Samuel Kirk

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S. A. Kirk
Born Samuel Alexander Kirk
(1904-09-01)September 1, 1904
Rugby, North Dakota, United States
Died July 21, 1996(1996-07-21) (aged 91)
Nationality American
Occupation Psychologist and educator
Known for Coining the term learning disability

Samuel Alexander Kirk (1904–1996) was an American psychologist and educator, who is best known for coining the term learning disability.[1][2]

Early life[edit]

Kirk was born in Rugby, North Dakota on 1 September 1904, to the farmers Richard and Nellie Kirk.[3] He grew up on in a farm town and taught farmhands how to read at night. Kirk served in the military where he created a program for recruits who struggled with reading and writing.[4]

Kirk received both his bachelor's and master's degree in psychology from the University of Chicago. He then obtained his PhD in physiological and clinical psychology from the University of Michigan.[5]

He married Winifred D. Kirk and had one son, Jerry Kirk, and one daughter, Lorraine Kirk.[5]


Samuel Kirk is recognized for his accomplishments in the field of special education, while sometimes being referred to as the “Father of Special Education”.[1][6]

He began his teaching career at the Oaks School in Chicago in 1929, where he worked specifically with boys who were delinquent and had mental disabilities.[5] His interest in the field of special education continued as he worked closely with individuals with learning disabilities. Samuel Kirk “wrote so widely and so authoritatively on so many aspects of mental retardation and learning disorders and was responsible for so many innovations in diagnosis, training, and social policy”.[1]

In 1963, Dr. Kirk delivered a speech to an education conference and was the first to use and define the term “learning disability”.[7] This speech had a monumental effect on social policies and also helped name Dr. Kirk to the federal post by John F. Kennedy who had a sister who had a mental disability (now more commonly called an intellectual disability). Dr. Kirk laid the groundwork for passing laws, which required schools to provide help for children with learning disabilities. In public policy (1964), Dr. Kirk persuaded Washington to provide money in order to train teachers to help students with learning disabilities.[1] Dr. Kirk’s commitment to students with learning disabilities led to the first ever Institute for Research on Exceptional Children more than 50 years ago, which is still a popular foundation in the special education department.[4]

Within Dr. Kirk’s publications regarding learning disabilities, he describes classifications used for children with learning disabilities. This includes a unified classification of children with low intelligence, while they are differentiated based on a degree of learning deficit, for educational purposes. He also listed the causes he discovered to be associated with learning disabilities. These are as follows: brain injuries, physiological disturbances, hereditary factors, and cultural factors.[8] Within his publication titled Educating the Retarded Child, he describes the identification for a child with a learning disability to include a study of the child across disciplines, or as a whole, intelligence tests, achievement tests, and personality and social maturity tests.


Title Year Description
Teaching Reading to Slow-Learning Children 1940 Presents teachers and administrators with problems and solutions for teaching children who are slow-learners in the area of reading.
Educating the Retarded Child 1951 Aims to discuss new education laws related to educating retarded children and appropriate procedures to show the value of the individual to society.
You and Your Retarded Child 1958 Guides parents on how to educate and communicate with their child with special education needs.
Early Education of the Mentally Retarded 1958 Discusses research and theory of early intervention for children with learning disabilities through a variety of case studies.
Educating Exceptional Children 1962 Discusses each of the thirteen disability categories and research-based teaching methods and strategies for children with each of these disabilities. It further discusses the needs of children who are gifted and talented.
Psycholinguistic Learning Disabilities: Diagnosis and Remediation 1971 Aims to help readers interpret test results for students with psycholinguistic learning disabilities.
Phonic Remedial Reading Lessons 1985 Provides a programmed method of teaching reading to children who are struggling readers.


  1. ^ a b c d Thomas, Jr., R. (1996, July 28). Samuel A. Kirk, 92, Pioneer Of Special Education Field. Retrieved October 29, 2015.
  2. ^ Introduction to Learning Disabilities. (2007). Retrieved October 29, 2015.
  3. ^ Cheryl Hanley-Maxwell; Lana Collet-Klingenberg (4 August 2011). Education. SAGE Publications. pp. 175–176. ISBN 978-1-4129-8690-8.
  4. ^ a b Downs, M. (2014, November 20). Led by Samuel Kirk, Illinois shaped the field of special education Archived 2015-11-20 at the Wayback Machine.. Retrieved October 29, 2015.
  5. ^ a b c Lloyd, J. (2009). S. A. Kirk. Retrieved October 29, 2015.
  6. ^ Dr. Samuel A. Kirk, 92, Father Of ‘Special Education’ (1996, July 29). Retrieved October 29, 2015.
  7. ^ Noilon, R. (2013, December 12). What is a Learning Disability? . Retrieved October 29, 2015.
  8. ^ Kirk, S., & Johnson, G. (1951). Educating the Retarded Child. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Riverside Press.