Understanding Specific Learning Disabilities


Zoe Barnes

Understanding Specific Learning Disabilities

When children start school, they need to learn a whole new set of routines and rules. They also begin to acquire most of the knowledge and abilities that adults take for granted, including reading, writing and counting. These skills are crucial for them to progress through their education and navigate life beyond school, but some children struggle uniquely due to Specific Learning Disabilities (SLDs) that prevent them from mastering these skills. 

These learning difficulties are specific to certain kinds of abilities. Struggling to connect written words and sounds is known as dyslexia, while struggling to write words is known as dysgraphia. Having trouble grasping mathematical concepts is known as dyscalculia. Dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia occur in the absence of intellectual or sensory issues, meaning children with these disabilities have no trouble seeing words or numbers and don’t struggle in learning areas that are not language- or maths-related.

We will examine what Specific Learning Disabilities are, what dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia look like in children, and how parents can help their child with learning disabilities inside and outside of school.

What are Specific Learning Disabilities

SLDs are a category of disabilities centred around the recognition and comprehension of information. They are a form of neurodevelopmental disorder, which means they occur during childhood and impact normal development (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

They are known as “Specific” Learning Disabilities because the learning difficulties are due to differences in brain functioning rather than differences in IQ, sensory processing, teaching or environment (Cainelli & Bisiacchi, 2019). Specific Learning Disabilities affect a child’s reading, writing or mathematical abilities, or a combination of these abilities.


Reading is based on the idea that verbal language can be represented through written symbols - that is, phonemes (sounds) correspond to graphemes (letter combinations) (Schaars et al., 2017). Dyslexia is a particular form of reading disability that affects phonological awareness, meaning that an individual’s ability to “decode” letters into sounds is impaired. This then affects their ability to recognise and understand words. 

Because dyslexia only affects the “decoding” part of reading, children with dyslexia have no problems understanding words if they are being read out loud. Dyslexia does not affect overall intelligence - children can be extremely gifted in other areas of school while still struggling with phonological awareness (APA, 2013). 

Dyslexia can be hard to spot because children may develop “shortcuts” to help them recognise words, such as memorising common letter patterns (Cassar et al., 2005). However, there are some key signs that can indicate a child is having reading problems and may have dyslexia, including:

  • Being a slower or less confident reader than would be suggested by their age/academic level in other areas
  • Finding it hard to identify words or do so fluently
  • Finding it hard to match sounds to their written representations
  • Poor reading comprehension despite normal or advanced abilities in non-reading areas
  • Poor spelling
  • Being reluctant or scared to read out loud


An important part of verbal learning is the ability to express language orthographically, which means by using written symbols. Writing involves the combination of several different abilities, such as planning, verbal knowledge, an understanding of sentence structure and highly specific fine motor skills (Rosenblum, 2018).

Children with dysgraphia have a type of specific learning disability that prevents them from combining these abilities successfully. This is partly due to deficits in executive functioning - the higher-level cognitive functions that allow integration of multiple skills to achieve a particular goal, such as writing. Because dyslexia and dysgraphia affect similar regions of the brain, they often co-occur (Nicolson & Fawcett, 2011).

While having messy handwriting is normal for children, children with dysgraphia have much poorer writing skills than would be expected for their age or general academic success. Signs of a writing disability include:

  • Generalised difficulty with spelling (not just for complex words)
  • Problems identifying and using correct grammar and punctuation
  • Struggling to construct sentences
  • Finding it hard to express themselves clearly in writing 


Dyscalculia is a type of learning disability that affects an individual’s ability to understand numerical concepts. Research has shown that humans possess the foundations of numerical learning very early on. Even without verbal counting skills, babies and preschoolers can correctly distinguish between certain magnitudes (such as 8 versus 16 and 2 versus 3) (Starkey & Cooper, 1995; Xu & Spelke, 2000).

However, children with dyscalculia have problems with this innate “number sense”. Being unable to identify and differentiate amounts of objects leads to difficulties in connecting magnitudes to their symbolic and verbal representations. This makes it hard to understand mathematical functions such as addition and subtraction. Because mathematics is cumulative, early issues with numbers prevent children from learning more sophisticated concepts and can lead to significant impairments later in life.

Like dyslexia, dyscalculia only affects someone’s numerical functioning. Children with dyscalculia have normal or even advanced grades in other subjects, but show poorer abilities in maths than would be expected for their age and general intellect. Signs of dyscalculia include:

  • Struggling with mathematical skills in a variety of areas, such as counting, matching quantities with digits and number words, identifying magnitude (such as which number is larger) and arithmetic (such as not differentiating between + and -) 
  • Struggling to memorise mathematical facts
  • Using maths strategies that are inappropriate for their age, such as counting on their fingers to add numbers
  • Performing multi-step calculations slowly or becoming easily lost
  • Hating maths class or avoiding maths homework 

Further Reading


Understanding Dyslexia

How can I help my child with Specific Learning Disabilities?

If you think your child has a specific learning disability, the first step you can take to help them is to seek a professional diagnosis. A child psychologist will be able to appropriately assess your child’s learning difficulties and determine whether they meet the criteria for a diagnosis of specific learning disability.

This process allows them to rule out any other underlying causes for their difficulties, including sensory issues (such as not being able to see clearly in the classroom), executive functioning issues (such as having poor short-term memory) and intellectual issues (such as struggling with learning in general). The psychologist will perform a comprehensive assessment of the child’s academic and social functioning, their development, their medical history and their family history (APA, 2013). This may involve both parent and teacher reports, as well as cognitive assessments and educational assessments such as the WIAT-III.

A diagnosis enables parents and psychologists to collaboratively develop a treatment plan. There are many ways children with Specific Learning Disabilities can be supported. Targeted interventions focus on developing the building blocks of literacy and numeracy by teaching children broader cognitive and fine motor skills, as well as specific learning strategies (Yuzaidey et al., 2018). For example, therapies for dyslexia are often based around improving phonological awareness.

Interventions are most effective when they are administered before seven or eight years old, so determining a correct diagnosis can be critical for future treatment (Griffiths & Stuart, 2013). As well as learning interventions, children with Specific Learning Disabilities can be supported through educational accommodations, such as special needs departments. Your child may benefit from having more one-on-one time during class with a teaching aide or from having extra coaching outside of class time. 

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View article references

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