What is a learning difficulty?

A learning difficulty is a condition that can cause an individual to experience problems in a traditional classroom learning context. It may interfere with literacy skills development and math/maths and can also affect memory, ability to focus and organizational skills. A child or adult with a learning difficulty may require additional time to complete assignments at school and can often benefit from strategy instruction and classroom accommodations, such as material delivered in special fonts or the ability to use a computer to take notes.

No two individuals with a learning difficulty are exactly alike and many conditions, such as dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia, exist on a wide-spectrum. There is also dyspraxia, a motor-skills difficulty that can affect a learner’s ability to write by hand, and may impact on planning skills. It’s not uncommon for learning difficulties and motor-skills difficulties to co-present. For example, dyslexia and dyspraxia, or ADD/ADHD and dyspraxia can occur together.

Learning difficulties are sometimes referred to as learning disabilities. You may also encounter the terms learning differences or specific learning differences. The differences between these labels can seem subtle but may have implications for how an individual with a learning difficulty views him or herself. The word disability implies a person is less able than his or her peers. It can also suggest they are in a permanent state of disadvantage and cause them to lose agency.

On the other hand, a learning difference takes the opposite approach in underscoring that a person simply learns in a different way from others. They are not disabled, it’s just that their brains work differently. The term learning difficulty falls somewhere in-between, describing the added challenges an individual might face in a typical school environment, but also suggesting that these challenges are difficulties that can be overcome.

1. Dyslexia

Dyslexia is one of the most common learning difficulties  – also known as learning disabilities, in the US. There are different types of dyslexia but the most common type is phonological dyslexia which affects the way people break words down into their component parts.

This has consequences for decoding in reading and can also cause spelling and writing difficulties. Because reading and writing are central to most school curriculum, children with undiagnosed dyslexia can quickly fall behind their peers as they experience problems with note taking, reading, homework, writing assignments and assessments.

Dyslexia is not associated with lower intelligence, but language difficulties can cause children to believe they are less intelligent than their peers and result in low-confidence and a poor self-image.

Some common signs of dyslexia include problems reading out loud, inconsistent spelling – they may be able to spell a word one day and not the next – losing one’s place on a page, a poor grasp of phonics, letter reversals, halted writing due to trouble with spelling, and a vocabulary that’s more limited in scope. Learn about the signs of dyslexia, strategies for students with dyslexia, Am I dyslexic? and How to help adults with dyslexia in these posts.

2. Attention difficulties

Attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) used to be grouped under the umbrella term of ADD. However, in recent years it is ADHD that has become the general label for attention difficulties, both with and without the hyperactivity. ADHD with hyperactivity is often characterized by difficulties maintaining focus over extended periods.

Children with ADHD can have poor impulse control, be fidgety, and produce messy written work. They are often easier to pick out in a classroom than a student who has ADD without the hyperactivity, as in the case of the latter a learner may not call any attention to themselves.

In fact, a learner with ADD may appear to be paying attention and thus the learning difficulty can go unnoticed until it results in incomplete assignments and poor performance on tests. In certain cases a child may even be told they are not trying hard enough.

Reading comprehension, staying on task, following directions, completing extended projects, and organization can all be problematic. Learn more in our posts on ADD, Strategies for students with ADHD, ADHD reading problems and ADD vs. ADHD at school.

3. Dysgraphia

Children who struggle with dysgraphia have a hard time with writing and may produce text that is illegible. Writing can be labored, taking a long time to complete and causing frustration and stress. The spatial orientation and planning aspects of writing can be particularly challenging for people with dysgraphia. This includes planning the white spaces between letters and words, writing in a straight line and/or producing lines of text that are vertically spaced.

Staying in the margins, using punctuation and choosing between capital and lowercase letters may also be hard. Letter formation itself might be problematic and typing on the computer is often a recommended accommodation at school.

Children with dysgraphia are often eager to avoid handwriting, particularly in front of their peers. They may feel embarrassed when writing on the board, produce less text than is necessary for written assignments, and can generally perform poorly on assessments that require written answers. Learn more about the signs of dysgraphia or read our article on the differences between dyslexia and dysgraphia.

4. Dyscalculia

As opposed to dyslexia and dysgraphia which are both language based learning difficulties, dyscalculia has to do with processing numbers. Children with dyscalculia can have trouble performing simple arithmetic. They may not know how to approach a math/maths problem. Sometimes the spatial aspect of balancing equations is tricky, as well as grouping numbers and performing the right order of operations.

Even counting can be a struggle and it is often recommended that individuals with dyscalculia be allowed to use a calculator to support their learning.

When dyslexia and dyscalculia are present together, reading word problems is made more difficult, and number reversals may be frequent. This can introduce errors into the work and cause a student to get the wrong answer. Dysgraphia and dyscalculia together mean a child often finds showing math/maths work in long form particularly difficult to complete.

Writing math/maths symbols may be near impossible, as can certain spatial or graph oriented aspects of math/maths. Lastly, in dyspraxia and dyscalculia, getting steps in the right order can be a problem. Learn more in our post on math/maths difficulties in the classroom.

5. Dyspraxia

While not always grouped under the learning difficulties/ learning disabilities header, dyspraxia is a motor skills difficulty that can also impact on academic success. That’s because it affects the planning and coordination of muscles, including those of the hand.

As gripping the pen or pencil in written language production is painful, writing may contain more spelling errors and less text as a result. In cases of verbal dyspraxia/ apraxia of speech, the muscles of the face, mouth and throat are affected, limiting spoken language production.

People with dyspraxia may also walk with a funny gait, have trouble using a paintbrush in art class, experience difficulties playing a musical instrument, and/or performing coordinated movements in sports. They can be clumsy and might also struggle with organisation and tasks that involve planning. Learn more in our articles Helping students who have dyspraxia, and Dyspraxia in adults.

In addition, some students may present with processing issues. Slow processing can mean a child requires more time to complete school assignments and additional exposures are needed to bring information into working memory.

Expressive and receptive language disorder and apraxia of speech are also language based difficulties that cause issues with comprehension and spoken language production. Learn more in What is processing speed?, Expressive receptive language disorder, Dyspraxia vs. Apraxia of speech


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