The Causes of Learning Disabilities

Successful intervention is dependent on finding the cause or causes of a problem. Most problems can only be solved if one knows their causes. A disease such as scurvy claimed the lives of thousands of seamen during their long sea voyages. The disease was cured fairly quickly once the cause was discovered, viz. a Vitamin C deficiency. A viable point of departure would therefore be to ask the question, “What causes learning disabilities?”

In the literature on learning disabilities, it is generally assumed that learning disabilities are caused by a neurological dysfunction. This theory has so far, however, been unable to produce any tangible practical results.

Another popular theory is that learning disabilities are genetically transmitted. According to an American study the risk that a child will have a reading problem is increased from four to thirteen times if one of the parents has a similar problem. This tendency for learning disabilities to “run in families” has been confirmed by numerous studies.

The tendency for learning disabilities to “run in families” does not necessarily prove, however, that a learning disability is genetically determined. The ability to speak English also runs in families, yet nobody would attribute this to genetics. We all know that a child learns to speak the language that he hears on a daily basis.

A straight line is the shortest distance between two points. However, the seemingly shortest route from one conclusion to the next is not necessarily the best — or the correct — one. It sometimes turns out that a problem may have an explanation and a solution that may seem so obvious and so simple that people tend to overlook it.

The theory below is of this nature. For its understanding one requires no specialist knowledge of the intricacies of the human brain. Decades of experience has shown that for the successful application of this theory one does not even need to have the vaguest inkling of what genetics is about.

In this theory it is not denied that the brains of learning-disabled people might be different from the non-learning disabled. In fact, it is conceded that they are. The “chicken-and-egg” problem should, however, not be overlooked: are the brain differences the cause of the learning disabilities, or is it the other way round? Furthermore, in this theory it is conceded that genes may well play a role in the origin of learning disabilities. However, we hold the optimistic view that neurological differences and negative genetics merely increase the educational responsibility of parents and teachers. A learning disability is therefore not a permanent condition. By following the correct method of instruction and with sustained practice according to this method, any person can overcome a learning disability.

The causes of learning disabilities: An alternative theory

To understand this theory on the causes of learning disabilities it is important to take note of the fact that there is nothing that any human being knows, or can do, that he has not learned. If you dump a little puppy into water, it will swim. Do the same with a human child, and it will drown. The child must learn to swim.

There is yet another, equally important fact, which is also a sine qua non towards the understanding of learning disabilities, and which has also so far been overlooked, viz. that learning is a stratified process. This is a self-evident fact, yet its significance in the situation of the learning-disabled child has apparently never been fully comprehended. Throughout the world in all educational systems it is commonly accepted that a child must start at the lower levels of education and then gradually progress to the higher levels. If human learning had not been a stratified process, if it had taken place on a single level, this would have been unnecessary. It would then not have been important to start a child in first grade. It would have been possible for the child to enter school at any level and to complete the school years in any order.

Even more astounding is that this very important principle of learning is hardly noted in any of the present-day theories on learning. In fact, when this principle of learning is mentioned, it often happens by way of an en passant reference to discarded notions from the past:

Baldwin (1896) introduced the concept of a hierarchy of senses and proposed that sense perception ability varied from person to person. As we ascend Baldwin’s pyramidal scale we find that each capability rests on, and is chronologically and psychologically dependent on, all the capabilities below it (for example imagination, which could not act but for its predecessors perception and memory). This notion of training competencies hierarchically was the premise on which perceptual training and perceptual motor training were based.

When this principle is noticed, then its significance is often distorted by reductionist thinking such as, “Cognitive abilities develop in a sequential fashion that cannot be altered,” or, “Another prerequisite for reading includes a certain level of physiological development of the brain.”

The stratified nature of learning is an age-old — but ageless — principle. This principle was already pointed out by Herbart (1776-1841), and it is based on the further principle that

One never…apprehends anything in isolation, but always in terms of one’s background of previous experience and learning. So the first consideration in properly organized learning would be to make sure that the learner had the right background (our italics).

A simpler example, which explains the stratified nature of learning, is the fact that one has to learn to count before it becomes possible to learn to add and subtract. Suppose one tried to teach a child, who had not yet learned to count, to add and subtract. This would be quite impossible and no amount of effort would ever succeed in teaching the child these skills. The child must learn to count firstbefore it becomes possible for him to learn to add and subtract. In the same way, there are things that a child must learn firstbefore it becomes possible for him to learn to read, spell, write, et cetera.

Bartoli, who says that it is “the actual practice with the real task of reading that leads to more skilful reading,” is only partially correct. “Of course,” she adds, “any soccer, tennis, or basketball coach will tell you the same thing: If you want to get better, you have to play the game — not just practice skill drills.” Now, we know very little about tennis and basketball, but I do happen to know about soccer. The game of soccer consists of many fragmented elements or skills — passing, control, shooting, dribbling, goal keeping and heading. Before any child is expected to play in a full-game situation, he should first be trained to pass, head, control, dribble and shoot the ball. In fact, until these skills have been automatised, the child will have two left feet on the soccer field.

The reading “game,” just like the game of soccer, rests upon certain skills and until these skills have become automatised, the child will have “two left eyes” in the reading situation.

Edublox is a system of mental exercises designed to teach, develop, improve and automatise the foundational skills of reading, spelling, writing and maths. Foundational skills include

  • Concentration
  • Visual, auditory and haptic perception (also called processing)
  • Short- and long-term memory (both visual and auditory)
  • Decoding and integration of information
  • Reasoning and logical thinking


Share Button

Leave a Reply

Notify of
Skip to toolbar