What are Specific Learning Disorders?

A specific learning disorder is characterised by persistent difficulties learning a key academic skill. This academic underachievement is unexpected and is not the result of a more general learning difficulty, such as an intellectual disability. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) identifies that there are a number of specific learning disorders that have the potential to impact on a student’s school performance:

Learning disorder dyslexia Perth

1. Specific learning disorder with impairment in reading (Dyslexia)


A specific learning disorder with impairment in reading (Dyslexia) is the most common form of learning disability, accounting for 80% of all children identified. Problems with reading, and related difficulties in comprehension, spelling and writing are common for these children. Many people who have a specific learning disorder with impairment in reading also experience difficulties with working memory, attention and organisational skills.


The International Dyslexia Association defines Dyslexia as:


… a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin. It is characterised by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.


When looking at identifying a specific learning disorder with impairment in reading, deficits in one or both of the following key academic areas are usually present:

  • Inaccurate or slow and effortful word reading (e.g., reads single words aloud incorrectly or slowly and hesitantly, frequently guesses words, has difficulty sounding out words).

  • Difficulty understanding the meaning of what is read (e.g., may read text accurately but not understand the sequence, relationships, inferences, or deeper meanings of what is read).

2. Specific learning disorder with impairment in written expression (Dysgraphia)


A specific learning disorder with impairment in written expression (Dysgraphia) often remains undiagnosed. It is a persistent difficulty with written expression and/or spelling that may occur in isolation, but more often, occurs in conjunction with Dyslexia. Students with Dysgraphia have extreme difficulty getting their thoughts both in order and down on paper.


Dysgraphia can be defined as:


…a specific learning disorder in written expression referring to (a) the language-based difficulties involved in constructing meaningful and effectively structured expressive writing and (b) ongoing weaknesses in spelling and punctuation that affect a student's capacity to express their ideas with clarity.


In the past, a specific learning disability with impairment in written expression was identified as either a language-based Dysgraphia or a motor-based Dysgraphia. It is now more common to use the term specific learning disorder with impairment in written expression when describing the language-based difficulties and developmental coordination when describing the motor-based difficulties associated with written expression. Persistent handwriting difficulties associated with an impairment in motor coordination are now commonly understood to be a particular aspect of Developmental Coordination Disorder (previously known as Dyspraxia).


When looking at identifying a specific learning disorder with impairment in written expression, deficits in one or both of the following key academic areas are usually present:

  • Difficulties with spelling (e.g., may add, omit or substitute vowels or consonants).

  • Difficulties with written expression (e.g., makes multiple grammatical or punctuation errors within sentences; employs poor paragraph organisation; written expression of ideas lacks clarity).

3. Specific learning disorder with impairment in mathematics (dyscalculia)


A specific learning disorder with impairment in mathematics (dyscalculia) is an innate difficulty in learning and comprehending mathematics. Children who have a specific learning disorder with impairment in mathematics have trouble understanding numbers, learning how to manipulate numbers, learning mathematical facts, and a number of other related difficulties.


Dyscalculia can be defined as:


… a condition that affects the ability to acquire arithmetical skills. Learners with dyscalculia may have difficulty understanding simple number concepts, lack an intuitive grasp of numbers, and have problems learning number facts and procedures. Even if they produce a correct answer or use a correct method, they do so mechanically and without confidence.


The severity of mathematical impairment differs depending on the individual. Although it can be argued that many of the defining features of a specific learning disorder with impairment in mathematics (dyscalculia) can also be seen in children who do poorly in mathematics, it is the degree of these difficulties and the resistance to remedial intervention that set children with dyscalculia apart from others with learning difficulties.


When looking at identifying a Specific Learning Disorder with impairment in mathematics (dyscalculia), deficits in one or both of the following key academic areas are usually present:

  • Difficulties mastering number sense, number facts or calculation (e.g., has poor understanding of numbers, their magnitude, and relationships; counts on fingers to add single-digit numbers instead of recalling the math fact as peers do; gets lost in the midst of arithmetic computation and may switch procedures).

  • Difficulties with mathematical reasoning (e.g., has severe difficulty applying mathematical concepts, facts, or procedures to solve quantitative problems).

Adapted from:

Understanding Learning Difficulties: A Guide for Parents (Auspeld, 2018)

What is Dysgraphia www.dsf.net.au


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