Initial observations in identifying Specific Learning Difficulties

Early Years

May include a child who:

  • Has difficulty learning nursery rhymes
  • Has difficulty listening to stories and sitting still
  • Likes to listen to stories but shows in interest in letters or words
  • Has a history of slow speech development
  • Gets words muddled e.g. flutterby
  • Has difficulty in finding “the odd one out” in groups of objects, pictures or words, e.g. cat, mat, pig, fat
  • Has difficulty keeping simple rhythms
  • Finds it hard to carry out two or more instructions at one time, but is fine if tasks are presented in smaller units
  • Forgets names of friends, teachers, colours etc.
  • Has difficulty cutting, sticking and crayoning in comparison with peers
  • Has persistent difficulty in dressing
  • Puts clothes on the wrong way round
  • Has difficulty with catching, kicking and throwing a ball
  • Often trips, bumps into things and falls over
  • Has difficulty in hopping and skipping
  • Has obvious ‘good’ and ‘bad’ days for no apparent reason

A child who has a cluster of these difficulties, together with some abilities, maybe dyslexic but it is important to remember that the development of children, especially in the early years, can differ significantly for each child.

Primary Level

Initial observations of difficulties and attitude in learning

  • Speed of processing – spoken and/or written language slow
  • Poor concentration
  • Easily distracted
  • The ‘class clown’ or disruptive
  • Easily becomes tired
  • Employs work avoidance strategies
  • Difficulty following instructions
  • Forgetful of words
  • Difficulty in copying from the board
  • Confusion over directionality e.g. left/right, up/down
  • Poor motor skills
  • Indeterminate laterality
  • Performs unevenly from day to day
  • Poor personal organisation
  • Difficulty with concepts such as yesterday, today, tomorrow
  • Family history of reading and spelling problems


May include a child who:

  • Has poor reading progress on look-and-say or phonic methods
  • Finds it difficult to blend letters together
  • Has difficulty in establishing syllable division or knowing the beginnings and endings of words
  • Has no expression in reading
  • Is hesitant and laboured in reading, especially when reading aloud
  • Misses out words when reading, or adds extra words
  • Fails to recognise familiar words
  • Is persistently confused by letters which look similar, particularly b/d, p/q,n/u,M/W
  • Has poor handwriting with reversals and badly formed letters
  • Reversal of whole words e.g. ‘was’ for ‘saw’
  • Spells words in several different ways in one piece of work e.g. wipe, wype, wiep, wipe
  • Produces messy work that is badly set out
  • Has poor pencil grip or may have extreme tenseness in holding pencil/pen
  • Has severe difficulty in spelling words, some apparently bizarre
  • Shows considerable confusion over simple punctuation and grammar
  • Is uncertain about when and where to use upper and lower case letters
  • Shows confusion/omission of small words e.g. the, so, to
  • Continues to get words muddled e.g. ‘emeny’ for ‘enemy’ ‘pasghetti’ for ‘spaghetti’


  • Shows confusion with number order e.g. units, tens
  • Is confused by symbols e.g. +/x
  • Has difficulty in remembering anything in a sequential order e.g. tables, days of the week

Recognition in the classroom

Often the class teacher senses intuitively that this is a puzzling, underachieving child.  The importance of this should not be overlooked.

It is suggested that in cases where a group of these indicators (more than six) persist into the child’s second year of schooling, the class teacher should not the precise difficulties early in the first term.

If specific learning difficulties are severe, they may be apparent even earlier than this.  In which case, steps should be taken during the child’s first year at school.

Secondary Level

Initial observations of difficulties and attitude to learning:

  • Difficulty in learning foreign languages
  • Indeterminate laterality
  • Clear processing problems at speed
  • Misunderstands complicated questions
  • Cannot find their way round complex timetables and buildings
  • Disorganised and forgetful e.g. frequently forgets P.E. kit, homework and appointments
  • Immature/clumsy
  • Difficulty in relating to others – is often unable to read ‘body language’
  • Excessively tired due to effort and concentration required
  • Often in the wrong place at the wrong time
  • Difficulty holding a list of instructions in memory but can perform all tasks when told them individually
  • Difficulty in understanding sequences read aloud or in comprehending directions


May include a child who:

  • Has a poor standard of written work compared with oral ability
  • Has poor handwriting with badly formed letters
  • Has neat writing, but writes very slowly indeed
  • Is inconsistent in spelling words, even within the same piece of writing
  • Fails to spell adequately to allow other readers to understand
  • Has difficulty with punctuation and/or grammar
  • Is poor at organising homework and finds tasks difficult to complete on time
  • Appears to know more than can be committed to paper
  • Has reading ability insufficient to cope in early secondary stages
  • Avoids reading whenever possible, never reading for pleasure
  • Shows frequent misunderstanding due to inadequacy of reading ability e.g. reading ‘hyserical’ for ‘historical’
  • Is hesitant and laboured, especially when reading aloud
  • Has poor use of syntax
  • Fails to recognise familiar words
  • Has difficulty in pin-pointing the main idea in a passage
  • Has difficulty in answering questions which rely on the interpretation of own written work
  • Fails to remember words and phrases which are dictated


  • Has difficulty remembering tables and basic number sets
  • Finds sequencing problematic
  • Confuses signs e.g. +/x
  • Misreads questions that includes words
  • Confuses direction
  • Finds mental arithmetic at speed very difficult
Off On

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