What are Specific Learning Difficulties?


A specific learning difficulty [SpLD] is a difficulty with a particular aspect of learning, rather than all learning tasks. The term ‘learning difficulties’ is generally applied to people with global (as opposed to specific) difficulties, indicating an overall impairment of intellect and function. SpLD is an umbrella term for various neurodevelopmental syndromes such as:

  • Dyslexia;
  • Developmental Co-ordination Disorder [DCD], also known as Dyspraxia;
  • Dyscalculia;
  • Attention Deficit Disorder [ADD];
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder [ADHD];
  • Auditory Processing Disorder.

An individual child may often show more than one of these complex syndromes. It is argued that the co-occurrence of SpLDs may be caused by overlapping developmental pathways and interacting genetic and environmental influences. SpLDs can also co-occur with difficulties on the autistic spectrum such as Asperger’s Syndrome.

In general, a student may be diagnosed with a SpLD where there is a lack of achievement at age and ability level, or a large discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability.

An untrained observer may conclude that a student with a SpLD is ‘lazy’, or ‘just not trying hard enough’. For example s/he may find it difficult understanding the large discrepancy between reading comprehension and proficiency in verbal ability, or between reading level and poor written work. The observer only sees the input and output, not the processing of the information. Deficiencies in the processing of information can make learning and expressing ideas difficult or impossible tasks.

Because of the high level of co-occurrence between different SpLDs, it is important to understand that each profile is unique to the individual and can appear in a variety of ways. The effects of a SpLD are manifested differently for different students and range from mild to severe. It may be difficult to diagnose, to determine impact, and to accommodate.

Unidentified and unsupported dyslexia and related conditions can lead to emotional distress, frustration and poor self-esteem. This can result in a child becoming withdrawn, or more commonly to develop behavioural issues. Rather than focusing on behavioural problems, schools would be advised instead to address the possible underlying causes, which in many cases may be previously undiagnosed SpLDs.

boy_writing_frustrated_1bTypes of Specific Learning Difficulty [SpLD]

Dyslexia is the most commonly recognised form of SpLD, affecting about 10% of the population, 4% severely. It is usually hereditary and occurs across all levels of intelligence and socio-economic status.

A student with dyslexia often mixes up the order of letters within words and words within sentences while reading. They may also have difficulty with spelling words correctly while writing; persistent letter reversals are common.

However dyslexia is not only about difficulties in the acquisition of basic literacy skills, although these weaknesses are often the most visible sign. Dyslexia affects the way information is processed, stored and retrieved, with problems of short and long-term memory, difficulty in processing information at speed, phonological and automatic word recognition difficulties, time perception, organisation, co-ordination and sequencing. Some may also have difficulty in navigating a route, left and right, using a compass and following directions.

Developmental Co-ordination Disorder [DCD], also known as Dyspraxia in the UK, is a common disorder affecting fine and/or gross motor co-ordination in children and adults. They can often appear clumsy with poor balance and co-ordination and may be hesitant in running, skipping, hopping, holding a pencil, doing jig-saws, etc. Their articulation may also be immature, language late to develop, with poor awareness of body position and social skills.

DCD is distinct from other motor disorders such as cerebral palsy and stroke as the range of intellectual ability is in line with the general population. Individuals may vary in how their difficulties present, which may change over time depending on environmental demands and life experience, and will persist into adulthood.

Children may have difficulties with self-care, writing, typing, riding a bike, play, as well as other educational and recreational activities which may persist into adulthood where it may affect learning of new skills such as driving a car and DIY.

Co-occurring difficulties can also have a negative impact on daily life such as social, emotional difficulties and time management which may impact on an adult’s education or employment experiences.

This SpLD affects acquisition of mathematical skills. Pupils may have difficulty understanding simple number concepts, lack an intuitive grasp of numbers and have problems learning number facts and procedures. Difficulties with numeracy and maths are also common with dyslexia.

Individuals with Attention Deficit Disorder [ADD] have particular problems remaining focused so may appear ‘dreamy’ and not to be paying attention. Students with this condition are very easily distracted, lose track of what they are doing and have poor listening skills. By failing to pay attention to details, they may miss key points. ADD often co-occurs with dyslexia.

Individuals with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder [ADHD] have specific problems with inattention, restlessness, impulsivity, and can be erratic and unpredictable, displaying inappropriate behaviour, blurting out inappropriate comments or interrupting excessively. Some students come across unintentionally as aggressive. Most fail to make effective use of feedback.

Auditory Processing Disorder
This is frequently associated with dyslexia, students may have difficulty understanding when listening, expressing themselves clearly using speech, reading, remembering instructions, understanding spoken messages and staying focused.

Autistic Spectrum Disorder [ASD]
Autistic characteristics such as Asperger’s Syndrome, can co-exist with the conditions described above. Those affected often demonstrate unusual behaviours due to inflexible thinking, over-reliance on routines, a lack of social and communication skills.

Some common characteristics of SpLDs include:

    • Auditory processing difficulties;
    • Memory difficulties;
    • Organisational difficulties;
    • Reading difficulties;
    • Sensory distraction: inability to screen out extraneous visual/auditory stimuli;
    • Time management difficulties;
    • Visual processing difficulties;
    • Writing difficulties.


Visual Stress
Many pupils with dyslexic difficulties report visual disturbances when reading:

  • Text can appear distorted and words or letters appear to move, merge, disappear or become blurred;
  • There may be difficulties tracking across the page from left to right;
  • Difficulties copying from the board;
  • White paper or backgrounds can appear too dazzling and make print hard to decipher.

Good lighting and avoidance of white boards and white paper can help overcome some visual problems. Tinted overlays and spectacles help alleviate eye strain and other visual discomforts.