Learning Difficulties in Australia


Students with learning difficulties (SLDs) exhibit difficulties in several areas that affect their educational outcomes. The operational and conceptual meaning of the term learning difficulties varies widely among different countries or cultures. Nevertheless, most definitions draw from five basic key elements. Namely, learning difficulties emerge from a multiplicity of disorders. Learners experience literacy and numeracy difficulties, neural dysfunction (intrinsic) is the underlying cause; they have no extrinsic influences and are not age-specific (Ryan, 2007). In this view, the term ‘learning difficulties’ broadly describes the cognitive and learning disabilities in school-age children that are intrinsic and unrelated to sensory, emotional, or intellectual deficiencies (Chan & Dally, 2000). They have difficulties in areas such as reading and comprehension, writing, spelling and pronunciation, and numeration, among others.

The terminological problems attributed to ‘learning disabilities’ affect the identification and implementation of programs to support students in Australian schools. This paper explores the recent literature in the area of learning difficulties to identify the key issues, theories, and support models proposed. It will also describe how the understanding of learning difficulties in Australia has changed over the past 14 years.

Justification of the Definition

The definition adopted in this paper draws from the various descriptions of the terminology found in the literature. Chan and Dally (2000) define ‘learning difficulties’ as a persistent problem whereby learners are forming part of a heterogeneous group show “significant literacy and numeracy challenges” that are intrinsic (162). These learners have normal intelligence but show a disparity between intellectual ability and educational attainment. As such, their academic performance is significantly lower than that of students of the same age.

Learning difficulty is intrinsic because it entails problems in processing information read or heard (Carnellor, 2004). Difficulties in processing information manifest as “prolonged directional confusion and sequencing and impaired short-term memory” that affect early learning and development. Such students exhibit normal intelligence and have no physical, emotional, and sensory impairment (Rivalland, 2000). Also, learning difficulties are not attributable to the absence of learning opportunities or educational experience.

Learning Difficulties in Australia

In their review, Chan and Dally (2000) discuss various learning disabilities and their impact on students’ numeracy and literacy attainment. Among the learning disabilities that affect student learning are linguistic problems. Linguistic deficits manifest as reading difficulties that cannot be attributed to visual or cognitive impairments. Students with linguistic problems do not perform well in language tasks. Students with learning difficulties also experience phonological processing problems. They have difficulties recognising, reading, and comprehending words because of poor phonological awareness. They cannot combine phonemes (sounds) into words, which affects reading development (Chan & Dally, 2000). They also have trouble recognising familiar words.

Learning difficulties also manifest as text-processing problems that affect comprehension. Text-processing skill relates to the ability to distinguish contextual from the non-contextual meaning of a word or phrase. Children with text-processing problems are not fluent readers and have limited reading and comprehension capacity. This affects their vocabulary development and knowledge acquisition. Such students also have spelling difficulties. Spelling is a cognitive process that requires adequate word knowledge, sounds, pronunciations, lexical interpretations, and semantics (Chan & Dally, 2000). Children with spelling problems are slower or less accurate in processing words.

Writing problems are common among students with learning difficulties. They have trouble generating ideas, organising texts, and spelling, which is essential in proficient writing. Numeracy acquisition is also lower among children with learning difficulties. It is attributable to “learner characteristics, including information processing factors, attention, motivation, and social/emotional factors” (Chan & Dally, 2000, p. 166). It requires one to learn effective computational skills to identify, represent, and solve problems accurately.

Students with learning difficulties display certain traits and characteristics. They exhibit “non-strategic and passive learning style” and are not self-directed learners (Chan & Dally, 2000, p. 167). They are poor goal-setters and do not strive towards self-improvement. Instead, they perceive themselves as innately incapable of learning. Educators also report that such students show maladaptive classroom behaviour characterised by impulsiveness, attention deficit disorder, and inability to stay focused (Chan & Dally, 2000). Thus, behavioural problems can affect the learning process resulting in the poor acquisition.

Students with learning difficulties need adequate support to promote acquisition. Chan and Dally (2000) identify several instructional and medical interventions (use of psycho-stimulants) that can help improve such students’ performance in reading, writing, and math. The teaching methods include the reading recovery program that gives children reading instructions to improve their oral reading and overcome text-processing problems. Another approach is the phonological awareness training that aims to improve word ‘decoding’ and recognition. The third teaching technique involves text-processing programs designed to promote reading proficiency and vocabulary knowledge, organisation of ideas, and cognitive skills to improve comprehension. Writing programs that improve the students’ “planning, writing, and revising” skills through strategy instruction and spelling programs that involve error detection and correction are also available. Those with numeracy problems can benefit from specific mathematics programs and approaches such as direct instruction, precision teaching, and anchored learning.

Various models exist for providing special education to students with learning difficulties. One such model is the team teaching approach, which involves collaboration between special educators and teachers in identifying and designing support programs for the student. The second model is the part-time withdrawal method, whereby children in regular classes receive special instruction for a particular period during the day. Peer tutoring models have also been proposed. They involve student tutors who instruct their peers with learning difficulties.

In contrast, parent partnership models advocate for parental involvement in student learning and development. Teachers can also use technological aids to promote instruction. These include computer-based reading programs, videodisc technology, and hypermedia environments, among others. Some applications can also serve as assistive technology, while others can be used to foster the abilities and talents of the students. The instructional approaches lack a uniform assessment or evaluation method. While quantitative methods focus on test scores, qualitative approaches measure the views of the student as well as the educators’ attitudes and knowledge.

Discussion of the Key Issues

Based on the analysis of the reading three key issues are evident, namely, the identification of learning difficulties, the selection of an effective intervention/support, and program evaluation. Robinson (2002) presents a model that draws on “neurological-biochemical, cognitive, and behavioural” variables to explain the underlying causes of learning difficulties in children (p. 35). He notes that biochemical disorders related to the central nervous system cause functional and psychological abnormalities that manifest as behavioural problems, autism, or ADHD, which cause learning difficulties. This assertion is consistent with the traditional perspectives whereby learning difficulties were thought to have a neurological basis. However, recent evidence indicates that the environment interacts with biological factors to shape behaviour. This implies that learning difficulties arise from an interaction between biological, environmental, and social variables.

Students can overcome learning difficulties if identified early. A longitudinal study involving Australian children by Smart, Prior, Sanson, and Oberklaid (2001) found a correlation between spelling deficits and the socioeconomic status of the household. This implicates social factors as causes of early learning difficulties. The study also found a correlation between arithmetic deficits and intelligence and behaviour problems, indicating that learning difficulties have biological and environmental/behavioural origins. Thus, the identification of the disabilities should take into account biological, social/cultural, and behavioural factors that underlie learning difficulties. It should involve liaison between teachers and professionals, particularly speech pathologists, to identify and place such students under special education (Rivalland, 2000). In Australia, some schools administer spelling tests to identify students with learning disabilities.

Usually, teachers, in liaison with special educators, identify SLDs in schools. However, the identification process in Australia is not clear because of conflicting research findings that make the interpretation of empirical evidence difficult (Scott, 2004). Moreover, several educational interventions exist for instructing students with learning difficulties with varying degrees of effectiveness. Programs such as Literacy Links and THRASS are common in schools in Queensland. Educators using these programs have little understanding of their effectiveness for different student groups (Scott, 2004). Kavale and Forness (2000) suggest that, in identifying learning difficulties, emphasis should be laid on processes that have empirical support such as memory and attention. Appropriate identification of learning difficulties is the first step in defining interventions or instructional approaches to support students with learning disabilities.

A broad array of instructional interventions and support programs for helping students with learning difficulties has been described in recent literature. Minskoff and Allsopp (2003) describe a range of cognitive learning approaches that can aid recall in SLDs. These include “mnemonics, visualisation, verbalisation, graphic organisation, and multisensory learning” (Minskoff & Allsopp, 2003, p. 33). Instructional approaches that are explicit and systematic can help students master these cognitive learning strategies. Explicit and systematic instruction entails five steps: introduction of the strategy, modelling of the method, guiding students apply the model, facilitating independent practice, and generalisation (Minskoff & Allsopp, 2003). This helps students become self-directed learners.

For children with numerical difficulties, effective instruction should focus on problem-solving to improve their computational skills (Carnellor, 2004). Teachers should also build on the “known” to introduce new mathematical concepts to students. Recent strategies aim to teach students self-directed learning so that they can learn from their experiences. Evaluation of the effectiveness of the intervention is often problematic. Concerning comprehension, strategic note-taking has been found to improve recall among SLDs (Boyle & Weishaar, 2001). This shows that empirical evidence can help validate the effectiveness of the interventions and programs used in special education.


The analysis reveals that the definition or identification of SLDs is highly variable. This has given rise to a broad array of programs that have variable effectiveness. Teachers have a role to play in identifying SLDs and selecting an effective program that meets the students’ educational needs. Contemporary evidence indicates that technology, explicit and systematic teaching and cognitive learning strategies can help recovery among SLDs. Such strategies encourage self-directed learning based on individual experiences.


Boyle, J. & Weishaar, M. (2001). The effects of strategic note taking on the recall and comprehension of lecture information for high school students with learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 16(3): 133-141.

Carnellor, Y. (2004). Conclusion: Encouraging Mathematical Success for Children with Learning Difficulties. Southbank, Victoria: Social Science Press.

Chan, L. & Dally, K. (2000). Review of literature. In R. Louden, et al. (Eds.), Mapping the Territory: Primary Students with Learning Difficulties: Literacy and Numeracy (pp. 162-169). Canberra: Department of Education, Training, and Youth Affairs.

Kavale, K. & Forness, S. (2000). What definitions of learning disability say and don’t say: A critical analysis. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 33(3), 239-256.

Minskoff, E. & Allsopp, D. (2003). Cognitive learning strategies and systematic explicit instructions: Academic Success Strategies for Adolescents with Learning Disabilities and ADHD. Maryland, Baltimore: Brookes.

Rivalland, J. (2000). Definitions & Identification: Who are the children with learning difficulties? Australian Journal of Learning Disabilities, 5(2), 12-16.

Robinson, G. (2002). Assessment of learning disabilities: The complexity of causes and consequences. Australian Journal of Learning Disabilities, 7(1), 29-39.

Ryan, J. (2007). Learning disabilities in Australian universities: Hidden, ignored and unwelcome. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 40(5): 436–442.

Scott, W. (2004). Learning difficulties and learning disabilities: Identifying an Issue – The issue of identification. In B. Knight & W. Scott (Eds.), Learning Difficulties: Multiple Perspectives (pp. 182-198). Frenchs Forest: Pearson SprintPrint.

Smart, D., Prior, M., Sanson, A. & Oberklaid, F. (2001). Children with reading difficulties: A six-year follow-up from early primary school to secondary school. Australian Journal of Psychology, 23(1), 45-53.