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

  • Open all
  • Close all

Step one – collect data

Collect current assessment information about Aden’s abilities in word reading accuracy, reading comprehension, oral language, spelling, knowledge of writing conventions and ability to communicate by writing.

You want to know which skills Aden has in place at the Year 6 level and which ones need further development.

Observational data:      

  • Observe how Aden approaches various types of literacy tasks in the classroom and note features such as their apparent independence, reluctance to get started and ability to work within set timeframes. If possible, identify strengths and challenges. Note if the difficulties you observe are consistently happening or intermittently (both are important).
  • Note whether Aden's outcomes improve when you (or their other teachers) modify the teaching or context in particular ways such as providing additional scaffolding, reducing the task demands or giving Aden additional time.
  • Talk to other teachers, Aden's parents and anyone else involved for further background information.
  • Ask Aden how they think they are going. What do they find easy and what is more challenging? Why?

Step two – use literacy assessment tools

Collect data using specific literacy assessment tools that describe Aden’s ability for each area in terms of typical Year 6 skill levels.

Some tools will describe Aden’s skill in each area as a standard score, percentile rank or stanine score. Other tools will describe it in terms of the curriculum level that matches ability. For more information, visit Literacy tests and what they assess.

Interpret Aden’s outcomes for these assessments by noting how their knowledge and skills in each area compares to a typical Year 6 cohort. Aden might achieve in the average range or higher for some tasks and below average in others.

If Aden’s standard score is:

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

For these descriptions to be accurate, Aden needs to demonstrate these difficulties consistently for an extended period and the cohort that they are being compared to must be typical of students for that level.

Some tasks describe Aden’s performance in terms of Victorian Curriculum F–10: English points. The substrands in which Aden’s highest level is at least one year level below their current year level are indicative of a learning difficulty in that strand.

Step three – make comparisons

Compare Aden’s ability on the various strands and substrands of literacy.

You’re looking for patterns in literacy outcomes. Aden may show typical or average ability in some areas and lower ability in others. This helps you identify the areas of literacy Aden has in place (the appropriate level of development) and those that need further work.

Compare Aden’s word reading accuracy and spelling scores with their listening comprehension and reading comprehension scores. Note the tasks that are in the lowest twenty-fifth percentile range, or at least one standard deviation below the mean, for Aden’s year or age level.

Step four – identify possible causes for underachievement

This step helps you identify possible causes of Aden’s underachievement and target those areas in your teaching.

Does Aden have a specific difficulty reading words?

This difficulty is indicated by lower scores in word reading accuracy and spelling but not in listening comprehension.

When asked to read out loud, Aden may read slowly, in a monotone, without fluency and with great effort. When they need to use word decoding strategies, Aden may have difficulty saying the sequence of sounds that matches the order of letter patterns in the word and synthesising or blending the sound patterns correctly.

Aden can comprehend what they hear. They can say in their own words what they hear and can infer from this and reason about it. They can retell in detail a narrative and act out instructions they have heard.

For more information, refer to Helping students to read more accurately.

Does Aden have a specific oral language comprehension difficulty?

This difficulty is indicated by lower scores in Aden’s listening comprehension but not in their word reading accuracy and spelling scores. Aden reads text out loud accurately but has difficulty comprehending what they read. Aden finds it hard to say in their own words what they read and hear and has difficulty inferring from what they read or hear.

In the classroom, when Aden hears a narrative, they are less able than their peers to recount it and they recall less of it. Aden may have difficulty:

  • speculating about the meanings of unfamiliar words in a text read out loud
  • recalling spoken information
  • acting out multiple instructions
  • maintaining attention when spoken to.

For more information, visit Teaching students with comprehension difficulties.

Does Aden have both an oral language comprehension difficulty and a difficulty reading words?

Specific difficulties in oral language comprehension and reading words typically indicates a literacy learning difficulty.

You want to determine whether Aden’s underachievement is due to dyslexia or a specific reading comprehension deficit.


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 need 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 (10 webinars).