Deciding if a student has a learning difficulty in literacy

This page takes you through key questions and steps to help you understand the nature of a student’s difficulties in literacy.

Use the following questions and advice as a starting point before planning any adjustments in teaching or making recommendations as part of an individual education plan (IEP).

Getting started

The first step in understanding a student’s learning difficulty is get an accurate picture of their current literacy abilities, including word reading accuracy, reading comprehension, oral language, spelling and knowledge of writing conventions.

It's important that student data provides an overall assessment of the student’s abilities in both reading and writing and can be analysed in detail and describe what a student already knows and can do. For more information refer to Interpreting assessment data.

A hearing acuity and visual acuity test may also be important.

A student’s outcomes for these assessments, coupled with observation data, can then be evaluated using the following questions:

  • How do their current literacy knowledge and skills compare to a typical student at this level?
  • Has the student demonstrated this difficulty consistently and over a significant period?
  • What, if any, additional support or intervention has already been provided?

Students who have persisting literacy difficulties despite high-quality classroom instruction and a period of Tier-2 intervention, may meet criteria for a specific learning disability.

Nevertheless, all students who display literacy difficulties, whether this is a recent or persisting problem, should be offered support to accelerate their learning. This ensures that the gap between them and their peers does not widen too greatly.

Assessing a student’s current knowledge and skills

The Victorian F–10 Curriculum: English provides a useful starting point for assessing a student’s existing knowledge and skills across the 3 language modes:

  • reading and viewing
  • writing
  • speaking and listening.

Content descriptions within each language mode are grouped into strands and substrands.

Comparing students

There are two main ways to consider how a student is performing and progressing. The first, is by comparing an individual student to an expected level based on a standardised and norm-referenced test. This is suitable in all situations for all students. The second, is by comparing the student to themselves by taking repeated measures of the skill/ability over time. Criterion-referenced tests are ideal for this type of progress monitoring evaluation.

Students with a learning difficulty have persisting challenges (in the domain area/s) over time, despite high-quality classroom instruction. Students with this profile need additional support above and beyond whole-class instruction alone.

It is possible for a student to achieve in the average range or higher for some tasks and below average in others. This is referred to as a ‘spiky’ profile. Other students will perform similarly across different domains (for example, word reading, word spelling, phonemic awareness).

Here is an outline of what percentile ranks for students’ norm-referenced test scores indicate:

  • below the twenty-fourth percentile range places them in the lowest quartile for their year level or age. This means that they may be at risk for persisting literacy difficulty
  • below the sixteenth percentile places them at least one standard deviation below the mean for their year level or age. This means that they are performing below standard expectations in literacy
  • below the second percentile places them more than two standard deviations below the mean for their year level or age. This means that they are performing substantially below expectations in literacy.

Indicators of a learning difficulty or disability

A student’s learning difficulty may be caused by interruptions in their learning (such as extended time away from school) or other factors that have resulted in the delayed development of certain knowledge and skills, or they might be caused by a specific learning disability (such as dyslexia).

Reading comprehension

To successfully understand written text (reading comprehension), students need to be able to decode written words and must have adequate oral language comprehension to attach meaning to those words and to phrases and longer passages. Reading comprehension is a product of these two core competencies. This framework is called the Simple View of Reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986).

  • Word decoding means being able to map written symbols (graphemes) to the corresponding sounds (phonemes). This is also known as phonics.
  • Oral language comprehension is the ability to take in and process spoken information to derive meaning.

Reading difficulties

Writing difficulties

Writing encompasses many skills and competencies. These include spelling, language construction, narrative discourse (of which there are many genres), cohesion of ideas, planning and organising, fine motor coordination and visuospatial and visuoperceptual skills. For this reason, there are two categories of writing difficulty: non-language-based difficulties and language-based difficulties.