Specific learning differences

Specific learning differences‘ (SpLDs) are a group of conditions that seem to be caused by differences in the way the brain makes connections, although there is still debate as to why some people develop differently.

The best known of these SpLDs is dyslexia, but others, such as dyspraxia and dysgraphia and attention deficit / hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD) are becoming more widely recognised.

Asperger’s Syndrome is also considered here as a related SpLD, because co-occurrence is so common, and because of the effects it can have in the language classroom.




One very important point to note is that a person who has one SpLD, often has traits of the others, to lesser degrees. Usually, young people are identified first as having dyslexia, or AD/HD, because of the disruptive effect these have on their education, but teachers should remember that a positive identification of one of these SpLDs might mean that the difficulties associated with others are also present.

There is said to be a 50% overlap between dyslexia and dyspraxia, for example. However, the exact degree of co-occurrence in any individual is hard to measure precisely, as in the diagram here, where the overlap between the different SpLDs is hidden.

Many people think of dyslexia as a difficulty with reading and writing. This, however, is only one way that it can show itself, although it is usually this that people first notice, because of the importance of reading and writing in modern society. It is more helpful to think of it as a different way of seeing the world, because the connections in the brain are arranged differently. Things that seem obvious and clear to most people can seem strange and hard to understand for some dyslexic people, and vice versa. Dyslexic people have the same range of intelligence levels as non-dyslexic people, but it is sometimes hard for them to demonstrate their learning in traditional educational settings.

Dyslexic individuals differ from each other in the same ways that non-dyslexic individuals do, so it is hard to give a definitive list of the characteristics that might indicate dyslexia. However, there are certain traits that many dyslexic people share, and that teachers might notice in dyslexic learners, to a greater or lesser extent. Bearing in mind that the following are generalisations, these are:

    • Short-term and working memory problems. Dyslexic learners may have forgotten the beginning of the question before the teacher has got to the end of it. They may find it hard to remember more than one instruction at a time. They may have forgotten how to spell a word they have just looked up in a dictionary, even before they have copied it down, and certainly by the next time they want to write it.
    • Poor organisation. Another consequence of the poor short-term memory described above, coupled with a poor perception of time, means that dyslexic learners might well turn up in the wrong room on the wrong day with the wrong book. When asked if they have a diary, they will probably have lost it; they often leave belongings behind and can’t remember where they last saw them. They also have difficulty in organising their work, both in terms of managing time to meet deadlines, and in structuring essays and presenting ideas in a sequence that other people find logical. In fact, sequencing in general can be a problem for dyslexic people (see also dyscalculia).
    • Phonological processing problems. Some dyslexic people can experience difficulties in processing auditory input, both in terms of understanding the whole message, and discriminating between individual sounds, even when there is no physical hearing problem diagnosed. Many dyslexic people need a little longer to process what they hear, and so may appear to be responding rather slowly to questions.
    • Visual disturbances. Some dyslexic people find that they are very sensitive to different light intensities, and find that reading black text on white print can be uncomfortable. Many report seeing the text moving around, flashing or even disappearing when they try to read it. They may prefer a slightly darker working environment, and paper that is not bright white.
    • Discrepancies in performance. Perhaps the most notable characteristic of dyslexic people is that they can have very ‘spiky’ performance profiles. That means that although they may seem to be understanding in class and contributing well orally, their written work may not reflect their ability. There may be basic errors with spelling and sentence structure, in their own language and the target language. In addition, there may be errors in language points that the student seemed to have mastered in previous work. Dyslexic learners have good days and bad days, in a more marked way than most other people do.

In addition, dyslexic learners may experience some of the difficulties more commonly associated with other SpLDs.


Learning strategies

Dyslexic learners are often (but not always) strongly visual and kinaesthetic learners. They are often good at solving problems that involve creative thinking. Some will have well-developed social skills (unless they also have traits of Asperger’s Syndrome or AD/HD) but most will need to work on concentration and memory skills, and will need a lot of repetition and recycling of material to enable them to transfer it from their unreliable short-term memories to their more secure long-term memories.

These are developmental differences that affect the co-ordination of muscles, including the sequencing needed to perform movements.

    • Fine motor control. Dysgraphia is usually defined as a specific difficulty with producing regular and legible handwriting; dyspraxia is more general and can affect all detailed tasks like handling materials in class, such as small cards in matching exercises
    • Gross motor control. Dyspraxia can sometimes be seen as a problem with larger movements, for example in playing sports, and in spatial awareness. Dyspraxic people might be more likely to bump into things, because they are not so good at co-ordinating their movements, and this may be noticeable when they are organising their workspace and moving around the classroom.
    • Speech difficulties. Another way that dyspraxia can show itself is in a slight difficulty in co-ordinating the muscles needed for speaking. For language learners this is particularly significant, of course, and needs sympathetic teaching, with lots of opportunities for practice, perhaps individually or in pairs rather than in front of a class.
  • Environmental sensitivity. In common with people who are deemed to have AD/HD (see AD/HD), people who have dyspraxia can be very sensitive to the environment, and can be easily distracted by noise, light and temperature levels. Physical sensations can also be heightened, to the extent that a label in the back of a jumper can be intolerable, or socks that are too tightly elasticated can be a torment.


Learning strategies

Dyspraxic learners, like dyslexic learners, vary widely in the types of input that they prefer. They may not perform so well in kinaesthetic activities, if the materials are difficult to handle. They will probably require a lot of repetition, to retain information, and perhaps also with pronunciation, to train the muscles of the mouth to perform in the different way required of the target language.

These two specific differences so frequently occur together that most people consider them as the same thing. It is possible for a person to have Attention Deficit (a lack of ability to concentrate for any length of time) without also experiencing Hyperactivity (excessive energy that is hard to channel into constructive activity) and vice versa. However, recent studies suggest that in the long term both symptoms will be seen in most individuals. They may manifest in the following ways:

    • Low levels of concentration. People with AD/HD find it hard to focus on one task for very long, and are easily distracted by other people and objects in the room (or that they can see out of the window). This is also affected by their sensitivity to the immediate environment – see the section above on dyspraxia.
    • Excessive energy. AD/HD can make people seem restless; they fidget a lot, unable to sit still for very long. In children this is hard to manage, since they do not always understand why they feel the way they do. Adults with AD/HD have usually learnt to control their excessive energy to some degree, or to find some strategies for dealing with it, even if it is just excusing themselves from the classroom to go for a walk along the corridor and back. People with AD/HD can also be very impulsive, and not think about the consequences of their actions, which can seem inconsiderate to others (and potentially lead to dangerous situations).
    • Emotional control. AD/HD also seems to affect a person’s ability to manage their emotions. What might be slightly annoying to most people may be absolutely unacceptable for somebody with AD/HD; what seems faintly amusing to the majority of the group might seem hysterically funny to a person with AD/HD. Changes in emotion can be rapid and extreme, and while most adults have learnt how to control the expressions of their feelings in public, people with AD/HD may be unable to.


Learning strategies

People with AD/HD vary in the way that they prefer to learn, but most will need particular help with memory and concentration development. They may also need some explicit help with strategies for interacting successfully with their peers, who may need to be quite patient and tolerant of sudden changes in behavioural patterns.

This is a form of autism, which affects people’s ability to make and maintain relationships, but which is not as extreme as other conditions on the autism spectrum. The three main indicators of Asperger’s Syndrome are:

    • Difficulty with social communication. People with Asperger’s Syndrome will often interpret what people say in a very literal sense, and find it hard to understand metaphors and other expressions. They will usually say exactly what they mean, and expect others to do the same. There may be some difficulty in understanding differences of meaning due to changes in intonation or emphasis, and people with Asperger’s Syndrome will often speak in quite a monotonous voice, without making use of prosodic features of the language.
    • Difficulty with social interaction. This goes beyond linguistic communication to having problems with understanding the social conventions that enable us to get along with our peers. These conventions are culturally specific, for example, how close it is appropriate to stand to someone, and how long to maintain eye contact, and may need to be explicitly taught. Social interaction also encompasses the kinds of topics that can safely be broached, and how to manage turn-taking.
    • Difficulty with social imagination. This is exemplified by the difficulties that people with Asperger’s Syndrome have in imagining how their actions and words might affect others, how others might react and what other consequences might arise. This can be quite dangerous, in some situations.

In addition to these three main indicators, many people who have Asperger’s Syndrome also experience intense sensory hypersensitivity, of the types discussed above.


Learning strategies

People who have Asperger’s Syndrome may have some advantages when it comes to learning languages, in that sometimes their memories can be very reliable, and they can notice and retain details and patterns. However, they can find it hard to cope with inconsistency and irregularity, so may need a lot of help with those aspects of a language. Many people who have Asperger’s Syndrome have a particular subject that they find absorbing, and this can be a way in for language teachers to encourage practice of the less appealing elements of the language.

This is usually considered as a difficulty with dealing with mathematical concepts, and not really connected to language learning, but actually there is a lot of numerical work involved in learning a language. Apart from learning the names of numbers, it is usually important to be able to recognise and remember patterns and sequences (of strings of letters, days of the week, months of the year) and doing these things in a second or foreign language is doubly challenging for learners with dyscalculia.
The key indicators for dyscalculia are as for dyslexia, but also include difficulties with grasping numerical concepts such as relative size / magnitude, time and quantity.


Learning strategies

Whenever numerical or sequential concepts are required as part of the language structure, for example when discussing time or tenses, it is important to relate it to something concrete and if possible to provide some visual cues.