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A Guide to Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs) and Resources

Posted on: December 13, 2022

Teachers who understand specific learning difficulties (SpLDs) are better equipped to help students achieve their highest potential. SpLDs are not related to intelligence. However, they can often create barriers to learning and processing information, which can impact a young person's schoolwork, making attainment non-reflective of their true capabilities.

Due to where a person may sit on a particular spectrum, SpLDs often go undetected in young people, which can lead to misplaced judgments (naughty child) and unfair stigma throughout their time in education. Therefore, the earlier someone is diagnosed with a SpLD, the easier it is for them to receive proper support. However, although early identification is essential, it should be accompanied by regular updates and reassessments to understand how needs change over time. Read on to understand more about SpLDs, how to recognize pupils struggling in silence, and resources for teachers that provide actionable advice and support.

what is a specific learning difficulty icon What is a Specific Learning Difficulty (SpLD)?

Specific learning difficulties (SpLDs) include some of the most commonly identified special educational needs that impact learners. Although this is likely a considerable over-simplification, the primary rationale behind the term' specific learning difficulty' is that these learners find difficulty in one particular area of cognition, yet other regions are unaffected. Most children show difficulties in school as some of the early indicators for SpLDs. Therefore, teachers and SENDcos must be well-versed in identifying and supporting SpLDs. In particular, all teachers should be aware that SpLDs are extremely common. There is no distinction between typical and atypical learners and SpLDs, and co-occurrence is also common. Therefore, all children need to be supported according to their individual needs, which will inevitably change and evolve.

(Julia Carroll - Current understanding of causes and identification of SpLDs, 2020)

examples of spld icon Examples of Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs)

The most common specific learning difficulties are Dyslexia, Developmental Language Disorder, Dyscalculia, and Developmental Coordination Disorder ((DCD) - AKA Dyspraxia).

Numerous other SpLDs have been suggested, such as dysgraphia, some nonverbal learning difficulties, and a few others. Nonetheless, the research findings indicate a lack of evidence to establish these labels as separate diagnostic categories. (Julia Carroll - Current understanding of causes and identification of SpLDs, 2020).

For example, dysgraphia seems to cooccur with dyslexia at an extremely high rate and might be better considered a form of dyslexia (Döhla et al., 2018). Attention difficulties and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) commonly cooccur with all of the above SpLDs.

ADHD is usually diagnosed by a medical professional as medication can help manage the symptoms experienced in children with ADHD. However, ADHD often causes considerable difficulties in concentration and focus, which can negatively impact learning, and many children present with both ADHD and one or more SpLDs, suggesting commonly shared root causes.

(Julia Carroll - Current understanding of causes and identification of SpLDs, 2020)

Signs icon How do you recognize signs of SpLDs?

While SpLD signs are not always easy to recognize, some common indicators can help teachers identify whether a child is experiencing specific difficulties. Below is an overview of some of the most common symptoms associated with specific learning difficulties:

  • Dyslexia: This is the most commonly diagnosed and well-understood SpLD, as it occurs in 5-10% of the population. (Julia Carroll - Current understanding of causes and identification of SpLDs, 2020). A widely accepted definition appears in a 2009 government report (Rose, 2009): Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling. Characteristic features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory, and verbal processing speed. Dyslexia occurs across the range of intellectual abilities. It is best considered a continuum, not a distinct category, with no clear cut-off points. Co-occurring difficulties may be seen in aspects of language, motor coordination, mental calculation, concentration, and personal organization, but these are not, by themselves, markers of dyslexia.

  • Developmental Language Disorder (DLD): DLD is "the most common developmental disorder you have never heard of." (Julia Carroll - Current understanding of causes and identification of SpLDs, 2020). DLD was previously known as Specific Language Impairment (SLI). However, the name has changed to more accurately reflect the difficulties experienced by children and young people with language difficulties. If children and young people are: Experiencing barriers to communication or learning in everyday life. Have language and communication difficulties that have not been resolved by age 5 – i.e. difficulties with language appear fixed. Alternatively, exhibit difficulties that are not associated with a known condition, such as autism, brain injury, neurodegenerative conditions, hearing impairment, or genetic disorders (such as Down's syndrome). Often meet the criteria for DLD.

  • Dyscalculia: Dyscalculia (or mathematics disorder) is a significant difficulty in numerical processing despite otherwise normal intellectual abilities and educational experiences (Landerl et al., 2004; Schwenk et al., 2017). Young people with dyscalculia may also find it hard to read clocks and estimate how long it takes to complete a task accurately.

  • Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD): Developmental Coordination Disorder is the internationally recognized term for developmental dyspraxia. It is characterized by significant difficulties in gross and fine motor coordination, which can cause widespread difficulties in daily life – for example, handwriting. (Julia Carroll - Current understanding of causes and identification of SpLDs, 2020).

Signs to look out for in children and young people can include movement and coordination difficulties - children with DCD often avoid joining in physical activities and playing with their peers due to their lack of coordination.

These children may find physical education and walking up and down stairs challenging. Writing, drawing, and using scissors may also present challenges, and handwriting and drawings may appear rushed or less evolved than their peers.

Teachers play a crucial role in the early identification of specific learning difficulties, as many symptoms are first evident in the school environment.

In her book Identifying Special Needs, educational psychologist and special education teacher Glynis Hannel provides a checklist for teachers to better identify children with SpLD and guidelines on supporting and accommodating these students after a licensed professional has diagnosed them.

Assessment icon What is a SpLD assessment?

An SpLD assessment is a process that helps identify specific learning disabilities and determine the best educational plan to help a young person reach their fullest potential.


  • A diagnostic evaluation by a licensed professional evaluates a learner's strengths and weaknesses in each of the major areas affected by a SpLD (e.g., cognitive skills, reading, writing, spelling, and math). This will help to identify specific areas of difficulty.

  • A psycho-educational assessment that screens a child's reasoning, memory, and language skills — and compares them with those of other children their age.

Understanding standardized assessments and their limitations can help teachers create a thorough plan to best meet the needs of children with SpLDs.

For simple, jargon-free guidance, read Children Beyond Labels by education consultant Rhian Spence, who reviews 18 detailed case studies of children with learning difficulties.

SpLD Resources from Taylor & Francis

SpLDs are complex and varied, with some children showing symptoms of more than one disorder. However, various resources are available to help teachers and parents better understand SpLDs and how best to support children with them.

Below are a few examples of the many resources available from Taylor & Francis:

That's the Way I Think

This thought-provoking book is filled with recent data and insights on Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, and Developmental Coordination Disorder, which are all recognized as SpLDs. The book also explores ADHD, which often cooccurs with SpLDs. It examines how a child's specific learning difference impacts their lifestyle choices to further the knowledge of teachers, parents, and caregivers.

It also looks at how certain SpLDs overlap and uses tangible examples to illustrate the challenges children can experience in the classroom and in everyday life.

Find Out More

Dyslexia and Inclusion

By providing comprehensive guidance and practical advice on identifying and managing dyslexia, this book helps prepare teachers and education specialists to support inclusion best. In addition, it includes a list of the latest technology, including websites, apps, and software that can be useful for learners with dyslexia.

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An Adventure with Dyslexia and Literacy Difficulties

This pack includes a storybook and guidebook to help readers understand the practical, social, and psychological impacts of dyslexia on children and young people.

A Nasty Dose of the Yawns: For children aged 8-12, follows the life of Zack, who finds reading and writing extremely difficult. It teaches children that overcoming challenges builds confidence and that they can rely on their own strengths to succeed.

Supporting Children with Dyslexia and Literacy Difficulties is a guidebook that explores the theory and research around dyslexia and literacy difficulties and covers early identification, assessment, and management.

Paired together, both of these resources help readers understand some of the emotional challenges children can face when they feel they are "behind" their peers in reading and writing skills.

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The Trouble with Maths

This book specifically looks at dyscalculia, offering a complete understanding of the condition and how it can impact a student's life. It also discusses practical strategies for teachers to implement in the classroom and provides information that is relevant to new and experienced educators alike.

With a combination of knowledge, patience, and compassion, teachers can make a huge difference in their students’ lives by helping them overcome the challenges associated with any of these conditions.

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