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“Ensuring a high-quality education for children with specific learning disabilities is a critical responsibility for all of us,” so says Department of Education Assistant Secretary, Michael Yudin, in a Dear Colleague Letter issued October 23, 2015.  The Letter specifically addresses the needs of children with dyslexiadyscalculia, and dysgraphia, each of which qualifies as a disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  Sparked by concerns by advocates and parents of the reluctance to use the terms dyslexia, dyscalculia and dysgraphia in evaluations, Admission, Review and Dismissal (ARD) documents, and individualized education programs (IEP), the stated purpose of the Letter is to clarify that the IDEA does not prohibit use of those terms in IDEA evaluation, eligibility, and IEP documents.

What is a “specific learning disability”?
The IDEA and its regulations define “specific learning disability” as “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.”  20 U.S.C. §1401(30); 30 C.F.R. § 300.8(c)(10).  According to the Letter, this list is not exhaustive.   Evaluations required by the IDEA will determine whether a student meets the criteria for specific learning disability, whether the student has a condition listed in the definition or another condition such as dyscalculia or dysgraphia.

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MTSS – the recommended approach.
The Letter suggests a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS), such as response to intervention (RTI) or positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS) designed to help all struggling learners and students with disabilities.  MTSS should include scientific, research-based interventions and can be used to identify children suspected of having a specific learning disability.  MTSS follows this general approach:

  • First identify students at risk for poor learning outcomes, including those with dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia and monitor student progress;
  • Provide evidence-based interventions;
  • Adjust the intensity and nature of those interventions;
  • For students who do not respond, or minimally respond, a special education evaluation referral is required; and
  • Students who respond to intense, short-term interventions may continue with them.

Evaluating the student for a specific learning disability
When conducting a comprehensive evaluation of the student, the Guidance emphasizes the need to gather information about the child’s learning difficulties, including those related to reading, math, and writing to determine the nature and extent of the child’s disability and educational needs.  The Guidance recommends the evaluation team do the following:

  • Consider whether the child is not achieving adequately for the child’s age or to meet State-approved standards;
  • Consider whether the child’s underachievement is due to lack of appropriate instruction;
  • Consider including information about the specific condition (g., dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia) in documenting how the child’s condition relates to a child’s eligibility determination.

Districts should review policies and practices related to specific learning disabilities.
The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) recommends that Districts review their policies, procedures and practices to ensure that they do not prohibit the use of the terms dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia in evaluations, eligibility, and IEP documents.  Districts are also reminded of the importance of addressing unique educational needs of children with specific learning disabilities resulting from these conditions during IEP meetings and other meetings with parents.

What accommodations are appropriate?
While the IDEA does not dictate what accommodations should be used, the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) funds a network of technical assistance centers that develop materials and resources, including those addressing accommodations.  The Dear Colleague Letter provides the following resources:

National Center on Intensive Intervention:,

Center for Parent Information and Resources:

National Center on Accessible Educational Materials:

For a complete list of OSEP-funded technical assistance centers please see:


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