Academic Underachievement

Academic underachievement is a broad complaint that can have any number of underlying causes.  Deficits in academic abilities are very often artifacts of intellectual delays, behavioral deficits, or psychological disorders. Students that are functioning in the Intellectually Deficient range, in other words those with significant cognitive impairment, often perform poorly in school as a result.  Behavioral deficits including problems sitting, self-regulating, listening, oppositionality and general misbehavior often predict academic underachievement.  Finally, most psychological disorders, such as depression and anxiety, undermine motivation and performance thereby causing the student to underachieve.  On the other hand, academic underachievement can be the result of a specific learning disability.

Measuring Academic Abilities

Academic Abilities are measured using standardized and norm-referenced tests of achievement.  This means that such academic tests are similarly administered and the results they obtain are based on comparisons with other students.  Individual areas, such as reading speed, phonetics, reading comprehension and listening comprehension can be isolated and individually judged.  Tests often provide formal classifications, such as ranges, percentiles, age equivalents and grade equivalents.  Moreover, because they are individually administered, the examiner can see and record the quality of responses and the methods used to arrive at them.

Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities might appear in the form of a mathematics disorder or as a disorder of written expression.  However, the most common type of learning disability is the specific phonetic learning disability, referred to by the American Psychiatric Association as reading disorder.  The specific phonetic learning disability or reading disorder was and still is sometimes called dyslexia.  This term is still apt, but it has been used in a variety of ways such that it has lost its larger meaning.  Many think of it as a very focused deficit in which letters are reversed.  For example b might be read or written as d.  Nevertheless, it more broadly denotes the relative inability to translate sounds into symbols and symbols into sounds.  In other words, the reader does not naturally associate the a with the ‘ahh’ sound.  Readers with a phonetic learning disability tend to read slowly, approach the word as a whole and try to match it to known words.  It is important to understand that this is a specific and isolated disorder.  While it is sometimes correlated with other deficits like attentional problems and delayed verbal intelligence, it is principally and categorically a problem with reading. 

Diagnosing the Learning Disabilities

Children with learning disabilities usually present with a history of increasingly prominent school failure, subtle delays in vocabulary and knowledge, moderate inattention and behavioral problems and a general dislike of school.  They typically don’t like to read and become task avoidant and misbehave when they are required to read.  Self-esteem also often suffers.  These are qualitative markers that might be noted in a history.

Classical models of dyslexia diagnosis examine discrepancies between intelligence and reading scores. This model is still used widely in schools.  However, it can be misleading because, as the neuropsychologist Bruce Pennington warns, reading ability is correlated with intelligence.  Also, children with undiagnosed reading problems often suffer deficits in vocabulary, information and the struggle to formulate thoughts.  Vocabulary development, information acquisition and thinking all are strengthened by the book learning; book learning from which the learning disabled child is essentially excluded.  So, while there may be moderate delays in these areas to start with, they are exacerbated over time by the un-remediated learning problems.  Intelligence tests are designed to discriminate intelligence from education; they are designed to measure raw, native intelligence.  Yet, they do not live up to this ideal.  Nor could they live up to this ideal…intelligence is inherited to a great degree, but it is also shaped through learning and so the two can never even be fully differentiated.  This classic discrepancy model assumes that, for unaffected readers (those without dyslexia), intelligence and reading ability will increase in tandem.  The average reader is of average intelligence and the borderline reader is of borderline intelligence and so forth.  However, it is all too common for those with borderline intelligence to read at an average level.  Though the discrepancy model should not be wholly disregarded on scientific grounds, over many years of use and in many ways, it has been shown not to work well.  Truly, the discrepancy model stands principally on tradition.  Pennington concludes his estimate of this model by noting that it “systematically excludes those with the most severe form of the disorder.” Instead of a fully average estimate of intelligence, the learning disabled child often has moderate deficit in some forms of intelligence.  Consequently, the discrepancy is often not sufficiently wide to qualify for remedial services. 

It is much more profitable to look at the way in which the child reads.  The dyslexic reader 1) reads more slowly, 2) fails to sound out unfamiliar words, 3) attempts whole word guesses, 4) makes many spontaneous self-corrections, 5) becomes anxious or agitated while reading.  Also, dyslexic children can be made to read confabulated words; made up words that they are to pronounce as if they were real.  When faced with this task, a normal reader will read as well as if they were reading real words, but a dyslexic reader will read noticeably worse.  This is because the dyslexic reader relies on sight word recognition when reading.  In other words, they remember words rather than sounding them out.  This is why such a test can expose dyslexic readers, especially those that compensate well for their disability.  When reading these confabulated words, the dyslexic reader often produces errors of lexicalization, which means that they read fake words as real words.  Again, this is a sign that they are guessing instead of decoding.  Because their disability makes it difficult for them to sound out words, they tend to look at words as if they were images and then search their memory for a match.  Another way of detecting dyslexia is by contrasting reading comprehension with listening comprehension.  A dyslexic child will generally be able to understand and recall more when hearing a story than when reading a story. View a clinical case example of a learning disabled child.

Dr. Steven C. Hertler
10 Sycamore Avenue
Ho Ho Kus, New Jersey 07423

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218 Lorraine Avenue
Upper Montclair, New Jersey 07043