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Learning Disability or Curriculum Disability?

Nature vs. Nurture

Think about a student you have instructed who exhibits difficulty learning. Even after the unit has been taught, the student continues to struggle with the skills and/or information. You might question the contributing factors surrounding the student’s difficulties. Is it a case of nature (the student’s inherent Curriculum Disability vs Learning Disabilityabilities) or nurture

(the instruction to which the child has been exposed)? It is important to understand that lack of progress does not always indicate an underlying learning disability. It could be the result of a curriculum disability.

LDOnline defines a learning disability as follows:

A learning disability is a neurological disorder. In simple terms, a learning disability results from a difference in the way a person’s brain is “wired.” Children with learning disabilities are as smart or smarter than their peers. But they may have difficulty reading, writing, spelling, reasoning, recalling and/or organizing information if left to figure things out by themselves or if taught in conventional ways.

In contrast, a curriculum disability occurs when there is an instructional gap preventing students from accessing their true ability.

While learning disabilities cannot be “cured,” curriculum disabilities can be resolved with thoughtful analysis of students’ needs and responsive instruction.

Let’s use written response as an example. If a student exhibits difficulty, before assuming there is a learning disability, the teacher must analyze previous instruction. Was the student taught the specific steps of creating a comprehensive written response (i.e. Turn the Question Around (TTQA), citing text evidence, closing the response)? The answers to this question will guide the next steps.

If the student was never provided with explicit instruction in written response, this is an example of a curriculum disability. The next logical step is to identify what the student has mastered and identify instructional gaps. A well-constructed pre-assessment (or careful analysis of student work) would provide insight on where to begin. Upon reviewing the pre-Curriculums Disability vs Learning Disability Bullseyeassessment and/or student work, one might ask:

  • Does the difficulty lie in TTQA?
  • Is the student struggling with citing evidence?
  • Does the student close his response appropriately?

After the areas of weakness are pinpointed, students must be given ample instruction and opportunities to practice the finite skills. For example, if the student struggles with TTQA the teacher must decide which aspect of TTQA is causing difficulty.

  • Can they identify the question?
  • Can they TTQA orally or does writing present a challenge?

Having determined the area of weakness, the [informed] teacher must back it up and begin instruction with what the student already knows. After instruction has been provided with fidelity, progress should be evaluated. If the student has responded to instruction, this indicates a curriculum disability that has been addressed. If the student continues to struggle, further analysis may be necessary.

We have all encountered students who struggle. While we don’t want to disregard a true learning disability, it is important for teachers to explore the possibility of a curriculum disability by asking:

  • Is the curriculum meeting the learner’s needs?
  • What can we as teachers do to help facilitate learning?
  • Is there something we should do differently to address learning concerns?


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  1. “Explore the possibility of a curriculum disability before immediately assuming there is an underlying learning disability. We must ask ourselves what we can do differently to reach these students.” I 100% agree with you on this one! I think this is true for students who are naughty in the classroom – is it because they are just a naughty child, or is there a curriculum disability – do they understand the instructions, do they have the tools they need to do the activity, is the activity engaging? We, as teachers, need to look at our own delivery and teaching first!

  2. This was very informative. I teach two ICT classes and sadly leave most of the IEP stuff to the special e d teacher. They tell me but I don’t really look into it. Now I have a better understanding and know what kind of questions to ask.

  3. Such a great, informative blog post. It reminds me of the quote you always see floating around “If they can’t learn the way we teach, we need to teach the way they learn.”

    Thanks for sharing

  4. I have cared for many children that struggled with learning and I was often told they were ‘lazy’ or something similar. Thanks for finding a new way to look at teaching students with special needs and for putting the focus back on changing the teaching strategies rather than blaming the child.

  5. Belinda, thanks for sharing your experience. We agree. It is our job to find a way to reach our students.

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