What are learning difficulties?

What are learning difficulties?
Read and Spell blog
What are learning difficulties?

Learning difficulties, known as learning disabilities in North America, are conditions that impact on an individual’s ability to gain knowledge and skills at the same rate as his or her peers. They may be due to a mental handicap or a cognitive disorder.

Having a learning difficulty does not make someone less intelligent, it just means they learn in a different way that can render traditional classroom activities problematic. That’s why people with learning difficulties often require specific strategy training and customized lessons in order to overcome challenges and make progress in an academic environment.

The term “learning difficulties” covers a wide range of conditions from dyslexia and attention hyperactive deficit disorder (ADHD) to Down syndrome. Learning difficulties can affect people of all ages; however, they are particularly problematic for children who are learning how to read and write.

That’s because they may interrupt the development of key literacy skills required for students to excel in all areas of the curriculum. Adult learners who enroll in adult basic skills programs or struggle with spelling and reading skills may be people who faced learning difficulties as children but did not receive proper support.

No two individuals with a particular learning difficulty will have the same set of symptoms, which makes it hard for educators and parents to recognize the underlying cause of performance issues such as slow reading or below average writing abilities.

It’s also common for conditions to go un-diagnosed, which can lead to students not receiving the help or attention they need and result in low self-esteem and a negative attitude towards learning. This can have serious consequences when it comes to young-adults finishing school and acquiring the skills they need to be successful in today’s job market.

What’s in a name?

Labels change the way people with learning difficulties think about themselves and are treated by others. “Learning difficulties” was first used in the 1980s and is the preferred term in the UK given it addresses the difficulties experienced by an individual vs. what causes the difficulties.

Moreover, a difficulty can be overcome whereas a disability is a lifelong condition that handicaps a person.

You may also hear “learning disabilities, learning disorders, specific learning difficulties, attention issues and learning differences.” The key thing to remember is that you are discussing, first and foremost, people. That’s why it is preferable to say “the child with dyslexia” instead of the “dyslexic child.”

Also, try to avoid terms like “mentally handicapped” and “disabled” as they may have negative connotations.

Types of learning difficulties

4 Types of learning difficulties

  1. Dyslexia
    One of the most common specific learning difficulties, some estimates indicate that 10-15% of the population struggles with some form of dyslexia. No two individuals will have the same set of symptoms and there are various types, but generally people with dyslexia experience difficulty hearing the sounds that make up words. Being able to split a word into phonemes and then map those phonemes to letters is how spelling works. Putting sounds to letters is also an essential component in early reading skills. Learn more about strategies to help students with dyslexia when it comes to spelling and classroom learning.
  2. ADD and ADHD Attention deficit disorder (ADD) and Attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) are often confused or grouped under the ADHD term. Individuals who struggle with attention issues may go unnoticed in the classroom, particularly when they lack the hyperactive aspect, as is the case for people with ADD. They are not necessarily troublemakers and may simply perform poorly as they are not able to concentrate on the lesson or keep their attention focused on the task at hand. Try these posts for tips on helping students with ADD and ADHD be more successful at school.
  3. Slow Processing People with slow processing issues may need more time to understand something than their peers. They can have trouble with reading comprehension and getting started on tasks and often struggle to complete assessments and other timed classroom activities. Learn more about slow processing.
  4. Dyspraxia and Dysgraphia While not actually classed as a learning difficulty, dyspraxia is a coordination disorder that impacts on fine motor skills and can make it hard for people to hold a pen or pencil in order to write by hand. It shares some symptoms with ADHD and has been known to impact on planning skills. It sometimes shows up alongside dyslexia. Dysgraphia refers to handwriting difficulties that also make writing painful and result in messy written assignments, similar to the work produced by kids with ADHD.

Down syndrome 

Depending on the country and organization, Down syndrome may fall under the learning difficulties umbrella. People who have Down syndrome today attend public schools, finish high school and sometimes even graduate from university.

They may be able to start reading from a young age but often struggle with phoneme-grapheme mapping and often require ample opportunities for repetition in order to learn. For this reason, computer programs that break learning into smaller steps and provide plenty of positive feedback, to encourage and motivate students, may be helpful. Learn more about teaching children with Down syndrome to read.

Motivation in kids with learning difficulties
Additional things to keep in mind

Nature vs. Nurture

Specific learning difficulties may or may not be genetic. For example, some studies point to a greater likelihood of male and left-handed individuals having dyslexia and its tendency to run in families. Regardless of the origins of a learning difficulty, strategies exist to help people overcome challenges and reach their full potential in an academic environment.

Symptoms vary

There’s a wide spectrum when it comes to how severely an individual is affected by a learning difficulty and which particular symptoms he or she experiences. Diagnosing the issue and understanding the difficulty on a case-by-case basis is crucial so classroom activities can be adjusted to benefit the individual student. 

Self-confidence and self-esteem

Someone who is struggling with reading and writing often experiences low self-esteem and a lack of confidence in the classroom. Receiving extra support and attention from teachers may also cause embarrassment in front of peers. Learn more about helping students with specific learning difficulties be more confident at school.

Motivation and Self-efficacy

A learning difficulty can cause significant challenges for students to overcome. Helping individuals to stay motivated and break tasks down into manageable steps is key.


New technology exists to support students with learning difficulties by offering opportunities for multi-sensory learning and the ability to repeat lessons at a pace set by the learner. Take advantage of a wide range of resources until you arrive at a learning program that works.

Reading, writing and spelling skills

One way in which individuals with learning difficulties can improve reading, writing and spelling skills is through learning touch-typing. That’s because a multi-sensory typing course will repeat a sound, display the corresponding letter and require the student to type the correct key.

This helps with phonics training and uses muscle memory to assist with spelling. Repeat exposure to vocabulary also reinforces sight reading

Touch-typing is the recommended approach for completing writing exercises in the case of dyspraxia or dysgraphia, as it helps translate ideas into writing without the distraction of forming letters. A modular course can be taken after school and help students build confidence slowly, as they progress at a pace that is right for them.

Learn more

Do you have information to add? Join the discussion in the comments!


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About the Author 

Meredith Cicerchia

Meredith Cicerchia is a teaching affiliate at the University of Nottingham, an education consultant, and a freelance writer who covers topics ranging from speech and language difficulties and specific learning differences, to strategies for teaching English as a second and additional language.
Reviewed by 

Chris Freeman

Chris Freeman has a BA cum laude in Sociology, and has undertaken post grad work in education and educational technology. She spent 20+ years working in public health and in the charity sector.
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