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The parent who tries to start a dialogue about their child’s reading challenges often finds that legal and medical jargon get in the way.

Parents who are accustomed to using the word “dyslexia” to describe their child’s learning disability may become confused when they hear clinicians and school officials calling it a “specific learning disability” instead.

Another source of frustration arises when the child receives a clinical diagnosis, but fails to meet school criteria for receiving federally mandated support under the IDEA Act.

It is essential for schools to communicate clearly with parents about the correct terminology for describing learning disabilities and how specific learning disabilities including dyslexia are legally defined for the purposes of determining which students will receive state-funded special education services.

Why Do We Say “Specific Learning Disability” and not “Dyslexia?”

One third of children in special education are eligible in the category of learning disabled (LD) in the United States. There is a higher percentage of students receiving services for specific learning disabilities than for any other type of disability.

Many students who are within the LD category have a reading disability.

  • The term “specific learning disability,” and not “dyslexia,” is the federal definition and states are required to use it.
  • Also, “specific learning disability” is now the vocabulary used in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-V (DSM-V) (2013) which is the clinical guideline book for medical terms.
  • Prior to 2013, the clinical term in the DSM was “dyslexia” and this diagnostic label could only be given by clinical professionals.
  • “Dyslexia” is now stated as an alternate term for “specific learning disability” in the DSM-V, but is still used frequently in diagnostic reports from clinics.

To confuse matters further, the term “dyslexia” had been taboo in the school settings over the past few decades. Why? School professionals can’t make clinical diagnoses, so they couldn’t diagnose a student with dyslexia.

  • For example, if a parent said to a teacher, “I think my child has dyslexia,” the educator was taught to respond with, “We don’t diagnose dyslexia. If you want your child to be evaluated for dyslexia, you will need to go to a clinical setting for that.”
  • Also, if teachers somehow indicated that they agreed with the parents about the child having dyslexia, the school district would have to pay for that clinical evaluation for it.

The fear of using the term dyslexia was so prevalent that, in 2015, the federal Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services issued a letter to school districts stating that, “There is nothing in the IDEA that would prohibit the use of the terms dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia in IDEA evaluation, eligibility determinations, or IEP documents.”

What Is the Difference Between School Assessment and Clinical Diagnosis?

Although it is basically two labels for the same exact problem, the difference between a clinical diagnosis and school identification also leaves many parents frustrated and confused. The source of confusion: Clinical settings and school settings each have a different set of rules for the identification label.

  • Sometimes, parents will have a clinical report for their child for dyslexia or specific learning disability from a private evaluation. They believe their child automatically qualifies for school services based solely on that outside evaluation.  
  • The school team, however, must use state criteria to determine eligibility. The IEP team follows legal compliance procedures and may determine the child to be ineligible for school-based services. This leads parents to feel their child’s needs are not being met.

Clinical professionals and educators alike must explain to parents that even though a clinician may diagnose a child with dyslexia, schools have to satisfy state LD criteria under the IDEA Act. School teams must prove the LD is severe enough to impact learning, in order to obtain funding for special education for the child.

Each individual state has its own sub-categories for identifying specific learning disabilities that affect academics. Examples of sub-categories may include:

  • Basic reading skills
  • Reading comprehension
  • Reading fluency
  • Written expression
  • Math calculation
  • Math problem solving
  • Listening comprehension
  • Oral expression

States can determine eligibility based upon two options discussed in IDEA. They may choose a discrepancy model or a response to intervention (RTI) model.  

  • The discrepancy model involves determining if a child’s achievement is discrepant from their cognitive ability. This method is somewhat controversial.
  • The RTI examines a child’s response to increasingly intensive intervention methods and standardized test scores. Although a clinical diagnosis doesn’t automatically qualify a child for special education, school personnel must consider a clinical dyslexia diagnosis and other medical information during eligibility determination meetings.

Clear, consistent communication between school officials and parents is necessary for understanding the correct terminology for describing reading difficulties, as well as the difference between a clinical diagnosis of dyslexia and qualification for special education services.

In future blog posts we will talk about understanding the laws pertaining to specific learning disabilities and how to select appropriate screening tools for identifying students with specific learning disabilities.

Contact SMARTER Steps if you have questions about specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia.

For more information, you can also check out the SMARTER Steps’ live chat “We Weren’t Allowed to Say Dyslexia” on Facebook.

S.M.A.R.T.E.R. Steps® is a consulting business developed for special education staff and parents of children with special needs ages birth to 21. This organization is designed to assist special education teams on how they can achieve federal and state compliance while empowering self-advocacy skills throughout development and implementation of Individual Education Programs (IEP’s).  We are focused on simplifying the process and procedures so that you can spend more time where it matters most—with your students!

S.M.A.R.T.E.R. Steps® provides consulting, live and recorded tutorials, professional education and parent resources, and information for each step of the IEP process. These educational resources reveal for parents and professionals how easily they can achieve compliance while creating quality personalized learning programs. When teams work collaboratively toward building comprehensive educational plans, the student outcomes are much more successful.

Kelly Ott, MEd, MHS, CCC-SLP  and Lara Wakefield, PhD, CCC-SLP
S.M.A.R.T.E.R. Steps® resources and support services on TPT and at smartersteps.com




“How to Save Time and Develop Legally Compliant IEP Goals” is the overview webinar of the SMARTER Steps system.  Learn this easy 7-step prompting system to gain a solid foundation on how to develop goals for optimal outcomes for children with IEPs. This webinar is for everyone: parents, advocates, school staff, administrators, college students, and university instructors.  This webinar is 1 hour and 30 minutes in length and was recorded on 5-21-18. This is an example of our SMARTER series recorded webinars available through our membership program.

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