According to Western Australian Government estimates, at least 20% of students currently enrolled in school in Western Australia are at risk of failing to meet an appropriate level of educational attainment as a result of learning difficulties.

For some of these students, the barrier which hampers their learning may be only temporary. Some students may have missed a great deal of school and others may not have received appropriate instruction in literacy and/or numeracy.   For other students, however, the barrier to effective learning is a part of their developmental make-up. These students have a specific condition which has a significant impact on their learning. These students have a specific learning disorder.  

Comparing Specific Learning Disorders with Learning Difficulties

There are many reasons why a child or adult may struggle to learn. The generic term “Learning Difficulties” refers to the 20 to 25% of students who exhibit problems acquiring academic skills as a consequence of a range of causes. These include: intellectual disability, physical or sensory deficits (e.g. hearing impairment), emotional or behavioural difficulties, and inadequate environmental experiences. Students may also display learning difficulties if they have not been provided with appropriate educational opportunities or have received ineffective instruction in the classroom. Individuals with a primary difficulty in maintaining attention and concentration are also likely to show weaknesses in academic achievement due to their difficulties in attending to the learning environment.

The learning difficulties associated with a specific learning disorder cannot be attributed to the causes listed above. A specific learning disorder results from an impairment in one or more of the psychological processes related to learning. The difficulties experienced by an individual with a specific learning disorder are unexpected in relation to their other skills. While evidence-based interventions have been shown to be effective for children with specific learning disorders, progress is likely to be slower than for children with learning difficulties linked to an explainable reason.

What are Specific Learning Disorders?

Specific learning disorders are not intellectual impairments. Students with intellectual impairments are generally assessed as having reduced cognitive capacity, which has a global impact on learning and daily functioning. Students with a specific learning disorder have significant difficulty in one or more academic areas while coping well, or even excelling, in other areas of academic, sporting or artistic achievement.   In other parts of the world specific learning disorders are also called Learning Disabilities, Learning Disorders or Academic Skill Disorders. In effect each describes the same thing, although the diagnostic criteria may differ slightly. Under Commonwealth and State Law in Australia, a specific learning disorder is generally recognised as resulting in the child (or adult) “learning differently”. If it is apparent that this difference is interfering with a person’s capacity to access the curriculum or demonstrate their skills and knowledge, an individually targeted intervention should be provided. This should include both remediation and accommodation.

The Different Types of Specific Learning Disorders

Specific learning disorders may occur in almost any area of learning. The common theme is unexpected under-achievement in an area of academic skill which is generally unmatched in other areas. Whilst there are clearly different specific areas of learning that may be affected by a learning disorder, making a distinction between each is not always easy as there are often overlaps.

The nature of all specific learning disorders is that the problem is severe, persistent, occurs despite appropriate educational opportunities, and is in contrast to other areas of strength in academic achievement or cognitive development. The most common specific learning disorder is dyslexia, which is a persistent difficulty in the area of reading and spelling.


According to the 2018 NAPLAN results released by the Western Australian Education Department, up to 30% of Western Australian students are not proficient in literacy or numeracy.  At least 20% of students currently enrolled in Western Australian schools are at risk of failing to meet an appropriate level of educational attainment as a result of learning difficulties and approximately 4% of students can be identified as having a specific learning disorder with impairment in reading (dyslexia). Some of these students may also have other learning disabilities. This equates to approximately one student in every classroom.

Anyone can have a specific learning disorder, although evidence suggests that there is a genetic component. For example, if one person has dyslexia, about 40% of his/her first degree relatives are also likely to have a reading disorder. However, specific learning disorders can, and often do, appear almost randomly. Specific learning disorders are not “caused” by the school that a student attends; although it is certainly the case that early intervention and appropriate support can reduce the long-term impact. One of the defining features of a specific learning disorder is the fact that the difficulty continues to exist despite appropriate instruction and intervention. Best-practice teaching and effective accommodations will certainly reduce the functional impact.

All students

Learning Difficulties


Learning Disorders


How DSF can help

The Dyslexia-SPELD Foundation (DSF) is an independent, not-for-profit organisation that provides a range of services for individuals with persistent learning difficulties and disorders. Our services are designed to benefit all children struggling with literacy and/or numeracy acquisition, regardless of whether or not they have been identified with a learning disorder (such as dyslexia). We are recognised as a “centre of excellence” in the field of literacy development and in the understanding and response to literacy failure.


Additional resources and infomation provided by DSF
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