SpLDs: A teacher's guide

Allaa Gawish

How can schools best serve the needs of children with an SpLD and what does inclusive practice look like?

What is an SpLD?

Specific Learning Difficulty (SpLD) is a neurodevelopment disorder, that includes various types of learning difficulties. It can be diagnosed in early school-age children. 

The severity of the SpLD falls into one of these three levels:

  • Mild: having minor issues in one or two areas that are manageable.
  • Moderate: learning difficulties that may need additional support from a specialist teacher with accommodation and support intervention.
  • Severe difficulties with learning that affect several academic areas require intensive support with special intervention from the school and outside agencies.

Cognitive skills are the process of the brain's ability to think, learn, and remember the information that the brain receives every day. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses in their cognitive skills, and most people fall into the normal range. When a pupil has difficulty with their cognitive skills, it affects and reflects his/her ability to learn day-to-day life skills. SpLD is not affected by the person's intellectual ability, socio-economic background, or language background. If a pupil has a SpLD, it does not mean that the pupil cannot achieve an educational level. Although it may be challenging for the pupil and require greater effort and creative skills to achieve the maximum academic potential level. The biggest challenge for the teacher and the pupil is to recognise the specific needs and find a suitable intervention to facilitate the learning process.

Teachers and participants need to keep in mind that a child with an SpLD might have weaknesses but may also they may also have strengths. In this article, we discuss the implications of this condition within the realms of a classroom.

SpLD in classroom settings

Many children struggle to cope in mainstream school settings due to specific learning difficulties. In recent years, the assessment of dyslexia amongst other learning needs has been vastly improved. Despite these advances, primary schools and secondary schools are often left feeling that they need more support. Is my lesson not effective? What should I change? Why is that pupil falling behind? In this article, we are going to explore some of the specific learning difficulties that may cause issues for pupils and teachers in the class setting.

The school Senco is typically the person to whom the education community looks for answers. We will argue that the wider responsibility sits with all teaching staff and there are some simple strategies that we can all take advantage of to meet the needs of this cohort of pupils. We will look at a simple tool for schools called 'Writers Block' that enables children to organise their thoughts. We will also look at how a primary school can adopt the Universal Thinking Framework to make the curriculum more accessible. Many of the children who need support have a combination of difficulties that need to be addressed. On the surface level, these may look like literacy-related difficulties. Experienced teachers, specialist teachers and ECT staff members can all benefit from embracing classroom strategies that visualise the thinking process.

Specific Learning Difficulties Map
Specific Learning Difficulties Map

What are the symptoms of SpLD? 

There are many different symptoms of SpLD. But keep in mind that you have to deal with the pupil as an individual person. Not all of these symptoms must be present; it depends on which SpLD type the pupil has. 

  • Memory difficulties: difficulties in remembering and recalling instructions and information.
  • Organizational difficulties: difficulties in following clear directions, lack of awareness.
  • Difficulties in writing include difficulty in using vocabulary, ordering words, and creating well-structured sentences.
  • Visual Processing Difficulties: difficulty in copying and drawing; difficulty in differentiating between shapes, numbers, letters, etc.
  • Difficulties with reading include difficulties connecting letters to sounds, mispronouncing words, and skipping words.
  • Auditory Processing Difficulties include mishearing sounds and words, difficulty remembering and following verbal instructions, and difficulty following up with the conversation.
  • Time Management Difficulties: easily getting distracted, poor punctuality, missing deadlines, difficulty planning. 
  • Sensory overload: feeling anxious when being surrounded by overstimulated senses like loud noises or crowded places. 

Inclusive learning strategies
Inclusive learning strategies

What type of SpLD's are there?

1. Dyslexia: difficulties in reading, writing, and spelling, mainly affecting the area of the brain that processes language. 

Symptoms include: slow reading speed, difficulty with organisation skills, poor short-term memory skills, poor handwriting, difficulty with spelling even if it is an easy or common word, and pronunciation difficulties. 

Strategies: avoiding asking the pupil to read in front of the class, allowing the pupil to record the session, allowing extra time for the pupil to read the task; using a variety of learning techniques; giving a clear example when introducing a new vocabulary; allowing pause to summarise the points; using clear and simple instructions.

2. Dyspraxia: It is the difficulty with motor coordination skills and difficulty with organising movement that affects the brain area responsible for processing information. 

Symptoms include: poor posture and fatigue (e.g., difficulty standing for long periods of time), poor eye-hand coordination, poor balance skills (e.g., dropping things), difficulties with organization, poor motor skills, unclear speech, a short attention span, and difficulty with social communication.

Strategies: always recap the previous lesson, provide a to-do list at the beginning of the lesson, introduce the information in a well-structured way, provide visual aids for spoken tasks and instruction, request a 1-1 meeting with the pupil to understand his/her needs, ask the pupil to repeat the given instructions 

3. Attention Deficit Disorder ADD and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), it affects the part of the brain that controls attention span.

Symptoms: poor attention skills, poor listening skills, difficulties with talking turns, talking excessively, fidgeting a lot, taking longer time to finish the task.

Strategies: pause and summarise the points, give clear and simple instructions, using different learning channels, allow the child to move the during lesson.

According to some studies, having arithmetic difficulty does not imply poor mathematical reasoning skills; in fact, some students with dyscalculia are mathematically gifted.

Symptoms include: difficulty with time tables and mental arithmetic, difficulty with basic number concepts (e.g., telling time, counting money), poor timing skills, confusion between mathematical signs (e.g., +,-,,) While the student may be confident in subjects such as math and geometry that require the use of logic rather than formulas, they may struggle with sequential processing (e.g., addition steps).

Strategies: avoid asking the pupil to solve numeracy problems in front of the class; use manipulative and hands-on activities; provide the pupil with extra time, teach different ways to solve the mathematical operations, provide charts about math facts and timetables; highlight the keywords and numbers in the word problem; give 1:1 instruction during the task and ask the pupil to repeat them. 

5. Dysgraphia: it is a neurological dysfunction that affects the performance of the motor movement skills that are required for handwriting. 

Symptoms: poor spatial planning (e.g., difficulty with writing on the line or leaving finger space), Cramped grip (poor pencil grip), erasing frequently, poor spelling skills (e.g: missing letters),

Strategies: allow the pupil to use different writing tools (e.g: computer), use positive reinforcement and do not criticise their handwriting, provide the pupil with relief activities before writing, provide the pupil with fine motor skills activities (e.g: squeeze ball), and provide the pupil with modified lined paper to help them organise their writing 

SpLD students might need scaffolding
Graphic organisers make learning visual

What strategies can be used to support SpLD students?

Anyone working within environments that supports children with special educational needs Will know that there is no one size fits all. Our unique individual differences that make us human all need different approaches to enable us to overcome the various learning barriers we might face.  The following list will hopefully provide you with some ideas about

1. Daily routines: providing the pupil with well-structured routines is vital to pupil with learning difficulties. It will enforce the pupil to focus and learn effectively. For example, checklist, giving breaks

2. Simple instruction and explanation: make sure that the instructions are clear and given in a direct way, e.g., put your blue pencil in the bag.

3. Differentiation: using different learning channels and techniques to meet the pupil's needs to provide the information in different ways (e.g., in a small group or individual)

4. Metacognitive strategies: enhance the pupil's ability to understand the way they learn by developing their thinking skills about their own views. As an example, a checklist to organise their daily tasks. Using the strategy of thinking out loud, the teacher read aloud, then paused to discuss their thoughts. Help the pupils to develop their own strategies and processes 

5. Use technology and multi-sensory teaching techniques to simplify the learning process. For example, if the pupil has poor handwriting, allow the pupil to use the computer or iPad to write. Allow the pupil to record the lesson and listen to it later. Using multi-sensory resources by using auditory and visual resources and physical games.

6. Classroom Materials: try to avoid busy classroom decoration. If the pupil has ADHD or sensory overload, they may feel distracted and anxious. Use different colours and fonts for the tasks. If the pupil is solving exercises, highlight the keywords, so they can refer back to them. 

7.  Flexible Scheduling: pupils with learning disabilities will benefit from flexible timetables. Allowing extra time for the activity, allowing breaks in between the lessons, providing brain puzzle games, stress-relieving games.

 8. Accessibility: create an inclusive and supportive school environment for pupils with learning difficulties. As an example, ramps for the pupil with a wheelchair, suitable and age-appropriate toilet rooms, wider corridors, and gentle reminders about basic life skills. The school should be a supportive environment for all learners. 

Dual coding for SpLD students
Dual coding for SpLD students

What learning tools can be used to support SpLD students?

Whether a student is struggling with dyslexic type difficulties or co-occurring difficulties, offloading the working memory can be a positive step. The following tools enable inclusive teaching across all classrooms regardless of disabilities.

1. Writers Block enables children to think outside of their heads using a playful pedagogy. Friendly strategies like this provide a space for children to organise their thinking.

2. Graphic organisers can be utilised to help students map out their ideas. This type of evidence-based literacy intervention has positive implications for both reading and writing.

3. A child with dyslexia might also benefit from having instructions delivered using the Universal Thinking Framework. This colour-coded taxonomy can be used as a planning, delivery or assessment tool.

Scaffolding with Writers Block
Scaffolding with Writers Block

What assessment tools can we use to diagnose SpLD?

The first step to setting the proper intervention for the pupil is through the diagnostic assessment. Here are some assessment tools that are used to diagnose different learning difficulties

Intelligence Tests (IQ tests): used to diagnose learning disabilities, including the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence (WIPPSI), Weschler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC), and the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS). Other cognitive tests are the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test, Differential Abilities Scales (DAS), the Woodcock-Johnson Test of Cognitive Abilities, and the (WISC), and the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS). Other cognitive tests are the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test, Differential Abilities Scales (DAS), the Woodcock-Johnson Test of Cognitive Abilities, and the Comprehensive Test of Nonverbal Intelligence (CTONI).

Achievement Tests: These are tests that focus on reading, writing, and math skills.Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Achievement (WJ), the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test (WIAT), the Wide Range Achievement Test (WRAT), and the Kaufman Test of Educational Achievement (KTEA).

Visual-Motor Integration Tests: examining if the brain is linking the visual aids with motor coordination skills. Includes, the Bender Visual-Motor Gestalt Test and the Developmental Test of Visual-Motor Integration.

Language Tests: to determine the pupil's ability to understand and respond to spoken, written, and verbally language questions and clues. This includes the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals (CELF), the Goldman Fristoe Test of Articulation, and the Test of Language Development.

In conclusion, each pupil can learn and achieve certain skills in life. The main changeling is to know the path that will lead to the pupil's success

Instructional guidance using the new framework
Instructional guidance using the new framework


SpLD References: