In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Learning Difficulties

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Terminology
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Cognitive Determinants of Academic Achievement
  • Motivation, Emotion and Self-Concept as Determinants of Academic Problems
  • Socioeconomic Background and Quality of Instruction
  • Diagnosing Learning Difficulties
  • Curricular Aspects, Prevention, and Therapy

Education Learning Difficulties
Wolfgang Lenhard, Alexandra Lenhard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0115


Learning difficulties is an umbrella term for academic problems of different origin. It comprises general learning deficits and low academic performance, for example, in the context of disabilities as well as specific forms like reading, spelling, and arithmetic disorders. As a consequence, many different denotations exist that try to differentiate between general and specific forms or point out the stability of the learning problem. The term learning disability usually highlights general and long-lasting learning difficulties, often linked to the field of special education. The term learning disorder characterizes learning problems in a specific field that contrast the general aptitude of the person. Apart from the classification in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) and International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-10), there is no universally accepted terminology and the connotations of the technical terms even vary within the same language (e.g., between Great Britain and the United States). There are genetic and neurobiological correlates as well as cognitive, motivational, affective, and socioeconomic determinants of learning difficulties, some of which are more easily modifiable (prior knowledge, motivation) than others (memory span, socioeconomic background). The diagnosis and intervention has to address the individual problems of the affected person. The diagnostic distinction between general and specific learning problems is however subject to substantial criticism. Educational policies vary considerably between different educational systems: While some countries practice segregation of poor performing children and teenagers, there is currently a strong trend toward inclusive education, especially since the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

General Overviews and Terminology

Scientific study of learning difficulties dates back to the last decades of the 19th century, when forms of developmental dyslexia were first described in works like Morgan 1896 or Hinshelwood 1895, who coined the term “word blindness.” For decades, causal explanations dominated nomenclature and research, resulting in now outdated concepts like minimal brain dysfunction (MBD). The term “learning disability” first appeared in the early 1960s and is closely linked to educational policies (Fletcher 2012). Since then, definitions are mainly descriptive and refrain from giving causal models of learning difficulties. It is commonly assumed that the problems emerge in the context of general low cognitive abilities, for example, indicated by a low IQ score, or manifest themselves as specific forms with unexpected low performances in distinctive domains despite normal general intelligence. Following the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-10), specific forms usually are called learning disorders and include basic reading, spelling, and arithmetic problems. In contrast to the international standards, in the United States learning disorders are usually called learning disabilities, while below-average intellectual functioning is referred to as mental retardation or developmental disability. Definitions based on IQ scores or on discrepancies between general intelligence and academic performances in specific domains pose conceptual and practical problems: Cognitive performance is usually continuously distributed. From this point of view, a decrease in cognitive performance leads to an increase in adaption problems. In order to define distinct groups of people with different forms of learning difficulties, the introduction of cutoff values is necessary. However, this results in more or less arbitrary categories, which, in addition, strongly depend on the validity and reliability of the diagnostic instruments. Recently, the so called response-to-intervention approach has been suggested to circumvent these problems: From this perspective, learning difficulties are seen as failure to progress in academic development or to reach educational goals (Fuchs, et al. 2002). This implies the necessity to address the specific needs of persons with learning difficulties and to accordingly adapt instructional methods.

  • Fletcher, Jack M. 2012. Classification and identification of learning disabilities. In Learning about learning disabilities. 4th ed. Edited by Bernice Wong and Deborah L. Butler, 1–26. London: Academic Press.

    Defines inclusionary and exclusionary criteria for classifying learning disorders. Reflects neurological, cognitive, and instructional models and discusses limitations of current diagnosis.

  • Fuchs, L. S., D. Fuchs, and D. L. Speece. 2002. Treatment validity as a unifying construct for identifying learning disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly 25:33–45.

    DOI: 10.2307/1511189

    Introduces a double discrepancy definition from a response to intervention point of view: The authors argue that learning disability may not only be seen as poor academic performance, but as an inability to respond to instruction.

  • Hinshelwood, J. 1895. Word-blindness and visual memory. The Lancet 2:1564–1570.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(01)98764-1

    Case study of an adult with acquired dyslexia. Hinshelwood referred to prior work of different researchers to coin the term word blindness. Hinshelwood continued to work in this field for decades and his papers exerted a considerable influence on the early educational research.

  • International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-10-GM).

    International standard diagnostic and classification manual. Describes mental and behavioral disorders (chapter F) and among these defines “specific developmental disorders of scholastic skills” (p. F81).

  • Morgan, W. P. 1896. A case of congenital word blindness. British Medical Journal 2 (November): 1378.

    DOI: 10.1136/bmj.2.1871.1378

    One of the first cases of developmental dyslexia, described by a British ophthalmologist and inspired by the publication of Hinshelwood 1895. Hypothesizes, that the isolated impairment to acquire reading and spelling may be due to a congenital disability.

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