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Specific Learning Difficulties Guidance

Specific Learning Difficulties in Adults - Overview of terms and associated conditions

Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs) are neurological in origin and adversely impact the learning and processing of information. SpLD is an umbrella term which is used to refer to one or more of the following difficulties: - Dyslexia - Dyspraxia - Dyscalculia - Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) - Autism Spectrum Disorder/Condition - Autism is not an SpLD, but a high percentage of Autistic students often also have an SpLD diagnosis.

  • Dyslexia: The most common SpLD, affects around 10% of the population. Students with dyslexia may experience problems with processing information, memory, organisation and sequencing. In addition, they may mix up letters within words and words within sentences when reading and find spelling to be problematic when writing.
  • Dyspraxia: Also known as Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD), dyspraxia affects fine and/or gross motor coordination.
  • Dyscalculia: Relates to difficulties understanding maths concepts and symbols. Students may struggle to understand simple number concepts and basic numeracy skills.
  • Dysgraphia: can be defined as a ‘disorder in written expression’. As such, dysgraphia is the condition of impaired writing by hand which can impact a student’s ability to spell words in writing and speed of writing text.
  • Visual Stress: Some students with dyslexia may experience visual disturbance when reading. Text can appear distorted and words or letters appear to move or become blurred. There may also be difficulties tracking across the page.
  • A.D.D / A.D.H.D: is a disorder which is characterised by difficulties such as staying focused and paying attention. Students are very easily distracted, lose track of what they are doing and have poor listening skills.

An individual may have one of these conditions independently; alternatively, they can co-exist as part of a wider profile. SpLDs can also co-exist with difficulties on the autistic spectrum such as Asperger Syndrome.

How do SpLDs impact upon study?

There are a number of ways in which SpLDs can impact upon a student’s ability to study. However, the extent of the impact is contingent upon the length of time since diagnosis, existing coping strategies and mechanisms, and availability of support.

Study Factor

Potential Difficulties


Sequencing information, organisation and planning, retention of information (dates, verbal instructions), absorbing information quickly from text

Motor Control

Handwriting legibility and speed, spatial awareness,

Attention and Concentration

Maintaining focus and focusing accurately for a sustained period

Verbal expression and understanding

Fluency of written composition, summarising from source material/paraphrasing, scanning and skimming information rapidly, writing concisely, planning, organising, ordering and structuring writing and ideas, sentence structure, grammar and punctuation.

Time and Space

Task and time management (planning and structuring time).

Study Skills Support

Some students, many of whom have applied for Disabled Students Allowance, receive support from Specialist One to One Study Skills Tutors.

Tutors work with students on the following:

  • Planning and structuring essays
  • Breaking down assignment questions
  • Organisational strategies
  • Revision techniques
  • Research skills
  • Critical thinking.

Tutors aim to deliver structured and tailored support for students to develop the necessary strategies to become independent learners.

Making Teaching More Accessible to Students with an SpLD

What’s an SpLD?

An SpLD is a Specific Learning Difference/Difficulty, the most common of which are dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia and Attention Deficit Disorder:

Dyslexia is typically characterised by difficulties with writing, reading and spelling. This could involve getting letters the wrong way round e.g. mistaking b for d, having difficulty transferring thoughts onto the page, and having working memory difficulties.

Dyscalculia is typically characterised by having difficulties with numbers such as problems with basic arithmetic, experiencing significant levels of anxiety when faced with a numerical problem and difficulties with estimating cost.

Dyspraxia is typically characterised by fine and gross motor coordination difficulties. This could involve having difficulty with writing, catching a ball, performing delicate precision practical tasks, as well as organisational difficulties.

Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder is typically characterised by impulsive behaviour, difficulty concentrating for prolonged periods of time and in some cases, hyperactivity. Some of the difficulties people with AD(H)D experience include difficulties with absorbing information, maintaining interest in a set task for a prolonged period, turn taking, impulsiveness and difficulties with sitting still.

How can teaching staff make their lectures more accessible to those with an SpLD?

  • Providing lecture slides ahead of the lecture can enable students to familiarise themselves with the material, and enables them to be able to print the slides out and make notes alongside – providing them with more context when they’re reading their notes back
  • Allowing students to record lectures means that they can concentrate on what the lecturer is saying, rather than worrying about keeping up with notes if they have difficulty listening and writing at the same time
  • Avoid glare on the projector screen
  • Cream or pastel backgrounds create less visual stress
  • Sans serif font such as Arial or Verdana are easier to read
  • Size 12-14 font as a minimum on printed handouts
  • Dark text on a light background – avoid white as this can create visual stress
  • People with visual sensitivities can struggle with certain colours such as green, red and pink, so avoid these where possible
  • If setting a title, bold text is much easier to read than that in italics or underlined text as these effects can make the words run into each other
  • Where possible, space out information – for example, set line spacing at 1.5 as it creates a clearer definition between the lines
  • To avoid confusion, where possible avoid using abbreviations
  • Visual aids are usually very helpful
  • For lengthy lectures, offer the opportunity for a 5 minute break – this may help students to refocus
  • When explaining tasks/assignments, do so slowly and clearly. Providing a verbal and visual instruction can help embed the information.
  • If you think a student may have an SpLD, encourage them to come in and have a chat with the Disability Support Team – they may be able to have a diagnostic assessment to identify areas they have difficulty.
  • Students who have a full diagnosis of an SpLD may be able to apply for Disabled Students’ Allowance which could potentially fund 1:1 specialist study skills support, or assistive technology which could help them in their studies.

Marking work that has an SpLD sticker on it:

  • Unless stated as a competency of the assessment, students with an SpLD sticker should not be penalised for spelling and handwriting difficulties.
  • Clear, structured feedback will help the student to work on areas of difficulty, such as sentence structure.

This is just a brief overview of some of the difficulties a student with an SpLD may experience. There isn’t a one size fits all approach to supporting students with an SpLD, what works for one, may not work for another, but the suggestions above are some of the most common strategies that many students find useful.


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