What are 'Learning Difficulties'?

Today, a large number of schools and institutions across India are sensitive to the fact that 15 percent of all school-going children have some degree of learning difficulties. According to the Canadian Association for Children and Adults with Learning Disabilities:

Learning Disabilities or Difficulties, is a generic term that refers to a heterogeneous group of disorders due to identifiable or inferred central nervous system dysfunction. Such disorders may be manifested by delays in early development and/or difficulties in any of the following areas: attention, memory, reasoning, co-ordination, communicating, reading, writing, spelling, calculation, social competence and emotional maturation. Learning Difficulties are intrinsic to the individual and may affect learning and behaviour in any individual, including those with potentially average, average or above average intelligence.

Implicit in most definitions of learning difficultieswould be a discrepancy between what the child is actually learning - based on his present achievement - and what the child ought to be learning according to 'normal' developmental standards - as estimated using different systems of measurement.

It is important to understand that these children have to be assisted in dealing with academic learning not because they are deficient in any general sense, but because our academic system depends on and recognizes only certain types of performance as an indication of scholastic achievement. At this point, it would be appropriate to mention that the term 'learning difficulty' as opposed to 'learning disability' is a more acceptable term because the child is perceived to have a disability in the context of our restricted educational framework, which largely depends on the visual and auditory modes of learning.

A learning difficulty could also be viewed as a 'normal' deviance of brain function. Everyone has a difficulty in one area or the other. Most of the time, it does not interfere with day-to-day life, but when the area of difficulty is in the cognitive region it impedes development, since dissemination of information in our educational framework is largely through reading and writing.

One could see these children as 'differently abled' rather than 'learning disabled'. For instance, a child excelling at music is not seen on the same terms as a child who is excellent at math. The two children are differently abled and equally good at their areas of specialty, yet one will be thought of as clever and the other will not.

Causes of learning difficulties and neurological interpretations

Learning difficulties could be either inherited or acquired. Very often, such difficulties run in families. On the other hand, trauma at birth, accidents involving neurological damage and certain medications could lead to a learning difficulty.

The CanadianAssociation for Children andAdults with Learning Difficulties states that: Learning difficulties are not due primarily to visual, hearing or motor handicaps; to mental retardation, emotional disturbance, or environmental disadvantage; although they may occur concurrently with any of these.

Learning difficulties may arise from genetic variations, biochemical factors, and events in the pre natal to post natal period, or any other subsequent events resulting in neurologicalimpairment.

There have been varied interpretations of the neurological correlates of this condition. A lot of research has been done and is yet being carried out to understand this apparent 'dysfunction' of the brain. One of the rather interesting theories is that of 'incomplete programming'. This theory is based on the fact that to keep something in working order, constant stimulation is required. In the case of the brain, it needs to be programmed for performing various functions and this takes place very early in life. If a child does not have enough opportunity to practice processing a certain type of information at an early age, the brain may always struggle with that type of processing. Incidentally, this theory provides one basis on which programmes for very young children are designed, involving multi-sensory stimulation.

Manifestations and symptoms

Developmentally, a delay in the acquisition of speech is an indication that a child may be at risk. Further indications of a child at risk would be: a delay in the acquisition of fine motor skills such as turning a doorknob, buttoning or zippering clothes and fastening buckles or shoelaces. A child who does not respond on hearing his/her name, who keeps falling or getting hurt, or who has problems in differentiating between shapes and colours would also be at risk. A delay in the acquisition of phoneme awareness is another significant pointer since children normally acquire this skill from around four years of age.

At the school level, a discrepancy between the child's perfectly adequate and sometimes above average ability to communicate orally and comprehend spoken language, and his poor reading and writing language skills, is one of the indications that something is amiss. Assessments in this area are normally done after the age of six, by which time the child would have had sufficient exposure to readingand writing.

A child who has a learning difficulty, and thus special needs, requires attention as early as possible. If this is not received, he might perceive himself as inadequate for reasons beyond his comprehension and that could lead to psychological trauma, which may further lead to behavioural disorders. Hence, remedial help ideally needs to be given as early as possible to prevent a building up of difficulties in academic comprehensionand understanding.

Different kinds of learning difficulties: some terminology

While dealing with terminology, it is important to note that 'dyslexia' is just one manifestation of 'learning difficulties'. A difficulty with numbers is called 'dyscalculia'. 'Dyspraxia' is a difficulty in coordination. 'Dysnomia' would be where the person has a difficulty in assigning a name to everyday objects. It has been observed that a learning difficulty does not occur in isolation but as a cluster of more than onedifficulty.

Since dyslexia is the most prevalent form of learning difficulty, it has been given considerable attention by researchers and extensive literature exists on instruction and remediation methods. Current research indicates that the vast majority of children with dyslexia have phonological core deficits. The major components of phonological information involve phoneme awareness, sound . symbol relations and storage and retrieval of phonological information inmemory.

From about four years of age, children begin to be able to divide the sound stream into syllables so that, for example, they can split the word 'buttercup' into three units, namely 'but', 'er', 'cup'. The ability to divide words into single speech segments, called phoneme segmentation, does not emerge until later at around five or six. When children can divide thewords at the level of the phoneme - for instance, when they can split 'but' into the components 'b', 'u', 't' - they are said to have 'phoneme awareness' and this is thought to be an important pre- reading skill. (Liberman et al, 1977). It has been suggested (Bradley&Bryant, 1983) that early segmentation skills predict later reading achievement. In dyslexic children, the severity of these deficits varies across individuals and children with these deficits have been shown to make significantly less progress in basic word-reading skills compared to other children with equivalentIQs.

Learning difficulties vs slow learning

To refer to a child with a learning difficulty as a 'slow learner' or as a child 'afflicted with a disease' is entirely unwarranted. The child is neither slow nor diseased. This is quite like a person who has weak eyesight andwears glasses. The subject is neither diseased nor slowin learning. His 'condition' is countered by wearing glasses that improve vision. The difference is that weak eyesight is a physiological condition whereas the kind of difficulties in learning being addressed here are cognitive in origin and will not show up on a physiological examination. Hence we use the term 'hidden difficulty'.

It may also be useful to consider the idea of 'deficit' versus 'delay' with respect to etiology, since it would have important pedagogical implications: for example, whether to teach a child as if he were just younger, or to teach him in a qualitativelydifferent manner.

Learning styles

Every learner has a preferred learning style, which depends upon the strengths and weaknesses of that person. There may be several ways in which the brain processes different kinds of information, but the two main processes that are believed to be most responsible for learning are sensory processing and cognitive processing. Sensory processing is where the brain uses information from the senses (vision, hearing, touch, smell, taste). Cognitive processing is what the brain does with the information after it comes in through the senses.

Out of the five sensory channels, the two that can cause trouble with academic learning are the visual and auditory processing channels.

  • Visual processing includes seeing differences between things, remembering visual details, visualization and imagination, and artistic abilities. Children with a difficulty here often experience problems in mathematics and spelling because they have trouble 'visualizing' words, letters and symbols. They would have difficulty visualizing problems in mathematics and would present a clutteredworksheet. They often also have poor handwriting skills.
  • Auditory processing includes hearing differences between sounds and voices, remembering specificwords or numbers, remembering general sound patterns, understanding even when some sounds are missed out, and musical sensitivity. Children with a difficulty in auditory processing usually have problems with general reading, writing and language. They would be poor at decoding new words, poor at comprehension, spelling and sentence structure and would have a difficulty with expression. They would also find it difficult to follow oral directions and learn by oral instruction.

Often children with specific difficulties get labeled as 'slow learners', a term that tends to be used rather inaccurately. If the child with a difficulty were to be taught using his dominant learning mode, the child would probably respond as quickly as, or quicker than his peers. In considering the child's difficulty, it is a 'condition' which can be surmounted comfortably, provided remedial help is delivered in the right manner at the right time.

In general, if our educational pattern incorporated extensive multisensory teaching strategies, and similarly, accepted work from students in modes other than visual, these children would have a much better opportunity to cope with the curriculum. For example, a child who has difficulty writing due to problems with motor coordination should be allowed to give tests and examinations orally, much like a viva voce. While executing a remedial programme, it is imperative to identify the dominant learning style and deliver instruction using that sensory mode. At the same time, the weaker sensory modes need to be stimulated.


An assessment is the basis on which a remedial programme that is specific to the needs of the child can be prepared. Children with learning difficulties are a heterogeneous group. The wide range of both degree and type of learning disorders requires a diversity of approaches and of diagnostic techniques. A child with a severe disorder may need a complete, intensive diagnosis, whereas a child with a milder or borderline difficulty may be helped with a less intensiveexamination.

An informal assessment can be carried out by a resource person or remedial teacher trained in the techniques of administering these tests. It is usually carried out within the school premises, the advantage being that the child would respond better, since the environment is familiar and probably perceived to be non-threatening. Formal testing is done using standardized tests, and is used to determine performance in particular aspects of learning. There are many choices in selecting an evaluation activity. There are commercial tests, curriculum tests, criterion referenced skill inventories, checklists and teacher-made instruments.

A programme that is then built on the basis of data collected from the assessment is called an Individual Educational Programme (IEP). An IEP takes the child's current strengths and weaknesses into consideration, as also the dominant learning style. The IEP ideally consists of long-term goals, short-termgoals and session goals. A review is done over a particular period of time to determine whether the IEP is effective or not.

Children with mild learning difficulties

Given below are some simple classroom techniques to assist children with borderline difficulties:

  • Seat the child near the teacher, away from the door and windows to minimize distraction.
  • Use simple, brief, single-concept directions.
  • Give instructions in a logical, sequenced manner using words that make the sequence clear (e.g., first, next, finally).
  • Use visual aids or demonstrations simultaneously with verbal instructions.
  • When the child fails to understand an instruction, do not merely repeat it, rephrase and simplify the instruction.
  • Do not require the child to write and listen at the same time.
  • Use the strategy of 'over learning' with the child. Revise and only then go on to a new topic.
  • Use coloured chalk to colour-code and distinguish questions from answers while writing on the blackboard.
  • Allow the use of a table chart or calculator

The resource room

With increasing awareness of the number of children who require extra help, it is a good idea for every school to have a Resource Room. As defined by Wiederholt (1974): A resource room is basically any special education instruction setting to which a child comes for specific periods of time on a regularly scheduled basis for remedial instruction. The child attends the resource room only on a part time basis, remaining for at least a portion of the day in his regular classroom.

Further, the advantages of the resource room as summarized byWiederholt (1974) are:

  1. Mildly handicapped pupils can benefit from specific resource room training while remaining integrated with their friends and classmates in school.
  2. Pupils have the advantage of a total remedial programme, which is prepared by the resource teacher but may be implemented in cooperation with the regular class teacher.
  3. Since the resource teacher is part of the staff of a particular school, he is less likely to be viewed as an outsider by the other teachers in the school. In addition, he probably better understands the programming problems of a particular school.
  4. Since young children with mild, developing problems can be accommodated, severe disorders at a later stage may be prevented.


  1. Developmental Dyslexia. Michael Thomson, III Edition (1990);Whurr Publ.
  2. Reading, Writing and Dyslexia - A CognitiveAnalysis. AndrewW. Ellis (1993); Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Ltd.
  3. Dyslexia - A Cognitive Developmental Perspective. Margaret Snowling (1987); Blackwell Publ.
  4. Children with Learning Disabilities. Janet W Lerner (1976); Houghton Miffin Co.