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Specific Learning Disability

What Is Specific Learning Disability (SLD)?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines SLD as “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or perform mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. The term does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, cognitive disabilities, emotional disturbance, or environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.”

This general definition of SLD has been part of federal special education regulation since 1977 and is mirrored in Wisconsin rules at Wis. Admin. Code, § PI 11.06. LEAs (local education agencies) use criteria to determine whether a student has the impairment of SLD. The diagnostic labels listed in the general definition include those historically used to describe conditions similar to the educational definition of SLD. Many of these terms are no longer used. Students with non-educational diagnoses, such as those listed, may be considered for eligibility under IDEA but must meet Wisconsin eligibility criteria for the “impairment” of SLD (or another impairment) and demonstrate a “need for special education” as a result of that impairment prior to being identified as a student with a disability (Source: WI Department of Public Instruction FAQ).

On November 4, 2013, the state of Wisconsin changed the eligibility criteria for SLD requiring districts to use data from RtI to determine a student's eligibility for SLD. TWO scientific research-based interventions (SRBIs) must be done for each  area of academic concern with the student. An SRBI is an intervention in which the effects have been studied and found to be successful; it provides a substantial number of instructional minutes beyond what is provided to all students and must be implemented with fidelity, which means it must be applied in a manner highly consistent with its design and implemented at least 80% of the recommended number of minutes, weeks, and sessions.  Once a student receives two SRBIs in each area of academic concern, the following three criteria are considered:

  • Was there inadequate classroom achievement (academic skills are 1.25 standard deviation below mean — standard score of 81 or below)?

  • Insufficient progress (students progress is same or less compared to same-age peers, or the progress is greater but won't reach average within a reasonable amount of time, or progress is greater but the intensity of resources necessary to obtain this rate of progress cannot be maintained in regular education)

  • May not identify a student if achievement or progress is primarily due to exclusionary factors (environmental or economic disadvantage, cultural factors, lack of appropriate instruction, limited English proficiency, or other impairments)

Students Being Evaluated for a Specific Learning Disability (SLD)

There are eight potential areas of a specific learning disability (below), and students must be progress monitored on a weekly basis (with an approved progress monitoring tool) at grade level. 

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  Basic Reading Skills

Basic reading skills include phonemic awareness, sight word recognition, phonics, and word analysis. Essential skills include identification of individual sounds and the ability to manipulate them, and identification of print.

  Reading Fluency

Reading fluency refers to the ability to read words accurately, using age-appropriate chunking strategies and a repertoire of “sight” words, and with appropriate phrasing and expression (prosody). Reading fluency facilitates reading comprehension.  

  Reading Comprehension

Reading comprehension refers to the ability to understand and make meaning of written text and includes a multifaceted set of skills. Reading comprehension is influenced by oral language development, including new vocabulary acquisition, listening comprehension, working memory, application of comprehension monitoring strategies, and understanding of text structure including titles, paragraphing, illustrations, and other details. Reading comprehension is significantly affected by basic reading skills. 

  Mathematical Calculation

Mathematical calculation is the knowledge and retrieval of mathematical facts and the application of procedural knowledge in computation.

  Mathematical Problem Solving

Mathematical problem solving is the ability to use decision-making skills to apply mathematical concepts and understandings to real-world situations. It is the functional combination of computation knowledge and application knowledge, and it involves the use of mathematical computation skills and fluency, language, reasoning, reading, and visual-spatial skills in solving problems. Essentially, it is applying mathematical knowledge at the conceptual level.

  Written Expression

Written expression is the communication of ideas, thoughts, and feelings and involves two separate components: composition, or the generation of ideas, and the written production of handwriting and spelling. Required skills include using oral language, thought, grammar, text fluency, sentence construction and planning, and execution of the writing process. Spelling difficulties alone cannot be considered to represent a specific learning disability in written expression.

  Oral Expression

Oral expression is the ability to convey wants, needs, thoughts, and ideas in a meaningful way using appropriate syntactic, pragmatic, semantic, and phonological language structures. It relates to a student’s ability to express ideas, explain thinking, retell stories, categorize, and compare and contrast concepts or ideas, make references, and problem solve verbally.  

  Listening Comprehension

Listening comprehension refers to the understanding of the implications and explicit meanings of words and sentences of spoken language. This includes following directions, comprehending questions, and listening and comprehending in order to learn (auditory attention, auditory memory, and auditory perception). Listening comprehension also includes the ability to make connections to previous learning.


Director of the Department of Research, Assessment, and Data:

Dr. Melanie Stewart
Phone: 414-475-8751


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