Specific Learning Disorder (SLD)

by Care Speech 
20 April 2022

Specific Learning Disorder (SLD) is a term used to describe a range of difficulties that children, and also adults, may have with reading, writing and mathematics.

It is estimated that two to three children in every Australian classroom will experience difficulties with learning and SLD may be the underlying cause.

Difficulties are often first noticed in the early years of primary school when a child is not progressing at the same rate as their peers. Difficulties experienced by children with Specific Learning Disorders are inherent in the child and are not related to the quality of the teaching.

Not all children who have difficulties at school will have SLD. Children develop at different rates and many children who have difficulties early on will catch up with some extra support. A lack of prior exposure to reading, writing, and counting, as well as challenging behaviours, can also affect a child’s early progress at school.

SLD can only be diagnosed if:

  • no other underlying cause for the difficulties is found; and
  • the child has not responded to at least six months of targeted help.

What are specific learning disorders?

There are three types of specific learning disorders, relating to reading, writing and mathematics.

  • Dyslexia – is a specific learning disorder with impairment in reading. People with dyslexia may have difficulty reading words on a page and understanding the meaning of written words.
  • Dysgraphia – is a specific learning disorder with impairment in writing. People with dysgraphia have difficulty forming written letters, spelling, and writing words to form simple sentences.
  • Dyscalculia – is a specific learning disorder with impairment in mathematics. People with dyscalculia have difficulty understanding mathematical concepts and performing mathematical calculations and problem solving.

SLD is diagnosed by a psychologist; however, speech pathologists are trained to provide assessment and reporting on the signs of SLD, which is an important step in the information-gathering process.

Speech pathologists can assess areas such as sound-letter knowledge, phonological awareness, and language comprehension, before passing these results on to your psychologist for further investigation.

While people with SLD may require more support than other students, and their progress is expected to be slower than their peers, research evidence suggests that the implementation of structured synthetic phonics programs can improve reading and spelling over time.

What is synthetic phonics?

Synthetic phonics is a structured teaching method that has been identified in several international studies, including some from Australia, as being the most successful way of teaching reading. It involves teaching and linking the 44 individual speech sounds that make up the English language to the written symbols that represent them. This knowledge is then used to blend these sounds together when reading.

There are several high-quality programs that can be used to teach synthetic phonics (such as Sounds-Write and Jolly Phonics) that speech pathologists or specialised literacy teachers are trained to deliver. The essential elements of a synthetic phonics program are:

  • Learning letter names and sounds – it is important to know both the sounds and letter names when learning to read. This is because sometimes two or three letters can go together to represent a single sound, such as the ‘sh’ in ‘ship’. Studies have shown that rapid naming of letter names and sounds in the early years has been linked to increased reading fluency later on.
  • Phonological awareness – phonological awareness is the skill of being able to hear, produce and manipulate the 44 sounds of the English language, as well as larger chunks of sound such as rhymes and syllables.
  • Blending and Segmenting – these are the phonological awareness skills that are most directly related to reading and spelling words in a synthetic phonics program. While reading, students are taught to say the sounds they can see in a word and blend them together in order. While writing, children are taught to separate out the sounds they can hear in a word and write them down in order. Both of these skills are also known as ‘sounding out’ and underpin the way we read and write. Both of these skills require a lot of practice to become automatic.
  • Reading – books and reading materials that match a student’s current level of knowledge and skill are used to encourage successful reading. This allows students to apply the skills that have been practised at word level to a meaningful reading experience. ‘Decodable readers’ are books that can be entirely sounded out and are the most suitable texts for reading practice. Decodable readers are designed to increase in difficulty as a student’s ability improves – they are not all about a cat sitting on a mat!

While people with dyslexia have difficulty learning to read due to underlying processing difficulties and will continue to have more difficulty than others regardless of what method is used, synthetic phonics is the approach that is most likely to lead to successful outcomes and improvement over time.

Where can I go for help?

Many schools are now using synthetic phonics to teach reading in early years classrooms. For children with a specific learning disorder this will be of some help, however it’s likely that the pace of these whole class programs will be rapid and extra support will still be required. Synthetic phonics approaches are also less likely to be used in classroom beyond the early years.

Speech pathologists not only have an important role to play in providing input into Specific Learning Disorder assessments but are able to deliver synthetic phonics programs with an individualised focus on the areas that require most support.

If you would like more information about Specific Learning Disorders or would like to book an initial consultation with a Speech Pathologist from our team, please contact us on 1300 086 280 or at [email protected].



Powell, D., & Atkinson, L. (2021). Unravelling the links between rapid automatized naming (RAN), phonological awareness, and reading. Journal of Educational Psychology, 113(4), 706–718. https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000625

Wheldall, K., Wheldall, R., Madelaine, A., Reynolds, M., & Arakelian, S. (2017). Further evidence for the efficacy of an evidence-based, small group, literacy intervention program for young struggling readers. Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 22(1), 3-13. https://doi.org/10.1080/19404158.2017.1287102

Wyse, D. & Goswami, U. (2013). Synthetic phonics and the teaching of reading. British Educational Research Journal 34(6), 691-710. https://doi.org/10.1080/01411920802268912

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