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Key Terms & Definitions

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The below list of terms and phrases are commonly used when discussing learning differences and the instruction of students with learning differences.

Definitions are from the National Center for Learning Disabilities and LD Online.


A shift or change in the ongoing method of instruction in order to facilitate student success

Alphabetic principle

Understanding the basic idea that language is a code in which letters represent the sounds in spoken words


The inability to comprehend or produce spoken or written language


The process of gathering information to help an individual make decisions; in education, the information gathered should help a teacher make decisions about appropriate instructional goals, objectives, teaching methods, curriculum, and program placement.

Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)

A disorder characterized by severe and persistent difficulties in one or more of the following areas: attention, impulsivity, and motor behavior; these difficulties can lead to learning and behavior problems at home, school, and work.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

ADD with hyperactivity, or excessive and exaggerated motor activity

Auditory discrimination

Ability to detect differences in sounds; may be gross ability, such as detecting differences between noises by a cat and dog, or fine ability, such as detecting the differences made by the sounds of letters like “m” and “n”

Auditory figure ground

Ability to attend to one sound against a background of sounds (e.g. hearing the teacher’s voice against classroom noise)

Auditory memory

Ability to retain information that has been presented orally

Auditory processing

The ability to accurately process and interpret sound information, e.g. subtle differences between sounds in words


The ability to perform any skilled and complex behavior rather easily with little attention, effort, or conscious awareness

Basal reading series

Published comprehensive classroom reading programs that have daily plans for teaching reading and include stories, comprehension questions, activities, teaching strategies, worksheets, tests, scope and sequence charts of reading skills, etc.

Connected instruction

A way of teaching systematically in which the teacher continually shows and discusses with the students the relationship between what has been learned, what is being learned, and what will be learned

Continuous assessment

An element of responsive instruction in which the teacher regularly monitors student performance to determine how closely it matches the instructional goal; ideally, these checks of student performance should occur after as many practice sessions as possible.

Curriculum-based assessment

A type of informal assessment in which the procedures directly assess student performance in learning targeted content in order to make decisions about how to better address a student's instructional needs


The ability to translate a word from print to speech


A severe difficulty understanding and using symbols or functions needed for success in mathematics


A severe processing difficulty producing handwriting that is not legible and written at an age-appropriate speed

Dyslexia (specific developmental dyslexia)

A type of learning disability; under Federal law, a specific language-based disorder characterized by problems in learning to read, write, and spell


Marked difficulty in remembering names or recalling words needed for oral and/or written language


Difficulty planning and completing intended fine motor tasks or sequencing the necessary movements

Elaborated feedback

An element of responsive instruction in which the results of student performance on a practice task are shared with the student to help him/her understand what was done correctly and what specific things need to be targeted for improvement during the next practice exercise

Executive Functioning

The ability to organize cognitive processes, such as planning ahead, prioritizing, stopping and starting activities, shifting from one activity to another, and monitoring one’s behavior

Explicit instruction

Instruction that is fully developed, completely and clearly expressed in detail, and places no burden on the learner to "fill in the gaps" caused by ambiguity or vagueness

Expressive language

The aspect of spoken language that includes speaking and the aspect of written language that includes composing or writing; receptive language, on the other hand, includes listening to spoken language and reading written language.

Expressive language (Oral)

The ability to formulate responses orally to what is heard or read

Expressive language (Written)

The ability to use written expression to clarify intent

Fluency (reading)

The ability to read a text accurately, quickly, and with proper expression and comprehension

Fluency (math)

The ability to be fluid and flexible with numbers, the sense of what numbers mean, and an ability to perform mental computations

Formal assessment

Process of gathering information using standardized, published tests or instruments in conjunction with specific administration and interpretation procedures; an example of a formal assessment is a norm-referenced test. The results of norm-referenced tests or other formal assessments are used to make general instructional decisions.

High engagement

An element of intensive instruction in which each instructional moment is maximized through the use of activities that keep the students' attention focused on critical learning outcomes.

Informal assessment

Process of collecting information to make specific instructional decisions; the information gathered is based on procedures largely designed by teachers and based on the current instructional situation. Example: A teacher might prepare a short quiz over vocabulary related to a current science unit. Results of the quiz would guide the extent to which the teacher would review material in class.

Informative instruction

A way of teaching systematically in which the teacher ensures that the student understands how they are learning, how they can plan and control their own learning at each step of the learning process, and why this is important

Instructional accommodation

An element of responsive instruction in which changes in instructional groupings, materials, or teaching techniques are made to increase student performance; instructional accommodations should be made based on the unique information-processing characteristics of the students being taught.

Intensive instruction

A way of directing student attention in which sufficient time is spent in teacher-guided interactive learning activities characterized by a high degree of goal-directed student engagement that leads to student mastery and generalization.


The interference with an unsatisfactory course or level of learning or behavior by introducing an element designed to move learning and behavior to a more satisfactory course or level

Language processing

Processing and making sense of what the ear hears

Learning strategy

A person's approach to a learning task, which includes how a person thinks and acts when planning, executing, and evaluating performance on a task and its outcomes

Listening comprehension

Understanding speech; lower levels of listening comprehension would include understanding the facts explicitly stated in a spoken passage that is simple. Advanced levels include implicit understanding and drawing inferences from more complex spoken passages.

Long term memory

Recalling information presented more than a minute before

Naming speed

Rate at which a child can recite “overlearned” stimuli, such as letters and single-digit numbers

Nonverbal learning disability

Great difficulty with problem solving that does not involve written or spoken language; struggles staying organized in terms of time and space while having (at least on the surface) good language skills

Occupational therapist

A professional who helps people develop or regain skills which are absent because of physical injury, birth defects, aging, or emotional or developmental problems, through purposeful and meaningful activity


Doing or paying attention to something that is not related to the instructional goal that has been established

Oral language difficulty

A person with oral language difficulties may exhibit poor vocabulary, listening comprehension, or grammatical abilities for their age


A learning strategy that involves the learner taking information from reading or listening and rephrasing the information in his or her own words in a way that personalizes the information and facilitates understanding and remembering


The smallest unit of speech that serves to distinguish one utterance from another in a language or dialect, as in the |b| in bat and the |m| in mat; English is made up of 44 phonemes.

Phonemic awareness

The ability to notice, think about, and work with the individual sounds in spoken words

Phonological Awareness

A range of understandings that is related to the sounds of words and word parts, including rhyming and syllabication

Physical therapist

Professional who treats physical disorders with physical and/or mechanical means, such as massage, exercise, water, light, heat, etc.


A learning strategy that involves taking information gained from listening or reading, identifying questions that emerge, and then guessing the answers before the answers are apparent; prediction can facilitate understanding and remembering.

Print awareness

Basic knowledge about print and how it is typically organized on a page


A type of informal assessment embedded in the instructional process used to check progress toward meeting an instructional goal; it is often quick and can be thought of as a question embedded during an explanation or model to monitor comprehension or a careful examination of the product of student work from a regular practice activity.

Reading comprehension

Understanding what is read by reading actively (making sense from text) and with purpose (for learning, understanding, and enjoyment)

Receptive language

The aspect of spoken language that includes listening and the aspect of written language that includes reading

Responsive instruction

A way of making teaching decisions in which a student's reaction to instruction directly shapes how future instruction is provided

Scaffolded instruction

A way of teaching systematically in which the teacher provides to students, early in the learning process, a significant amount of support in the form of modeling, prompts, direct explanations, and targeted questions; instruction during this phase is primarily teacher-guided. As students begin to acquire mastery of the targeted objectives, direct teacher supports are reduced, and the major responsibility for learning is transferred to the student. When students assume more responsibility, it is referred to as student-guided learning.


A learning strategy that involves identifying cues from information heard or read that make a learner wonder about who, what, when, where, which, and why and ask personalized questions that relate to the information; the learner then reads to find the answers to these questions. This strategy can facilitate understanding and remembering.

Sequential memory

Recalling a series of information in proper order

Short term memory

Recalling information presented several seconds before

Sight word recognition

The ability to recognize words without sounding them out

Structural analysis

The ability to use roots, prefixes, and suffixes to determine the meaning of unfamiliar words

Structured instruction

A way of teaching systematically in which information to be learned is chunked into smaller segments or steps and sequentially taught through a process that involves direct explanation, modeling, and practice

Sufficient time

An element of intensive instruction in which interactive teaching and learning experiences are sustained until the critical information has been mastered, maintained, and generalized by the student


A learning strategy that involves concisely restating the main ideas of sections of reading or listening tasks that involve units of information greater than a single paragraph; for example, you would summarize the main ideas of an entire lesson, a story, or a section of history textbook to facilitate understanding and remembering.

Systematic instruction

A way of organizing learning experiences so that both the teacher and the student follow and continuously review a dynamic plan related to how new content will be learned and how that new content relates to past and future learning

Visual closure

The ability to identify or recognize a symbol or object when the entire object is not visible

Visual memory

The ability to retrieve a mental representation of the object being viewed or make the connection between the mental representation and the object itself

Visual spatial processing

The ability to accurately perceive objects in space with reference to other objects

Word attack

Using intentional strategies for decoding, reading sight words, and/or recognizing written words

Word recognition

The ability to identify and read a word and understand its meaning

Working memory

The ability to store and manage information in one’s mind for a short period of time (e.g. listening to and repeating a phone number)

Implicit instruction

Instruction that lies heavily on student-directed learning. The learner is able to understand what is being taught even though it is not directly expressed; example: It might be obvious to students during a discussion of world events prior to WWII that these events were key factors causing the war, although the teacher never explicitly expressed such a statement. The understanding that the causes of WWII were being discussed was an implicit part of the instruction.


Relating to the use of knowledge of personal resources to meet the demands of a task in a way that gets the task done in the most effective and efficient manner

Visual discrimination

The ability to differentiate objects/symbols based on their individual characteristics