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 three language modes:

  • Reading and viewing.
  • Writing.
  • Speaking and listening.

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


  • Language variation and change
  • Language for interaction
  • Text structure and organisation
  • Expressing and developing ideas
  • Phonics and word knowledge


  • Literature and context
  • Responding to literature
  • Examining literature
  • Creating literature


  • Texts in context
  • Interacting with others
  • Interpreting, analysing, evaluating
  • Creating texts

The National Literacy Learning Progressionscan be used to create an accurate picture of a student's skill level. This is especially useful for students with learning difficulties, whose abilities may not be described precisely enough when only using content descriptors.             

The progressions align with the Victorian Curriculum F–10 English and will assist you to use achievement standards and content descriptions for planning, teaching, learning and assessment. Each area describes the sequence of knowledge and skills that a student needs to learn, using growth points or key steps to literacy understanding.              

A student's outcomes in these areas can be measured using standard scores or percentile ranks. You can also locate their performance on the curriculum by describing the indicators that best match a student's outcomes.             

Once you have a measure of a student's outcomes in each area, it is vital to note the areas in which a student has demonstrated capability and areas of challenge. 

For more information, refer to  Literacy tests and what they assess.             

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).

Learning difficulty

A student may present with a learning difficulty due to interruptions in their learning (such as chronic poor health resulting in extended time away from school, family disruption, emotional, environmental or socio-economic factors, sensory impairment) or any other factor/s that result in obstacles to consistent attendance and/or learning of key knowledge and skills.           

Slow progress in literacy learning can be caused by sensory, physical, language, intellectual, emotional, environmental or socio-economic factors. Any of these developmental issues may impact on a student’s learning and outcomes.         

Students with a learning difficulty need additional support to catch up to their peers. Generally, progress is swift since the underlying reasons for learning struggles are not specifically related to a neurobiological basis.         


Learning disability

A student may present with a learning disability, which is a neurobiologically based disorder, that may result in a specific learning disability, such as dyslexia. This would be diagnosed by an educational psychologist based on strict criteria. Some students may have a learning difficulty and a learning disability. It is important to note that learning disabilities are highly heritable. It is estimated that around three to five per cent of students have a formal learning disability.

Information about a student’s medical, health and personal history may be available from your school. Families of students with learning difficulties/disabilities may also have information about their child’s development. There may also be reports from psychologists, speech pathologists or other health and medical professionals.

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 profiles

Using the core competencies of word decoding and oral language comprehension, students can be classified according to four reading profiles (A – D). These profiles can provide an indication of the type of learning difficulty (or disability, such as dyslexia) a student might be experiencing.

Profile A

  • Adequate word decoding
  • Adequate oral language comprehension

Able reader: students have adequate core competencies and are well equipped to learn to read without difficulty.

Profile B

  • Poor word decoding
  • Adequate oral language comprehension

Word reading difficulty: students often struggle to gain proficiency decoding words despite adequate oral language comprehension. These difficulties are often seen in students with dyslexia.

Profile C

  • Adequate word decoding
  • Poor oral language comprehension

Specific reading comprehension deficit: students can decode words but have difficulty understanding what they have read because of poor oral language comprehension. Typically, this reading difficulty presents in mid-primary years. These students do not have a reading profile that aligns with dyslexia.

Profile D

  • Poor word decoding
  • Poor oral language comprehension

Mixed reading difficulties: students have not yet developed adequate skills in word decoding and oral language comprehension. They have difficulty learning to decode and read words and in extracting meaning from text.


Reading difficulties

Word decoding

Students who have difficulty with word decoding may struggle to identify and segment all parts of a word (that is, they struggle with phonemic awareness). They may also have difficulty understanding the relationship between graphemes and their corresponding phonemes (that is, difficulty with phonics).

They'll typically read slowly and with great effort. They're likely to read out loud in a monotone and without fluency and find reading exhausting and unenjoyable.

In most cases, students with decoding difficulties will consistently make grammatical errors in sentence construction. They'll also likely have trouble using correct punctuation and capitalisation and have messy handwriting.

For more information visit:


Oral language comprehension

Oral language comprehension refers to the ability to take in and process spoken information to derive meaning. Broadly speaking, oral language comprehension is reliant on vocabulary knowledge, grammatical knowledge, familiarity with different genres, narrative conventions and working memory.

Students who have underdeveloped oral language skills will have difficulty understanding texts read out loud and instructions that are given to them. Common signs of difficulties may include:

  • appearing not to listen or having difficulty maintaining attention when spoken to (but in fact, they're getting lost in the 'talk').
  • difficulty recalling spoken information (because taking in and processing verbal information is harder and more cognitively demanding.
  • difficulty following multiple instructions or complicated sentences (they may 'lose' the final instruction because they're still processing the earlier instructions).
  • trouble understanding inference in spoken information (because their grasp of oral language, particularly word and phrase meanings, is not well expanded).

Specific reading comprehension deficit

Specific reading comprehension deficits are underpinned by a lack of oral language skills.

Students may appear to be capable of comprehending spoken language, but have difficulty understanding what they have read, despite appearing to read accurately and with reasonable fluency.

This reading difficulty is sometimes referred to as hyperlexia and students referred to as 'poor comprehenders'. These names emphasise the fact that these students have strong word reading skills but have difficulty comprehending or drawing meaning from what they read.

Typically, these students make a strong start when learning to read in the early years of school, but face challenges in mid to upper-primary years as texts become increasingly complex. This is because written language, as found in textbooks and age-appropriate literature, is typically more sophisticated than spoken language in terms of density, formality, grammatical complexity and breadth of vocabulary. It requires students to apply conceptual, inferential and metaphorical thinking.

For more information visit Teaching students with comprehension difficulties.


Dyslexia is the most common form of specific learning disability. It is characterised by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word decoding and poor spelling. Difficulties with reading and spelling, together with a delayed response to intervention, are also central features of dyslexia.

Dyslexia is a lifelong condition. Nonetheless, students with dyslexia can learn to read with fluency and accuracy given intensive, evidence-based intervention over extended periods.

It's important to note that dyslexia is not connected in any way to a student’s intelligence or effort in learning to read. Dyslexia is not caused by visual processing difficulties and, contrary to popular belief, is not characterised by seeing letters or words backwards (Velluntino et al. 2004).

Difficulties with reading comprehension are an inevitable consequence for students with dyslexia because of the time and effort needed to decode words, along with the risk of reading words inaccurately. The cognitive load required simply to get the words ‘off the page’ can leave students with insufficient energy to attach meaning to the text.

Students with dyslexia will present with many of the same markers as students with poor word decoding. Typically, however, non-dyslexic students who have difficulty with word decoding will progress more quickly than students with dyslexia, following evidence-based intervention.

In the early years, other signs of dyslexia may include:

  • difficulty learning sequences (for example, reciting the days of the week)
  • difficulty identifying rhyming words
  • difficulty detecting sounds within words or detecting alliterated words
  • persistent articulation difficulties (for example, saying ‘wabbit’ instead of ‘rabbit’).

As students progress to upper primary school and beyond, further difficulties may become apparent, including:

  • becoming easily fatigued while reading
  • poor text comprehension
  • poor spelling
  • messy handwriting
  • poor organisation of spoken and written narrative
  • difficulty comprehending instructions
  • difficulty tasks.

For more information, visit Understanding types of learning difficulty.

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.

Non-language-based writing difficulties

Fine motor coordination

This can manifest in a student pressing too hard when writing or as messy handwriting with poor lettering. For some students, difficulties with fine motor control for handwriting may be part of a Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD).

Other signs a student may have DCD include:

  • uncoordinated or ‘clumsy’ movements
  • difficulty with tasks requiring fine motor skills (for example, buttoning clothing, tying shoelaces, cutting in a straight line) and/or gross motor skills (for example, running and jumping)
  • tiring easily
  • taking a disproportionate amount of time to change clothing (for example, for physical education or swimming)
  • difficulty eating without making a mess.

As DCD most commonly affects handwriting, students may produce less written work in a set time than their peers. Legibility of handwriting can also decrease considerably with increases in speed.

For more information visit Understanding developmental coordination disorder.

Visuospatial and/or visuoperceptual awareness

Visual perception refers to the brain’s ability to make sense of what the eyes see. This is not the same as visual acuity which refers to how clearly a person sees. Good visual perceptual skills are important for many everyday skills. Difficulties with visuospatial and visuoperceptual awareness manifests in writing in the following ways:

  • difficulty with spacing of writing (including spacing letters and words appropriately)
  • difficulty aligning writing on a page
  • difficulty copying text from one place to another (for example, from a whiteboard to a notebook).

Language-based writing difficulties

Language-based (and/or cognitive-based) writing difficulties often overlap with reading difficulties. This is particularly evident in spelling, which is impaired for students who have difficulty with decoding.

Indicators of language and/or cognitive-based difficulties include:

  • difficulty with spelling where students are required to segment, map and blend sounds to write words
  • mixing up capital letters with lower-case letters and omitting or making errors using punctuation markers
  • difficulty constructing sentences and extended narratives. This is associated with:
    • impaired oral language competencies: written expression may be poorly constructed and/or grammatically simple, use limited vocabulary and lack narrative cohesion and structure
    • impaired cognitive operations: written expression is not well-planned, reflecting poor organisation of ideas, and/or not adhering to the task requirements.

Identifying a trend in a student’s outcomes over time

To evaluate whether a student’s outcomes are following a trend, collect data over an extended period and supplement this with data from their previous year.

Determine if the student’s performance is affected by environmental factors (such as sound, light, temperature), peer influence, or their location in the classroom (do they sit close to the board or at the back of the room, are they near additional noise or distractions such as an air conditioner, windows or corridor) when they engage in literacy-related activities.

For more information, refer to Example of how to decide if a student has a literacy learning difficulty.