What are Specific Learning Difficulties?
Specific Learning Difficulties (or SpLDs), affect the way information is learned and processed. They are neurological (rather than psychological), usually run in families and occur independently of intelligence. They can have significant impact on education and learning and on the acquisition of literacy skills.
SpLD is an umbrella term used to cover a range of frequently co-occurring difficulties, more commonly:
Auditory Processing Disorder.
SpLDs can also co-occur with difficulties on the autistic spectrum such as Asperger Syndrome.
Be aware that similar terminology can lead to confusion. For example, the term ‘Learning Difficulties’ is generally applied to people with global (as opposed to specific) difficulties, indicating an overall impairment of intellect and function.
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 they 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 This can result in a child becoming withdrawn, or more commonly to develop behavioural issues.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 specific learning difficulties.
Types of Specific Learning Difficulty.
Dyslexia: Dyslexia is a hidden disability thought to affect around 10% of the population, 4% severely. It is the most common of the SpLDs. Dyslexia is usually hereditary.
A student with dyslexia may mix up letters within words and words within sentences while reading. They may also have difficulty with spelling words correctly while writing; letter reversals are common.
However Dyslexia is not only about literacy, although weaknesses in literacy are often the most visible sign. Dyslexia affects the way information is processed, stored and retrieved, with problems of memory, speed of processing, time perception, organisation and sequencing. Some may also have difficulty navigating a route, left and right and compass directions.
Dyspraxia/DCD: Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD), also known as Dyspraxia in the UK, is a common disorder affecting fine and/or gross motor coordination in children and adults. This condition is formally recognised by international organisations including the World Health Organisation. DCD is distinct from other motor disorders such as cerebral palsy and stroke. The range of intellectual ability is in line with the general population. Individuals may vary in how their difficulties present; these may change over time depending on environmental demands and life experience, and will persist into adulthood.
An individual’s coordination difficulties may affect participation and functioning of everyday life skills in education, work and employment. Children may present with difficulties with self-care, writing, typing, riding a bike, play as well as other educational and recreational activities. In adulthood many of these difficulties will continue, as well as learning new skills at home, in education and work, such as driving a car and DIY. There may be a range of co-occurring difficulties which can also have serious negative impacts on daily life. These include social emotional difficulties as well as problems with time management, planning and organisation and these may impact an adult’s education or employment experiences.
Dyscalculia: is a difficulty understanding maths concepts and symbols. It is characterised by an inability to understand simple number concepts and to master basic numeracy skills. There are likely to be difficulties dealing with numbers at very elementary levels; this includes learning number facts and procedures, telling the time, time keeping, understanding quantity, prices and money. Difficulties with numeracy and maths are also common with dyslexia.
A.D.H.D/A.D.D. Signs of Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder include inattention, restlessness, impulsivity, erratic, unpredictable and inappropriate behaviour, blurting out inappropriate comments or interrupting excessively. Some students come across unintentionally as aggressive. Most fail to make effective use of feedback.
If no hyperactivity is present, the term Attention Deficit Disorder should be used: these individuals 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. Often co-occurs with dyslexia.
Auditory Processing Disorder: 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: autistic characteristics such as Asperger 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.
- Memory difficulties.
- Organisational difficulties.
- Writing difficulties.
- Visual processing difficulties.
- Reading difficulties.
- Auditory processing difficulties.
- Time management difficulties.
- Sensory distraction: an inability to screen out extraneous visual or auditory stimuli.
- Sensory overload: a heightened sensitivity to visual stimuli and sound; an inability to cope with busy environments.
Between 35-40% of pupils with dyslexic difficulties may experience visual disturbance when reading:
Text can appear distorted and words or letters appear to move or become blurred.
There may be difficulties tracking across the page.
White paper or backgrounds can appear too dazzling and make print hard to decipher.
Good lighting can help overcome some visual problems and in particular the avoidance of white boards and white paper. Coloured filters can help settle down visual disturbance.
For further information see Eyes and Dyslexia.
Close attention to the presentation of written material is vital to visual learning. See Dyslexia Style Guide.
This is an excellent video explaining dyslexia: Left from Write http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GPhV9SyVmwA