Definitions of Specific Learning Difficulties


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. The severity and persistence of dyslexic difficulties can be gained by examining how the individual responds or has responded to well-founded intervention.

Children with dyslexia will exhibit learning difficulties in the following skills:

  • Acquiring reading (decoding) and spelling skills, i.e. automaticity in reading/spelling.
  • Verbal memory: the ability to retain an ordered sequence of verbal material for a short period of time.
  • Phonological awareness: the ability to manipulate and detect sounds in words.
  • Verbal processing speed (receiving, holding, retrieving and structuring information) i.e. the time taken to process familiar verbal information such as letters and digits.

Characteristics that may be observed are:

  • Reading hesitancy
  • Misreading words causing comprehension difficulties
  • Rapid automized naming (RAN)
  • Sequencing difficulties e.g. numbers, days of the week, alphabet order
  • Weak organisation or time management
  • Erratic/bizarre spelling
  • Low self-esteem/confidence
  • Emotional/behavioural difficulties

'Emotionally, I feel inferior when people can read better than me.' Dyslexia Forum

Dyslexia is not related to intelligence and can occur within the full range of intellectual ability. People with dyslexia have their own individual profiles, strengths and areas for development. Dyslexia not only impacts on literacy but on all areas of the curriculum and in particular the relationship between language and literacy. Most people are born with dyslexia and may have family members with the condition, although a few can acquire it through illness or accident. Co-occurring difficulties may be seen in aspects of language, motor coordination, mental calculation, concentration or personal organisation, but these are not by themselves, markers of dyslexia.

Studies indicate that approximately 10% of children will have some degree of dyslexia. 4% will be severely affected, with a prevalence of boys over girls (2:1) (Hawke et al 2009; Wheldall and Limbrick 2010).

Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD)

As a toddler, he was all arms and legs. He couldn't run about and play like his older brother - he kept falling over.'

DCD (previously known as dyspraxia) is a medical diagnosis for those who have a marked impairment in the development of motor coordination which significantly interferes with academic achievement or activities of daily living. Their performance in carrying out tasks that require motor coordination is substantially below that expected, given their chronological age and intelligence. Children with DCD will therefore have difficulties with self-care skills such as dressing/undressing, feeding and personal organisation. They will also have difficulties with many aspects of the educational curriculum which require motor coordination, particularly handwriting, art, and physical education.

The condition was commonly known as developmental or motor dyspraxia until 2000 when the definition was internationally revised. The term 'dyspraxia' is still in common usage in Britain by many; however NY CYPS encourages educators to use the correct terminology. A child/young person diagnosed with DCD will have been formally diagnosed by medical practitioners.

Its onset is apparent in the early years, but usually it is not diagnosed formally before the age of 6 years. It has a varying, but significant, impact throughout an individual's lifespan, and its symptoms are consistent across culture, race, socio-economic status and gender. Although the long-term prognosis of individuals with DCD is uncertain, adolescence and adulthood is characterised by persistent motor difficulties, which can lead to social, medical and mental health problems.

Children with co-ordination difficulties lack the fine and gross motor co-ordination necessary to perform tasks that are considered age appropriate. These children are physically performing in the bottom 5 -15% for their age group despite having typical intellectual ability. Children/young people with co-ordination difficulties may show problems with some or all of the following:

  • Gross motor control: clumsy, difficulty throwing or catching a ball. The individual stands out as being 'different' in PE.
  • Fine motor control: significant difficulties in handwriting and practical skills such as use of scissors.
  • Motor organisation: difficulty staying seated, manoeuvring around objects, dressing, time-management and controlling possessions.
  • Visual perception: planning and layout of work, judging distances and spaces.
  • Auditory perception: difficulty following instructions, attention, and concentration.
  • Speech and language: organising thoughts. Vocalisation in those with oral dyspraxia
  • Learning and memory: difficulty recalling and remembering a short sequence of instructions.
  • Emotional and behavioural: avoiding playing games outside at playtimes leading to social isolation, low self-esteem and confidence.

DCD affects around 1.8% to 4% of school-aged children, with a prevalence of boys over girls (3:1) (Lingam et al 2009).


'aargh! It's the fourth time this year that I have forgotten my ATM pin number, I always seem to reverse the digits somehow!' SpLD Forum

Numeracy difficulties can take several forms. Some children have difficulties with many academic subjects, of which arithmetic is merely one; some have specific delays in arithmetic, which will eventually be resolved; and some have persisting, specific problems with arithmetic. It is the latter group for whom the term 'dyscalculia' may most appropriately be used. Dyscalculia is a specific learning difficulty that affects the ability to acquire arithmetical skills. Learners with dyscalculia show following characteristics

Fundamental Problems:

  • Counting
  • Reading and writing numerals
  • Number seriation
  • Numerical procedures
  • Principles, concepts and laws of arithmetic

    Application Problems:
  • Telling the time and judging elapsed time
  • Calculating prices and handling change
  • Measuring (e.g. temperature or speed)
  • Problems with ratios, fractions, decimals, changing units.

Such children and young people often lack confidence even when they produce the correct answer. They fail to use rules and procedures to build on known facts. For example, they may know that 5+3=8, but not realise that, therefore 3+5=8 or that 5+4=9. When solving problems children and young people with dyscalculia often don't understand which type of arithmetical operation is asked for. Lack of an intuitive grasp of number magnitudes makes checking calculations especially difficult.

The incidence of dyscalculia is 3.4% and research indicates a prevalence of boys over girls (4:1) (Reigosa-Crespo et al 2012).


Dysgraphia is a specific learning difficulty that affects how easily children acquire written language. It comes from the Greek word 'dys' meaning 'difficulty with' or 'impairment', and 'graph' meaning 'production of letter forms', and therefore refers to those who struggle to acquire handwriting and spelling skills. It rarely occurs independently of DCD and dyslexia and therefore its incidence is difficult to determine.

Characteristics that may be observed are:

  • Illegible handwriting
  • Poor understanding of uppercase and lowercase letters
  • Inability to write or draw in a line or within margins
  • Tight pencil grip
  • Poor letter formation
  • Lack of spacing between words
  • Inversions and reversals
  • A mixture of cursive and print writing
  • Concentrating so hard on writing that comprehension of what's written is missed
  • Omitting or not finishing words in sentences


This term refers to 'overlap' or the 'co-occurrence' when two or more specific learning difficulties arise together. This can include DCD with attention deficit disorder (with or without hyperactivity - ADHD/ ADD), dyslexia with dyscalculia, dyslexia with language delay (speaking and listening), and DCD with autistic traits. This can appear to 'muddy the waters' when trying to identify priorities for teaching and the question may be asked 'is the motor difficulty occurring because of inattention or lack of practice/focus?' However the principle of focusing on the functional or learning difficulty rather than the diagnostic source can help alleviate this frustration and emphasise strategies to address the issue rather than the developmental difference per-se (Sexton et al 2012).

There are many children whose development is not 'deficient or disordered' but delayed. There are a variety of reasons for this; from biological differences, learning opportunities, maturation, social experience, and/or ill health. Although these delays may have been identified early, in that health visitors may have noted disruptions to the acquisition of typical developmental milestones in early childhood, the assumption that the child will continue to be delayed should be challenged. Quality First Teaching principles are required to ensure that objectives for these children remain positive.

Educators within NY CYPS have the valuable resource of NYCC Enhanced Mainstream Schools (EMS) to help identify research and best practice, to ensure that children whatever the developmental combination, will have their needs fully met.