Specific difficulties

There seem to be so many labels for different learning difficulties these days.  I believe it is important not to “bucket” children but to identify exactly what the individual child needs assistance with and AND WHY THEY MAY HAVE A PROBLEM.  It may just be something simple that with the correct intervention, can be resolved or it could be a symptomatic of a deeper underlying issue and may require professional assessment and support.  Financial assistance is available for certain specific learning disabilities but your school would be able to guide you in this regard.  

For more information about specific learning difficulties, refer to the Useful Links on the navigation bar.  There are some excellent websites dedicated to particular problems that children may face.

The following are some of the challenges children have that  I have encountered, together with some suggestions and sttrategies to help but as I have said, this is simply a starting point.

                                                  Problems Recalling Everyday Words!l
   Started off Reading quite well but went backwards between 7 – 9 yrs

Visual learners memorise the alphabet and words through an association with pictures.  
They use picture clues or guess at words in the context of the text. They frequently start off quite well at school but difficulties become apparent around the ages of 7 to 9 when picture books dwindle and chapter books, with a lot more text, emerge!  They can no longer use pictures to guide them.

They have a lot of difficulties with many commonly used words (also known as High frequency words) because they cannot attach these words to visual images (ie when, can, what, if, so, the etc) 

As they memorise everything through almost a photographic method, they do not apply any phonics skills or auditory processing when working out new words.  Tests carried out with MRI scans on visual learners have shown that the auditory cortex of the brain is not engaged when reading.  These children are particularly at risk of shutting down. They need to read regularly and have direct and specific instruction in the area of phonics and spelling/decoding strategies using imagery and a sensory activities.  They also need to work a lot with common high frequency words to be able to "see" the words in their mind's eye or internal movie screen as I call it.

An excellent website with comprehensive information is www.starjump.com.au

  Good at Reading but Poor at Spelling and Writing

        Children decode words by
        picture association
          its shape
             the letter structure
                the meaning of the word in the context of the text
                   their knowledge of phonics and chunks of words
                     through repitition and storage in long term memory
    HOWEVER - writing a word requires a thinking process of
           what word am I going to write
               what sounds do I need to make that word
                  what letter or group of letters make those sounds
                     which letters do I use if there is more than one option (ie  “A” -   a_e,   
                      ay, ai, ey etc 
                         how do I form those  letters
                            and the motor skills to make the hand write everything!!!!

    Whew, quite a process!
 Direct, specific instruction in spelling rules and the structure of English words is needed with lots of practice and repetition.  This should be done with a multi-sensory approach, especially with right brain dominant children who need to “feel, hear, see and associate” the words.  The instructions need to be broken down into step by step learning processes with the focus on one specific target at a time.   The use of modern technology is of huge benefit to these children who can use a keyboard far more efficiently to get their thoughts and ideas down than when they have to write as well.

They need to be able to focus on the aim of the activity only.  For example, writing a story should be broken down into :
1)  Concentrate on getting ideas down in a draft format  first,  ignoring spelling and punctuation
2)  Edit and correct grammar and punctuation.
3)  Correct spelling (it can help to do this from the end of the text backwards so the child focusses on words only and is not reading it.  They often miss spelling errors otherwise.
4)   Do good copy


 Inability to Copy From the Blackboard  


   For some children this is just about impossible especially if they have dyslexic traits or are Irlen sensitive.  The amount of energy they will need to complete what appears to be a simple activity will be enormous.  They have real problems keeping a track of where they are up to as their eyes have to move to the board and back to their page.  They  might have no sound/symbol strategies or the ability to remember more than a few letters at a time.  They will often repeat the same words, have very messy writing and make spelling errors.

 Often children complete the task literally as a “copying” exercise, letter for letter.  They do not use any phonics/sound knowledge or even write the words they do know especially everyday words such as “the, and etc”. They have been told to copy off the board and ....do so...letter by letter....... without any thought process being applied to the structure of the words, sounds and the sentence they are writing.
It can help some children to say the word in their heads as they are writing it and use the beginning letters to give them a starting point when looking back at the board to enable them to find the next word.
For children who really struggle to copy from the board, have the sentence or text on a page in front of them.  They can keep one line of the text they are copying in full view whilst covering the remainder (probably under the book they are writing in) to keep it simple and not give them ‘TMT”....my terminology for “TOO MUCH TEXT!”

                                        Inability to Follow Multiple Instructions

Have you ever said ......

"What did I tell you to do?"  "How often do I have to tell you....

"You just don't listen........"

    Some children have poor short term memories and experience real problems remembering multiple instructions.  They will generally carry out only the first and sometimes second instruction or ask you to repeat what you said.  This can simply be because they have never had to “think for themselves” ...the youngest child in a family who has older brothers and sisters who do everything for them or parents who unwittingly molly coddle and do not let a child do things for themselves!  Their brains have not built the neural pathways of thinking processes needed.  Yes, many of us are guilty of this but it really does impact on children when they start school and need to think for themselves. 

However, a child could also be affected by Central Auditory Processing Disorder where the brain has difficulty discriminating sounds and processing information especially in the presence of background noise.  A professional assessment by a specially qualified Audiologist will identify this problem and possibly speech pathology will be recommended.  There are some excellent programmes available to stimulate and assist children with CAPD.  One of these is Earobics www.earobics.com

 Something that can be done at home are daily activities and games that involve memory.  these really help.  They can be done in the car on the way to school..............
Mum -  I pack my bag and in it I put......a scarf.
Child -  I pack my bag and in it I put....a scarf and an umbrella.
Mum -  I pack my bag and in it I put .....a scarf, an umbrella and a car!
Anything goes and the funnier the subject, the better they are remembered.  Change the topics to include actions, colours, etc
I went to the shop and bought......
On holiday........I surfed, sky dived etc.
 I was in the circus and I was a .........clown, tight rope walker, elephant.
Memory game – make cards with different objects, letters, symbols or numbers on them/  OR  use small items around the house.  Start with 3, show the child, cover them over and ask them to repeat what they saw in order.  Once they are good at memorising 3 move to 4 pictures, then 5 etc.   A further challenge can be to get the child to draw the items seen instead of saying them.  This engages other parts of the brain as well as memory.   (Refer to the Auditory Processing activities in the Games and Activities under Resources for more ideas).

  An inability to remember everyday things that the rest of us take for granted :  

The days of the week, the months of the year and their date of birth are just some of the things we expect children to know fairly well early on in their school life.

  If a child still has difficulties remembering them after intensive repetition and they display difficulties in other areas as well, it is a good idea to seek a professional assessment to ensure they get as much assistance as possible with their learning.  Children with dyslexia or dyspraxia often have problems in this area as well as visual learners.  Having the days of the week on the fridge with a picture/photo of something the child associates with that day can help.  Likewise the months of the year. 


Many children find it hard to sit still for long periods of time!  Let’s face it, how comfortable would you if you had to sit with your legs crossed on the floor for a period of time?  I remember either feeling like dropping off to sleep or getting very wriggly when I was at school.  School’s do it better these days but it is still necessary for children to sit and listen.  The “fiddlers” are the children who seem to want to touch everything and play with things.  They are generally tactile people who learn about the world around them by touching and feeling things. Giving them sensory cushions or something in their hands to play with can help.  "Worry beads" or a soft, spongy ball are great but be careful not to give them anything that they can use as a distraction instead.  I have given children small magnets and paper clips but once again, it depends on the child.  Some people even suggest chewing gum..........but this is  not appropriate in class but for home during homework time, it might do the trick.  Several children I have worked with stop fiddling after a while once they become engaged in their learning.


Difficulties keeping a track of where they are when reading.
       Missing lines and losing their place in the text.

Poor eye tracking can be a symptom of many things.  If the child becomes tired really quickly when reading, eyes become watery or they start to rub their eyes, have a professional assessment done.  It may just be that the eye muscles need strengthening with exercises or the child has problems such as :

* Vision problems - eliminate this first by seeking help from a Behavioural Optometrist who not only checks eye sight but also assesses if the eyes are working together to send the same information to the brain. 

*  Irlen syndrome - a sensitivity to light, particularly fluorescent lighting.  The text moves, blurrs or swirls.  This can be rectified by seeing a qualified Irlen Screener and being properly assessed.  Coloured glasses can make a huge difference.

*  Dyslexia - the text becomes all muddled up.  Using a book mark to keep only one line visible at a time can help considerably.

*  Hemispheric dominance confusion where the eyes want to automatically track from the right to the left.  There are a lot of eye exercises that can strengthen the left to right movement when reading.  One is having a sheet of large, solid text and ask the child to call out the first letter of the first line and then the last letter of that line then to repeat with the next line and so on.  If this is really hard at first, use a book mark for each line. Refer to the Games and Activities in the Resources for more ideas. 
Speech and Articulation of Sounds
It is surprising how many children have difficulties with certain sounds that impacts hugely on their spelling.  There are many different reasons for this, some being :
Inability to physically articulate specific sounds - Speech therapy is essential.
          Inability to discriminate between different sounds that are similiar.
                 Hearing problems caused by ear infections etc.
                      Bad habits that have become ingrained - "muvva" for "mother"
                                      Poor perception and awareness of how their own speech sounds. 

 A phonological disorder can be mild, moderate or severe and should be dealt with if still apparent after the child is 5 by which time most children are able to articulate all 44 sounds of the English Language. 

Most children can make the sounds but get them confused.  They hear another sound such as "f" for "th"  - fing instead of thing.:

Some examples are -   "w" for "r"       wed instead of red
                                       "th" for "sh"    thip instead of ship
                                        "th" for "s"     lithp instead of lisp
                                        "b" and "p"
                                         "d"  and "t"
                                         "m" and "n"
                                         "d" and "g"
                                         "k" and "t"

As well as seeking professional help, there are many things families can do to help children overcome these difficulties.    They need to HEAR, SEE AND FEEL the sound.

Make sure they look at your face
      make the sound  clearly displaying the position of your mouth 
          ie "th" with your tongue  between your teeth
             Use a mirror for them to look in as they make the sound and feel it
                 Have them repeat words with the sound

 Other things you can do

 Get them to feel if air comes out of their mouth  "p" or the sound vibrates in their voice box  "nnnnnnnn";  if the sound is coming from the back of their mouth  "g" or from the front "r"

Draw a picture of a face from the side with a big mouth.  Get the child to draw in where their tongue is when they make a particular sound.  Show them where it should be.  Use different colours to indicate theirs and the correct position.

Write the sounds they mix up on a piece of paper -  get them to tick against the correct sound as you say it.  They can look at your facial position as a clue.  As they get better at this, make the sounds from behind them so they cannot see your mouth and have to hear the sound.

Use "Cued Articulation" for the sounds they have difficulty with.  This is almost like sign language developed by Jane Passy for each sound and is a wonderful prompt to help.  There is a video on Youtube - www.youtube.com/watch?v=YBJ9-SBe2el or google it and get the chart.




 b and d reversals when writing and sounding

This is quite a common problem.  There are several things that can be done :

Both b and d have their sounds in their names.

Write the word       bed  and put it on the fridge.   This is a great "clue" word for children to use when writing.

Use your hands to make a b ............left hand, fist with thumb up, and right hand with fist and thumb up.  Hands are fantastic visual clues for lots of things.

                                                     b                                d             

I call the b hand a "bomb" and use the cue "put your bomb hand up".  If a child remembers the b hand, they will work out the d one as well. 

This is also good for p and q.

                                                      p                          q  

Writing without spacing or sitting letters on the lines

 It is natural for writing to be all over the place as children are learning but when it becomes a constant problem, it needs to be addressed.  This can be caused by a deeper underlying learning difficulty such as dyslexia or Irlen Syndrome but also due to a visual impairment or visual perception issue.  It is a good idea to have a Behavioural Optometrist or Irlen Screener assess your child if other intervention methods do not work.

However, other reasons could be :

rushing work to get finished and not bothering about its presentation (boys are particularly prone to doing this!) or

a "couldn't be bothered because its boring" attitude.

or simply that the child has not fully understand the implications of writing on the line and putting spaces between words.

There is more information under the Handwriting section with some ideas to encouragement improvement in this area.


Writing Gobbledy-Gook

This is also a natural progression as young children start to learn about symbol to sound relationships but it usually disappears fairly soon after starting school.  The worst case of Gobbledy-Gook I have seen was a Prep in term 3 who would write a whole page of letters, mostly joined together, that had no correlation whatsoever to the sounds in the words she said when asked to read it back.   She had learnt to write the alphabet and knew every letter by name but had never connected them to sounds except when said together with the letter...........B B B  "b" "b" "b".   By using lots of activities that were tactile and incorporated visual cues, she started to realise that we make a sound when we see a letter and those sounds together make words.   The gobbledy-gook started to disappear and I remember how we celebrated the first day she wrote her first sentence, word perfect! 


Despite extra assistance and professional assessments, an older Primary school aged child is still not improving in their academic ability.

 There are so many areas of life that can affect our attitude to learning.  Children are very sensitive to their environment and particularly how they perceive other people''s opinions of them.  Some children have heightened sensitivity in that they will actually feel someone elses grief or anger as though it were their own.    We all know how situations such as a death in the family can affect us but sometimes with children, it can be as subtle as the family dog getting into trouble. 

Although we all love to think that our children would turn to us,  It is not always possible for children to talk to their parents about certain things that bother them.  It is really important therefore that they have other adults they feel safe to talk to.  Many schools have excellent support in this area but it is just as important away from school to have an adult they can turn to who will keep their discussion in confidence (unless there is a very good reason not to).  Emotional stability can play a big part in a child's own inner "want" to learn.


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