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Common signs of a learning difficulty

Find out more about learning difficulties and how to spot the common signs.

Learning difficulties is a term used to describe children who have trouble with their learning. There are many reasons why a child may have trouble with learning.

No 2 learning difficulties are the same, but there are some common signs.

The difference between a learning difficulty and learning disability

Learning difficulties can be due to many things, such as:

  • a history of interrupted learning
  • health issues
  • absence.

This can lead to a delay in a child's progress at school. With extra support and targeted instruction, children with these types of learning difficulties are likely to improve quickly.

Specific learning disabilities like dyslexia are a category of learning difficulty that are caused by differences in the brain. Because of this, children with learning disabilities often find activities like reading or doing simple sums to be challenging. Even with extra support and targeted instruction, these problems are likely to continue throughout their lives, which may not be the case with other types of learning difficulties.

Learning disabilities are lifelong and can affect all types of children, regardless of background, school environment or socioeconomic status.

Signs of a learning difficulty

The clearest signs of a learning difficulty are those that suggest your child is well behind their peers in their learning. Children with learning difficulties may lack key literacy and numeracy knowledge and skills. They may also find it hard to make friends or lack confidence in social situations.

You may see signs in your child’s behaviour and attitude toward school. For example, they:

  • speak in a negative way about school and what they don’t enjoy about learning
  • show negative emotions (such as sadness or anger) about school and going to school. Examples include having nightmares about school, becoming anxious while getting ready to go to school
  • show frustration or reluctance while doing homework tasks
  • speak in a negative way about themselves as learners. This behaviour will give you an idea about how your child views themselves and their ability to succeed at school.

What to do if you see signs of a learning difficulty

If you think your child is showing signs of a learning difficulty you should:

  • talk with your child’s teacher about the signs you have noticed and when they occur. Visit working with education providers if your child has additional needs for tips about how to talk to your child's teacher
  • track your child’s progress over 2 to 3 weeks to see if your child often shows the same signs and in similar situations
  • ask your child to talk about how they feel in a situation where they are frustrated or reluctant with their learning. Use this information to check if their view of the situation matches your interpretation.

Literacy or numeracy learning difficulty - common signs

Some general signs that may show your child may have a learning difficulty in reading, writing or mathematics include:

  • no motivation or interest to read, write or do maths
  • appearing not to remember what they have been taught, even if this just happened or has happened many times
  • taking longer than would be expected to complete school tasks or activities
  • trouble following directions or needing to have instructions repeated frequently
  • finding it hard to stay focused or being easily distracted
  • trouble socialising with peers or making friends
  • unable to explain clearly what they know or have learned
  • issues with gross or fine motor skills (for example, balance, cutting with scissors).

Children in middle to late primary school and secondary school may show the same difficulties as those typical of younger children.

Difficulty with reading - common signs

A reading difficulty may be caused by a learning disability, such as dyslexia, or by a comprehension difficulty.

Children with learning disabilities are born with differences in the brain. This affects their ability to process information. These processing problems can interfere with learning basic skills such as reading, writing and mathematics.

You may be able to see signs of dyslexia when your child reads words out loud or spells them. These include:

  • reading single words inaccurately and being unable to 'sound them out' or guessing how to say them based on the letters in the word
  • reading single words out loud slowly and with a lot of effort, often saying only a few letters of the word or sounds at a time.

The clearest sign of a comprehension difficulty is when your child struggles to understand the purpose or key ideas in a text but can read words out loud accurately and easily.

Signs that indicate a difficulty with reading in the early years

  • Trouble pronouncing words and reading words out loud with accuracy.
  • Limited vocabulary for their age, their way of speaking is immature or 'young' for their age.
  • A hard time remembering the names for objects, actions or adjectives, or else seems to have trouble finding the right word.
  • Consistently makes mistakes when reading letters; making errors, reversing letters (for example, b = d) or else inverting them (for example, m = w)*.
  • Reading slowly and inaccurately, confusing simple words and their meanings.
  • Not appearing to understand what they have read.

*It's not uncommon for children in early years to make letter reversals when reading and writing, but it's a problem if it continues past middle to late primary years.

Signs that indicate a difficulty with reading in the middle to late primary years

  • Difficulty reading longer words out loud; they mispronounce parts.
  • Trouble remembering what they have heard, seen or read (for example, instructions in the classroom or at home).
  • When reading out loud, reading is slow and appears to take a lot of effort.
  • Trouble 'sounding out' or working out how to say unfamiliar words they have read.
  • Reluctant to read either in class or for fun; they appear uninterested or try to avoid this.

Signs that indicate a difficulty with reading in secondary school

  • When reading out loud, reading is slow and appears to take a lot of effort.
  • At this level, children are expected to put emphasis and expression into their voice while reading. You may notice that this is not the case.
  • Difficulty remembering what they have heard, seen or read, even when it just happened (for example, during a short-answer response to a book chapter).
  • Reluctant to read either in class or for fun; they appear uninterested or try to avoid it. Sometimes this can lead to frustration, sadness or even anger.

Difficulty with writing - common signs

The common signs of a writing difficulty include:

  • trouble expressing ideas in writing
  • poor handwriting and spelling.

This difficulty is also known as dysgraphia. Dysgraphia is a learning disability that can occur by itself, but it often occurs with dyslexia.

There are 2 types of dysgraphia:

  • motor-based dysgraphia
  • language-based dysgraphia

Motor-based dysgraphia

Motor-based dysgraphia involves difficulties with physical aspects of writing. Children with this type of dysgraphia can organise and express their ideas effectively through writing but have trouble with the act of writing itself. This makes writing a tiring, frustrating and sometimes painful process for them.

Language-based dysgraphia

Language-based dysgraphia involves difficulties with processing and organising ideas while writing. The quality of the ideas and expression of the child’s writing is well below their expected level, despite being able to present their ideas clearly when speaking.

There is often no difficulty with handwriting in a child with this type of dysgraphia.

It's also possible, however, for a child to have both types of dysgraphia. For example, poor handwriting and poor written expression.

Signs of a difficulty with writing and dysgraphia include:

  • trouble with spelling. For example, adding, removing or replacing vowels or consonants
  • trouble with written expression. For example, making a large number of errors with either grammar or punctuation
  • difficulty structuring paragraphs or organising ideas
  • written expression is unclear or else does not clearly communicate what they want to say.

Signs that indicate a difficulty with writing in the early years

  • Trouble expressing ideas in writing, despite being a capable reader.
  • Reluctant to write.
  • May have trouble learning how to grip and use a pencil (motor-based dysgraphia specific).
  • Difficulty:
    • structuring simple sentences
    • with letter formation and spacing
    • sitting letters on a line
    • using simple punctuation, for example, full stops and capital letters.

Signs that indicate a difficulty with writing in the middle to late primary years

  • Consistent trouble with spelling.
  • Are expressive and can communicate ideas clearly while speaking but have difficulty doing the same when they write.
  • Difficulty:
    • writing fluently. This means that your child writes slowly, with great effort and becomes tired quickly
    • with sentence and paragraph structure, as well as using grammar and punctuation correctly
    • with letter formation and spacing
    • sitting letters on a line
    • using simple punctuation, for example, full stops and capital letters.

Signs that indicate a difficulty with writing in secondary school

  • Trouble writing under timed conditions or writing quickly.
  • Often writes less than would be expected for short answer or extended essay-style questions.
  • Unsure how to structure their writing logically, so that ideas connect to each other in a way that makes sense, such as in an essay.
  • Difficulty:
    • with letter formation and spacing
    • sitting letters on a line
    • using simple punctuation, for example, full stops and capital letters.

Difficulty with numeracy - common signs

The common signs of a numeracy learning difficulty include difficulty understanding what numbers are and how to use them in different ways. Children with learning disabilities that affect numeracy (such as dyscalculia) have issues with this ability, sometimes referred to as 'number sense'.

Signs that indicate your child may have a learning difficulty or disability include:

  • difficulty learning number facts and how to calculate; your child may use strategies such as counting on their fingers
  • difficulty using maths concepts, facts and procedures to solve problems
  • trouble understanding quantities and concepts like more and less, or biggest and smallest
  • difficulty making number comparisons (for example, that 12 is greater than 10)
  • lack of intuition about the relationship between numerals (7), words (seven), and number (such as seven objects in any set) and the understanding that these all represent the same thing.

Signs that indicate a numeracy difficulty in the early years

  • Trouble recognising and reading numbers out loud.
  • Trouble using and remembering the meaning of mathematical symbols (+, -, x, ÷, =).
  • Difficulty:
    • counting the number of items in a group
    • with subitising (this means quickly recognising the number of items in a small group)
    • counting in 2s and 5s
    • counting on from numbers other than 1
    • recalling basic number facts (for example, 2 + 3 = 5 and 3 + 2 = 5)
    • using simple punctuation, for example, full stops and capital letters
    • learning how to tell time.

Signs that indicate a numeracy difficulty in the middle to late primary years

  • Still use their fingers to solve addition and subtraction problems when other students have moved on to more sophisticated strategies.
  • Trouble with place value, fractions and number lines.
  • Consistent trouble with spelling.
  • Difficulty telling time, especially analogue clocks and 24-hour time.
  • Difficulty making comparisons between numbers (for example, deciding if there are more plastic counters in one pile versus another) even if the difference appears obvious.
  • Difficulty recalling basic number facts. This will be similar to the trouble of students in the early years but will now also apply to simple multiplication and division (for example, 5 x 5 = 25 and 25 ÷ 5 = 5).
  • Reluctant to do maths or engage in maths-related activities. For example, games that rely on numeracy skills or strategy.

Signs that indicate a numeracy difficulty in secondary school

  • 'Freezing' when asked maths-related questions or having anxiety about being called on in class.
  • Trouble keeping to a schedule or reading their timetable. They may be late to class and even have trouble getting home from school on time.
  • Even at an upper secondary level, children with numeracy learning difficulties may have difficulty reading time, particularly analogue clocks.
  • Children may also find it difficult to manage timed activities. For example, knowing how much time to dedicate to completing a series of maths equations or working through a problem-based math question.
  • Difficulty performing mental arithmetic.
  • Trouble working with visual representations of number (for example, graphs, charts, and maps).
  • Continues to be unclear about the meaning of mathematical terms, such as equations and area.

Reviewed 23 March 2022

Department of Education and Training

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