Educators are aware that Specific Learning Difficulties (SLD) are not intellectual impairments.
Students with intellectual impairments are generally assessed as having reduced cognitive capacity, which has a global impact on learning and daily functioning. Further, many students may experience learning difficulties which may be temporary in nature and caused for example by ill health, or other economic or environmental factors.
However students with Specific Learning Difficulties have persistent, unexpected and significant difficulty in one or more academic areas while coping well, or excelling, in other areas of academic, sporting or artistic achievement.
These difficulties include impairments in reading, writing and/or maths. These difficulties are likely to endure, but none the less can be improved through effective intervention.
What matters is the functional impact a learning difficulty has on a student’s capacity to learn. Intervention and accommodations will enable these students to reach their learning potential, providing that the intervention and/or accommodation is appropriately aligned to the actual difficulty. The best outcomes are achieved when teachers and parents work on this in partnership.
What’s the difference between a Specific Learning Difficulty, Disorder, Disability and Differences?
Specific Learning Difficulties are sometimes referred to as Specific Learning Disorders (USA, DSM-V and ICD-10) or Specific Learning Disabilities, USA & sometimes Australia) and as Specific Learning Difficulties in UK.
Many Victorians will have a broad range of developmental learning difficulties, but what we are referring to as a Specific Learning Disability is the subset of Victorians who have a persistent, lifelong impairment in a specific academic area, and that this continues despite good teaching instruction and intervention.
In Victoria the terms are used interchangeably in different contexts.
In general, SPELD Victoria will refer to Specific Learning Difficulties, although for diagnostic purposes the word Disorders is used.
DSM-V is the handbook used by health care professionals in the United States and much of the world including Victoria as the authoritative guide to the diagnosis of mental disorders. (Please see DSM Frequently Asked Questions for further information.)
ICD-10 – International Statistical Classification of Diseases (USA) – published by the World Health Organization, this is the comprehensive classification system used to classify and code all diagnoses, symptoms and procedures. It includes four categories of Specific Developmental Disorders of
1) scholastic skills
2) speech and language
3) motor function
4) mixed specific
The Victorian PSD Review (Program for Students with Disabilities) Review (2016) refers to Disabilities, Disorders and Difficulties. The Department of Education & Training website also makes specific reference to Severe Language Disorders – Critical Educational Needs (SLD – CEN).
The Victorian Assessment and Curriculum Authority (VCAA) now refers to Specific Learning Disorders (previously referred to as Specific Learning Disabilities) and use the following definition.
Specific learning disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder with a biological origin. It is manifested in persistent difficulties with learning and using academic skills including handwriting, reading (word recognition and/or comprehension), spelling, written expression and mathematics. The affected area(s) are significantly below current grade expectations. A specific learning disorder is not attributable to intellectual disabilities, hearing or vision disorders, motor impairment, emotional disturbance or external factors such as environmental disadvantage, chronic absenteeism or lack of appropriate educational experience. Dyslexia is the most common type of specific learning disorder.
For more information please see Special Examination Arrangements for VCE external assessments
Sometimes the word Differences is used in place of difficulties, disorders or disabilities. Differences emphasizes the unique learning characteristics of all individuals, however this term does not capture the persistent and lifelong nature of the issues being covered by the use of words such as disorders and disabilities.
What SPELD Victoria does and how it can help
SPELD Victoria is committed to educating teachers and the wider education sector on all specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia; dysgraphia; and dyscalculia. We do this so teachers are better prepared and skilled at assisting students to fulfill their full learning potential, and schools proactively put in place the appropriate accommodations for a particular student’s needs.
SPELD Victoria continues to work collaboratively with the Department of Education to address learning difficulties for children and young people in Victorian government schools through the provision of professional development and learning for teachers and parents and other initiatives. SPELD Victoria also liaises with the wider education sector.
1- Professional Development and Learning (PD&L) for teachers in the area of Dyslexia and other Specific Learning Difficulties such as Dysgraphia and Dyscalculia is a high priority for SPELD Victoria. SPELD Victoria conducts professional development and learning on a regular basis for teachers at all levels, psychologists, social workers and other education and community sector professionals. Click here to see the latest workshop schedule. In addition we can provide in school, TAFE or tertiary setting PD&L by arrangement. Please Contact Us to make your enquiry. Teacher attendance at SPELD Victoria workshops will attract a PD&L certificate upon completion.
(SPELD Victoria also offers workshops for parents, you can find details on our events page)
2- Cognitive and educational Diagnostic Assessments conducted by developmental and educational psychologists. These Assessments go well beyond basic screening tests that simply raise red flags. Following testing, a comprehensive report is provided which details a complete learning profile and pathway forward for meeting an individual’s learning challenges. More information including guidance on when to seek an assessment can be found in the When to diagnose section.
3- Advisory services through Infoline and our Live Chat facility can provide immediate help and guidance on whatever the challenges are that you may be dealing with in the classroom. See Advisory and Advocacy Services for more information and hours of operation.
4- Advice on issues regarding children and young people with Specific Learning Difficulties like Dyslexia is available with consultant psychologists for school personnel with appropriate parent or carer permission. This service is also available for parents and carers. See our Other Services page.
5- SPELD Victoria also seeks to increase awareness of current evidence-based national and international research and interventions on Specific Learning Difficulties amongst the education, health and community sectors. See our Research page for further information.
6- New membership categories now exist to make membership with SPELD Victoria accessible to all teaching staff, schools and parents. Schools can take out an Organizational membership which will enable their staff to access Professional Development and Learning at reduced rates as well as access other information including the latest research on SLDs. Become a Member to join us today.
7- General information on Dyslexia and other Specific Learning Difficulties is available on this website. See Resources and Research or Contact Us for details on where to direct your enquiries.
The legal information principals and teachers need to know
Disability Discrimination Act (1992)
Section 4 – defines “disability” in relation to a person to mean (amongst other meanings):
(f) a disorder or malfunction that results in the person learning differently from a person without the disorder or malfunction;
Section 22 – of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 pertains specifically to Education. This Section is relatively short, and we would advise all educators to read it in full. It is explicit about the discriminatory nature of refusing to admit, exclude, or expel students on the basis that they have a disability.
In particular clause 2A(a) states that it is unlawful to discriminate by developing curricula or training courses having a content that will either exclude the person from participation, or subject the person to any other detriment
Section 37 refers to Harassment in Education and states in part: it is unlawful for a staff member to harass a student who has a disability in relation to the disability.
Sections 5 and 6 speak about direct and indirect discrimination, and this includes discussion on reasonable adjustments, and that an act of discrimination occurs where these are withheld (2b and c). The definition of “reasonable adjustment” is found in section 4 and provides for an exemption where it would impose and unjustifiable hardship on the person making the adjustment.
Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities (2006)
Victoria has a Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Charter of Human Rights and which states that “human rights belong to all people without discrimination, and the diversity of the people of Victoria enhances our community”.
Melbourne Declaration on the Educational Goals for Young Australians (2008)
The Melbourne Declaration on the Educational Goals for Young Australians outlines how ‘As a nation Australia values the central role of education’ in building a democratic, equitable and just society. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities states that “we must address the learning needs of all students”. Getting an Education and Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – Human rights at your fingertips
Children with dyslexia and other learning difficulties are not usually diagnosed until they are in primary school. While there may have been indicators which point to children being at risk of SLD, it is when the child is within the classroom that concerns are often realized. It will then often be the teacher who, through screening and observation, has concerns for an individual child’s progress during the first years of schooling. The teacher can be proactive in working with parents and carers to develop a plan of action to assist the child. It is then essential that educators have an awareness and relevant information on dyslexia and other LD to inform their educational interventions.
The Department of Education and Training (DET) now features information and teacher resources on dyslexia on their website. Key understandings provide a context for the teacher resources. Educators should be aware that DET provides parent information on dyslexia. Educators may also refer parents to SPELD Victoria for assistance.
Intervention and the 3-wave model
Response to Intervention (RTI) is a multi-tiered approach to the early identification and support of students with learning and behavior needs.
The RTI process begins with high-quality instruction and universal screening of all children in the general education classroom.
Think of your class as a triangle. The base of the triangle is called Tier One which is high quality whole class instruction. Through this you may observe that some students need more support than others. In Tier 1, students’ needs will be determined through your school assessment schedule and their learning planned for accordingly. Students in Tier 1 need high-quality classroom instruction, screening, and some group interventions as part of normal teacher grouping.
Students in Tier 2 will need further school assessment and you may want advice around planning for their learning. Students not making adequate progress in the regular classroom using Tier 1 teaching are provided with increasingly intensive instruction matched to their needs on the basis of levels of performance and rates of progress. The content of their instruction is identical to that at Tier 1. The aim of this is to provide them with an opportunity to catch up.
Students at Tier 3 will need individualized, intensive interventions and will need referring to the local Student Support Services Officers for further advice.
For more information please see:
RTI Action Network – What is Response to Intervention (RTI)?
When to diagnose
Victorian schools have access to screening tests which serve the role of a raising a red flag on some students’ learning journey. However a screener is not a diagnosis for Specific Learning Disabilities. So one of the most frequently asked questions is when to diagnose for SLDs.
SPELD Victoria’s position on this is that the appropriate time to do a full diagnostic assessment is when:
1) Six months of appropriate intervention has not produced the expected level of progress;
2) The difficulties have been observed in school;
3) The student is achieving below chronological age expectation; and
4) Other external factors such as trauma; sensory impairments such as blindness and deafness; new arrival or ESL, cannot explain the slow pace of educational attainment.
A full cognitive and educational assessment will give you a comprehensive learning profile – strengths and challenges – which is what you need if you are going to make a positive difference to that student’s learning outcomes. Refer Full and Partial Assessments for more information on SPELD Victoria’s assessment service.
The term “reading impairment” may be used to describe a variety of difficulties that affect the ability to learn to read. One of the most commonly described reading difficulties is dyslexia.
There are different types of reading difficulties including difficulties in:
– accurate and automatic word reading – students can comprehend spoken text but have difficulty comprehending its written form and decoding words
– the language processes associated with listening comprehension – these students can read words accurately but have difficulty comprehending what they read
– both accurate and automatic word reading and in the language processes associated with oral or spoken comprehension; these students are sometimes referred to as having a mixed reading difficulty
Reading difficulties are frequently linked with oral language difficulties including difficulties in:
– accurate and automatic word reading are linked with how well a student manipulates sound patterns in words
– reading comprehension is linked with oral language processes such as limited vocabulary and syntactic knowledge
– both word reading and comprehension are linked with phonological processing and oral language difficulties
Dyslexia is generally described as a language–based difficulty of neurological origin that primarily affects the skills involved in the accurate and fluent reading of words. The term dyslexia originates from “dys” meaning “difficulties with” and “lexia” meaning “words”.
Characteristic features of dyslexia include immature phonological knowledge, verbal memory, and processing speeds. Dyslexia may affect a student’s reading comprehension, vocabulary development, writing and spelling.
Additional co-occurring behaviours may include aspects of numeracy, concentration and motor coordination.
Current research suggests that dyslexia is heritable in 40% of cases. It is a persistent, lifelong condition and affects students across the range of intellectual abilities.
What does it feel like?
Every student is different, however there are some effective simulations available to show you just how much extra effort is required by dyslexic students to achieve full literacy skills. Do one of these and you will never again think that your dyslexic students are just not trying hard enough.
Understood.org – Through Your Child’s Eyes
Dyslexia Training Institute – Dyslexia for a Day Simulation Kit
Best classroom strategies
Students with dyslexia or reading difficulties need a number of things including:
The term “writing impairment” may be used to describe two main difficulties that affect the ability for a child to learn to write. One of the most commonly described writing difficulties is dysgraphia.
Writing difficulties can be physical or language based. Some children will experience difficulty actually mastering the mechanical aspects of writing and will find handwriting challenging. Other children will struggle with the language aspects of writing and will find it difficult to process and sequence their ideas when writing.
It is important to distinguish the reason behind a child’s writing difficulties as the teaching strategies can be quite different.
A child with motor difficulties will find the process of recording their thoughts laborious and tiring. They will have no problem generating ideas or sequencing their thoughts; their difficulty is the actual act of writing.
A child with a language based difficulty with writing will also find no difficulty in presenting an idea orally but they will find it challenging to record their ideas in a logical and sequential manner. These students show a clear delay in processing information from an oral to a written form.
Dysgraphia is a specific learning disability that often remains undiagnosed. It is a persistent difficulty with written expression, handwriting and /or spelling that may occur in isolation but, more often occurs in conjunction with dyslexia.
Characteristic features of dysgraphia include immature handwriting, difficulty sequencing thoughts in writing, and slow writing speeds. Dysgraphia may affect a student’s composition of sentences their ability to present school work, their vocabulary development and spelling.
While explicit instruction can benefit students with dysgraphia, weakness in writing fluency are likely to endure.
What does it feel like?
Students with dysgraphia often have to work much harder than other students to produce written work to the same standard as an individual with typically developing writing skills. This can be demoralizing and exhausting.
“Sometimes I can have the most amazing ideas for a story- or have the answer to a question in my head- but when it comes to writing it down- the idea or answer somehow turns into complete chaos.” Thomas Aged 11
Young Adult talking about his own writing. Watch the video >>
Understood.org – Through Your Child’s Eyes
Best classroom strategies
The term “mathematical impairment” may be used to describe a variety of difficulties that affect the ability to learn mathematics. One of the most commonly described reading difficulties is dyscalculia.
Mathematical difficulties can include difficulties with conceptual understanding and procedural knowledge in mathematics and poor understanding of math vocabulary.
Students experiencing difficulties with mathematics have trouble understanding numbers, learning how to manipulate numbers, learning mathematical facts and a number of other number related difficulties. Commonly these difficulties are compounded by anxiety to the degree that the term “maths anxiety” is commonly recognized by teachers, and perpetuated by those teachers lacking confidence in teaching mathematics.
Dyscalculia is generally described as someone who has poor number sense. This includes a lack of understanding basic number facts; an inability to estimate magnitude; or make accurate and fluent calculations. Students with dyscalculia may also have a poor understanding of math vocabulary.
What does it feel like?
Read the article By Bob Cunningham, Ed.M At a Glance: 7 Ways Kids With Learning and Attention Issues Can Get Tripped Up by a Math Problem
Best classroom strategies
Singapore consistently ranks at the top of the international assessment of student maths achievement called the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Consequently, many countries are now looking to Singapore to find out about their approach to maths and why it is so successful.
Read Judy Hornigold’s article on Singapore Maths here
For some people, it appears that Singapore Maths is the ‘new kid on the block’ and may be wary of yet another new initiative. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The approach to teaching maths in Singapore centres around problem solving and draws on research from very familiar names in educational theory. It is also now taught in a very structured, sequential and cumulative way.
Indicators that a child may have a Specific Learning Difficulty
In the preschool years children do not usually need to be use written symbols to represent language or mathematics. They play and manipulate objects in an informal setting. However there are certain indicators that may alert preschool teachers to an additional challenge faced by some children. These may be:
Primary School Years
The first year of school is very important in learning to read, write and use numbers. It is a critical time for the identification of a learning difficulty and early intervention. Primary school students can become progressively further and further behind their peers if their difficulties are not diagnosed and supported with careful systematic teaching. A child at this early point in their school life is often not really aware that they are having difficulties with their school work and a parent and teacher working closely together can often provide enough support to accelerate learning and maintain the child’s self-esteem. Read more about Transition to School
Moving into Year Three: An important transition in learning occurs in year three. Whilst Prep, Year 1 and Year 2 are heavily focused on learning to read, in year three children start to read to learn. For children with a Specific Learning Difficulty this can compound the difficulties they are already facing if the challenges have not been appropriately recognized and or addressed through appropriate interventions. Also, at about the age of eight, children start to become more aware of themselves in relation to others, and this is a crucial time for students with a Specific Learning Difficulty. This is often the time when self-esteem and behaviour are impacted upon, and it is very important to share any classroom and home strategies that support a child.
Students with a Specific Learning Difficulty in primary school may display:
Where these indicators are observed and where intervention has been provided without clear progress, a full diagnostic assessment should be pursued.
Starting Secondary School: At this point it is essential to know which classroom accommodations a student finds helpful and how these can be used in the school. A change of school is challenging for most students, and even more so for students with a Specific Learning Difficulty. If you are a Year Six teacher you will be busy reassuring your class about ‘high school’ and if you are a Year Seven teacher it would be very helpful to have a conversation with the child’s Year Six teacher. At this age it is sensible to include the student with a Specific Learning Difficulty in any planning as they may have an interest in contributing.
Where a student has a diagnosis of a Specific Learning Disability, there should be discussion around appropriate accommodations and a communication plan for all teachers to understand a particular student’s learning needs.
A child who has not yet been diagnosed with a Specific Learning Disability by the time they start secondary school may have significant issues with school and learning tasks which are likely to continue without the appropriate diagnosis.
Teachers of students with undiagnosed learning difficulties are likely to observe in the work some of the following:
There is a high correlation between students with unrecognized learning difficulties disengaging from school life. Therefore, the sooner the learning difficulties are recognized and addressed, the less likely a student will disengage and leave school early.
Senior Secondary School
At this point it is essential to know which classroom accommodations a student finds helpful and how these can be used in the school. Planning for sitting exams with assistive technologies can be very important Assistive Technology. Schools need to be aware of the options available for students sitting VCAL and VCE. Special Examination Arrangements
It is important to note that documentation confirming a specific learning difficulty is an essential part of gaining special consideration for examination arrangements. This includes a diagnostic report.
Teachers of students with undiagnosed learning difficulties are likely to observe in the work some of the following:
There is a high correlation between students with unrecognized learning difficulties disengaging from school life. With such a strong emphasis in the senior secondary years being placed on the Victorian School Certificate, it is unsurprising that students with unrecognized specific learning difficulties will face increasing challenges. Therefore, the sooner the learning difficulties are recognized and addressed, the less likely a student will disengage and leave school early.
Post-Secondary and Adult Life
An adult with Specific Learning Difficulties will continue to need support in their tertiary education or in their transition to work. Indicators of a Specific Learning Difficulty may be that they experience difficulties with:
Young adults who know they have a Specific Learning Difficulty will need support to establish strategies that they will use to help them with reading, writing or number tasks in their daily life.
Most tertiary settings offer considerable support and advice for students to make learning accessible. A student entering a post-secondary environment whether TAFE or university should contact their accessibility or learning disabilities unit or equivalent, either prior to, or as soon as possible on entering. In this way the TAFE or university will be able to support the necessary accommodations to enable a positive learning outcome for the student.
Links to Victorian TAFE and University Disability Units
DIBELS & IDEL Testing Materials
Australian Covert Bullying Prevalence Study (2007-2008). Understanding forms of bullying not easily observed by adults, including relational bullying and cyberbullying.