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Specific Learning Difficulty (SLD) in Reading Comprehension

By Inderbir Kaur Sandhu, Ph.D

Q: I have just received a psychological on a student identified as Specific Learning Difficulty (SLD) in reading comprehension only. His scores are as follows: Verbal Comprehension (110), Perceptual Reasoning (82) Working Memory (102) Processing Speed (85 ) Processing Speed (85) Full Scale IQ (94) All WJ-III scores are within the average range - the lowest being 85 - which was in Reading Fluency. I am concerned about the point scatter between Verbal Comprehension and Perceptual Reasoning. What is this indicative of? The last psychological testing was done when this child was in first grade. Decision was made at that time to identify him as SLD because of a discrepancy between cognitive ability and reading comprehension. This child is now in sixth grade.

A: Specific Learning Disability (SLD) is generally defined as a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using spoken or written language. This may manifest itself in problems and ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations. It includes conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. However, it DOES NOT apply to students who have learning difficulties that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities; cognitive disability; emotional disturbance; environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage. Determination of SLD requires an analysis of Cognitive and/or Language processing assessment. Therefore, usually the WISC-IV (Verbal comprehension, Perceptual reasoning, Working memory, Processing speed) and the WJ-III - Cog (Verbal Ability, Thinking Ability, Cognitive Efficiency, Phonemic Awareness, Working Memory) are used.

There is a concern that SLD may not be solely a reading achievement problem and that other achievement areas may be deficient, especially math disabilities. Having said that, a large proportion of students with SLD will manifest difficulties in reading. In terms of IQ, a student demonstrating a discrepancy between IQ and reading ability may be different because s/he may be properly termed as an “underachiever” and which indicates a primary feature of SLD.

If below average achievement level is indicated, the discrepancy indicates the presence of underachievement and a possible disability. However, even though the discrepancy concept is valid across IQ ranges, SLD should be associated only with significantly below average achievement levels. So, I am not sure about the decision to place the child as having SLD and can understand your concern. You may want to bring up this matter to the school.

The Perceptual Reasoning score appears to be below the base rate (according to the WISC-IV) which indicates evidence of a cognitive processing weakness in the area of Perceptual Reasoning. However, to be diagnosed as having SLD, the verbal comprehension is expected to be low. In fact, there have been debates and inconclusive research findings in terms of the relationship between IQ and reading. Some studies have rejected a measure like verbal intelligence because of its overlapping variance with reading, whereas others showed that one of the best predictors of reading achievement was the Verbal Comprehension factor scores from the WISC-III. Therefore, the best suggestion is to get the school to review the student’s score report by looking into specific areas of strengths and weaknesses to determine if indeed the child has SLD. Best of luck.


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