Understanding types of learning difficulty

All students learn in different ways and have different strengths and challenges. A learning difficulty can affect aspects of a student’s ability to learn. Some common examples are:

  • dyslexia
  • dyscalculia
  • dysgraphia
  • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • developmental coordination disorder (DCD)
  • developmental language disorder (DLD).

Dyslexia, dyscalculia and dysgraphia are sometimes called specific learning disabilities.

Dyslexia

Dyslexia is a language-based difficulty of neurological origin that affects the skills involved in the accurate and fluent reading of words. It is one of the most common reading difficulties.

Current research suggests that dyslexia may be caused by a genetic predisposition. It is a persistent, life-long condition and affects students across the range of intellectual abilities.

Some of the common features for people with dyslexia may include difficulties with:

  • learning letters and their corresponding sounds
  • organising spoken and written language
  • reading quickly enough to comprehend
  • spelling
  • keeping up with, and following longer assignments.

Aspects of reading

Reading difficulties can be understood from the perspective of how reading is usually learnt. Reading competence develops from the integration of a number of aspects of knowledge including a student’s:

  • oral language knowledge and the ability to speak and listen. This includes a student’s vocabulary, their knowledge of how ideas are expressed and organised in sentences and how language is used to communicate with others in a range of ways.
  • experiential or episodic knowledge. This includes a student’s bank of stored experiences such as their knowledge of self in relation to others and their knowledge of how to think and learn.
  • knowledge and use of a range of symbols. This includes how a student learns to use a range of symbols to think about objects and events such as alphanumeric symbols.
  • ability to think about ideas in a range of ways and manage and direct their thinking activity. This includes thinking skills such as retaining and manipulating knowledge in short-term working memory; sequencing and categorising; visualising; framing goals and intentions; learning in everyday contexts; directing and maintaining attention and persisting to complete tasks, and using corrective feedback adaptively.
  • attitude to themselves as literacy users and learners. This includes awareness of themselves as learners of literacy and their disposition towards literacy, such as motivation to learn and engage in literacy.

As students move through the years of schooling, these related aspects of knowledge continue to develop and influence literacy learning.

A reciprocal relationship exists between these areas of literacy knowledge; for example, a student’s oral language knowledge influences how well they read and comprehend texts; similarly what a student comprehends during reading can extend their oral language knowledge.

Dyscalculia

Dyscalculia affects the understanding and learning of mathematics.

Many children have difficulties with maths. But it’s the level of difficulty and how they cope with different teaching methods that indicate whether a student has dyscalculia.

Signs of dyscalculia

In lower primary, signs can include:

  • difficulties organising objects and sets of items logically
  • difficulties recognising printed numbers
  • poor counting skills
  • difficulties remembering maths facts.

In mid to upper primary school, signs can include:

  • good counting but poor calculation skills
  • difficulties with measurement
  • difficulties remembering common maths facts
  • anxiety and a negative attitude towards maths.

In secondary school, signs can include:

  • difficulties learning maths concepts
  • difficulties with mental maths
  • difficulties finding more than one way to solve a maths problem
  • a poor perception of time and difficulties following a schedule.

Dysgraphia

Dysgraphia is a specific learning difficulty in written expression, handwriting and spelling. Your child may have difficulties in all or one of these areas.

Children with dysgraphia may be able to talk about their ideas, but have difficulties with:

  • the mechanics of handwriting (motor-based dysgraphia)
  • organising and expressing their ideas in writing (language-based dysgraphia).

Signs of dysgraphia

In lower primary, signs can include:

  • good reading but poor writing skills
  • awkward pencil grip
  • avoiding writing, drawing or colouring tasks
  • immature drawing and colouring
  • poorly formed letters
  • poor spacing and sizing of letters and words in handwriting.

In mid to upper primary school, signs can include:

  • writing is slow and hard work
  • finding the process of writing difficult and tiring
  • immature handwriting
  • poor sentence and paragraph structure.

In secondary school, signs can include:

  • hard-to-read handwriting
  • slower handwriting than their peers
  • finding it hard to put thoughts into written words
  • an obvious gap between oral and written language skills.

Visit the AUSPELD website for more information about dyslexia, dyscalculia and dysgraphia.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental condition. It affects parts of the brain that control attention, impulses and concentration.

In most cases, ADHD is a lifelong condition.

Signs of ADHD can include:

  • difficulties focusing on or getting started on individual tasks​
  • being easily distracted
  • losing or misplacing things ​
  • acting without thinking things through
  • difficulties planning and organising
  • difficulties managing emotions such as frustration and boredom.

Visit the ADHD Australia website for more information about ADHD.

Developmental coordination disorder (DCD)

DCD is a motor skill disorder that affects as many as one children in 20.

Children with DCD perform motor skills well below what is expected for a child of the same age. This significantly interferes with their academic achievement or activities of daily living and cannot be explained by intellectual delay, visual impairment, or other neurological conditions that affect movement.

Another term often used for DCD is dyspraxia. In Australia, DCD is preferred.

For more information about DCD see:

Developmental language disorder (DLD)

Developmental language disorder (DLD) (previously known as specific language disorder) is diagnosed when a student has persistent language problems that continue into school age, with a significant impact on everyday social interactions, emotional wellbeing, behavioural regulation and educational progress.

Difficulties with the comprehension and use of words and sentences to convey information and ideas are common for these students.

Problems can occur in different modalities of language: 

  • spoken 
  • written 
  • signed.

Language difficulties can go undetected and may not be evident unless the student’s receptive (understanding of) and expressive (use of) language is assessed formally. These students typically require additional help beyond targeted classroom support and should be referred to a speech pathologist for more detailed evaluation and intervention tailored to their specific needs. 

It is recognised that DLD emerges in early childhood, rather than being acquired or associated with a known biomedical cause. However, a language disorder may occur as part of a more complex pattern of conditions that requires a specific intervention pathway (for example, language disorder associated with autism spectrum disorder, intellectual disability or cerebral palsy).

Understanding learning difficulties: a practical guide

The AUSPELD Understanding Learning Difficulties: a practical guide for teachers (revised edition), developed by the Australian Federation of SPELD Associations (AUSPELD), has been designed by experts to provide principals and teachers with greater awareness and understanding of the significant impact learning difficulties such as dyslexia can have on students.

The guide also provides advice on a wide range of strategies for use in the classroom to more effectively support and meet the needs of students with learning difficulties. Victorian government teachers and school staff can access the guide and accompanying information sheets by logging in to FUSE.

The AUSPELD Understanding Learning Difficulties: a guide for parents is publicly available on FUSE and does not require a login.