Response to Patricia Dunn’s Learning Re-Abled: The Learning Disability Controversy and Composition Studies

Nearly twenty years after its publication, Patricia A. Dunn’s Learning Re-Abled: The Learning Disability Controversy and Composition Studies (1995) remains the most thorough and insightful study of learning disability within the field of composition. By bringing together decades of debate from fields as diverse as developmental psychology, cognitive neuroscience, special education, critical pedagogy, composition and rhetoric, basic writing, and critical literacy studies, Dunn provides a summative guide for college writing teachers who want to better understand what learning disabilities are and how to best work with students who bear the LD label. This is no small task, for as Learning Re-Abled shows, there are no easy answers about LD, no singular model of pedagogy to fit the population, nor even the most basic consensus among experts about whether the condition exists or what its root causes might be. By drawing together the existing scholarship and laying it next to testimony from actual LD college students about their learning, however, Dunn succeeds in demystifying this topic and providing practical approaches concerned teachers can take to improve their teaching and to educate themselves about their students who might learn differently from the norm.

Dunn limits her inquiry to learning disabilities associated with verbal language processing (specifically dyslexia and dysgraphia), focusing on students who, for whatever reason, have extraordinary difficulty learning through traditional language-centered education.

Instead of settling on one model of LD reality, Dunn constructs LD as a continuing controversy. Medical authorities claim LD is caused by innate neurological differences that result in atypical methods of information processing. Explanations have changed over time as clinicians and researchers have offered models for LD based on factors like left/right brain hemisphere dominance, short-term memory capacity, or visual acuity to explain why “otherwise intelligent” children do not keep up with their peers in written language acquisition. As Dunn observes, within this medical model, all learners are held against a nomative standard of development with many built in assumptions about what constitutes proper literacy education and how typical students are meant to respond to it.

Critics like Gerald Coles (whom I’ll be reading later in the course of my lists) find deep flaws in this research, arguing that medical models essentially place the blame on the student for the flaws in a failed one-size-fits-all education system. To explain why some students can’t learn language as efficiently, he points to social factors like economic disadvantages among different schools or cultural differences between households’ literacy habits: essentially, problems of upbringing.

Dunn keeps a skeptical distance from both sides of the controversy. On the one hand, she admits that the clinical research remains inconclusive and has failed to definitively prove innate neurological differences exist in LD people. On the other, she points out that Coles’s argument often uncritically blames the parents for “causing” their children’s LD issues, an assertion that also lacks conclusive evidence. (This reminds me of the “refrigerator mother” explanation that unemotional or overbearing mothering causes autism–see Joseph Straus “Autism as Culture.”)

Rather than splitting hairs over whose definition best explains “the cause” of LD, Dunn proceeds through this book with the assumption that there do exist a population of learners in the world (maybe 5% of the population) who have unusual difficulties processing language, and that these students often do poorly in school as a result of the missmatch between institutionalized expectations and their actual capacities. While composition studies has largely ignored the possibility of innate neurological differences (see “Chapter Two: Gaps in Composition Theory and Practice”), Dunn argues that composition teachers must confront the fact that some students do seem to process language differently for reasons that aren’t entirely explained through mainstream composition and Basic Writing research. (I made the same observation about George Otte and Rebecca Mlynarczyk’s history of Basic Writing, which offered no discussion of LD issues or research.)

To develop a new model of pedagogy more appropriate to serve the needs of this neurological minority population, Dunn draws knowledge from her own case studies and interviews as well as research from clinical disciplines compositionists would not typically reference. She details her experience teaching her young nephew, Joey, how to write letters and words using a mix of motivational, interest driven teaching (in which he writes about his favorite He-Man toy) along with multisensory phonics based teaching techniques (see Chapter Three “Multisensory Teaching Methods: Tutoring Joey”). While she admits that these techniques are not appropriate for LD college students, she extrapolates corollary pedagogical techniques to use in college classrooms in order to support LD students in using oral, kinesthetic, and social modes of learning to learn college-level literacy. (I’m sure I will learn more about these models in her second book, Talking Stretching, Learning: Multiple Literacies in the Teaching of Writing [2001]).

In the end, Dunn argues that the greatest barriers to LD student success in higher education do not come from any innate neurological differences, but instead emerge from faculty and institutional bias. By interviewing three LD students about their learning strengths and weaknesses, Dunn shows that students who perform poorly on multiple choice exams or in pure-lecture classes often possess impressive capacities for oral knowledge-making and collaborative or social learning methods. Because college-level education rarely privileges these modalities as much as traditional, text-based learning, LD students are placed at a considerable disadvantage. Furthermore, because faculty often do not understand or respect students with different learning abilities, LD students frequently face their most challenging impediments from faculty who are unwilling to change their practices.

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