Around 4 per cent of Australian students have a learning disability caused by a neurological disorder, rather than intellectual impairment, and present with varying degrees of unexpected under-achievement in one or more areas of literacy; reading, spelling or writing, and/or numeracy, 80 per cent of whom struggle reading.
In Tasmania, that equates to 4,360 students.
Neurological disorders present as persistent and long-lasting learning impairments which require educational support needs extending beyond those normally addressed by classroom teachers under differentiated teaching practices, governed by the reasonable adjustments framework within the Disability Standards for Education 2005.
In Australia, there is no clear definition of learning disabilities which has implications for policy development, resourcing and effective teaching practices.
This lack of definition and understanding originated from a 1979 report by the Australian House of Representatives Select Committee on Specific Learning Difficulties which determined there was insufficient evidence that learning difficulties experienced by students were intrinsic in origin, a requirement for the use of the term disabilities. The committee therefore recommended the use of the term ‘learning difficulties’ to refer to students who experience difficulties in reading, spelling, writing and/or mathematics despite a terminological difference between ‘experiencing learning difficulties and having learning disabilities’, and without regard for a specific diagnosis (Elkins, 2007).
Even so, the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, which is designed to protect people with disability from discrimination in access to education, includes in its definition of disability ‘a disorder or malfunction that results in the person learning differently from a person without the disorder or malfunction’. More recently, significant advancements in cognitive science research have contributed to expanding the understanding of the cognitive processes of learning and the underlying causes of learning disabilities. A contemporary definition has since been proposed, ‘learning disabilities should be viewed a subset of learning difficulties that are neurological in origin, permanent in nature and resistant to intervention and not the result of below average intelligence, English as a second language (ESL), sensory impairment, emotional or behaviour problems, economic disadvantage and inadequate or inappropriate teaching’.
In Australia, the lack of evidence for effective invention for those with learning disabilities may be attributable to a number of factors. There is a growing body of evidence which finds the intervention programs used for those with learning difficulties are ineffective. Several evaluations of the predominate program for reading difficulties in Australia, Reading Recovery, found no evidence for positive effects on children’s reading achievement over the long term, and a negative impact in the medium term. Further, a review of 20 intervention programs used in Australia by Dr Kate de Bruin for Catholic Education Melbourne found that only one program had a large and robust evidence base supporting its use, seven programs were either ineffective or unsupported by sufficient evidence to produce the desired outcomes and that eight interventions incorporated inefficient instructional practices (either completely or partially) which are not aligned with the consistent research findings about the best ways to teach literacy.
An alternative to differentiation at the individual level is the whole-class Response to Intervention (RTI) model. A multi-tiered model of instruction based on need, RTI aims to improve educational outcomes for all students through the early identification of students who require additional support and to direct appropriate resourcing and intensity of instruction to meet the educational needs of the student. The RTI model also enables the identification of students with learning disabilities, before they fail. Tiers of instructional approaches operationalise the RTI model, supported by on-going screening and progress monitoring assessment. Beginning with whole-class core instruction which meets the needs of at least 80 per cent of the class (Tier 1), RTI then increases instructional intensity for students whose screening data identifies they are below expected benchmarks. Tier 2 interventions supplement Tier 1 core instruction with the aim that the support is targeted to specific areas of skill, usually in small groups, to support learning progress and return the student/s to Tier 1. Tier 3 intervention is provided to those students who do not respond to Tier 2 intervention, and require individualised support with an appropriately qualified educator, typically one-to-one with high levels of intensity and frequency. Critically, the RTI model is only effective if Tier 1 instruction provides for a strong foundation of evidence-based teaching instruction, otherwise too many students require the resource intensive interventions at Tiers 2 or 3.
All students with learning disabilities have the right to access the curriculum at the same level as their peers. Given students with learning disabilities have an underlying neurological disorder impacting their cognitive processes, the key to supporting them achieve their educational potential is through evidence-based practice. Structured literacy refers to the content and methods or principles of instruction for teaching how to read, write and use language in an explicit, systematic and cumulative manner. Structured literacy includes; phonological awareness – particularly phonemic awareness, (systematic, synthetic) phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension, as well as oral language. This works best within a whole-class RTI model with strong Tier 1 instruction, as it provides for regular screening and progress monitoring to inform evidence-based teaching practices and required intervention and intensity for all students.
An edited version of this Opinion Piece was published in the Mercury on 23 June 2021.