Claire studied autism, childhood and psychology at The Open University and has o 20 years experience caring for children with special needs.
What are Specific Learning Difficulties?
Specific learning difficulties or SpLD are a set of neurological conditions that affect the way a person learns and processes information. They tend to run in families and can be present regardless of the person’s level of intelligence. Even someone with a very high IQ can have a SpLD. Specific learning difficulties is a term used to describe a range of difficulties that a person may have. These include dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia.
Problems in processing information can be broken down into several smaller groups:
Information is received by the brain via the senses and in particular through our eyes and ears. Children who have SpLDs may have difficulties with one or both of these which can lead to them having trouble understanding what is happening or being said or what is required of them.
Words can be broken down into smaller units known as letters and each letter has a corresponding sound, known as a phoneme. Specific learning difficulties can make it difficult for a child to distinguish between the subtle differences in these sounds. They may not be able to hear the sounds at all or may take longer than children to work out what they are hearing. Because of this understanding spoken language can become hard and frustrating, especially when there is lots of background noise or other sounds having at the same time.
As well as having different sounds, each letter has a different graphical representation, known as a grapheme. Children who have learning difficulties may struggle to identify the small differences between these and therefore misread and write them. Children may struggle especially with letters that are very similar such as ‘b’ and‘d’ or ‘p’ and ‘q’. Children may also find it hard to focus on the particular letter or word that they are reading amongst a page of text. This can lead to them accidentally skipping words or lines of text when reading or to lose their place meaning they read the same parts over and over.
Learning difficulties can also make it hard for a child to combine the information that each eye receives. This will have a negative effect on their depth perception and can cause them to misjudge depth or distance. This may mean that they appear clumsy or careless to others and can also cause problems with their hand-to-eye coordination.
The bringing together and understanding of all the information received by the brain is known as integration. The sequencing, abstraction and organisation of this information is also including within the process of integration.
- Sequencing is the process of putting information into the correct order. Examples of this are in reciting the alphabet or counting.
- Abstraction refers to making sense of information. In some cases this will be beyond the obvious literal meaning.
- Organisation is the use of the information to form thoughts or using it to organise the physical environment, for example in tidying a space or creating a timetable to structure a day.
Learning difficulties can cause a range of problems in these areas as they affect the ways in which the brain is able to manipulate, store, retrieve and use information.
Memory is a very important aspect of learning. It enables children to remember what they have been told and retrieve it for use at a later date. Memory can be divided into three different types each of which have a different function in learning and life.
Working memory enables a person to retain information that they have just heard while they continue to listen and receive further information. This stream of information is held in working memory until it has all been taken in. The brain can then process and blend the information together and understand it as a whole. Problems with working memory can lead to children struggling to understand sentences as a whole because although they understand what each word means, by the time they have worked each out they will lose the overall meaning of the words that came before. The reading of lengths of text can be problematic as a child may not be able to hold the meaning of what they have already read in their working memory for long enough to understand the entire piece of text. Working memory difficulties can also cause problems in working out math problems even if the child is able to understand what they need to do.
The short term memory retains information for a short time after it has been received by the brain. This makes reading easier or answering questions on something that was seen or read easier. Specific learning difficulties can cause short term memory to be limited and although a child may fully understand information and instructions at the time they are given, they may forget them before they are able to carry out what has been asked or to follow instructions.
Our long term memory is where all the information our brains have received and stored is kept. Information can be stored from days, months and even years previously and assessed when needed. SpLDs can cause problems with information being retained in long term memory and also with a child’s ability to retrieve the information when needed.
There are two main forms of language output, spontaneous and on demand. Spontaneous output refers to situations where the person’s thoughts have already been organised into words and have been chosen and found before the person begins to speak. On demand language output requires a person to search through their memory, organise their thoughts, find words and speak almost all at the same time. An example of this is when you are asked an unexpected question. In order to answer you need to be able to retrieve the information from memory, chose the correct words to use and in the correct order and then say these to the questioner.
Children who have SpLD often have no problems with spontaneous language but may struggle with the more difficult task presented by on demand language due to having to use several processes at once. These difficulties can be made more pronounced if the child also has difficulties in any of the areas needed such as working memory or in retrieving information from long term memory.
Children who have SpLDs also commonly have difficulties with fine motor skills. They may struggle to hold a pen in the correct way or to apply the correct pressure in order to write. They may experience problems with colouring within lines, using scissors, tying their shoe laces or using a knife and fork.
Dyslexia is believed to be the most common SpLD and is thought to effect around 10% of the population. It is unrelated to intelligence and often runs in families. Although dyslexia is often referred to as ‘reading disability’ it can cause problems in areas of learning other than reading.
Dyslexia is a difficulty in process information received by the brain and can include problems with the storage and retrieval of information from memory. It can be accompanied by problems with memory, slow processing of information, difficulties with time perception and problems with sequencing and organisation, map reading or navigation and also with distinguishing reliably between left and right.
Writing is a complex set of skills that involves fine motor skills, motor skills and information processing often all at once. Dysgraphia causes problems in these areas and can make it very hard for a child to write. The may have problems with spelling, forming letters, handwriting or writing their thoughts and ideas down. Children who have dysgraphia may also struggle to organise numbers, letter and words into the correct sequences.
Dysgraphia causes problems in the ability to process what the eyes are seeing, known as visual-spatial problems. Additionally it can mean that a person has difficulty in making sense of what their ears hear.
Dyspraxia is also sometimes known as Developmental Coordination Disorder or DCD. It is a motor disorder that can affect both fine and gross motor skills. Individual children may present differing levels of difficulty in these areas, with one being more affected than the other. It is also possible that one may be affected and the other is within normal limits.
Coordination problems can affect every area of a child’s life including their learning and school experiences. They may struggle with everyday tasks such as dressing and washing themselves as well as with writing, typing, tidying or operating a computer. As adults someone who has dyspraxia may have trouble driving a car, operating machinery, with cooking or keeping their home clean and tidy.
Dyscalculia may be diagnosed when a child has difficulties relating to maths symbols and concepts. As with other specific learning difficulties the children’s intelligence will not be affected but they may find even simple concepts used in math hard or even impossible to grasp. Learning numbers, telling the time, understanding prices and using money or quantities can be very difficult for someone who has been diagnosed with dyscalculia.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2014 Claire