Learning Disabilities        



Related Video(s):

Why? What's Involved: Causes and Contributing Factors

Readiness: Early Life-Learning Trajectories

Return to Index of Topics  -  Notes: 1) This page is a work in progress and does not yet comprehensively cover its topic or include all the COTC and web resources its topic deserves.  2) Bold is used to emphasize our [COTC] sense of importance and does not necessarily reflect gestures or tones of emphasis in the original source. This color indicates COTC edits for brevity or flow. See referenced original for exact quotes.

Share this:          

Learning Disabilities

Information processing really is an issue that cuts across so many different disabilities. The term learning disabilities is itself an umbrella term that encompasses a wide range of disorders and problems, the biggest one being dyslexia or reading disability. And even within reading disability, there could be problems with decoding, there could be problems with comprehension, there could be problems with expression, any number of things. So, it's the processing of information that is really critical. Rock bottom: How does the brain either work or not work in dealing with that information?      

James Wendorf, Executive Director, National Center for Learning DisabilitiesSource: COTC Interview - http://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/wendorf.htm#LearningDisabilities

Five to Six Percent of Kids Have Dyslexia or Learning Disabilities

When we look at the kids who are having a tough time learning to read and we went through the statistics, thirty-eight percent nationally, disaggregate that, seventy percent kids from poverty and so forth hit the wall. Ninety-five percent of those kids are instructional casualties. About five to six percent of those kids have what we call dyslexia or learning disabilities in reading.  

G. Reid Lyon, Past- Chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development, National Institutes of Health, Current senior vice president for research and evaluation with Best Associates. Source: COTC Interview - http://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/lyon.htm#Instructionalcasualties

Seventy to Eighty Percent of Students with Learning Disabilities Have Main Problem with Reading

Reading is the gateway skill. It leads to all sorts of success, both academically and in life. It is the skill that under girds most of the curriculum, and if children aren't learning that skill by the end of third grade, they are in desperate trouble. For kids with learning disabilities it's a doulbe whammy. You know, seventy to eighty percent of students with learning disabilities have their main problem in the area of reading, with reading based learning disabilities.  

James Wendorf, Executive Director, National Center for Learning DisabilitiesSource: COTC Interview - http://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/wendorf.htm#ReadingistheGatewaySkill

Nation's Greatest Learning Disability

David Boulton: And inside of the learning disabilities or learning differences you encountered reading was the big one.

Dr. Edward Kame'enui: Oh yeah, absolutely. Hands down, hands down. I have great colleagues here who work with serious behavior problems. I could have done that, but I realized that, to me, that was not the problem. The problem was in the learning, in the acquisition of information, retention, and so on.

David Boulton: Connected to what you’re saying, it seems to me that the nation's biggest learning disability is engendered by the process of learning to read.

Dr. Edward Kame'enui: Oh, absolutely.

David Boulton: Right?

Dr. Edward Kame'enui: Yes, yes, absolutely. It’s the most public — I mean...

David Boulton: The most widespread learning-disabling thing that happens to human beings is the process of learning to read.

Dr. Edward Kame'enui: Absolutely. And the most public. For example, you can hide from the math stuff. You can get away with the math because you have enough other systems that can help you on that. But the reading one is tough. It's hard to hide on that one. That's a good point.     

Edward Kame'enui, Past-Commissioner for Special Education Research where he lead the National Center for Special Education Research
under the Institute of Education Sciences.
Source: COTC Interview - http://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/kameenui.htm#NationGreatestDisability

Neurobiological vs. Acquired Deficiencies

David Boulton:  An important distinction here is the difference between a biological insufficiency or mis-development of the capability to process, as distinct from an instructional or learning environment inefficiency or deficiency that’s led to a learned or acquired learning disability. How are those two related and how does that spectrum play out?

James Wendorf:  I don’t think we draw that kind of distinction. I think there is a difference between a student who is an ‘instructional casualty’; in other words, a student who has not flourished in the schools, who has not had access to the right kind of teaching, a student whom the schools have failed in some way. There’s a difference between that kind of student and a student with an underlying neurobiological disability.  Learning disabilities are not acquired; they are there - they are life long - they are real. They can be expressed in any number of ways early on; they could appear later in a school career, even as late as high school or adulthood.

David Boulton:  They come in at different developmental stages.

James Wendorf:  Different stages depending upon the kinds of learning tasks that a person might actually face.

David Boulton: So, you don’t make a distinction between this across the spectrum as to what might be the cause of it?

James Wendorf:  Well, we’d love to know the cause. We’d love to know the cause.

David Boulton:  I mean the distinction between what’s neurobiological in origin and what’s a consequence of instruction.

James Wendorf:  Well, I think for most people, and especially teachers, the kinds of problems that they’re trying to deal with, the weaknesses that they’re trying to address in children, whether they have a neurobiological cause or whether the cause has been simply lack of access to a certain kind of instruction or teaching, makes very little difference. An appropriate scientifically research based intervention that’s delivered in the right way can address both of those problems.

That’s good news for teachers; it simplifies the task. It says that what works for kids with learning disabilities, reading disabilities for example, also works for students who may have problems with reading because they didn’t have access to books or spoken language as they were growing up…kids from poverty.  

James Wendorf, Executive Director, National Center for Learning DisabilitiesSource: COTC Interview - http://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/wendorf.htm#NeurobiologicalDeficienciesVsInstruc

Inherent or Acquired?

David Boulton: How do you differentiate the inherent from the acquired? You said that you were first testing them in the third grade?

Dr. Sally Shaywitz: Well, again, the inherent group is a group that seemed to have difficulty from third grade. By the time they were in ninth grade, they were able to read accurate, but not fluently.

David Boulton: Right.

Dr. Sally Shaywitz: They had improved their accuracy. They seemed to have higher verbal abilities to begin with, and to go to less disadvantaged schools. Now we're embarking on our genetic studies to actually see if we can find a genetic underlying basis for these reading disabilities.

David Boulton: Okay. But so far, are we close with any tests that actually differentiate the children before they're exposed to reading instruction?

Dr. Sally Shaywitz: That's a really good question. That's the hope. I think that apparently there are behavioral tests that reflect what we've known about reading and I think those can tell us which children are at high risk. I think those tests can pretty much pick up a very high percentage of those children who are at high risk. They also pick up children who turn out not to have reading problems. So they end up, currently, over-identifying children. But that seems to be less harmful than...

David Boulton: Than under-identifying, yes.

Dr. Sally Shaywitz: So as long as you don't label children, but say, "These children might benefit from getting extra help and getting highly explicit help," that seems to be a positive thing to be able to do.       

Sally Shaywitz, Pediatric Neuroscience, Yale University, Author of Overcoming Dyslexia. Source: COTC Phone Interview - http://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/shaywitz.htm#InherentorAcquired

Ripple Effects of Reading Difficulty

I do see some very interesting ripple effects when kids are not acquiring reading skills. For example, it might be that a particular child in fourth grade is having difficulty keeping pace with reading comprehension or with decoding, and because he's having trouble with reading, he hates to read. And when he does read, he gets almost nothing out of it because he's reading very passively. And because he's reading very passively, he's not able to use reading as a way of building his language abilities. 

So, what oddly happens is that his language problems caused his reading problems, and his reading problems are now causing much more aggravated language problems. Those language problems, in turn, are going to make it hard for him to follow directions, communicate well with other people, and even use language inside his mind for something called 'verbal mediation.' Verbal mediation is the process through with which you regulate your behavior and feelings by talking to yourself. And believe it or not, a lot of kids with language problems really don't use language as a way of regulating themselves.

They get in trouble, they get depressed, because they don't have a voice inside that says, 'Yeah, I could take that medicine. I could take that drug from that kid, and hey I'm a cool dude. But oh, if I take it, I could like wreck my brain, and I could get addicted and my mother will kill me if she finds out, and I could get arrested.' And all of that comes out of language, that sort of verbal conscience that's guiding you.

So, if you go all the way back to the language problem and say, yeah, it's causing a reading problem, and the reading problem is causing the language problem, and the language problem is causing a behavior problem, and the fact that this kid can't read, and other people around him can read much better is eroding his self-esteem, making him feel pretty worthless. 

Mel Levine, Professor of Pediatrics; Co-founder, All Kinds of Minds Institute; Director, University of North Carolina Clinical Center for the Study of Development and Learning; Author, A Mind at a Time, The Myth of Laziness and Ready or Not, Here Life Comes. Source: COTC Interview: http://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/levine.htm#NegativeCollateralEffects  


Share this:          

There is no substitute for your first-person learning.

SIGN UP HERE to receive general updates about our project or news of future interview releases 

Note about interviews: Participation in a Children of the Code interview does not constitute or imply an endorsement of the Children of the Code project or documentary by the interviewee. Conversely, including an interview does not constitute or imply an endorsement of the views, organizations, books or products of the interviewee, other than as explicitly stated, by the Children of the Code Project and documentary.  

For more information about
Children of the Code events
please click here
or call:

Dr. Grover (Russ) Whitehurst  Director, Institute of Education Sciences, Assistant Secretary of Education, U.S. Department of Education
Dr. Jack Shonkoff Chair, The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child; Co-Editor: From Neurons to Neighborhoods
Dr. Edward Kame'enui Commissioner for Special Education Research, U.S. Department of Education; Director, IDEA, University  of Oregon
Dr. G. Reid Lyon  Past Director, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH)
Dr. Keith Stanovich  Canadian Chair of Cognitive Science, University of Toronto
Dr. Mel Levine Co-Chair and Co-Founder, All Kinds of Minds; Author: A Mind at a Time, The Myth of Laziness & Ready or Not Here Life Comes
Dr. Alex Granzin  School District Psychologist, Past President, Oregon School Psychologists Association 
Dr. James J. Heckman Nobel Laureate, Economic Sciences 2000; Lead Author: The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children
Dr. Timothy Shanahan President (2006) International Reading Association, Chair National Early Literacy Panel, Member National Reading Panel
Nancy Hennessy  President, 2003-2005, International Dyslexia Association
Dr. Marilyn Jager Adams Senior ScientistSoliloquy Learning, Author: Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print
Dr. Michael Merzenich Chair of Otolaryngology, Integrative Neurosciences, UCSF;  Member National Academy of Sciences
Dr. Maryanne Wolf Director, Center for Reading & Language Research; Professor of Child Development, Tufts University
Dr. Todd Risley  Emeritus Professor of Psychology, University of Alaska, Co-author: Meaningful Differences
Dr. Sally Shaywitz  Neuroscientist, Department of Pediatrics, Yale University, Author: Overcoming Dyslexia
Dr. Louisa Moats  Director, Professional Development and Research Initiatives, Sopris West Educational Services
Dr. Zvia Breznitz Professor, Neuropsychology of Reading & Dyslexia, University of Haifa, Israel 
Rick Lavoie Learning Disabilities Specialist, Creator: How Difficult Can This Be?: The F.A.T. City Workshop & Last One Picked, First One Picked On
Dr.Charles Perfetti Professor, Psychology & Linguistics; Senior Scientist and Associate Director, Learning R&D Center, U. of Pittsburgh, PA
Arthur J. Rolnick Senior V.P. & Dir. of Research,  Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis;  Co- Author: The Economics of Early Childhood Development  
Dr. Richard Venezky  Professor, Educational Studies, Computer and  Information Sciences, and Linguistics, University of Delaware
Dr. Keith Rayner  Distinguished  Professor, University of Massachusetts, Author: Eye Movements in Reading and Information Processing
Dr. Paula Tallal  Professor of Neuroscience, Co-Director of the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience, Rutgers University
Dr.John Searle  Mills Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Language, University of California-Berkeley, Author: Mind, A Brief Introduction
Dr.Mark T. Greenberg Director, Prevention Research Center, Penn State Dept. of Human Development & Family Studies; CASEL Leadership Team
Dr. Terrence Deacon  Professor of Biological Anthropology and Linguistics at University of California- Berkeley
Chris Doherty  Ex-Program Director, National Reading First Program, U.S. Department of Education
Dr. Erik Hanushek Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Dr. Marketa Caravolas Director, Bangor Dyslexia Unit, Bangor University, Author: International Report on Literacy Research
Dr. Christof Koch Professor of Computation and Neural Systems,  Caltech - Author: The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach
Dr. Guy Deutscher Professor of Languages and Cultures of Ancient Mesopotamia, Holland; Author: Unfolding Language
Robert Wedgeworth  President, ProLiteracy, World's Largest Literacy Organization
Dr. Peter Leone  Director, National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice
Dr. Thomas Cable  Professor of English, University of Texas at Austin, Co-author: A History of the English Language
Dr. David Abram Cultural Ecologist and Philosopher; Author: The Spell of the Sensuous
Pat Lindamood and Nanci Bell  Principal Scientists, Founders, Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes
Dr. Anne Cunningham  Director, Joint Doctoral Program in Special Education, Graduate School of Education at University of California-Berkeley
Dr. Donald L. Nathanson  Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Jefferson Medical College, Director of the Silvan S. Tomkins Institute 
Dr.Johanna Drucker  Chair of Media Studies, University of Virginia, Author: The Alphabetic Labyrinth
John H. Fisher  Medievalist, Leading authority on the development of the written English language, Author: The Emergence of Standard English
Dr. Malcolm Richardson   Chair, Dept. of English, Louisiana State University; Research: The Textual Awakening of the English Middle Classes  
James Wendorf  Executive Director, National Center for Learning Disabilities
Leonard Shlain Physician; Best-Selling Author: The Alphabet vs. The Goddess
Robert Sweet  Co-Founder, National Right to Read Foundation


HELP US: If you appreciate this interview and the work of the Children of the Code project please take a few minutes to share your thoughts with us. Your comments and feedback not only help us learn to better serve you, they help us get the support we need to continue the project.  Click here to read what others are saying about the Children of the Code Project.

SIGN UP HERE to receive general updates about our project or news of future interview releases 

The Children of the Code is a Social Education Project and a Public Television Series intended to catalyze and resource a social-educational transformation in how we think about and, ultimately, teach reading. The Children of the Code is an entertaining educational journey into the challenges our children's brains face when learning to read. The series weaves together archeology, history, linguistics, developmental neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology, information theory, reading theory, learning theory, and the personal and social dimensions of illiteracy. 




Copyright statement:  Copyright (c) 2014, Learning Stewards, A 501(c)(3) Non-Profit Organization, All Rights Reserved. Permission to use, copy, and distribute these materials for not-for-profit educational purposes, without fee and without a signed licensing agreement, is hereby granted, provided that "Children of the Code - www.childrenofthecode.org"  (with a functioning hyperlink when online) be cited as the source and appear in all excerpts, copies, and distributions.  Thank you. (back to top)