Supporting Students with Specific Learning Difficulties

What is a Specific Learning Difficulty?

The umbrella term `Specific Learning Difficulties´ (SpLD) is used to cover a wide variety of difficulties. Because many of the effects of different SpLDs are similar or overlap, it is common for individuals to be diagnosed with more than one, or to simply be diagnosed as `having specific learning difficulties´. However, it is important to note that SpLDs vary massively in form and severity from individual to individual, and therefore so do support needs.

Dyslexia is the most widely known SpLD. It mainly affects the development of literacy and language-related skills, and is characterised by weaknesses in areas such as information/phonological processing and working memory. These commonly result in the individual experiencing difficulties with particular aspects of reading, writing and (in some cases) speaking.

Dyspraxia is another well-known SpLD. A student with dyspraxia will generally have a weakness in motor coordination which (to massively varying degrees from individual to individual) often results in him/her approaching and carrying out practical activities in a disorganised and clumsy manner. Dyspraxia can be extremely debilitating, and some students who have a diagnosis of it will require a lot of support.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) affects the parts of the brain associated with the control of attention, impulse inhibition and concentration. Students with ADHD are likely to find it hard to focus on work and often experience difficulties organising themselves around hand-in dates, etc.

There are many other specific learning difficulties, including:

Dysgraphia – difficulties remembering alphanumerical characters and replicating them by hand.

Dyscalculia – difficulties with calculations and the effective processing of mathematical information

How might specific learning difficulties impact upon the student and how can s/he be supported?

Below are some specific examples of potential adjustments which can be made by staff to overcome some of the barriers in these areas. These are solely intended to provide an overview of the nature and scope of requirements which staff may encounter, and to demonstrate some of the ways that a disadvantage incurred by an SpLD could be alleviated or removed. Above all else, it is important to note that staff being receptive and sympathetic to a student´s requirements is paramount, and where appropriate an ongoing dialogue should be maintained with him or her regarding these.

The barriers to learning for a student with a SpLD fall within two broad categories:

The learning environment and delivery of teaching and learning

Generally, the alterations which can be made to ensure that students with SpLDs are not disadvantaged during taught sessions serve to increase accessibility for all students. The suggestions given below are good practice however it is always useful to talk to individual students to find out which particular adjustments they find most helpful.

By providing handouts which summarise taught sessions a few days in advance, staff can give students time to familiarise themselves with new concepts and look up any unfamiliar terminology. Producing such handouts (and/or allowing students to record lectures) also serves to decrease the amount of note-taking which needs to be undertaken, allowing students to engage more with what is being taught. Similarly, many students find it easier and faster to make notes on a laptop, and when possible this should be permitted. Ensuring that taught sessions present information in varied formats – from video clips to slides or practical demonstrations, and not just focusing on bodies of text – also increases the chances of engaging students with SpLDs.

Staff should provide a concise overview when introducing new topics, using clear examples to illustrate points so that students know what to expect. Students should always be given time to read handouts given in taught sessions, and staff should pause regularly to allow individuals to catch up.

When producing written course material try to keep the writing style clear and concise. Use a clear sans serif typed font rather than handwritten notes, highlighting pertinent points by using bold font rather than underlining or italics. Dense blocks of text are often difficult to read, so try to use paragraphs, bullet points, numbered lists, etc, to break up the content. In some instances, utilising other formats to present processes or arguments can be an extremely effective way of making information accessible for individuals who think more visually, so try to use flow charts, diagrams, graphs, etc.

Assessments and practical work

Use plain English when producing assessment questions, avoiding overly elaborate phrasing.

Hand-written work may be messy, and so practical work which requires an immediate written response is likely to pose problems. It is best to allow students with SpLDs to word-process assignments when at all possible.

The standard recommendation is that students with diagnosed SpLDs are granted 25% extra time for all examinations, but depending on the individual´s needs there are many adjustments which can potentially be made. Some students may be allowed to type their answers and/or use assistive software to plan and/or complete them. Others may be permitted to use a spellchecker, and in some instances students may be allowed individual exam accommodation and the services of an amanuensis or reader.

It is important that departments ensure that the means of assessment employed is the best way of measuring students´ achievement of modular learning outcomes. Literacy is considered a general marking criterion at university, but this does not mean that it must be assessed on every piece of work which a student submits. In the case of students with SpLDs, departments choosing to simply not assess spelling, punctuation and grammar when these are not part of a module´s learning outcomes – or where they have already been assessed on the module by other means - can remove a significant disadvantage.

Students with SpLDs are also given the option of affixing a sticker to any assessed work which they complete. These stickers do not activate differential marking: they are solely intended to indicate to staff members that as a result of such a diagnosis a particular student would benefit from more detailed formative feedback, highlighting areas which could be improved.

The Accessible Assessment Working Group (Learning and Teaching Services) have produced guidance on accessible assessment and marking – with special regard to students with SpLDs.