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How is Talking about Specific Learning Disabilities like Six Blind Men Touching an Elephant?

Updated: Oct 25, 2023


There is an old Hindu story about six blind men who come upon an elephant. One man touches the elephant’s ear and concludes that it is a fan. Another touches the ear and thinks that it is a water-spout. A third man touches a leg and thinks that it is a pillar. None of the six blind men who touch the elephant come to the correct answer because they each lack the big picture. I think that this idea of having insufficient holistic knowledge is at the heart of the issues facing regular classroom teachers and special education teachers as they try their best, yet struggle to meet the needs of students who have specific learning disabilities. When teachers reach out for guidance, they find disagreement on all fronts. There is not consensis about the definition of SLD, the methods of determining SLD, or even the proper way to provide regular instruction or interventions.

What is a specific learning disability? What is dyslexia? It depends on who you ask. The International Dyslexia Association defines dyslexia as “a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities” (IDA, 2022). In contrast, the DSM-5 (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), dropped the term dyslexia and lumps students with a dyslexic profile into the category of specific learning disability. The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, in their Right to Read report, say that the Ontario school system should use the term dyslexia.

Another point that lacks clarity surrounds how we identify students who have specific learning disabilities. The use of the achievement-discrepancy model used to be the widely accepted practice. The model was built on the idea that if a large enough gap existed between a student’s I.Q. and their academic achievement scores, the student would qualify as having a specific learning disability. The achievement-discrepancy model is flawed because it does not inform intervention and it is a “wait-to-fail” method since “discrepancies between ability and achievement typically are not evident until the child has reached third or fourth grade” (Alfonso, 16). The 3 tiered RTI model provides an alternative to the discrepancy model that is superior in the respect that it is meant to lead to early interventions for all students who need them. Unfortunately, the RTI approach has its own faults because there is not one set of approved approaches to RTI. This means that a school can use ineffective teaching methods or ineffective interventions and still be doing RTI. The Cognitive Discrepancy approach says that SLD is identified by a "pattern of intra-intellectual strengths and weakness related to cognitive processes" that usually relate to academic achievement scores (Alfonso, 226).

Regular classroom teachers and special education teachers can't do their jobs properly without explicit guidance about what constitutes best teaching practices. The BC Ministry of Education’s “Supporting Students with Learning Disabilities: A Guide for Teachers” (2011) is outdated and lacks detail. For example, the document states that “early intervention employs highly systematic approaches.” Unfortunately, it does not explicitly explain what is meant by “systematic approaches” or give sufficient detail about how to employ them. The document also mentions that teachers should take a balanced approach to teaching literacy. They define a balanced approach as providing "a focus on reading, writing, thinking, speaking and listening within a rich context" (BC Ministry of Ed. 49). This definition lacks specificity about the teaching methods that yield positive reading results literacy - and those that don't. It would be helpful if the document pointed out that the 3 cueing method (which many people associate with the idea of balanced literacy) is an ineffective literacy approach that should be removed from school reading systems. To muddy the waters further, the document lists Reading Rockets as an approved resource. This website (which is fabulous) contains one article that explains which elements of the balanced literacy approach are worth keeping and another that discusses which elements are harmful and should be removed from reading systems.

In conclusion, it would be a positive change if the different stakeholders could agree on a common definition of SLD. The fact that the way that we identify specific learning disorders is changing over time is probably a good thing because the achievement-discrepancy model wasn't perfect. We haven't landed on a perfect model, but we are searching - and that's good thing. The lack of explicit guidance from the government about what constitutes effective literacy instruction and effective literacy intervention is a huge problem because it is causing harm to children in schools districts where ineffective reading systems are in place. Luckily, when we are trying to put effective literacy systems in place, we don't have to be like blind men touching an elephant. The Right to Read report is a terrific resource that gives us a way to see the whole picture. It provides explicit directions about how to create effective reading systems. Schools in every province are beginning to use the Right to Read report to guide their practice. My hope is that those districts will light the way for others because every child deserves to read.

Works Cited

Alfonso, V. C.; Flanagan, D. P. Essentials of Specific Learning Disability Identification, Second edition.; Alfonso, V. C., Flanagan, D. P., Eds.; John Wiley & Sons: Hoboken, NJ, 2018.

Fiedorowicz, C. (2015, March 2). To Revise or not to Revise. Canada; Learning Disabilities Association of Canada.

Flanagan, T. (2020, October 16). Unbalanced comments on Balanced Literacy. Reading Rockets. Retrieved November 7, 2022, from

Goldberg, M. (2022, August 7). Seeing the good in balanced literacy ...and moving on. Reading Rockets. Retrieved November 7, 2022, from

IDA. (2018, July 16). Definition of dyslexia. International Dyslexia Association. Retrieved November 7, 2022, from

Ministry of Education. (2011). Supporting Students with Learning Disabilities. BC.

Ontario Human Rights Commission. (2022). Right to read inquiry report. Right to Read inquiry report. Retrieved November 7, 2022, from

Semrud-Clikeman, M. (2015, March). Research in brain function and learning. American Psychological Association. Retrieved November 6, 2022, from

Shaywitz, S. (2004). Overcoming dyslexia. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

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