Specific Learning Disabilities

Authors: Cherry C. Lee, Program Specialist for Dyslexia, Texas Education Agency (TEA)

Keywords: dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, specific learning disabilities, SLD, evaluation, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, IDEA, academic difficulties

Abstract: Cherry Lee shares her expertise on specific learning disabilities including dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia, their evaluation, and their co-occurrence with visual impairment. The author is a Certified Academic Language Therapist (CALT), Licensed Dyslexia Therapist (LDT), and an educational diagnostician.

Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) Overview

As of 2015, about 5.9 million students in the U.S. received special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA). According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, almost 39 percent of these students—roughly 2.3 million—qualified with a specific learning disability ( IDEA defines the term specific learning disability (SLD) as “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 the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations” despite instruction from trained personnel, adequate intelligence, and sociocultural opportunity ( There are eight areas of SLD – two in the area of oral language (oral expression and listening comprehension), three in the area of reading (basic reading skills, reading fluency, and reading comprehension), one in the area of writing (written expression), and two in math (calculation and problem solving).

Learning disabilities fall on a continuum and not all students with SLD will qualify for special education services. Learning disabilities also co-occur with each other and/or disorders of executive function, including Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.

Dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia

Dyslexia is a term that refers to a learning disability that is characterized by difficulties with accurate or fluent word recognition and poor spelling and decoding abilities. Students with dyslexia will demonstrate primary difficulties reading words in isolation, decoding unfamiliar words, spelling and reading fluently. Older elementary and secondary students with dyslexia may struggle with reading comprehension, multisyllabic word decoding, and written expression as well as suffer from low self-esteem due to poor reading skills. Researchers estimate that between 5-15% of the population has some level of dyslexia ( Dyslexia, like all learning disabilities, falls on a continuum ranging from mild, moderate, severe to profound.

Dysgraphia is a term that refers to a learning disability in writing and is characterized by poor handwriting, spelling, and written production abilities. Dyscalculia refers to a learning disability in math and is characterized by difficulties solving math problems fluently and accurately. 

How do the terms dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia relate to specific learning disabilities? Students with these conditions may be identified through IDEA under the SLD category. The US Department of Education and Rehabilitative Services provided clarification in a Dear Colleague Letter in 2015 which stated there is nothing in the IDEA that would prohibit the use of said terms in IEP and evaluation documents (

Evaluation of SLD 

When determining the presence of a specific learning disability (SLD) with the condition of dyslexia, Admission Review Dismissal (ARD) committees must ensure student underachievement is not due to lack of appropriate instruction in reading.  Also, data should indicate that the student received appropriate instruction by qualified personnel and progress was documented periodically. Although sensory deficits, emotional disturbance, socio-cultural factors, economic disadvantage, and/or limited English proficiency cannot be the primary causes of the learning difficulties, students with SLD may be English Learners, they may come from poverty, or they may have sensory impairments, including visual impairment (

Parsing the interconnected issues of academic difficulties and visual impairments requires careful consideration. The evaluation should be comprehensive, multidisciplinary, and include multiple sources of data. When visual impairment is suspected or identified, the ARD committee must include a TVI, a teacher who is certified in the education of students with visual impairments. Additionally, a Language Proficiency Assessment Committee (LPAC) member should be included when the student is an English Learner to address concerns and needs related to language differences.

It is possible for students with visual impairments to have learning disabilities, including dyslexia, that are unrelated to the visual impairment(s). Again, evaluating all data points using a team approach is imperative. Eligibility should not be predicated on a single subtest or data point and should incorporate information that demonstrates instructional materials were made accessible to students with visual impairments (

Additional Resources

Accessible Instructional Materials

Accommodation Resources – Classroom/Campus

Accommodation Resources – State of Texas ASsessment Program

International Dyslexia Association (IDA)

Technology Integration for Students with Dyslexia

Texas Center for Learning Disabilities

The Dyslexia Handbook – 2018 Update: Procedures Concerning Dyslexia and Related Disorders (PDF)

Recent TEA Guidance

Frequently Asked Questions:  Dyslexia and Related Disorders – March 2019

Recent TEA Presentations 

Webinar: Dyslexia and Related Disorders in the IEP

Dyslexia and Related Disorders in the IEP (Powerpoint)

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