How Specific Are Learning Disabilities?

Apr 28 2022

Key Takeaway

The current diagnostic system for learning disabilities is not accurate enough to allow for all children to receive support when they are experiencing challenges in academic skills across the curriculum. —Frankie Garbutt

In this article, Peterson et al. (University of Colorado) investigated to what extent specific learning disabilities (SpLD) are truly specific because they argue that academic skills “correlate across the curriculum.” The researchers took a sample that was “overselected for learning disabilities.” To do this, they “intentionally included children across the full range of individual differences in this study in response to growing recognition that a dimensional, quantitative view of SLD [specific learning disability] is more accurate than a categorical view.” The authors analysed the data of almost 700 children ranging from age 8-16.

Often Students Struggle Across the Curriculum

The basis of their research was that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition collapses diagnoses of “Reading Disorder, Mathematics Disorder, Disorder of Written Expression, and Learning Disorder” into one overarching category of SpLD. Through their analysis of how learning disabilities are measured and diagnosed the authors argue that all skills overlap as “a student with difficulties in one area of the curriculum is more likely to have difficulties in other areas.”

An Umbrella Diagnosis Is Reasonable in Most Cases

The conclusion drawn from their intensive analysis was that the hierarchical nature of academic skills under a single umbrella of SpLD is reasonable. However, one argument is that diagnosing a student with a SpLD in spelling is not meaningful because this affects word reading, thus linking to SpLD in basic reading or dyslexia. Moreover, the data shows that students, who experience difficulties in writing and need support in this area would “benefit from support for other academic skills as well.” 


Therefore the question of “how to classify children who struggle across academic domains” within the current diagnostic system remains. Some children, who perform low across a range of academic skills, yet do not qualify for SpLD, lose out on support because there is “so little specificity to their profile” and the diagnostic system does not have enough specifiers “to describe children who have widespread academic difficulties and subsequent need for educational services.” 

Summarized article:  

Peterson, R. L., McGrath, L. M., Willcutt, E. G., Keenan, J. M., Olson, R. K., & Pennington, B. F. (2021). How specific are learning disabilities?. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 0022219420982981.

Summary by: Frankie Garbutt- Frankie believes that the MARIO Framework encourages students to become reflective, independent learners who progress at their own rate.

You May Also Like
The roles of Transition coordinators
Though transition coordinators are critical in improving post-high school outcomes for students wit...
Students with a specific learning disability (SLD) have various factors that contribute to their so...
Students with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD) face an increased risk of mental health issu...