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Learning Disability or Curriculum Disability?

Nature vs. Nurture

Image of a clay brain with each color representing a different region of the brain.

What is the difference between a learning disability, a curriculum disability, and instructional confusion?  Some of these terms may be familiar to you, while others may not. This was one of our very first blog posts.  It is still quite relevant today, which is why we’d like to revisit the term curriculum disability and introduce a potentially new term. In recent discussions with our fabulous colleague, she raised the issue of what she described as ‘instructional confusion’. 

When analyzing student progress (or lack thereof), it’s important to consider what’s impeding progress. Is it a learning disability, a curriculum disability and/or instructional confusion?  Let us explain.

A learning disability is caused by internal forces (nature) whereas a curriculum disability or instructional confusion are caused by external forces (nurture).  

Tell me more about learning disabilities.

Learning disabilities fall into several broad categories: reading, written language, receptive and/or expressive language (listening and speaking), and mathematics.  When a student’s achievement is significantly below expected learning outcomes, it can be an indication of a learning 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.

Tell me more about a curriculum disability.

A curriculum disability occurs when there is an instructional gap preventing students from accessing their true ability.

A classic example of a curriculum disability is at the crux of the reading wars.  Students who are capable, but struggle to read, may have been taught to use the ineffective, harmful method of MSV or ‘guessing and checking’.  As the text gets more complex, students who appeared to be able readers in the early grades, may begin to struggle.  This often occurs when students enter Grade 3 as they encounter more complex texts with less picture support and more advanced vocabulary. Their skills do not match curricular expectations.

Another example is requiring students to write a written response to a question without proper instruction in the underlying skills.  The curriculum demands that students respond in complete sentences. However, students may only give one-word responses because they have not received explicit instruction in constructing grammatically correct sentences. This does not mean they CAN’T write a complete written response. It means they have not been taught HOW to write a written response.  It’s the curriculum that falls short, not the student.  Hence the term, curriculum disability.

What is instructional confusion? 

Shout out to our colleague for introducing us to this term. Thanks Sharon!  

A perfect example of instructional confusion in the classroom is giving students too many graphic organizers for the same skill. They get stuck deciding which graphic organizer to use. The emphasis for the student becomes ‘which one should I use’ rather than the ultimate goal of organizing and writing content.  

Google search with over 7 million results for 'images of main idea graphic organizers'.
A quick Google search of ‘main idea graphic organizer’ returned over 7 MILLION results.

How can receiving tiered intervention cause instructional confusion?

Instructional confusion can become even more pronounced within the tiers of instruction. Let’s first define the tiers. This model may vary slightly from district to district. 

  • Tier 1: Universal or core instruction delivered by the classroom teacher.
  • Tier 2: Targeted or strategic instruction/intervention delivered by the classroom teacher and/or the interventionist.
  • Tier 3: Intensive instruction and intervention delivered by the interventionist and/or the special education teacher.

Align the tiers of instruction. Here’s a true story. Years ago, when balanced literacy was in full effect, I was working with one of my kindergarten intervention students. Before the session ended, I closed the lesson with a reminder to use the successive blending strategy in his classroom when he got stuck on a word. His sincere response was as follows:  “OHHH, so you want me to use THIS in my classroom too?!?” 

Imagine how much more effective this instruction would have been if the classroom teacher was also reinforcing the use of successive blending. This student is not an anomaly. This is a common occurrence when tiered instruction is not cohesive.

What happens when the tiers of instruction oppose one another?

If the classroom teacher is using a balanced literacy approach and encouraging students to use MSV, but the reading intervention teacher is using a structured literacy approach, students can easily become confused.  On the one hand, the classroom teacher instructs them to look at the picture and think about what makes sense. However, on the other hand, the interventionist tells them not to guess and to use the code of reading.  This inevitably causes confusion and hinders reading progress.

How do I know whether the problem is because of a learning disability or a curriculum disability?

First, it is important for teachers to analyze their 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, 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-assessment 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, it is important to give student 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, evaluate student progress. Improvement, or response to instruction, indicates the curriculum disability has been addressed. If the student continues to struggle, further analysis may be necessary.

How do I use this information to reflect on student progress?

Think about a student you instruct who exhibits difficulty learning. Does the student struggle with particular skills or concepts? What are the contributing factors surrounding the student’s difficulties? Is it a case of nature (the student’s inherent abilities) 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 or instructional confusion.

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

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

  • Is the curriculum meeting the learner’s needs?
  • Are the tiers of intervention aligned?
  • What can we do to help facilitate learning?
  • What adjustments should be made to address learning concerns?

In order to move students forward, we must engage in these critical conversations. We are in no way promoting a ‘wait and see’ approach. Time is of the essence. Ask and answer these questions at the onset of struggle.  Then take action without delay.

Be sure to reach out to us on Instagram and DM us with any questions.


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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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