Specific Learning Difficulties (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, most commonly known as:
- Dyspraxia or Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD)
- Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD or AD(H)D)
As with any disability, no two individuals experience the same combination of difficulties and some people may exhibit signs of more than one SpLD, such as:
- Memory difficulties.
- Organisational difficulties.
- Writing 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; a challenge to cope within busy environments.
Dyslexia is the most common SpLD. Some students with dyslexia may mix up letters within words and words within sentences while reading or writing. They may also have difficulty with spelling words correctly while writing and experience letter reversal. However, dyslexia is not only about literacy, although weaknesses in literacy are often the most visible signs. dyslexia affects the way information is processed, stored and retrieved, with challenges related to memory, speed of processing, time perception, organisation and sequencing.
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. As with all SpLDs, dyspraxia occurs across the whole range of intelligence. This condition is formally recognised by international organisations including the World Health Organisation. An individual’s coordination difficulties may affect participation and functioning of everyday life skills in education, work and employment. Adults may experience challenges in the acquisition of new skills at home, in education and work. There may be a range of co-occurring difficulties, such as social emotional difficulties as well as problems with time-management, planning and organisation and these may impact on a student’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, time-keeping, understanding quantity, prices and money. Although many students from a range of disciplines may have challenges related to numeracy, true dyscalculia is infrequently diagnosed due to its rarity among the general population.
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: individuals affected have particular challenges maintaining focus 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.
Dr Elke Weissman from the Department of Media at Edge Hill discusses how she has supported students with SPLDs on her modules.
Positive ways you can support a student with a SpLD
Talk to the student about their SpLD and find out how it affects them and consider ways to support them, such as:
- Providing an inclusive teaching and learning environment such as making your resources accessible.
- Being patient with the student – students with a SpLD may find tasks more challenging and may require more time and support so it is important to be patient with them.
- Reassure students that you are trying to understand how their disability affects them and discuss ways that you can support them.
- Signpost students to resources such as Assistive Technology and apps.
- Using the inclusive digital practice toolkit may be useful for you and the student
- Being sure to use technology such as Lecture Capture to support students who may be unable to attend the lecture on the day or may benefit from watching and listening to the lecture more than once to help them understand and absorb the information at their own pace.
- Check if there are any reasonable adjustments you can put in place to support the student.
If you are unsure of how to support the student or you need advice on reasonable adjustments refer the student to Catalyst for specialist support – see the how to refer tab for more information.
It is important to consider that students with SpLD may have had negative experiences of stigma and judgement throughout their education and life. It is therefore important to be aware of what you say to students.
- Don’t say phrases like “You just need to focus”, “You need to try harder”, “Check your spelling”, “You get extra time for exams? Isn’t that an unfair advantage?”, “There’s no such thing as ADHD”, “It’s just an excuse!”
- Don’t be judgemental.
- Don’t be impatient with the student if they are finding things more challenging or are taking longer to complete a task.
- Don’t leave the student to struggle without referring them for learning support.
Check if there are any reasonable adjustments you can put in place to support the student.
If a student discloses a SpLD or you notice some indicators of a SpLD, please direct them to the Disability Support team in Catalyst.
Refer to the Student Support Plan if the student has one – these are shared with the named contact in the Department or Faculty.
If the student requires support with anything else including accommodation, money advice or wellbeing support contact the Catalyst Helpdesk to make a referral.
If your student’s disability or condition is affecting their wellbeing or mental health see our Mental Health toolkits for advice on how to support them.
Useful links and further reading
Visit the Disability Support team’s webpages for more information.
What are specific learning difficulties?
Inclusive Digital Practice Toolkit
SpLD Assessment Standards Committee