Learning Disabilities Versus Learning Differences

When one thinks of the term “learning problem”, the words comprehension problems, dyslexia, spelling difficulty, and attention disorder frequently come to mind. Parents wonder, “Does my child have a learning disability?…”Why doesn’t my child have the same good grades as his friends?”…”I don’t know if my daughter really has a problem learning or if she is just being lazy.” They leave parent teachers meetings confused in how best to help their child.

Knowing the difference between a true learning disability and being a different learner is critical to implementing the right teaching method and learning activities for each specific student. Many times children are put through a series of psychological tests to determine if they have a disability in one travelguidebook or more specific area of learning, only to find out that they do not qualify for any special educational services. They attempt to complete grade worksheets after grade worksheets only to demonstrate their inability to perform the tasks. What should be done? Understanding the concepts of learning disability verses learning difference is a start.

According to the regulations for Public Law (P.L.) 101-476 which is entitled The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the definition of Learning Disability is “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using spoken or written language, which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or to do mathematical calculations.” The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 4.6 million people in the United States have some type of learning disability. A learning disability may manifest itself with one or more of the following diagnoses: Dyslexia, Auditory Processing Disorder, Visual Processing Disorder, Dysgraphia, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Deficit (ADHD), Reading Comprehension Disorder, Alexia, Sensory Integration Disorder.

On the other hand, the term Learning Difference indicates that some learners tend to acquire new information in a way, or ways that may be unlike those of others. The functions of the brain and how differently they can learn from individual to individual remains a mystery to many in the field of neuroscience. What is clear is that we all process and learn information in our own, unique ways. What may be an adequate way of learning for one, may be inadequate for another. Some individuals learn through their visual senses, or “seeing” the process in action. Auditory learners gain understanding through hearing new information. Others may need to touch and feel the concept that is being taught. And then there are those who learn through body movements and expression of self in space. In actuality, many learners use several styles of learning at the same time to accomplish their learning needs.

The problem with the concept of different learning styles, or individual learning systems, is that many educational systems are organized for one style of teaching. Very often a curriculum is chosen for a particular subject – such as reading – and all children are expected to learn the material as the curriculum is designed. As one can see, this “boxes” a student into a learning style, while he or she may require a very different approach to learning that material. There are wonderful teachers in the public school systems that have the passion, knowledge, and desire to teach students according to their specific learning needs – to provide the learning activities needed for children with learning differences. But, because of budget cuts, lack of necessary personnel, and time limitations, great teachers many times are forced to teach to the majority and not to the minority. By that I mean that approximately 70% of a classroom will be able to learn using traditional, straightforward teaching methods, while the other 30% need a variant approach to learning new principles.

As a Speech/Language Pathologist of many years and one who specializes in processing and learning disorders, I understand the dilemma that many teachers suffer in attempting to educate children. The focus of our nationally mandated concept “No Child Left Behind”, although good in theory, makes for a rigid and totally standardized way of teaching and testing. Instead of having the flexibility and opportunity to teach different learning styles, teachers are placed under time and structure constraints for testing outcome purposes. I fear that “No Child Left Behind”, as it is being implemented, will result in “Many Children Making a Be-Line” (dropping out of school) because of the pressures being put on them and their learning needs not being met. There is hope for the struggling student! Success can be gained for children who are struggling in their academic lives by identifying and addressing the underlying root cause of a problem and specific learning style needs of each student.

In summary, caution should be made in the differential diagnosis between learning disability and learning difference. A team approach to the diagnosis process can be greatly beneficial to treatment outcomes. There is hope for children struggling to learn. With correct diagnosis, children dealing with the affects of learning disorders can achieve more productively and effectively in their pursuit of personal life goals and ambitions.

Lucy Gross-Barlow: As a Speech/Language Pathologist of over 26 years and having practiced in a wide variety of therapeutic settings, Lucy brings to her clients a diversity of patient care knowledge. For the past 12 years, she has specialized her practice in the area of processing disorders and remediation of learning impairments, and she has a passion in seeing her clients succeed in their communicative and learning skills. Lucy now desires to extend the knowledge she has gained in processing and learning remediation to as many children as possible to enable them to reach their full learning and communicative potential in life.


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