Literacy and Numeracy have become our civilization’s scholastic ideals.

The last decades have been a period of violently ardent and uncontrollably fervent behaviors rampaging toward “literacy first.” This aspiration is virtually worldwide and in the United States--- a state, city, and town initiative. Need for speed to read, write, and calculate have become our culture’s call of duty.

Academics, scholastics, intellectuals, and those standing back while reflecting have felt a biomental blowback of shock. Making sense of this educational frenzy in learning abilities and disabilities strains one’s stress accommodation.

This article will make vague ideas about learning and its difficulties more transparent and understandable. Understanding empowers you as an adult and a guide for your child.

Biomental individuality asserts learning occurs in countless forms in each person and among different individuals of different cultures. This article will survey briefly both the heartland and borders edging learning, literacy, and interventions to help.

All styles of learning both typical and atypical (e.g., “learning difficulties”) benefit immensely from purposive, motivated engagement---learning by doing: actively performing goals of learning in real time.


Learning involves the biomental process of gaining new or changing and reinforcing existing knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, and preferences. This activity leads to biomental expansion. Synthesizing information, depth of the knowledge, attitudes or behavior about the range of one’s experience reconfigure through learning. All this is not linear; rather it occurs over time in a multiply concentric, iterative fashion.

Progress over time follows a learning curve. Learning does not happen all at once; it builds upon and shapes itself by previous knowledge. Learning is a dynamic, interactive process, rather than a collection of factual and procedural (i.e., “how to”) knowledge. Learning produces changes that are relatively permanent.

Human learning may occur as part of education, personal development, schooling, or training. Motivation intensifies learning. Learning may occur because of habit or classical conditioning, seen in many animal species, or because of more complex activities such as play. Learning may occur consciously or without conscious awareness.

Learning is the basis of literacy: reading, writing, and mathematics. Reading, writing, spelling, and performing mathematical calculations have to be learned. Each human culture has its distinctive culturally meaningful and constructed symbols. Symbols in mind are cultural representations of reality. Every culture has its own set of symbols associated with different experiences and perceptions. Thus, as a representation, a symbol's meaning is neither instinctive nor automatic. The culture's members must interpret and over time reinterpret the symbol, giving it a specific meaning.

The meaning of a symbol is not inherent in the symbol itself but is culturally learned. Symbolic culture is the ability to learn and transmit behavioral traditions from one generation to the next by the invention of things that exist entirely in the symbolic realm. “Symbolic culture” is the cultural realm constructed and inhabited uniquely by human beings.

Symbolic culture is a domain of objective facts whose existence depends, paradoxically, on collective belief. A currency system (e.g., sign: concrete money linked to symbolic value: monetary worth) exists only as long as people continue to have faith in it. When confidence in monetary facts collapses, the facts themselves suddenly disappear.

The concept of symbolic culture emphasizes the way in which distinctively human culture mediates itself through signs (e.g., visual letters, marks, drawings, pictures, gestures, and language) and concepts (e.g., the mental meaning a culture agrees to map onto that sign).

The process of learning to read entails becoming skilled at mapping the symbols of one’s writing system (i.e., orthography) onto the sounds they represent in the language (i.e., phonology). Comprehending the printed word and the spoken word thus becomes meaningful (i.e., semantics) to each member of that particular culture.

Literacy thus involves three cognitive domains: orthography, phonology, and semantics. Decoding skills include interpreting graphic symbols of a language---abstractly comprehending the concretely written word with its equivalent in spoken language.

Learning Difficulties

Learning disorders may be (1) global or (2) specific. In the DSM-5, both conditions are “neurodevelopmental” disorders: their onset occurs anytime from birth through about age six years, and they involve biological origins stemming from the interactions among genetic, epigenetic and environmental factors.

1.    Global Learning Disorders

Global learning disorders, termed “intellectual disabilities” in DSM-5, formerly called “mental retardation,” involves measurably reduced cognitive capacity that is significantly sub-average or typically two standard deviations below standardized testing norms for age and contextual variations. Such a global frame of reference takes into consideration both the conceptual functioning of mental abilities (e.g., intellectual academic IQ profiles) and adaptive behavior performance in social, practical areas (e.g., communication, self-care, social skills, work, leisure, and understanding of safety---health literacy) at home and in the community.

Substantial intellectual disabilities can reflect a functional interaction between the individual and the environment, rather than a static designation of a person’s limitations. This condition is generally lifelong, although severity levels may change over time. Global constraints have a global impact on both learning and adaptive functioning in everyday life.

The pervasiveness of global intellectual disabilities is in contrast to Specific Learning Disorders (SLDs). SLDs involve at least average intellectual capacity yet show difficulties in one or more academic areas. At the same time, those with SLDs cope well or even excel in other areas of academic, sports, artistic achievements, and adaptive activities of daily living.

2.    Specific Learning Disorders

Specific learning disorders (SLDs) involve less pervasive problems in all forms of learning. The individual’s performance of the specifically affected skills is well below average for age; acceptable performance levels may be achieved only with extraordinary effort.

SLDs are restricted to marked and persistent difficulties in learning and using one’s contextual academic skills---one’s cultural symbol system of letters, characters, and numbers. This acquiring and performing is the area termed “literacy”—reading, writing, and mathematics. Literacy is typically a social-cultural expression embedded in a group’s school system and values.

Reading disorders involve word reading accuracy, reading rate or fluency, and comprehension. Written expression includes accuracy in spelling, grammar and punctuation, and clear, organized written expression. Mathematics impairments involve number sense, memorization of arithmetic facts, accurate calculation, and math reasoning.

Specific learning disabilities often occur in more than one area (e.g., reading plus writing disorders). Thus, one could view all academic abilities and their impairments as an assembly of learning processes inside a family of resemblances. Put differently, each is so interconnected that it may be imprecise to think of any SLD as a discrete “essence” or circumscribed monolithic condition. Learning disabilities express themselves as individualized versions of learning difficulties---all different and unique to the particular individual.

“Prevalence” is the proportion of a population who have (or had) a particular characteristic in a given period. The prevalence of SLDs across the academic domains of reading, writing, and mathematics is 5% to 15% among school-age children across different languages and cultures; in adults, it is inferred to be approximately 4%.

SLDs appear to be persistent and long-lasting. In the specific area of difficulty, ways of information processing early in childhood become lodged as a habit in memory---one’s biomental, information technology neurocircuitry. These less than workable routines become ways of perceiving and conceiving information and are resistant to change.

Specific learning disorders (SLDs), also called “learning disabilities,” are recognized in psychiatry’s DSM-5 as clinical conditions and also in school systems as “exceptionalities,” i.e., special education needs. These constructs or ranges of ideas are comparable though not identical in their definition and nuanced details.

Good literacy for reading, writing, and number calculations (“numeracy”) is described as being fluent, neither labored nor unduly effortful. Specific learning disorders represent the extreme bottom end of the normal distribution of culturally gained academic learning skills rather than a discrete categorical entity. These conditions can produce lifelong impairments in activities on the skills dependent on them.

Inattention is the strongest link between ADHD (a significant performance deficit) and SLD (a major academic learning impairment) (e.g., 20-45% comorbidity/simultaneous presence).

Assessment and Interventions for SLDs

1.    Assessment

"Specific learning disorder" is a clinical diagnosis based on a comprehensive range of multiple evaluations. Global intellectual disabilities, visual and auditory problems, neurological, physical, and mental disorders need to be ruled out. Also, adversity and lack of access to adequate educational instruction are not primary concerns.

Underlying specific learning disabilities in reading, writing, and mathematics often suggest more central processing cognitive deficits. Neuropsychological testing may aid in identifying impairments in memory (visual, auditory, or both), visual-motor integration, visual perception, processing speed, abstract concept formation, sequential processing, or auditory processing. Also, some experts have suggested that if a child positively responds to concentrated academic interventions, this may indicate that a learning disability is in the process of remediation.

Psychometric testing, such as intelligence tests and tests of scholastic achievement, is part of a broad assessment process needed to validly determine learning disabilities and formulate an “Individualized Educational Program” (IEP). IEPs are customized to a student’s specific needs and provide full individualized interventions in a formal, written document reviewed several times a year and comprehensively every three years.

A combined assessment approach to identifying and remediating disorders of learning may be best. Components of this process would include tests of cognitive functions, tests of scholastic achievement, response to intervention (RTI) and scientifically research-based interventions (SRBI), and curriculum-based measurements (CBMs; sometimes called curriculum-based assessment or CMA). CBMs are teacher’s short-term or weekly measurements using direct observation and recording, often with visual graphs, of curriculum (reading, writing, mathematics) instruction with students. This direct assessment using tests of academic subjects reflects a mastery and includes measures of speed, proficiency, and accuracy. Results of all assessment strategies show the degree of response to interventions, and decisions to continue, change, or stop them.

The above reflects two important approaches to identify SLDs:

(1) unexpected discrepancies in the individual’s achievement compared to the population mean for chronological age and

(2) consideration of the individual’s response to interventions.

When mild or brief difficulties are identified, schools may offer a school district service plan addressing these transient problems in a general manner in a regular classroom. Students who have a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activity---such as an SLD--- qualify for a “504 Plan” or a more intensive “Individualized Educational Program” (IEP). SLD comprises academic achievement well below average and showing impairment resulting from learning difficulties.

2.    Effective Interventions for Success

Well-balanced intervention plans consider and address all relevant sectors of a child’s life. No medication increases intelligence or remedies learning difficulties. The myth of “smart drugs” is, in fact, “myth.” Attending to basic good health through exercise and a balanced diet that includes water, fresh fruits, and vegetables with color (e.g., containing antioxidant polyphenols {broccoli, eggplant, blueberries, etc.} provides a platform for general well-being. Also, limiting phone, screen and Internet time and exposure to safe sites are advisable.


If an academic or emotional disability is found to limit a student's classroom performance substantially, a 504 plan may be constructed. Typically, regular education staff may make classroom changes that accommodate a student to complete established curriculum expectations. Such a 504 plan is reviewed yearly. When a student’s difficulties with learning appear more substantial, a formalized special education process to identify and introduce more intensive remediation (e.g., curriculum modifications) is considered through an IEP.

National special education services have introduced the concept of “increasing capacity,” which denotes the attempt to unify special with general education and to help schools build their capacity to meet the needs of all students. Procedures included in this venture are (1) response to intervention (RTI) and (2) scientifically research-based interventions (SRBI) used for assessment, diagnosis, and remediation.

RTI provides intensive interventions focused on areas of underachievement and carefully measures academic progress over two to five months. SRBI is a current process used to assess intervention responses through scientific research validly.

The content of remedial educational programs must be individualized to the student’s needs. Embedded within this, active learning strategies that engage knowledge, knacks, and attitudes are educational intensives. Intensive instruction in the specific area of academic difficulty is primary. Also, study skill strategies such as active reading, highlighting, making margin notes, learning new vocabulary, making summaries, and note taking skills are offered.

“Accommodations” address how a student learns the same material as other classmates. These less intense classroom changes may include using assistive technology such as spell-checker, hearing audio recordings of a text, etc. Having students sit closer to the front of the class or near to the teacher, testing in a small group, and taking planned breaks are also accommodations to learning.

“Modifications” address what a student is taught and expected to learn. Modifications may involve changing curriculums, giving less material, and tasks that are less complex. IEPs typically carefully decide, along with families, what may best modify learning programs to optimize results.

Source: WikiCommons:ws/2007/10/09/cone-of-experience-media

Take Home Message

All styles of learning both fluent and “learning difficulties” benefit immensely from purposive, motivated interpersonal engagement.

The cone of experience and learning shown above only suggests approximate percentages regarding how learning imprints itself. Put simply, the bottom of the pyramid shows that more "concrete," "hands on" experience may be much more effective for substantial learning to occur.

Influencing learning means establishing a personal relationship in the educational task. Letting the child or adult know you believe they are valuable and their lives have meaning conveys respect. Authentic connection ignites enthusiasm for improvement.

Purposive, motivated engagement---literacy learning by doing: actively performing goals of learning in real-time help students actively do things and think about doing the things they are doing. Such learning by doing amplifies knowledge and information circuitry to strengthen itself.

Many experts in the field stress this active learning over time. Literacy, for many, is hard won---rather than a genie (e.g., “pill”) in a bottle.

Motivation, enthusiasm, and emotion energize one another. My new book, Making Sense of Emotion: Innovating Emotional Intelligence, makes clear how you can harness emotion to propel intelligence. For people to optimize attention, concentration, and learning, emotions need to be in the right place---intelligently charged with enthusiasm, curiosity, perseverance, and motivation. Emotions fire-up learning.

Even without a "learning difficulty," children would learn more optimally in more engaged academic environments. For example, Maria Montessori (1870-1952), pediatrician, psychiatrist, and educator, devised her "Montessori method"  transforming learning and education in Europe for both typical and intellectually challenged children. Hers was a performance-oriented teaching achieved by actively enlisting a child's 'body-mind-emotional' engagement in an absorbing task. This "method" was seminal in many scholastic programs and its inspiration continues today---internationally.

Intense focused and explicit academic instruction may require 1 to 2 hours of daily interventions. It highlights the relevance of the task, learning through discovery, collaborative questioning, clarifying, and correcting---all are learning ability intensifiers. Focus, however, is chiefly on educational (accompanied by motivational) rather than cognitive factors in isolation. Hard work brings success.

Becoming literate has longer-term implications for major developmental and life transitions. Health literacy emerges from basic literacy. This wellness literacy involves the ability to identify and take appropriate care of oneself in addition to understanding what health providers recommend for continued well-being. "Health" literacy optimizes human performance---effectiveness and success---and catches potential mistakes, so they do not evolve into “risky incidents” or serious accidents.

Wanting to become literate is life transformative!

I wish you success!

Twitter: @constantine123A



Ninivaggi, F.J. (2017). Making Sense of Emotion: Innovating Emotional Intelligence. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Press.

Tannock, R. (2017). "Specific Learning Disorder" in Kaplan & Sadock's Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, ed. by B. Sadock, V. Sadock, & P. Ruiz. Philadelphia, PA: Wolters Klover.

Nag, S. & Snowling, M. (2012)"School Underachievement and Specific Learning Difficulties" in IACAPAP e-Textbook of Child and Adolescent Mental Health, ed: J.M.Rey. Geneva: International Association for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Allied Professions.

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