Why it’s vital educators understand student learning disabilities to ensure effective teaching and learning


With over 20 per cent of Australian children struggling with learning difficulties, teachers must develop the skills needed to ensure all students can reach their potential.

Having well-trained teachers who can support students is invaluable, resulting in improved student outcomes and a better long-term outlook for schools. There are also legal requirements that require schools to provide inclusive learning environments.

Initial Teacher Education (ITE) has seen significant change over recent years. Student teachers must now pass a number of assessments and tests to meet the requirements of the Graduate Teacher Standards of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, such as a Literacy and Numeracy Test (LANTITE) and a Teaching Performance Assessment (TPA).

In addition, efforts to raise professional standards for teachers mean all educators should be equipped to support students with learning difficulties throughout their learning journeys.

"Understanding learning difficulties or why students might have disabilities or difficulties is the first step in ensuring they can access the curriculum. This is the core business of teachers - to ensure that students can learn - and there's been a priority on literacy and numeracy learning for quite some time," says Nathalie Parry, Lecturer, Learning Intervention, Faculty of Education.

Requirements for educators

The Australian Professional Standards for Teachers were updated in 2018 and clearly state that educators must support students with learning difficulties.

Standard 1.5 of the 7 Australian Professional Standards for Teachers requires educators to be able to differentiate teaching to meet the specific learning needs of students across the full range of abilities. Standard 1.6 details strategies to support the full participation of students with disabilities, requiring an understanding of legislative requirements and teaching strategies that support the participation and learning of students with disabilities.

Inclusive education, as emphasised in the Disability Standards for Education 2005, entails welcoming all students into age-appropriate settings where they are supported to learn, contribute and participate in all aspects of school life.

The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership Limited (AITSL) reported that the average age of a teacher is 42, with 30% of teachers aged 50 and above, meaning that most teachers have trained in out-of-date Initial Teacher Education (ITE) programs.

“In Australia, teacher education has undergone significant transformation, repositioning the delivery of programs from teacher training colleges to higher education institutions and aligning programs directly with national professional standards, such as the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers,” states the report.

The education sector continues to change at speed with the Australian Curriculum, Version 9.0, which is currently being rolled out across states and territories, placing added pressure on educators and school leaders at a time of reported teacher and principal shortages.

With change afoot across the education sector, there will be further impetus for educators to be able to identify and teach students with learning difficulties within a class setting.

Short, online courses such as the Introduction to Learning Difficulties micro-credential from the University of Melbourne provide schools with an effective way to equip educators with the core foundations to work successfully with students who have learning difficulties.

What are learning difficulties, and how do they differ from specific learning disabilities (SLDs)?

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The population of students with learning difficulties includes a smaller subset who show persistent and long-lasting learning impairments and are identified as students with a learning disability, the LDA writes.

The Australian Federation of SPELD Associations (Auspeld) conservatively estimates that over 20 per cent of Australian children are struggling with learning difficulties, and between 3 to 5 per cent of students are known to have a developmental learning disorder.

Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) include dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and developmental language or coordination disorders.

“Children with SLDs have unexpected and persistent difficulties in a specific area due to an underlying neurodevelopmental disorder. So, one of the defining features between a learning difficulty versus a disability is that the disability continues despite appropriate evidence-based instruction and intervention,” says Parry.

So, the main difference between SLDs and learning difficulties is that children with learning difficulties who receive intervention can significantly improve their learning.

“Children with learning difficulties have the potential to respond or to improve and achieve at age-appropriate levels once they are provided with evidence-based instruction and appropriate support,” says Parry.

How can teachers identify students with learning difficulties?

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Understanding how academic skills such as reading, writing and maths develop is crucial to identifying learning difficulties. Also, knowledge of evidence-based literacy and numeracy development frameworks is required for teachers to identify where breakdowns in learning often occur.

By evaluating a student’s reading comprehension, which involves their ability to both decode words and understand language, teachers can identify gaps in learning.

"If we think of their decoding skills in the simple view of reading, then we know that phonemic awareness and phonics instruction is going to be really important. So, we can assess the students’ skills in that area and then proactively teach students those particular skills,” says Parry.

"Frameworks will then help educators ensure that their instruction aligns to those very specific skills that students need to develop to be successful readers, writers, mathematicians, and so on."

"Assessments will also help educators identify barriers to learning or effective learning so they can address some of those barriers."

A recent report by the Australian Government Department of Education found that a significant number of children are struggling readers, despite strong evidence showing reading difficulties can be prevented and overcome if identified early, and students are provided with evidence-based instruction.

"These struggling students are visible - in NAPLAN and other assessments - but the system is failing to intervene early and effectively, so the number of students with low literacy is growing rather than shrinking as students progress from primary school to high school," states the report.

"These children have the potential to achieve and thrive at school if provided with evidence-based instruction and identified early through high-quality screening and progress monitoring tools. Instead, the education system is stuck in a reactive and obsolete "wait to fail" model. This is despite having low-cost and highly effective screening and intervention tools available," the report continues.

What are core strategies teachers can use to support students with learning difficulties?

Frameworks and direct and explicit instruction are examples of the core strategies that teachers can use to support students with learning difficulties.


"We use frameworks from an assessment point of view to identify what skills we need to work on with students. Frameworks help us when providing targeted intervention or instruction to students with learning difficulties.

The Response to Intervention (RTI) framework is designed to prevent students from falling through the cracks. It is a multi-tiered approach to providing services and interventions to students who are struggling with their learning at increasing levels of intensity.

The RTI process involves monitoring and measuring student progress to shape further instruction and learning.

The essential elements of the RTI framework, according to Learning Difficulties Australia, are the provision of scientific, research-based instruction and interventions in general education; monitoring and measurement of student progress in response to the teaching and interventions; and use of these measures of student progress to shape instruction and make educational decisions.

If you’re interested in learning more about the RTI process, Using Response to Intervention to Support Learning is another online micro-credential that introduces teachers to the RTI model.

Direct and explicit instruction

"With direct and explicit instruction, you are actively teaching the child or the students the key skills; you are not expecting them to work it out independently," says Parry.

"We also refer to this as systematic instruction. So, we're explicitly teaching and building on the skills that we've taught before so that the child or groups of students have a higher chance of success because you've built the foundation, and it builds in a sequential way informed by evidence-based practices."

Why is it important that educators learn these skills?

It's clear that a student's learning and future learning will only improve if a teacher is equipped to identify a learning difficulty and teach it effectively.

“Children who struggle with literacy and numeracy find it difficult in other areas because literacy and numeracy are embedded in all aspects of the curriculum, ” says Parry.

"And if children's learning needs are not identified, or they have not been provided appropriate intervention, their disability or learning difficulty puts them at significant disadvantage, with little likelihood that they will achieve close to their academic potential."

The negative effects of ineffective teaching of children with learning difficulties and disabilities are wide-reaching. Research has shown that many students with SLD’s are at significant risk of disengagement from education when faced with inappropriate support.

“They often experience struggles and challenges every day as part of school because of their learning difficulty, and so it can have an impact on the children’s social, emotional, and mental health in various ways as well, says Parry.”

"Many children will have poor academic self-concept because they experience difficulties in particular areas. It's really important that teachers also recognise the particular strengths of students, so they feel understood, but importantly that they actually gain the support they need."

Want to upskill your educators quickly and effectively?

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Melbourne MicroCerts is the University of Melbourne's online offering of micro-credentials — flexible short courses delivered by experts and designed to help professionals quickly gain specific career skills.

Courses in contemporary education are ideal for education professionals employed across the K-12 curriculum, including practising and pre-service teachers, support workers, carers of students with learning difficulties, and educational leaders.


By Janet Stone