Recognising Learning Differences

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By Liz Rosenfield
on 05 June, 2016

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Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, Dyspraxia, Specific Learning Difficulties...

“What is in a name?” Well, it’s very confusing!

As a dyslexia assessor I am often asked to make a ‘diagnosis'. Parents find it comforting, and teachers feel it necessary to have confirmed what they have always suspected is a real issue impacting on a child’s ability to be a good learner.

What value do we put on that diagnosis and how important is that diagnosis during a child’s school career?

During the primary nurturing years, it is parents, carers and the child’s teachers who will recognise that a child has a ‘learning difference’ after which the experts are brought in to assist with finding out what can be done to help. With particular focus on reading, writing, handwriting, maths, memory and maybe EAL (English as Additional Language) this can be the first recognition that the child may be needing a little more support than school can offer.

What does an assessment tell us?

The findings of an assessment are crucial to the future teaching plans and extra help and support that a child will receive throughout their education, including special exam arrangements for pupils in some cases*. Dyslexia and associated difficulties do not go away, but with specialist teaching and support for the child, family and the school, dyslexia or any of the difficulties mentioned need not be a barrier to learning.

Definitions of Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, Dyspraxia & Specific Learning Difficulties

Dyslexia

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
  • Dyslexia occurs across the range of intellectual abilities
  • It is best thought of as a continuum, not a distinct category, and there are no clear cut-off points
  • Co-occurring difficulties may be seen in aspects of language, motor co-ordination, mental calculation, concentration and personal organisation, but these are not, by themselves, markers of dyslexia.

(Rose, 2009)

Specific Learning Difficulties or SpLD

The Dyslexia Association uses this definition for Specific Learning Difficulties:

SpLD affect the way information is learned and processed. Difficulties are neurological rather than psychological, usually run in families and occur independently of intelligence. They can have significant impact on education and learning and on the acquisition of literacy skills. SpLD is an umbrella term used to cover a range of frequently co-occurring difficulties, more commonly:

  • Dyslexia
  • Dyspraxia / DCD
  • Dyscalculia
  • A.D.D / A.D.H.D

SpLD can also co-occur with difficulties on the autistic spectrum such as Asperger Syndrome. Be aware that similar terminology can lead to confusion. For example, the term ‘learning difficulties’ is generally applied to people with global (as opposed to specific) difficulties, indicating an overall impairment of intellect and function.

In general, a student may be diagnosed with a specific learning difficulty where there is a lack of achievement at age and ability level, or a large discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability.

Dyscalculia

British Dyslexia Association currently state this definition:

Usually perceived of as a specific learning difficulty for mathematics, or, more appropriately, arithmetic.

Developmental Dyscalculia (DD)

A specific learning disorder that is characterised by impairments in learning basic arithmetic facts, processing numerical magnitude and performing accurate and fluent calculations. These difficulties must be quantifiably below what is expected for an individual’s chronological age, and must not be caused by poor educational or daily activities or by intellectual impairments.

Because definitions and diagnoses of dyscalculia are in their infancy and sometimes contradictory, it is difficult to quantify a prevalence, but research suggests it is around 5%. Prevalence in the UK is at least 25%.

Developmental Dyscalculia often occurs in association with other developmental disorders such as dyslexia or ADHD/ADD. Co-occurrence of learning disorders appears to be the rule rather than the exception. Co-occurrence is generally assumed to be a consequence of risk factors that are shared between disorders, for example, working memory. However, it should not be assumed that all dyslexics have problems with mathematics, although the percentage may be very high, or that all dyscalculics have problems with reading and writing.

Typical symptoms of dyscalculia/mathematical learning difficulties:

  • Has difficulty when counting backwards
  • Has a poor sense of number and estimation
  • Has difficulty in remembering ‘basic’ facts, despite many hours of practice/rote learning
  • Has no strategies to compensate for lack of recall, other than to use counting.
  • Tends to be slower to perform calculations (therefore give less examples, rather than more time)
  • Forgets mathematical procedures, especially as they become more complex, for example ‘long’ division
  • Addition is often the default operation. The other operations are usually very poorly executed (or avoided altogether)
  • Avoids tasks that are perceived as difficult and likely to result in a wrong answer
  • Weak mental arithmetic skills
  • High levels of mathematics anxiety.

Diagnosis and assessment should use a range of measures, to identify which factors are creating problems for the learner and face to face assessment is preferred to online screeners although they can be a good guide.

Dyspraxia

This definition is recognised by the Dyspraxia Foundation:

Dyspraxia is a form of developmental co-ordination disorder (DCD) and is a common disorder affecting fine and/or gross motor co-ordination in children and adults. It may also affect speech. Children may present with difficulties with self-care, writing, typing, riding a bike, as well as other educational and recreational activities. While DCD is often regarded as an umbrella term to cover motor co-ordination difficulties, dyspraxia refers to those people who have additional problems with planning, organising and carrying out movements in the right order in everyday situations. Dyspraxia can also affect articulation and speech, perception and thought.

As you can see there is a distinct cross over between the difficulties and assessors are likely to take all these factors into account when testing and making a diagnosis.

So, all these difficulties are real and will have an impact on a child’s life and ability to learn, but should never be a barrier to learning. I tell the children that I work with that they just learn in a different way and that they may hear me talk about ‘multi-sensory teaching’ as a way of helping them. A child or young person with any of the difficulties described will have every opportunity to succeed if they have access to specialist multi-sensory teaching; dyslexia-friendly classrooms; good teaching strategies; exam access arrangements i.e. laptops, readers, scribes and/or extra time* and learning support in school, college and in University with opportunity for differentiation. It is our job as teachers and school leaders to make sure we provide it.

*these arrangements will be different for all pupils and based on thorough assessments taking place to ascertain what is required.

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