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, more commonly:

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 This can result in a child becoming withdrawn, or more commonly to develop behavioural issues.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.


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.

Types of Specific Learning Difficulty


Dyslexia is 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.

  • Many people who have dyslexia have strong visual, creative and problem solving skills.
  • Dyslexia is not linked to intelligence but can make learning difficult.
  • Dyslexia is a life-long condition which has a substantial effect on an individual’s day to day activities and is classed as a disability under the Equality Act 2010.
  • Dyslexia varies from person to person and no two people will have the same set of strengths and weaknesses.
  • It often co-occurs with related conditions, such as dyspraxia, dyscalculia and attention deficit disorder.
  • Dyslexic individuals often have difficulty processing and remembering information.

Many of the dyslexic people across the UK, whether adults or children, are unable to fulfil their potential as a large percentage of the population still do not understand what dyslexia is, the difficulties which the condition presents and do not know how best to support them. Dyslexia is not an obvious difficulty; it is hidden. As a result, dyslexic people have to overcome numerous barriers to make a full contribution to society.


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.



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.



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.

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.


Visual Stress

  • Some 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. 

As with any disability, no two individuals experience the same combination of difficulties and some people may exhibit signs of more than one SpLD.


 Information taken from British Dyslexia Association & Student Loans Company


The benefits of a diagnosis

These issues if unknown and unsupported can make successfully engaging in education and employment extremely difficult and frustrating. It is essential to get an appropriate diagnosis and support for needs in order to alleviate the difficulties a person may be experiencing.