In order to diagnose a learning disability it is necessary to establish that a student is experiencing an unexpectedly high level of difficulty learning in a particular academic area. (For example, it is recognised that students with dyslexia will generally have ongoing difficulties reading accurately and fluently.) It is not really possible to make judgements about academic performance too early because all children make errors and work laboriously when they first start learning to read, spell, write and calculate. This is only to be expected. It becomes ‘unexpected’ when students continue to struggle – or progress very slowly – for a much longer period of time than we would expect.
However, this certainly doesn’t mean that teachers and parents should wait for the student to fail before they take action.
Early intervention is vitally important for any child at risk of literacy or numeracy failure and there are many indicators to suggest that the essential foundation skills are not being established. In many cases, it becomes apparent prior to year one when children are in the Foundation or Pre-primary years and beginning to learn the fundamental skills required for successful literacy and numeracy learning. Children may have difficulties:
- hearing the sounds in words;
- recognising that certain words rhyme or that strings of words start with the same sound;
- learning the names and sounds of the letters of the alphabet;
- learning the names and values attached to numbers;
- remembering the shape of letters and numbers and how to write them;
- reading simple words accurately, without guessing from context or using picture cues.
Some children have difficulty remembering and repeating a short sentence or a nonsense word, while others take a long time to name things, even when it is something they are familiar with.
Many of the skills identified above are dependent on cognitive processing and memory. Students with learning disabilities are often found to have difficulties with phonological processing, orthographic processing and working memory.
Phonological processing is a term used to describe the way we process language. It includes our awareness of the sounds and structure of the sentences and words we hear, how well we remember speech, and how quickly we can name things that we know.
Orthographic processing relates to the processing of written language and starts with our ability to remember the shape and form of the letters of the alphabet as well as the sounds they represent. It also refers to our ability to remember English spelling patterns and rules.
Working memory is the memory space we use to hold small amounts of information while we manipulate it in some way. For example, we use working memory to solve mental arithmetic problems or follow a set of directions. It is different from simple short-term memory because it involves simultaneous ‘storage’ and ‘processing’.
For more information about these three areas of cognitive processing see Appendix 1.
When should an assessment be considered?
In the event that students continue to struggle despite targeted intervention an appropriate assessment should be considered. If the student appears to be experiencing language-related difficulties then an assessment by a speech pathologist is recommended, whereas if the difficulties are specifically related to learning in a particular academic area, then an assessment by a psychologist, ideally with experience in the education field, should be sought.