Specific Learning Difficulties

What are Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs) ?

SpLDs are neurological disorders that affect the way information is received and processed. Students with SpLDs may experience significant difficulties with certain aspects of learning, as well as the perception and understanding of visual and auditory information. Speech, language and communication impairments and information processing disorders make it difficult for students to communicate or understand ideas. Individuals are affected to different degrees.

The most common SpLDs are (click on the names below for more information):


Word Swirl

Dyslexia is the most common SpLD and is believed to affect between 10% and 20% of people to some degree. It often occurs together with other learning difficulties. It is characterised by a combination of difficulties in reading, writing and spelling that affect the ability to process, store and retrieve information that makes the learning process more difficult. Accompanying disadvantages are identified in the speed of processing, problems with short-term working memory and time perception, organisation and learning sequences.

Impact on Study:


  • Marked discrepancy between students’ ability, and their understanding/standard of work being produced
  • Persistent or severe problems with spelling, even with easy or common work
  • Poor short term memory, especially for language-based information
  • Difficulties with organisation, classification and categorisation
  • Poor pronunciation or word finding difficulties


  • Difficulties in note-taking owing to poor short term memory and handwriting
  • Word finding difficulties may be inhibiting when talking or discussing in large groups
  • Student may struggle to reach deadlines especially owing to difficulties in the organisation or categorisation of work

Student Experiences (dyslexia)

Anika Jamieson-Cook, a final-year student of drawing at Camberwell School of Art, says her computer has been her most important tool in dealing with dyslexia, particularly in allowing her to convert e-mails to spoken words:

“The biggest problem is that they don’t understand it,” she says. She says they need to find out what a particular student finds difficult without being patronizing. “Sometimes people talk a lot more slowly to you, as if you were deaf.”

For more information on recognising dyslexia and support available, see:



Dyspraxia, otherwise known as Developmental Co-ordination Disorder (DCD), is a condition affecting motor co-ordination. As well as difficulties in physical coordination and spatial awareness/perception, students may also experience difficulties with memory, and information processing. Students may thereby encounter difficulties in planning, organising and carrying out movements in the right order in everyday situations. Dyspraxia can also affect articulation in speech and thought.

Impact on Study:


  • Difficulties with expression and social interaction, particularly in groups
  • Untidy and slow writing, problems maintaining accuracy in for example writing and movement
  • Problems negotiating directions
  • Difficulty in organization: planning and structuring essays for example
  • Difficulty following more than one instruction simultaneously
  • Physical clumsiness


  • Difficulties with social interaction may trigger problems with group work or assessed presentations. Poor expression may lead to confusion or cross-purposes between student and tutor
  • Clumsiness and general inaccuracy may be potentially harmful when carrying out field or lab work
  • Difficulties with writing speed and writing legibility will hinder the student’s ability to ‘keep up’ in lectures
  • Slowness in processing information and organisational skills may mean students struggles to reach deadlines, having to put a lot more thought and energy into production of work

Additional Information


Developmental Dyscalculia (DD) is characterised by impairments in learning basic arithmetic facts, processing numerical magnitude and performing accurate and fluent calculations. These difficulties are quantifiably below what is expected for an individual’s chronological age, and are not caused by poor educational or daily activities or by intellectual impairments.


Dyscalculia often occurs in association with other developmental disorders such as dyslexia or ADHD/ADD. Co-occurrence is generally assumed to be a consequence of risk factors that are shared between disorders, for example, working memory. However, it should not be assumed that all dyslexics have problems with mathematics, although the percentage may be very high, or that all dyscalculics have problems with reading and writing. This latter rate of co-occurrence may well be a much lower percentage.

Impact on Study:


  • Poor sense of number and estimation
  • Difficulty in remembering ‘basic’ facts, despite practice
  • Has no sense of whether any answers that are obtained are right or nearly right
  • Forgets mathematical procedures, especially as they become more complex, for example ‘long’ division
  • Addition is often the default operation. The other operations are usually very poorly executed (or avoided altogether)
  • Avoiding tasks that are perceived as difficult and likely to result in a wrong answer


  • Student tends to be slower to perform calculations
  • May often produce inaccurate work
  • High levels of mathematics anxiety – may avoid work – struggles meeting deadlines and with course participation, especially with assessment

Additional Information:


Dysgraphia affects written expression; it is either language or non-language based. It can appear as difficulties with spelling, poor handwriting and trouble putting thoughts on paper.

Dysgraphia that is caused by a language disorder may be characterised by the person having difficulty converting the sounds of language into written form, or knowing which alternate spelling to use for each sound. A person with dysgraphia may write their letters in reverse, have trouble recalling how letters are formed, or when to use lower or upper case letters. A person with dysgraphia may struggle to form written sentences with correct grammar and punctuation, with common problems including omitting words, words ordered incorrectly, incorrect verb and pronoun usage and word ending errors. People with dysgraphia may speak more easily and fluently than they write.

Non-language based dysgraphia is caused by difficulties performing the controlled fine motor skills required to write.

Impact on Study:


  • Unfinished words or letters, omitted words
  • Strange wrist, body, or paper position
  • Slow or laboured copying or writing
  • Large gap between written ideas and understanding demonstrated through speech
  • Difficulty organising thoughts on paper


  • Inconsistent and often illegible writing – makes work difficult to mark
  • Student’s thoughts may often be misinterpreted
  • Student may struggle to reach deadlines owing to slow working speed
  • Likely to find keeping sufficient notes in lectures impossible

How to Help:

  • Accommodations: providing alternatives to written expression, such as adjusting assessments (oral)
  • Modifications: changing expectations or tasks to minimize or avoid the area of weakness
  • Remediation: providing instruction for improving handwriting and writing skills

Additional Information

Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder (ADHD/ADD)

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a group of behavioural symptoms that include inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsiveness. If no hyperactivity is present, the term Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) should be used.

Common symptoms of ADHD/ADD include:

  • a short attention span or being easily distracted
  • restlessness, constant fidgeting or over-activity
  • being impulsive

ADHD/ADD is more common in people with learning difficulties. People with ADHD/ADD may also have additional problems, such as sleep and anxiety disorders.

Autistic characteristics can co-exist with the conditions described above. Those affected often demonstrate unusual behaviours due to inflexible thinking, over-reliance on routines, and a lack of social and communication skills.

Impact on Study:


  • Most people with ADHD/ADD fail to make effective use of feedback
  • Unpredictable and inappropriate behaviour, blurting out inappropriate comments or interrupting excessively. Some people come across unintentionally as aggressive.
  • Lack of sleep and anxiety
  • Problems remaining focused so may appear ‘dreamy’ and not to be paying attention. People 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


  • Miscommunications between student and tutor. Tutor may interpret student’s actions as ‘lazy’ or rude
  • Student may fall behind on work or misinterpret assignments, and struggle to catch up, consequently struggling to meet deadlines and fulfil their academic potential for assessment
  • If student does not learn from feedback, they may have difficulty progressing
  • Lack of sleep and anxiety may lead to physical exhaustion and genuine lack of motivation, and therefore poor quality work

Additional Information


Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people. It also affects how they make sense of the world around them.

The three main areas of difficulty which all people with autism share are sometimes known as the ‘triad of impairments’. They are:

  • difficulty with social communication
  • difficulty with social interaction
  • difficulty with social imagination

Like most SpLDs, autism is a spectrum condition, meaning that while all people with autism share certain difficulties, their condition will affect them in different ways. Autism may be referred to as an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). People with autism may also experience over or under-sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light or colours.

Asperger syndrome is a form of autism. People with Asperger syndrome are often of average or above average intelligence. They have fewer problems with speech but may still have difficulties with understanding and processing language.

Impact on Study:


  • Difficulty in understanding others- may not speak at all, may copy someone else’s speech, or speak only about a particular subject
  • May find co-ordination difficult, like the ability to hold a pen or use scissors
  • May exceed in one particularly subject or activity above others
  • May only be able to concentrate on one activity


  • May have very short-attention span, and thereby be prone to irritability
  • Difficulty with field and lab work owing to physical co-ordination problems
  • May misunderstand instructions for assignments

How to Help:

Be aware that student may need specialist mentoring or facilitators present with them during lectures, exams and field work etc.


Additional Information:

Click here to view the University policy on SpLDs.

Helping Students with SpLDs:

  • Making assumptions about what students with SpLDs are or are not able to do is easy if one generalises their symptoms (may be done subconsciously). Most SpLDs are spectrum conditions. Get to know the student’s particular needs in advance- suggest a one-to-one meeting
  • Provide confidential opportunities for individual feedback
  • Avoid drawing attention to or identifying specific individuals with an SpLD within a group environment. Otherwise student may feel alienated
  • Be patient; especially with student’s often frequent inability to process information at regular speed. SpLDs can affect students of any intellectual ability

Suggested Strategies – Lectures:

In lectures, the process of reading, writing, listening and summarising simultaneously, and at speed, can be difficult (and sometimes impossible) for students with SpLDs who struggle to hold ideas in short-term memory, and process them into writing at a slow speed. (Understanding and engaging with content is not the specific issue.)

  • Provide a clear overview of what will be covered, preferably as a hand-out, highlighting the main arguments, key concepts and new/difficult vocabulary
  • Allow time for students to read hand-outs if they are going to be referred to during a lecture / tutorial
  • Be explicit when you are introducing a new theme or concept and clarifying new language, provide as many concrete examples as possible
  • Use a variety of methods, even with large groups, for example, short discussion opportunities in pairs or groups; diagrams or mind-maps- visual material
  • Invite students to record lectures/tutorials or use other technological support, if required
  • Regularly pause to summarise key themes / issues covered (including at the end of the lecture)
  • Avoid asking students to read aloud or calling on specific individuals to respond to questions
  • Use clear overhead projections or slides, keeping content limited

Suggested Strategies – Assignments and written work:

  • Provide essay / assignment questions as early as possible
  • Give specific instructions and use unambiguous language in essay questions
  • Use a clear, concise writing style
  • Keep layout clear and simple. For example, avoid patterned backgrounds; use a clear font (such as Arial) rather than Times New Roman
  • Use printed rather than hand-written notes
  • Avoid lots of dense text – using paragraphs, headings, sub-headings, bullet points etc
  • Print on cream paper, rather than white. The glare of black on white can make text harder to decode
  • Provide references that have electronic copies available, where there is a choice (enables students to use text-to-speech software)

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