Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Learning Difficulties/disabilities in Literacy

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Learning Difficulties/disabilities in Literacy

Article excerpt

Concern about students who experience problems in learning to read and write is widespread in Australia. Although such concern is not new (Cadman 1996), it has been more keenly felt since Australian schools have been asked by governments to be more accountable for the literacy achievements of all students. For example, the Commonwealth Government recently funded a study of literacy and numeracy in primary school students with learning difficulties (Louden et al. 2000). In this introductory paper, I will give a brief history of the field usually known in Australia as learning difficulties, though internationally the most common label used is learning disabilities.

In the United States during the 1960s, clinicians and researchers from disciplines such as psychology, special education and medicine became aware of students who had extreme difficulty in learning to read. Initially terms like dyslexia, minimal brain damage, minimal cerebral dysfunction were used to describe students who did not appear to have any impairment, but who struggled to learn to read and spell. In order to shift attention to the students' educational needs, the term learning disabilities was adopted, and it soon came to stand for students with a multitude of other problems as can be seen in the following early definition.

 
   Specific learning disability means 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 an imperfect ability to 
   listen, think, speak, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations. The 
   term includes such conditions as perceptual handicaps, brain injury, 
   minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. The term 
   does not include children who have learning problems, which are primarily 
   the result of visual, hearing, or motor handicaps, of mental retardation, 
   of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural or economic 
   disadvantage. (United States Office of Education 1977, p. 65-83) 

The definition of the term learning disabilities is generally regarded as problematic, since it identifies learning disabilities as problems that cannot be attributed to causes such as limited school attendance, low intelligence or emotional disturbance. In effect, it is definition by exclusion. Over the years the definition of learning disabilities has been `tinkered with' by, for example, the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities in the USA. This committee has tried to balance the professional perspectives (interests) of special educators, speech language pathologists, reading specialists, paediatricians etc.

With the formation of organisations such as the Association for Children with Learning Disabilities, and a Division for Learning Disabilities within the Council for Exceptional Children, learning disabilities became a recognised area within special education. The American learning disabilities movement has been very influential in Australia. Parent groups formed in each state, and linked together nationally as AUSPELD. By the mid 1970s, AUSPELD had created considerable public awareness about the needs of students who were experiencing difficulties in acquiring basic skills, especially in literacy. AUSPELD lobbied the Australian House of Representatives to hold an inquiry into all aspects of learning difficulties. The report of the Select Committee of the House of Representatives (Cadman 1976) took a strong stand on terminology, mainly because its members were unconvinced that the difficulties experienced by students were usually of constitutional origin, which would justify the use of the term disabilities. Thus the Committee recommended the use of the term learning difficulties, leaving open the possibility that some students may have mild neurological impairments that contribute to their difficulties in learning. …

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