability and achievement. There are those for whom these (other) conditions are the primary factors affecting achievement. In such cases, the severe discrepancy may be the primary result of these factors and not of a severe learning problem. For the purpose of these regulations, when a severe discrepancy between ability and achievement exists which cannot be explained by the presence of other known factors that lead to such a discrepancy, the cause is believed to be a specific learning disability." (bold, italics added)

It would seem, based on this commentary, that you need not discover what the "disorder in one or more of the basic psychological process" is. What needs to be done is simply to prove that the ability/achievement discrepancy is not caused by something other than a learning disability! Some school districts have even written into their regulation/guideline a statement such as:

"A student with a 50 percent or greater discrepancy between intellectual potential and achievement must be deemed learning disabled unless the discrepancy can be attributed to some other handicapping or socioeconomic condition." (bold added)

Without belaboring the point too much, if you don't identify what the underlying process is that is causing the child to have difficulty, how can you help the child. The problem for the school psychologist is not in discovering that there is a problem &emdash;(the teacher has probably beaten down your door to tell you that already)&the problem is in uncovering clearly what the breakdown in process is so that some form of "remediation/intervention" can be tried.

The basic disorders that can be diagnosed in the identification of specific learning disabilities are almost endless. The following list is only illustrative. It should not be taken in any way as limiting the disorders that Teams can and should consider when attempting to determine the causes of school failure. The list is provided to give some idea of the scope of the possible disorders. The categories are somewhat arbitrary and are not based on any particular theory of disabilities. The order is random. Many of the disorders could by placed in two or more of the categories. The omission of any disorder from this brief list does not imply any lack of legitimacy, nor does the inclusion of a disorder imply that it carries with it some greater level of validity or importance. The list is purely illustrative.

Auditory Perception

  • mishearing sounds
  • mishearing meaningful sound units (phonemes)
  • mishearing words
  • misperceiving the order of sounds
  • difficulty remembering the order of sounds or of words
  • confusing similar-sounding sounds or words
  • difficulty blending sounds into words
  • weakness in auditory figure-ground perception
  • difficulty hearing separate sounds in words

Visual Perception

  • confusing similar shapes
  • failing to see differences between shapes
  • difficulty seeing how parts fit together to make a whole
  • difficulty perceiving direction, confusing up/down, left/right
  • difficulty organizing the parts of a larger configuration
  • difficulty perceiving the parts when seeing the whole
  • difficulty perceiving the whole when seeing the parts
  • visual figure-ground confusion
  • weak visual tracking
  • difficulty with visual perception possibly caused by amounts of glare or contrast


  • difficulty understanding and learning the meaning of words
  • difficulty understanding the meaning of sentences
  • difficulty retrieving precise words quickly when needed
  • difficulty understanding metaphor, irony, or figurative speech
  • difficulty understanding or using prepositions
  • confusion of grammatical function
  • confusion of temporal sequence in language
  • difficulty expressing ideas in coherent sentences
  • difficulty understanding or using grammatical relationships

Motor Coordination

  • deficient gross motor coordination, e.g., hopping, running
  • deficient balance (static and/or moving)
  • persistence of primitive reflexes, interfering with coordination
  • deficient fine motor coordination
  • deficient eye-hand-foot coordination (in any combination)


  • difficulties with sensory input and its integration with reflexive and purposeful motor responses
  • difficulty tolerating touch or certain textures
  • difficulty integrating two movements at once


  • difficulty focusing attention at will
  • difficulty sustaining the focus of attention
  • difficulty ignoring distractions
  • difficulty attending to the most important stimulus
  • difficulty listening
  • difficulty seeing details
  • difficulty concentrating on two things at once
  • difficulty recalling information when it is needed
  • difficulty remembering to do things at the right moment
  • difficulty making learned responses or skills automatic
  • difficulty performing tasks when the situation changes hyperactivity impulsivity


  • weak memory (short-term, long-term, auditory, visual)
  • weak memory for sequences
  • weak spatial memory for locations
  • rote memory weaker than memory for meaningful material
  • difficulty associating written symbols with sounds or words

Academic skills

  • primary disorder of reading, arithmetic, handwriting, spelling, or written expression not attributable to other disorders


  • disorders of deductive reasoning
  • disorders of inductive reasoning
  • impulsive thinking
  • difficulty forming and using categories
  • difficulty generalizing
  • slow mental processing (not the same as "slow learning")
  • inability to think under stress
  • verbal thinking abilities much superior to nonverbal
  • nonverbal thinking abilities much superior to verbal
  • sequential thinking much superior to simultaneous or holistic
  • holistic or simultaneous thinking much superior to sequential
  • "fluid" thinking ability much superior to "crystallized" knowledge
  • "crystallized" knowledge much superior to "fluid" thinking ability

These are examples of the array of possible disorders that might be primary causes of severe deficits in academic skills. There can be, and often are, two or more such disorders affecting a learning disabled student.