What are Learning Difficulties?

It is useful to break learning down into its four steps:

  • Input: The first step is the process of recording information in the brain.
  • Integration: Next, this information must be organised and understood.
  • Memory: Once recorded and understood, information must be stored, to be retrieved later.
  • Output: Finally, information must be communicated from the brain to people or translated into action in the environment.

Learning difficulties can occur in one or more of these four areas.

Input Difficulties

Information enters the brain through the senses. Although all the senses interact, in learning, the most important ones are seeing (visual) and hearing (auditory). Input does not refer to the physical condition of one's eyes or ears, but rather to how the brain processes what is seen or heard. The term used for this central process of perceiving the world is perception. Thus, a person may have difficulties with visual or auditory perception or with both.

Visual Perceptual Difficulties

Visual Perceptual Difficulties can be recognised in the following

  • When recersing letters difficulty distinguishing 'd' and 'b' and 'p' and 'q'.

  • Misreading words like 'Was' which may be read as 'saw' 'dog' as 'god'.

This confusion may also show up in written work, copying designs or in doing tasks in which the eyes have to guide the hands as to what to do (visual-motor task).

A person with visual-motor problems may have difficulty catching or hitting a ball, doing puzzles, using a hammer and nail, jumping rope, etc.

There are other types of visual perceptional problems. Some people may have trouble organising their position in space or confuse left and right. Others may have a 'figure-ground' problem; that is, they may have difficulty focusing on a particular thing rather than on the entire background. For example, when reading, they may skip words or lines. Judging distance is another visual perceptual task. A person may misjudge depth, bumping into things or falling off a chair. They may seem careless or knock a drink over because the distance is misjudged and the hand gets there too soon. Often this person is described as a 'clumsy person'.

Auditory Perceptual Difficulties

Some people have difficulty distinguishing subtle differences in sounds. A person may misunderstand what is being said and thus respond incorrectly, confusing words like 'blue' and 'blow' or 'ball' and 'bell'. For example, someone might ask, 'How are you?' and the person might answer 'I'm eight years old.' The 'are was heard as 'old'.

Some may have difficulty with auditory 'figure-ground'. For example, a person may be watching TV in a room where others are playing. You are in another room and start talking. You might not be 'heard' because the person did not know to focus on your voice (the figure) apart from the other sounds (the background). It appears that the person never listens.

Some cannot process sound inputs at a normal speed. Their slower processing of sound is often referred to as auditory lag. The person seems to miss parts of what you are saying. You may find that you intuitively speak slower if you want the person to understand.

Integration Difficulties

Once recorded, information must be placed in the correct order (sequencing), understood in the context in which it was used (abstraction) and integrated with all other information being processed (organisation).

A person may have difficulty in one or more of these areas. These problems may be primarily with visual or auditory input.

Thus, you may be told that the person has an auditory sequencing difficulty but that they are good at visual sequencing or vice versa.

Sequencing Difficulties

A person may read or hear a story and understand it. But in retelling or writing the story, they may confuse the sequence of thoughts or events, starting in the middle, going to the beginning and then to the end. The person may see '23' but write '32'. Spelling errors are common - all of the letters are there but in the wrong sequence. The person may be able to memorise a sequence; for example, the months of the year. But, if you ask what comes after September, they may not be able to use the sequence automatically. Such person's might find it necessary to start with January and work their way you to September in order to answer.

Abstraction Difficulties

Most people understand the meaning of some words or phrases based on how the words are used. There is a difference in the meaning of the word 'dog' if ones says 'the dog' or 'you dog'. Some have difficulty understanding the differences. They appear to follow the literal meaning of the word. They misunderstand jokes or puns or sayings and, at times, believe that people are talking about them because they take what people say or do too literally.

Organisation Difficulties

Some people can process each piece of information but have difficulty integrating the pieces into a whole picture. They may be able to answer questions at the end of the chapter but be unable to explain to you what the chapter was about. They may do well on multiple-choice questions (where one has to recognise only pieces of information) but poorly on essay-type exams. These people may have difficulty organising their lives. Their rooms are a mess; their notebooks are crammed with papers in the wrong place; their lives are disorganised.

Memory Difficulties

Once information is recorded and integrated, it must be stored so that it can be retrieved later. In general, there are two types of memory: short term and long term. Short term memory is what you remember as long as you are paying attention to it. For example, remembering a phone number from the operator; you may forget it if someone talks to you before you dial the number. After many repetitions, you will retain the information. This is called long-term memory and refers to information that has been repeated and stored, which you can retrieve by thinking about it. A person's short-term memory difficulty may affect visual inputs of information but not auditory, or vice versa.

Such a person may go over a spelling list and feel that they have memorised it because they are attending to it; yet, the next morning it is forgotten. The teacher may explain a maths concept and the person knows it, yet at home forgets how to do the problem, In contrast, they may remind you of something that the school did 2 or 3 years ago in detail. There is no problem with long-term memory. However, the same person may need to go over something 10 or more times to learn it, whereas a person without this problem may be able to learn it in 1 or 2 repetitions.

Output Difficulties

Information is communicated through words (language output) or through muscle activities such as writing or drawing (motor output). A person may have one or both of these output difficulties.

Language Difficulties

There are two types of oral language that we use, spontaneous (when we initiate a conversation) and demand (when someone asks us a question). With spontaneous language, we organise our thoughts and find the words before we speak. With demand language, we must do all of this as we speak.

A person may have a demand language difficulty. What is confusing is that when a person speaks (spontaneous language) he or she sounds average or above average. Yet, when asked a question (demand language) - 'Where is your sister?' 'What did you do today?' - the person will respond with 'What?' or ask you to repeat the question. It the person replies, they may ramble or have trouble finding the right words. Often the person will repeat the question or part of the question back to you as if checking their understanding.

Motor Difficulties

A person may have difficulty using their large muscles (gross motor difficulty) or small muscles (fine motor difficulty). A person with gross motor problems may be clumsy, stumble, have trouble with walking, running, climbing, or riding a bike. They may have difficulty with dressing, buttoning, tying or zipping.

The person with fine motor difficulties will have difficulty co-coordinating a team of small muscles, such as those in their dominant hand when writing. Such person's will have slow, poor handwriting. They will hold their pen or pencil awkwardly and their hands will tire easily. The person may say - 'My hand does not work as fast as my head is thinking' or 'My hand gets really tired when I'm writing'.