Example of how to decide if a student has a literacy learning difficulty

This example demonstrates how to determine a student’s literacy learning difficulty using information for Year 6 student, Aden.

Aden’s performance on regular reading, spelling and writing tasks has raised your concern. They have difficulty completing tasks that their Year 6 peers perform satisfactorily, and you believe Aden may have a literacy learning difficulty.

To unpack Aden’s literacy learning difficulty, you first need to get an accurate picture of their current literacy reading and writing abilities.

Steps to determine current abilities


If Aden displays a specific difficulty reading and/or spelling words, it's possible that their specific learning disability is dyslexia.

Dyslexia is diagnosed by an educational psychologist and some speech pathologists based on poor word-level reading skills despite high-quality classroom instruction and a block of Tier-2 intervention.

It would be possible for Aden to be poor at word decoding but not be dyslexic. In this case Aden would learn decoding skills relatively quickly when given evidence-based intervention.

Word level reading deficits are characterised by difficulty decoding words, reading them accurately and rapidly or fluently and spelling them. In addition, reading is likely to be effortful and tiring, non-fluent and lacking in intonation and stress.

Specific reading comprehension deficit

If Aden displays a specific difficulty comprehending a text even though they can read it out loud accurately and fluently, it's possible they have a specific reading comprehension deficit. This is usually due to a specific oral language comprehension difficulty.

Limited background knowledge on a topic can also negatively influence the ability to understand written text. Aden may, for example, have difficulty saying ideas in sentences, storing ideas in memory as they read or listen, or have a restricted or immature vocabulary.

Writing difficulties

You can determine Aden’s writing underachievement in terms of two types of difficulty. Those:

  • that are language based to do with composing the ideas to be communicated in writing
  • to do with physically expressing or displaying the ideas by writing or keyboarding.

Language-based writing difficulties

Communicating by writing requires the writer to compose their intended message or purpose for writing in oral language. Language-based writing difficulties overlap in part with reading difficulties. Aden may underachieve in writing because they have difficulty:

  • composing their intended message in language
  • forming sentences completely and properly
  • with the planning, drafting and revising process
  • generating ideas
  • with grammar and vocabulary due to knowledge limitations
  • with some of the non-language-based skills involved in writing.

If Aden has difficulty composing their intended message in language, this will be shown in challenges in some of the following areas:

  • composing sentences, paragraphs and extended texts such as narratives to express ideas. This can include selecting the most appropriate vocabulary, constructing sentence meanings, using appropriate grammatical forms and cohesion ties such as conjunctions to link sentences, and using correct genre structures. Aden may display limited oral language competencies and grammatically simplistic written expression
  • planning how to express and organise ideas in writing, setting goals, sequencing details and prioritising main ideas
  • spelling words accurately
  • using punctuation conventions such as capital letters appropriately.

If Aden has difficulty with some of the non-language-based skills involved in writing, this will be shown in challenges in some of the following areas:

  • using the required fine motor coordination skills. Aden may have difficulty implementing the fine motor control needed for handwriting or using a keyboard effectively. Their handwriting may be illegible or messy with poor letter formation. Aden may not have automatised aspects of handwriting and needs to consciously ‘tell their hand where to go’ to write letters and words. They may generate less written content in a given time than peers. The quality of their handwriting may fall when they try to write faster
  • using a range of visuospatial and visuoperceptual skills. Aden may have difficulty spacing letters and words appropriately, keeping letters sized appropriately, aligning writing on a page or copying text from one place to another (for example, from a whiteboard to their notebook).

For more information, visit Learning difficulties including dyslexia (opens in a new window)(10 webinars).