Learning Disabilities Theory: Issues and Advances

  • Joseph K. Torgesen


In 1984, a survey of many of the leaders in our field was commissioned by the Journal of Learning Disabilities to identify the most widespread beliefs and concerns about the learning disabilities field at that time (Adelman & Taylor, 1985). One of the most frequently cited concerns in the survey centered on the need to improve both theory and research on learning disabilities. In response to some of these concerns, I wrote a relatively optimistic paper titled “Learning Disabilities Theory: Its Current State and Future Prospects,” which appeared in JLD in 1986 (Torgesen, 1986). The paper was optimistic because it identified some of the reasons for past difficulties in theory development and showed that at least some of these difficulties (those involving a lack of adequate scientific concepts and methodology to support the study of learning disabilities) were well on the way to being overcome. I remain optimistic about the future of theory development in our field, not only because the supporting scientific methodology has continued to advance, but also because we are moving toward greater clarity in our discussion of issues that have frequently produced theoretical confusion about learning disabilities.


Theory Development Phonological Awareness Learning Disability Reading Disability Phonological Processing 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Adelman, H.S. & Taylor, L. (1985). The future of the LD field: A survey of fundamental concerns. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 18(7), 423–427.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Alexander, A., Anderson, H., Voeller, K.S., & Torgesen, J.K. (1991). Phonological awareness training and remediation of analytic decoding deficits in a group of severe dyslexics. Annals of Dyslexia, 41, 193–206.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bradley, L. & Bryant, P. (1985). Rhyme and reason in reading and spelling. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
  4. Brown, A.L., Bransford, J.D., Ferrara, R.A., & Campione, J.C. (1982). Learning, remembering, and understanding. In J.H. Flavell & E.M. Markman (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology (4th ed.): Cognitive development (Vol. 3) (pp. 315–345). New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  5. Brown, A.L. & Campione, J.C. (1986). Psychological theory and the study of learning disabilities. American Psychologist, 14, 1059–1068.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Brown, A.L., Palincsar, A.S., & Purcell, L. (1986). Poor readers: Teach, don’t label. In U. Neisser (Ed.), The school achievement of minority children: New perspectives (pp. 105–143). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  7. Butterfield, E.D. & Ferretti, R.P. (1987). Toward a theoretical integration of cognitive hypotheses about intellectual differences among children. In L. Borkowski & L.D. Day (Eds.), Cognition in special children: Comparative approaches to retardation, learning disabilities, and giftedness (pp. 195–234). New York: Ablex.Google Scholar
  8. Ceci, S.J. & Baker, J.G. (1990). On learning... more or less: A knowledge × process × context view of learning disabilities. In J.K. Torgesen (Ed.), Cognitive and behavioral characteristics of children with learning disabilities (pp. 159–178). Austin, TX: PRO-ED.Google Scholar
  9. Coles, G.S. (1987). The learning mystique: A critical look at “learning disabilities”. New York: Pantheon.Google Scholar
  10. Damasio, A.R. & Geschwind, N. (1984). The neural basis of language. Annual Review of Neurosciences, 7, 127–147.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Ellis, E.S., Lenz, B.K., & Sabornie, E.J. (1987). Generalization and adaptation of learning strategies to natural environments: Part 2: Research into practice. Remedial and Special Education, 8, 6–23.Google Scholar
  12. Felton, R.H. & Wood, F.B. (1990). Cognitive deficits in reading disability and attention deficit disorder. In J.K. Torgesen (Ed.), Cognitive and behavioral characteristics of children with learning disabilities (pp. 89–114). Austin, TX: PRO-ED.Google Scholar
  13. Flavell, J.H., Miller, P.H., & Miller, S.A. (1993). Cognitive development (3rd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.Google Scholar
  14. Flowers, L., Wood, F.B., & Naylor, C.E. (in press). Regional cerebral blood flow in adults diagnosed as reading disabled in childhood. Archives of Neurology. Google Scholar
  15. Frith, U. (1985). Beneath the surface of developmental dyslexia. In K. Patterson, J. Marshall, & M. Coltheart (Eds.), Surface dyslexia (pp. 301–330). London: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  16. Galaburda, A.M. (1988). The pathogenesis of childhood dyslexia. In F. Plum (Ed.), Language, communication, and the brain (pp. 127–137). New York: Raven Press.Google Scholar
  17. Gottfredson, L.S., Finucci, J.M., & Child, B. (1982). The adult occupational success of dyslexic boys: A large-scale, long-term follow-up (Report No. 334). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, Center for Social Organization in the Schools.Google Scholar
  18. Hallahan, D.P. & Cruickshank, W.M. (1973). Psycho-educational foundations of learning disabilities. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
  19. Hammill, D.D. (1990). On defining learning disabilities: An emerging consensus. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 23, 74–84.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Horn, W.F., O’Donnell, J.P., & Vitulano, L.A. (1983). Long-term follow-up studies of learning disabled persons. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 16, 542–555.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hynd, G.W., Semrud-Clikeman, M., Lorys, A.R., Novey, E.S., & Eliopulos, D. (1990). Brain morphology in developmental dyslexia and attention deficit disorder/hyperactivity. Archives of Neurology, 47, 919–926.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Kistner, J. & Torgesen, J.K. (1987). Motivational and cognitive aspects of learning disabilities. In A.E. Kasdin & B.B. Lahey (Eds.), Advances in clinical child psychology. New York: Plenum Press.Google Scholar
  23. Liberman, I.Y., Shankweiler, D., & Liberman, A.M. (1989). The alphabetic principle and learning to read. In D. Shankweiler & I.Y. Liberman (Eds.), Phonology and reading disability: Solving the reading puzzle (pp. 1–34). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
  24. Licht, B.G. (1983). Cognitive-motivational factors that contribute to the achievement of learning disabled children. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 16, 483–493.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Lundberg, I., Frost, J., & Peterson, O. (1988). Effects of an extensive program for stimulating phonological awareness in pre-school children. Reading Research Quarterly, 23, 263–284.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Lyon, R. & Watson, B. (1981). Empirically derived subgroups of learning disabled readers: Diagnostic characteristics. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 14, 256–261.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Mann, V.A. (1986). Why some children encounter reading problems: The contribution of difficulties with language processing and phonological sophistication to early reading disability. In J.K. Torgesen & B.Y.L. Wong (Eds.), Psychological and educational perspectives on learning disabilities (pp. 133–160). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  28. McKinney, J.D. (1990). Longitudinal research on the behavioral characteristics of children with learning disabilities. In J.K. Torgesen (Ed.), Cognitive and behavioral characteristics of children with learning disabilities (pp. 115–138). Austin, TX: PRO-ED.Google Scholar
  29. Morais, J., Alegria, J., & Content, A. (1987). The relationships between segmental analysis and alphabetic literacy: An interactive view. Cahiers de Psychologie Cognitive, 7, 415–438.Google Scholar
  30. National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities. (1988). Letter to NJCLD member organizations.Google Scholar
  31. Olsen, R., Wise, B., Conners, F., Rack, J., & Fulker, D. (1989). Specific deficits in component reading and language skills: Genetic and environmental influences. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 22, 339–348.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Perfetti, C.A. (1985). Reading ability. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Rourke, B.P. (1987). Syndrome of nonverbal learning disabilities: The final common pathway of white-matter disease/dysfunction? The Clinical Neuropsychologist, 1, 209–234.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Rourke, B.P. (1988). The syndrome of nonverbal learning disabilities: developmental manifestations in neurological disease, disorder, and dysfunction. The Clinical Neuropsychologist, 2, 293–330.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Rourke, B.P. (1989). Nonverbal learning disabilities: The syndrome and the model. New York: Guilford.Google Scholar
  36. Rourke, B.P. (1990). Personal communication. Sept. 19, 1990.Google Scholar
  37. Rourke, B.P. & Finlayson, M.A.J. (1978). Neuropsychological significance of variations in patterns of academic performance: Verbal and visual-spatial abilities. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 6, 121–133.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Rourke, B.P., Young, G.C., & Flewelling, R.W. (1971). The relationships between WISC Verbal-Performance discrepancies and selected verbal, auditory-perceptual, and problem-solving abilities in children with learning disabilities. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 27, 475–479.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Rourke, B.P., Young, G.C., & Leenaars, A.A. (1989). A childhood learning disability that predisposes those afflicted to adolescent and adult depression and suicide risk. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 22, 169–175.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Ryan, E.B., Weed, K.A., & Short, E.J. (1986). Cognitive behavior modification: Promoting active, self-regulatory learning styles. In J.K. Torgesen & B.Y.L. Wong (Eds.), Psychological and educational perspectives on learning disabilities (pp. 367–397). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  41. Schumaker, J.B., Deshler, D.D., & Ellis, E.S. (1986). Intervention issues related to the education of learning disabled adolescents. In J.K. Torgesen & B.Y.L. Wong (Eds.), Psychological and educational perspectives on learning Disabilities (pp. 329–365). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  42. Schunk, D.H. (1989). Self-efficacy and cognitive achievement: Implications for students with learning problems. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 22, 14–22.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Senf, G.M. (1986). LD research in sociological and scientific perspective. In J.K. Torgesen & B.Y.L. Wong (Eds.), Psychological and educational perspectives on learning disabilities (pp. 27–53). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  44. Shankweiler, D. & Liberman, I.Y. (1989). Phonology and reading disability. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
  45. Snowling, M. & Hulme, C. (1989). A longitudinal case study of developmental phonological dyslexia. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 6, 379–401.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Speece, D.L. (1987). Information processing subtypes of learning disabled readers. Learning Disabilities Research, 2, 91–102.Google Scholar
  47. Stanovich, K.E. (1986a). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21, 360–406.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Stanovich, K.E. (1986b). Cognitive processes and the reading problems of learning-disabled children: Evaluating the assumption of specificity. In J.K. Torgesen & B.Y.L. Wong (Eds.), Psychological and educational perspectives on learning disabilities (pp. 87–131). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  49. Stanovich, K.E. (1988). Explaining the differences between the dyslexic and the garden-variety poor reader: The phonological-core variable-difference model. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 21, 590–604.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Stanovich, K.E., Cunningham, A.E., & Cramer, B.B. (1984). Assessing phonological awareness in kindergarten children: Issues of task comparability. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 38, 175–190.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Swanson, H.L. (1988). Toward a metatheory of learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 21, 196–209.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Torgesen, J.K. (1982). The learning disabled child as an inactive learner: Educational implications. Topics in Learning and Learning Disabilities, 2, 45–52.Google Scholar
  53. Torgesen, J.K. (1986). Learning disabilities theory: Its current state and future prospects. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 19, 399–407.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Torgesen, J.K. (1988). Studies of children with learning disabilities who perform poorly on memory span tasks. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 21, 605–612.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Torgesen, J.K. (1991a). Learning disabilities: Historical and conceptual issues. In B.Y.L. Wong (Ed.), Learning about learning disabilities (pp. 3–37). San Diego: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  56. Torgesen, J.K. (1991b). Subtypes as prototypes: Extended studies of rationally defined extreme groups. In L.V. Feagans, E.J. Short, & L.J. Meltzer (Eds.), Subtypes of learning disabilities: Theoretical perspectives and research (pp. 229–246). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  57. Torgesen, J.K., Kistner, J.A., & Morgan, S. (1987). Component processes in working memory. In J. Borkowski & J.D. Day (Eds.), Memory and cognition in special children: Perspectives on retardation, learning disabilities, and giftedness (pp. 49–86). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.Google Scholar
  58. Torgesen, J.K. & Licht, B. (1983). The learning disabled child as an inactive learner: Retrospect and prospects. In J.D. McKinney & L. Feagans (Eds.), Topics in Learning Disabilities, Vol. 1 (pp. 3–32). Rockville, MD: Aspen Press.Google Scholar
  59. Torgesen, J.K., Wagner, R.K., Simmons, K., & Laughon, P. (1990). Identifying phonological coding problems in disabled readers: Naming, counting, or span measures? Learning Disabilities Quarterly, 13, 236–243.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Vellutino, F. & Scanlon, D.M. (1987). Phonological coding, phonological awareness, and reading ability: Evidence from longitudinal and experimental study. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 33, 321–364.Google Scholar
  61. Wagner, R.K. & Torgesen, J.K. (1987). The nature of phonological processing and its causal role in the acquisition of reading skills. Psychological Bulletin, 101, 192–212.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Wagner, R.K., Torgesen, J.K., & Rashotte, C.A. (in press). The development of reading-related phonological processing abilities: New evidence of bi-directional causality from a latent variable longitudinal study. Developmental Psychology.Google Scholar
  63. Wiederholt, J.L. (1974). Historical perspectives on the education of the learning disabled. In L. Mann & D.A. Sabatino (Eds.), The second review of special education (pp. 103–152). Austin, TX: PRO-ED.Google Scholar
  64. Ysseldyke, J.E. (1983). Current practices in making psycho-educational decisions about learning disabled students. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 16, 209–219.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Ysseldyke, J.E., Algozzine, B., Shinn, M., & McGue, M. (1982). Similarities and differences between underachievers and students labeled learning disabled. Journal of Special Education, 16, 73–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag New York Inc. 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  • Joseph K. Torgesen

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations