Off Track: When Poor Readers Become "Learning Disabled"

Off Track: When Poor Readers Become "Learning Disabled"

Off Track: When Poor Readers Become "Learning Disabled"

Off Track: When Poor Readers Become "Learning Disabled"


"There is no more definitive, and readable, account of why we have witnessed a huge increase of reading-disabled studentsand why we are mostly wrong in framing this and many other academic problems as a disability. Spear-Swerling and Sternberg masterfully demonstrate the disconnects between scientific evidence about poor reading and the views pushed by large parts of the learning disabiliyt industry. . . . A must-read for educators and a should-read for everyone interested in education".Albert Shanker, President, American Federation of Teachers.


In the 1950s, when each of the coauthors started elementary school, there were few children with "reading disability." Of course, then as now, there were all too many children who were poor readers, children whose reading was unexpected in that it could not be accounted for by obvious causes of poor reading, such as mental retardation, hearing or visual impairment, or lack of opportunity for schooling. However, in the 1950s, these poor readers generally were assumed to be either lazy or what was euphemistically called "slow."

In the 1990s, we view the same children through a very different--but unfortunately equally flawed--lens. In the context of learning disabilities, specifically that of reading disability or dyslexia, these poor readers are seen as having a specific disability in learning to read. This disability is assumed to be biological in origin but not to be caused by a lack of motivation to learn or by low intelligence. Indeed, the centerpiece of educational definitions of reading disability is the assumption of a discrepancy between potential for learning, typically measured by means of an IQ test, and actual achievement in reading. In the past thirty years, the numbers of children classified as having reading and other disabilities have grown at a rapid pace. These children now constitute the largest category of youngsters who are receiving special-education services in American schools (Torgesen 1991; U. S. Department of Education, 1991).

Genuine, serious difficulties in learning to read certainly do exist and probably always have. Most educators truly want to help children who have problems in learning to read. In our opinion, however, one of the biggest impediments to helping children with serious reading difficulties is the current tendency of many educators to conceptualize these difficulties in the context of reading disability.

In this book, we advocate another way of thinking about the cognitive difficulties of individuals who have been characterized as having reading disability. In this alternative view, what is important is not the presence of a potential-achievement discrepancy but, rather, the underlying cognitive profile of the poor reader. This, in turn, can be interpreted only by reference to the cognitive profiles of normally achieving readers--that is, to the processes involved in typical reading development. We view children with reading disability as having strayed from the path of typical reading development--as having veered off track--at certain predictable points. This view of children's reading difficulties . . .

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