SpLenDiD – Specific Learning Difficulties Demystified.

One of our greatest challenges as educators is to efficiently attend to the learning needs of our students, across HUGE continuums over MANY subject areas. And that’s prior to taking into account the social and emotional elements of our job. The reality is that we don’t teach little robots who all come to school from equal backgrounds, having lived the same experiences and grown up in the same set of circumstances; yet we have just one curriculum with its accompanying outcomes, dictating what we must achieve with the majority of our students.

Thankfully there is much available in the provision of advice, resources and assistance to us, across each of the planning, preparing, implementing, assessing, analysing and reporting stages. How we access and utilise this assistance is ultimately up to us; often it’s in direct response to a student placed in our charge. And it’s still bloody hard work.

We must be mindful of the distinction between ‘Intellectual Disability’, 'Learning Disabilities’ and ‘Learning Difficulties’. Students who have an Intellectual Disability have an IQ at or below 70; scored by psychologists following a formal cognitive assessment. The disability as such, covers not only academia and the ability to learn, but also social and emotional development and a lack of age appropriate skills required for daily living.

The teacher has filled in a seemingly endless amount of paperwork to make an assessment and diagnosis possible… we all love a Vineland, right? When I coordinated the Program for Students with Disabilities (PSD) in my school, I used to tell teachers that we had to jump through hoops in order just to have a child assessed, and then jump through more hoops (that were set alight and moving erratically) to have them funded once deemed eligible. Vital funding in order to put into place some necessary support for the student and teachers alike. Once the ball is rolling, an updated Individual Learning Plan based on recommendations from the funding submission is developed and enacted, and termly Student Support Group meetings take place to enable teachers, Education Support Staff and parents to formulate ongoing plans; the goal to make school as great a success for that child as possible.

Correctly identifying students who we feel may be eligible for a cognitive assessment certainly isn’t an easy process. Welfare coordinators and psychologists will tell us that we must proceed cautiously before we go contacting psychologists and arranging expensive tests. My argument has always been that cognitive assessments may be costly, but they show much more than an IQ score and possible funding eligibility. They identify apparent weaknesses and strengths that we can then use to build upon in order to improve cognitive function and more importantly, allow the child to ultimately experience success in their learning. We sometimes see teachers, support staff and parents who assume that because a student isn’t learning at the same rate as their peers, or because they are having trouble with one or two areas of the curriculum, they obviously need a cognitive assessment. Well yes, an IQ assessment may be beneficial, but to say that we think a child has an intellectual disability is a big call and one that can’t be taken too lightly.

Intellectual Disabilities are lifelong and inescapable; they do not respond particularly easily, even to intensive education intervention. A Learning Disability affects a child's ability to develop skills without affecting their overall intellectual capabilities. Children who are diagnosed with learning disabilities may have trouble reading, writing, or speaking. Several causes need to be ruled out for a child to be identified with this type of disability. Her learning challenges can’t be caused by low intelligence. Problems with hearing or vision also need to be ruled out. The same goes for a lack of educational opportunity.

Learning Difficulties on the other hand, are viewed as being responsive to intensive educational intervention. The focus is on the functional educational difficulties rather than on specific causes. The label itself is an umbrella term for a group of disorders involving significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning or mathematical abilities. These disorders are specific to the individual (and vary significantly between individuals) and are presumed to be due to some kind of physical dysfunction within the central nervous system.

A learning difficulty is any one of a diverse group of conditions that cause significant difficulties in perceiving and/or processing auditory, visual or spatial information.

They involve one or more of the basic processes used in understanding or using spoken or written language. Of presumed neurological origin, they cover disorders that impair such functions as reading (dyslexia), writing (dysgraphia) and mathematical calculation (dyscalculia). They vary widely within each category in the patterns they exhibit.


From a teacher’s perspective, in order to plan appropriately we really need to do our homework and consider the direct implication of the particular learning difficulties of the individual student. Every test performed with that little person has an accompanying follow up written report from the relevant allied health professional. The report will come with a list of recommendations pertinent to that child. The worst thing we can do is file the paperwork without taking the time to read and really consider the impact upon that child’s ability to learn and retain their learning. Nobody’s kidding themselves here, it’s more work in an already challenging job. But how gratifying when we see the lights go on in their little heads should they achieve… learn… grow. Let the recommendations guide you in the development of their learning goals, it’s what they’re there for.

I took a fair bit of time to consider the exact approach to take when presenting this particular blog. The recent insistence here in Victoria at least, has been for teacher Professional Learning to focus upon the development of skills as teachers; a push for the pedagogy so to speak. Consequently, the emphasis has been taken from how students learn given the substantial variables mentioned earlier, and geared towards how we should all teach. I had to dig pretty deep into my bag of tricks to find information that I felt would be purposeful and at the same time, contemporary. Purposeful in the sense that any theories or suggested strategies would need to be able to fit with current methodologies, where so much of how we teach is predetermined almost down to the minute.

There are many excellent services and resources available but I found this mob a while ago and I’d like to share their really clear understandings regarding learning difficulties. Thinking about the students you have worked with, I’d be surprised if you couldn’t tick some of the boxes here.

FROM: Kid Sensean OT and Speech Therapy service provider in Adelaide.


Most learning difficulties are categorised as verbal or non-verbal learning difficulties.


Difficulty with both spoken and written words.Some people with verbal learning disabilities may be able to read or write adequately but have trouble with other aspects of language (e.g. they may be able to sound out a sentence or paragraph perfectly (thus reading well), but they can’t ‘make sense’ of what they are reading or form a mental picture of the situation they have read about).


Difficulty with the act of writing because the brain struggles to coordinate the many simultaneous tasks required (e.g. from moving their hand to form letter shapes to remembering the correct grammar required in a sentence).Difficulty processing what they see (e.g. having trouble making sense of visual details like numbers on a board, confusing the ‘+’ for ‘-’ in Maths).Difficulties understanding abstract concepts such as fractions.

Common difficulties often (but not always) experienced by the child with learning difficulties:

Slow vocabulary growth, often unable to find the right word.Difficulty rhyming words.Trouble learning numbers, alphabet, days of the week, colours and shapes.Extremely restless and easily distracted.Trouble interacting with peers.Difficulty following directions or routines.Fine motor skills are slow to develop.Transposes number sequences and confuses arithmetic signs (+, -, x, /, =).Slow to remember facts.Slow to learn new skills, relying heavily on memory.Impulsive and has difficulty planningPoor pencil grip and subsequent handwriting.Trouble learning to tell the time.Poor coordination and tends to appear unaware of physical surroundings. Unable to complete tasks within given time frames. Reverses letters or confuses words.

Further reading…



(Learning Difficulties Australia - LDA is an association of teachers and other professionals dedicated to assisting students with learning difficulties through effective teaching practices based on scientific research.)

Strategies for the classroom obviously need to be workable. Lots of these you will no doubt already be doing with many of your students, some you may have used in the past and possibly forgotten about. As I always say when I pass things on, feel free to use them or lose them. Choose what you know will work for you in your classroom, with your students.

Whole class or larger group strategies:

Read aloud any material that is written on the board or that is given in handouts.Prepared copies of lesson notes or resources.Front loading - provide experiences or readings before the start of a lesson so that reading can begin early. Consider tailoring reading and provide guidance to key texts. Allow work to be completed on an in-depth study of a few texts rather than a broad study of many.Students may benefit from using assistive technology.Use as many verbal descriptions as possible to supplement material presented on board. Students with a learning disability often have a marked preference for an auditory mode of learning.Present information in a range of formats – handouts, worksheets, iPads, videos – to meet a diversity of learning styles.Use a variety of teaching methods so that students are not constrained by needing to acquire information by reading only. Where possible, present material diagrammatically - in lists, flow charts, concept maps etc.Keep diagrams uncluttered and use colour wherever appropriate to distinguish and highlight. In Reading Recovery we were told that black marker on yellow paper stood out the most. Ensure that lists of technical / professional jargon which students will need to learn are available early in the unit.

Students with a learning disability find it difficult to listen and write at the same time.

Being able to record lessons will assist those students who have handwriting or coordination problems and those who write slowly as well as those who have a tendency to mishear or misquote.Students will be more likely to follow correctly the sequence of material in a class if they are able to listen to the material more that once.Repetition is important for students with a learning disability. Wherever possible, ensure that key statements and instructions are repeated or highlighted in some way.Students with a learning disability are generally not efficient users of time and so will benefit from discussion on time management and organisation issues. Such discussions can be built into lesson activities.Students with a learning disability may benefit from having oral rather than written feedback on their written assignments – even better to offer both.

I’m a firm believer on sharing the load when it’s to the benefit of all. Don’t be afraid to accept offers of assistance from parents, and make sure to put them to good use (beyond changing the take home readers.) Ask them to work with a more independent or capable group, so that you are freed up to spend some extra time with your students with additional needs. The same goes with the aides in your classroom (if you are lucky enough to have them!) So often they are asked to work with your funded students or those with additional needs, which is great, but ask them to work with a larger group of more capable students to free you up to spend the extra time with your kids with learning or behavioural difficulties. These amazing colleagues are also a wealth of knowledge and you should be planning for your students together. An Individual Plan needs to be a working document, updated to reflect change and/or progress. Your support staff are usually the ones called upon to implement many of the strategies laid out in the plan so it’s only logical that they share ownership in its development and evaluation.

Finally you fabulous teachers, stay positive and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Our kids are fully capable of learning and thriving with the right guidance; let it be you who makes the difference. Talk about a job that makes us SMILE :)

Have a great week, Mrs. Sharon Sowter!

Have you thought about joining me in Bali this January? I will be there with some other teach friends, it's going to be the best time and we will learn so much...

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