More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
New strategies urged for 'learning disabled'
November 20, 2006
By Berny Morson, Rocky Mountain News

Experts pushing for more help for struggling readers

Large numbers of students diagnosed with learning disabilities could be helped by better reading instruction, particularly in the lower grades, state education officials believe.

More than 30,000 Colorado students are considered learning disabled - the largest handicap category among the state's 83,000 special education students. Numbers are similar in other states.

But educators now believe most of those students aren't handicapped at all. They were just allowed to fall so far behind that they look like they're handicapped, said Ed Steinberg, a psychologist who heads the Colorado Department of Education's special education unit.

"They're instructionally disabled, not learning disabled," Steinberg said.

Steinberg believes that more than 50 percent of learning disabled students are misclassified. He said a similar percentage of the 20,642 students classified with speech or language disabilities also may be misdiagnosed.

He's recommending a strategy in which teachers intervene massively at the first sign a student is falling behind in reading.

The method calls for diagnosis of just what part of reading the child doesn't understand, along with one-on-one tutoring.

Only after such methods have failed would the child be tested for learning disabilities.

Steinberg's view is backed by educators statewide who agree that too many kids are being misclassified as learning disabled.

Several schools in Jefferson County, the state's largest school district, already are trying early intervention, said special education director Ruth Stern.

"There's a body of research at this point that is telling us that many, many kids identified as having a learning disability are identified (that way) because they can't read," Stern said. "And the research is telling us that most of these kids can be taught to read."

All schools in Colorado Springs are moving to the new method, said Bob Howell, the special education director for Distinct 11, which has been experimenting with early intervention for several years.

A state task force is being assembled to help other districts learn the new method, a process that could take up to five years.

At issue is a brain dysfunction - sometimes called "crossed wires" - that blocks learning. Reading problems are usually the first sign.

In practice, few learning disabilities are diagnosed through a neurological exam. The process is too expensive and the science is in its infancy, Steinberg said.

The diagnosis usually comes by process of elimination - where nothing else explains the child's failure to learn.

Sheila Buckley, of Englewood, advocacy director for the Learning Disabilities Association of Colorado, is skeptical of the misdiagnoses theory.

Nonetheless, she said the intervention strategy is a good idea - if teachers are adequately trained.

Kids at risk
Learning disabled is the largest handicap category among special education students in Colorado. Below are statewide figures for handicap conditions for children from birth to age 21 for the 2005-2006 school year.

? Learning disabilities 30,462
? Speech/language 20,642
? Physical 9,067
? Emotional disturbance 8,325
? Infant/preschool 4,423
? Mental retardation 3,455
? Blind/ multiple handicaps 3,162
? Autism/brain injury 1,898
? Vision/hearing 1,656

TOTAL 83,090

Source: Colorado Department Of Education


There are actually a combination of factors that can lead to a diagnosis of learning impaired, as we all know.

When it comes to reading disability, there is dyslexia, and other brain malfunctions but there are other, easily modified, reasons as well, as we discovered when our son was having reading difficulties.

These other factors include teaching look-say instead of phonics, the change in type font used in school readers that makes people with astigmatism see squiggles instead of letters, the flickering of fluroescent lighting which exacerbates all the other problems and, frankly, sometimes just incompetent teachers, sad to say. We encountered all of the above in helping to find a solution to our son's reading difficulty. He is still dyslexic but it's no longer the handicap that it was. His reading not only improved tremendously but he's a much better speller now than formerly. He actually enjoys reading now.


David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
I agree. I don't think there's any question that some people are misdiagnosed with LD or ADHD when it reality it's a poor fit between person and environment but that doesn't alter the fact that learning disabilities do exist and that changes in teaching/learning approaches can compensate for this very well in many or most cases.
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