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Identifying students with learning difficulties and finding solutions

Margaret Sutherland
Edith Cowan University
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This study will investigate the reasons why children who have learning difficulties, especially dyslexia, in schools in Western Australia are not identified and are able to slip through the system in spite of all the resources, money and Acts passed to implement strategies to help them. Children at risk by rights should have an equal chance to learn alongside their peers and not get left behind because there are teachers who are not trained to identify these children. Allowing a child to proceed through the grades of a primary education without learning to read is beyond comprehension. Teachers also need to learn how to implement programs for children who learn differently. The aim of the Education Department of Western Australia is to have every student from age four to eighteen become fully literate. So why are students being allowed to advance to high school when they cannot read? (Curriculum Council of Western Australia, 1997)

Case study

The student I have chosen is Jeremy (not his real name) who lives on a farm with his parents and a younger sister Penny aged 7, about 15 km from the nearest state primary school. He travels to school by bus. Jeremy is in Year 7 and fits the criteria of a dilemma in having a learning difficulty/disability. At school he is in a mainstream class. When I assessed him he appeared to have many outward signs of dyslexia. A clinical optometrist has now confirmed this on the 17 April 2006 along with his younger sister. His mother is a nurse whom I met while in the local hospital early this year. In a questionnaire presented to her she realised he had never crawled although all other developments appeared to be normal. This has long been regarded to be one of the factors of learning problems in a child's development. Crawling (see Appendix) develops cross lateral movement which is essential for the brain to decide left or right handedness, and activates the development of the corpus callosum in the brain, the nerve pathways between the two hemispheres of the cerebrum. The Vestibular system must be activated to learn (Hannaford, 1995).

Before Jeremy attended school he was able to socialise and communicate with other children in a normal way, but it was when he began school it became apparent that there were other problems. At six years old he was tested for eye problems by the school nurse, was recommended to an optometrist, and was found to have myopia in one eye and a lazy eye.

How can we train teachers to be aware of students who have learning difficulty before it goes beyond the lower school level as in this case?

In this case the teachers are trying to help by withdrawing Jeremy from classes to work with a small group of children and a teaching aide during the week. This withdrawal is mostly to help with his reading. They have not given him any special programs. The program they are using is for him to sight read columns of words while the teacher puts ticks or crosses on them, then he has to write the words down that were incorrect. After that he has to read from a book, which he says, is simple text. They have not given him any special programs to help him learn the ABC or phonics, which have been found to be totally lacking. Why is it that none of the teachers are aware of his problems? The parents have constantly approached the school to seek help for him, but so far have only managed to elicit a minimal amount of ideas. They feel very frustrated, upset and emotional about the entire public education system. Jeremy at this stage does not have any basic phonic skills and cannot write or recite the ABC. When he reads he reverses "b" and "d" and many small words. He guesses at words that he does not know, often leaves out or adds in words as he reads and skips lines. He does not know his tables and can not tell the time. Why haven't any of his teachers recognised this especially in his earlier years, and if they did why did they allow it to continue into Year 7?

Jeremy knows that he has real learning problems and is not happy with his results so far. He feels that he needs a special program but wants to stay in a normal classroom even though it bothers him to be with normal students. He can manage to sit with a group of students although he doesn't really like it, and says they do not value his opinions. His peer group does not include him in activities at recess and lunch. He seems to think that the teachers are not really aware of all of his problems although they do sometimes give him special treatment by taking him out of the classroom with a few other children to do activities with an aide. They still get angry with him when he doesn't seem to understand the concepts presented and he is unsure if they are really helping him. He said he does not like school and was only sometimes able to do the classwork. He also feels that he is disadvantaged but he remains positive about his future.

He is left-handed and has been since the very beginning having shown no signs of confusion. By observance I noticed that Jeremy uses scissors with his right hand. This seemed a strange characteristic for a dyslexic person. Jeremy lacks confidence when asked to perform in the classroom or other venues, although he has no difficulty with speech. He shows signs of frustration while learning and sometimes becomes confused with multiple instructions. His small and gross motor skills were good from the beginning. He could use a knife and fork, ride a two-wheel bike, catch a ball, and was able to participate in sports. He can move rhythmically, dance and skip but had difficulty learning to tie his shoelaces, reading, spelling, creative writing and copying from the blackboard.

Jeremy is a quiet, well-behaved child and therefore does not display attention-seeking behaviour at home or at school. He also has a lot of knowledge despite his reading difficulties thus making him appear greatly intelligent for the problems he has. His parents are hoping that with intensive private tutoring for the rest of this year and then sending him to a private school in Perth from Year 8 he will be helped to overcome some of his problems and find a way to work around the dyslexia.

Literature review

The Minister for Education (1978) introduced the Making a Difference Strategy (MADS) targeting students at educational risk. It was found that a significant number of students in mainstream schooling were at risk of failing by being disadvantaged because of disabilities, learning disorders, socioeconomic status, location, ethnicity, language background or gender. MADS was to address these disadvantages and insure that students at risk could achieve satisfactory educational outcomes, by providing programs and resources for the students to help them to achieve their full potential. According to Williams and Holme (2004), there is a concern when it comes to the number of school age children with learning disabilities where developmental delay remains undetected. Figures show that 13% of primary school children are at risk of having learning difficulties, with boys being in the majority. Benchmark testing from the National Report on schooling in Australia found the former to be true. These tests were identified as being ineffective in identifying children with developmental problems.

Another problem is that many small rural schools in Western Australia suffer neglect in special education areas because of a lack of provision of integration aides and inclusion support assistants. They do not have special education teachers, and they have minimal therapy support services for children with special needs. Funding is at a minimum as well because it depends on a limited opportunity to pool per capita funding to provide better services (National Inquiry into Rural and Remote Education, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 2000).

How can parents, carers or teachers recognise and help prevent difficulties from developing?

Prevention of difficulties in children's learning really lies within the real of 'who is responsible?' According to Paratore (2002), some researchers believe it is the role of the parent/s to be responsible for their children's passage to reading and learning success. Edmund Huey had proposed as early as 1908 that the use of joint reading activities while having the child sitting on the knee following a story with an eye and a finger was the secret to reading success.

Other aspects that can affect children's learning and reading success after coming to school, presenting with learning difficulties such as dyslexia are possibly because parents are

One of the many reasons why students are slipping through the educational system is because teachers in mainstream classrooms are not adequately trained to be able to see beyond the fact that students who present with problems, behaviour or learning, should have intervention procedures put in place for them. The lack of training leads to teachers sometime referring students to special educational units unnecessarily, when they could have implemented preventative measures to benefit them rather than removing them from their peer group (Drame, 2002, p 51).

Unless students can be diagnosed with a specific disability it has been found that some children in lower school may have problems associated with developmental delay, which if recognised early could possibly be corrected by using intervention strategies. Also raising parent awareness and using them as partners in learning would help resolve mild learning problems before they develop into major concerns (Williams & Holmes, 2004, p43).

Some teachers feel that inclusivity is the answer for students with learning difficulties. In some cases this is not true because the goal of inclusivity is to enable all students to belong within and educational community, which validates and values each individual student and helps them to achieve (Stainback, Stainback, East & Sapon-Shevin, 1994). The advantages of inclusion are that these students may have a relationship with others who have similar problems and it may help them to learn. The disadvantages are that inclusion could cause students with learning difficulties to become passive learners with no challenge to learn and make progress because they are not comfortable in the classroom or with the teacher. Teachers may find them impossible to teach and may not take them into account when preparing classroom programs (Westwood, 1997).

Adams, Foorman, Lundberg and Beeler (1998) say that children need to know the alphabetical principle and that letters are paired to make sounds as well as standing alone and being the sound of speech. The researchers also say that the awareness of phonemes can be difficult and processing phonemes helps children to realise that they are both separate and blended. Using rhyming, rhythm and listening activities, which are designed for pre-primary age groups can be an effective teaching technique. It also helps if parents and teachers have the knowledge about language structure such as phonology. There are unconscious rules that govern the study of phonology, whereas phonetics is the system of symbols, which represent sounds in an alphabetical writing system. The units we call phonemes have constraints as far as the sounds humans are able to produce and this is connected to how our brain classifies and perceives the way the sounds make a difference to the meaning (Widjaja & Winskel, 2004).

Relevance and justification of investigation

In Jeremy's case I became his tutor, visiting him once a week. I devised programs that concentrated on his weakest attributes. That meant the alphabetical principle, phonics, reading and written worksheets. I installed programs on the family's personal computer, which required him to find letters or words, and we played numerous games with alphabetical cards in a form of concentration and bingo games. I gave his mother a set of alphabet cards so that she could do similar activities with him during the week. I supplied sheets with mazes and dot to dot based on the alphabet, which he could do during the week. His sister Jennifer, who is also dyslexic, has now joined in to the tutoring sessions and I run a multiple program for them. I have also taught them how to play a kazoo and they are practising a new tune each week, which we play after the tutoring session. I believe music is a good stimulation for these children and because they were both too shy to sing with me this was a good way to introduce music into their program. It provides rhythm and I am hoping it will help with their reading in the future. I have also been concentrating on a program for both children of self-esteem to allow them to feel good about what they are achieving although they both know that they have learning problems.

Outcome of the investigation to date

This week when I arrived there was good news. Jeremy has been so keen to learn his alphabet he was able to recite it to me, and that is only after eight weeks of tutoring. So he has made great strides already in accomplishing that one essential operation. I am now concentrating on getting his mother to ask him where the letters of the alphabet fall so that he will eventually have the knowledge he should have had by grade three. The next phase will be to concentrate on the phonics so that he can learn to sound out words, which he seems to be loath to do, mainly because he does not know the sounds that letters make. I have made an alphabet and sounds scrap book in which the children will be finding, cutting out and gluing in pictures from magazines that contain the sounds or letters. Jeremy's reading is improving marginally but there is a lot more work to do yet before he will be able to read fluently without mispronouncing or guessing words. I am extremely pleased with both the children's progress so far. By the end of the year before he goes away in January 2007 it is hoped he will have caught up on a lot of the concepts that he seems to have missed out on and those which the teachers have not noticed while he is in class.

The activities I am doing with Jeremy are those that the teachers could have been doing with him at school to alleviate a lot of his difficulties. I feel that he has not been receiving the help because the teachers are either not trained to deal with a student with dyslexia, or the school cannot access resources or aides because it is so small. The school may not have enough students with learning problems to allow them to have grants or money to carry out the programs that Jeremy needs.


Abadanio, H. R. (2001). Children with dyslexia: Research responds to FQA. The New England Reading Association Journal, 37(3), 41-50.

Adams, J.M., Foorman, B. R. Lundberg, I. & Beeler, T. (1998). Phonemic awareness in young children: A classroom curriculum. Paul H. Brookes Publishing, Illinois. pp.1-8.

Curriculum Council of Western Australia (1997). Curriculum framework consultation draft for Kindergarten to Year 12 in Western Australia. Education Department of Western Australia. Perth. pp 1-328.

Drame, E. R. (2002). Socio-cultural context effects on teachers' readiness to refer for learning disabilities. Exceptional Children, 69(1), 41-53.

Hannaford, C. (2004). The Dominance Factor: How knowing your dominant eye, ear, brain, hand and foot can improve your learning. http://www.braingym.org/BG_Research.pdf

Kaye, G. (1999). Development Optometrist. The Oxford Child Development Group. EyeCare Centre, West Perth,Western Australia. Cited in M. Sutherland (2001), Children with special needs in reading and learning: A sight vocabulary project. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/2001/sutherland.html

Miles,T. R., Wheeler, T. J. & Haslum, M. N. (2003). The existence of dyslexia without severe literacy problems. Annals of Dyslexia, 53, 340-354.

Minister for Education (1998). Making a difference strategy. Education Department of Western Australia, Perth.

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (2000). National Inquiry into Rural and Remote Education. http://www.humanrights.gov.au/word/human_rights/Recommendations.doc

Stainback, S. Stainback, W. & East, K. (1994). A commentary on inclusion and the development of a positive self-identity by people with disabilities. Exceptional Children, 60(6), 486-490.

Steele, M. M. (2005). Teaching students with learning disabilities: Constructivism or behaviorism? Current Issues in Education, 8(10). http://cie.ed.asu.edu/volume8/number10/

Subban, P. & Sharma, U. (2006). Primary school teachers' perceptions of inclusive education in Victoria, Australia. International Journal of Special Education, 21(1), 44-54.

Sutherland, M. (2000). Why are students failing: Is mainstreaming the cause? A case study. Issues in Educational Research, 11(1), 41-61. http://www.iier.org.au/iier11/sutherland.html

Widjaja, V. & Winskel, H. (2004). Phonological awareness and word reading in a transparent orthography: Preliminary findings on Indonesian. Proceedings of the 10th Australian Conference on Speech Science & Technology. Macquarie University, Sydney. 8-10 December. Australian Speech Science and Technology Association Inc.

Williams, J. & Holmes, C. A. (2004). Improving the early detection of children with subtle developmental problems. Journal of Child Health Care, 8(1), 34-46.


Information about crawling

We have known for years that children who miss the vitally important crawling stage may exhibit learning difficulties. Crawling, a cross-lateral movement activates development of the corpus callosum (the nerve pathways between the two hemispheres of the cerebrum). 31 October 2004, The Dominance Factor by Carla Hannaford.

In The Dominance Factor: How Knowing Your Dominant Eye, Ear, Brain, Hand and Foot Can Improve Your Learning, Dr Carla Hannford puts forward her own research and findings in how the different combinations of dominant eye / ear / brain / hand / foot effects how we learn. The book covers tests to discover someone's dominant hand / foot / eye, etc and profiles for each combination. Each profiles describe how they learn, communicate and what weaknesses they may experience under stress as well as recommendations on how to help them. http://www.braingym.org/BG_Research.pdf

Penny Report sheet one

Penny Report sheet one

Penny Report sheet two

Penny Report sheet two

Penny Report sheet three

Penny Report sheet three

Jeremy Report sheet one

Jeremy Report sheet one

Jeremy Report sheet two

Jeremy Report sheet two

Jeremy Report sheet three

Jeremy Report sheet three

EyeCare Centre Report - Jeremy

EyeCare Centre Report - Jeremy

EyeCare Centre Report - Penny

EyeCare Centre Report - Penny

Author: Margaret Sutherland, c/- Post Office, Bencubbin WA 6477. Email: mssuther@student.ecu.edu.au

Please cite as: Sutherland, M. (2006). Identifying students with learning difficulties and finding solutions. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 2006. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/2006/sutherland.html

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