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Learning Disability Module


Historical Perspective

A number of sources (Hallahan & Mercer, 2001; Lerner, 2003; Torgesen, 2004) chronicle the history of learning disabilities whose origins date back to Europe in the 1800s and the medical etiology of learning problems. During what is referred to as the foundation phase (1800-1930), there was interest in functions and disorders of the brain with basic research conducted by physicians who studied adult patients who had suffered strokes, accidents, or disease (Lerner, 2003). Gall observed that behaviors exhibited by brain injured soldiers were similar to those exhibited by individuals who had academic problems due to mental impairment (Torgesen, 2004). In particular, “perseveration” behavior (the behavior of continually repeating an action) among young children with mental impairment was also observed among war veterans with head injuries. Goldstein, a physician who treated soldiers with head injuries during World War I, identified specific characteristics such as perceptual impairment (e.g., having difficulty with foreground-background discrimination) and perseveration. Werner and Strauss continued the work of Goldstein in the 1940s by extending his studies to brain-injured children (Torgesen, 2004).

One of the first terminologies used to describe LD was “word blindness,” coined by Kussmaul in 1877 to describe a host of problems observed in individuals with reading difficulties (Hallahan & Mercer, 2001). Hinshelwood, an ophthalmologist, conducted studies with children who experienced word blindness, the inability to interpret written or printed language despite normal vision. In the 1900’s, scholars in the United States, such as Samuel Kirk, Marion Monroe, Samuel Orton, and others focused on links between language/reading and processing/perceptual motor abilities. Orton, a neurologist, noted that many of the students who exhibited reading difficulties actually scored in the average range on tests of intelligence. Orton was one of the first to suggest focusing on phonics instruction for students with reading disabilities. He, Anna Gillingham, and Bessie Stillman introduced the Orton-Gillingham approach for reading instruction, a phonics-based, multi-sensory method “using the visual, auditory and kinesthetic modalities for reading-decoding and spelling instruction” (Hallahan & Mercer, 2001, p. 5). This approach continues to be used and adapted as an effective technique for addressing decoding problems.

Grace Fernald, another early leader in the field of education, also focused on a multisensory approach to reading disabilities. She emphasized the reading and writing of whole words in contrast to Orton’s phonics-based approach to sounding out letters and words. Marion Monroe introduced the concept of analyzing specific reading errors children made in order to guide reading instruction. This concept became known as diagnostic-prescriptive teaching, the process of continuing to collect assessment information in the course of teaching a student. Monroe also put forth the concept of discrepancy between ability as exhibited on standard measures of intelligence, and achievement in academic subjects, as a method for identifying a learning disability.

Most in the education field credit Samuel Kirk for coining the phrase learning disabilities. As cited in Hallahan and Mercer (2001), Kirk stated that:

A learning disability refers to a retardation, disorder, or delayed development in one or more of the processes of speech, language, reading, writing, arithmetic, or other school subjects resulting from a psychological handicap caused by a possible cerebral dysfunction and/or emotional or behavioral disturbances. It is not the result of mental retardation, sensory deprivation, or cultural and instructional factors. (1962, p. 263)


A major advance in the field came in 1969 with passage of the Children with Specific Learning Disabilities Act (PL 91-230), marking the first time the field of LD was acknowledged in federal law (Lerner, 2003). In 1975, Congress passed Public Law 94-142 (Education of All Handicapped Children Act) assuring a free, appropriate, public education to eligible children including those with LD. In 1977, the federal government introduced regulations that led to identification of LD through the ability-achievement discrepancy model, first introduced by Monroe. In other words, there had to be a significant difference between the child’s academic potential as measured by standardized tests of intelligence and the child’s academic performance in school in order for a child to be diagnosed with LD. The discrepancy model has been the predominant model used to identify students with LD. Currently, a student’s educational strengths and weaknesses are identified and assessed for the purposes of determining the existence and nature of a disability, along with the nature and amount of special education and related services that are required (Connecticut State Board of Education, 2010).



Connecticut State Department of Education. (2010). Guidelines for identifying children with learning disabilities. Retrieved from http://www.sde.ct.gov/sde/lib/sde/PDF/DEPS/Special/2010_Learning_Disabil...

Hallahan, D.P., & Mercer, C.D. (2001). Learning disabilities: Historical perspectives. Retrieved from http://www.nrcld.org/resources/ldsummit/hallahan.html

Lerner, J. W. (2003). Learning disabilities: Theories, diagnosis, and teaching strategies (9th ed.). Boston: MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Torgesen, J. K. (2004). Learning disabilities: An historical and conceptual overview. In B. Y. L. Wong (Ed.), Learning about learning disabilities (pp. 3-40). San Diego, CA: Elsevier Academic Press.


Permission is granted to copy this document for educational purposes; however, please acknowledge your source using the following citation:

UDI Online Project. (2011). Learning Disabilities (LD) Module. Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability, University of Connecticut, Storrs. http://udi.uconn.edu/index.php?q=content/learning-disability-module.