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Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training

Student Learning Profile. Screening for indicators of a Specific Learning Disability (SLD)

This screening tool will assist disability practitioners to develop an understanding of what the main barriers to learning are for a student presenting with learning difficulties. Through this process the disability practitioner will also become aware of how and when the student experiences success in the learning environment. The information gained through assessing for indicators of a specific learning disability will also inform the referral for formal assessment and will guide the disability practitioner to determine suitable interim adjustments; pending completion of the full assessment and reasonable adjustment report.

Please note: The screening tool has been designed to foster conversation between the disability practitioner and student to encourage a deep exploration of the students learning experiences both past and present.

Opening Discussion with a Student

Prior to beginning a screening process, explain to the student why an assessment for indicators of specific learning disability (SLD) is recommended. What is discussed will be specific to the presenting issues for each student but it is imperative that they have a clear understanding upfront about what a specific learning disability is and how it impacts a person in the learning context. Of particular importance is how very common SLDs are. It is also essential that the student is informed that this assessment will assist to determine whether referral for a full educational assessment for specific learning disability is recommended. A snapshot of SLD is provided below to guide your discussion.

Specific Learning Disability (SLD) is recognised as a ‘hidden’ disability. Often, the first indication for academic staff will be a discrepancy between the knowledge or ability a student demonstrates in class, and results of written assignments or exams. Specific learning disability (SLD) is a term that describes a collection of learning difficulties that impact one or more of the subject learning areas of oral expression, listening comprehension, written expression, reading skills, reading comprehension, mathematical calculation and / or mathematical reasoning1 . A student with a Specific Learning Disability will possess at least average intelligence and a combination of talents and strengths as well as difficulties in one or more of these subject areas. Dyslexia is the most common SLD comprising 80% of all diagnosed specific learning disabilities. Dyslexia relates primarily to difficulties with the acquisition of reading and writing2.

While specific learning disabilities are a life-long condition, a person with strong intellectual and linguistic abilities who is provided appropriate academic support and guidance, can learn to compensate for their learning deficits and lead productive lives. 3Well-targeted screening and assessment, effective intervention, and ongoing monitoring of progress are key elements of supporting individuals with SLDs in the tertiary education environment.

  • 10% of the worlds’ population are estimated to have an SLD in any population
  • 80% – 85% of people with an SLD will have dyslexia (difficulties with writing, spelling, and reading).
  • Students with SLDs have average to above average intelligence
  • Students with SLDs can learn and do lead productive lives
  • Students with an SLD are often first identified as verbally bright, with poor written performance
  • Students with an SLD have ability / strengths in some areas and barriers / difficulties in other areas
  • Each student’s SLD / learning profile will be unique to that student
  • Students with SLDs often need targeted instruction to develop areas of weakness
  • Inclusive technology is particularly useful for students with SLDs

Step 1: Eliminating Factors other than SLD that could impact academic performance

When assessing for indicators of a Specific Learning Disability the first step in the process is to eliminate other factors that may be impacting the student’s ability to learn, i.e. we are exploring in the first instance to rule out Specific Learning Disabilities. The questions the disability practitioner asks at this stage will assist them to determine whether further exploration of SLD is required. It is also important to note that a person with an SLD may also experience a co-existing difficulty such as English as a second language, hearing or vision impairment, poor mental health – explore these areas with this in mind.

Download Step 1 Questionnaire

Step 2. Self-Reporting Indicators of a Specific Learning Disability

A number of studies have assessed the validity of interview with adults as a means of determining reading difficulties, 4with research highlighting that the accuracy of retrospective self-reporting correlates well with formal measures of word recognition and learning difficulties.

The following questionnaire developed by 5Smythe and Everatt, (2001) targets literacy skills, word finding and organisation and is broadly used as a self-reporting questionnaire for specific learning disabilities, with high accuracy in predicting the need for further assessment in the area of dyslexia.

Please note: It is not recommended that the questionnaire is used by disability practitioners without exploration and clarification that encourages the student to provide examples of their experiences with each question. This is important information that can guide the steps for intervention through accommodations.

Download Step 2 Questionnaire

Step Three: Highlighting personal strengths and attributes

Highlighting a person’s strengths in conversation with them is important at this stage of the screening process. First to bring balance to the interview that has primarily been focussed on deficits, and second to bring to the fore particular attributes / strengths / capacities a person has that can be harnessed to support their future academic success.

6 Every person with indicators of SLD will have a different constellation of both strengths and difficulties that they experience within the academic environment. Solution focussed interviewing is a competency based approach that assists the disability practitioner to highlight a person’s inherent qualities and strengths while building a holistic learning profile with the student.

The Solution Focussed approach is framed by the premise that people are inherently resilient and continuously utilise this to create change in their lives.7 Disability practitioners across tertiary education in Australia have identified resilience as a key attribute of many people with SLD, explaining that students with specific learning disabilities often faced academic struggles and difficulties on a daily basis during their early years of schooling and as a result, have developed the skills to cope with more adversity than others who have not had the same experiences. The Solution Focused questions used to explore for strengths are:

  • Exception questions that explore for when things are or were different
  • Coping questions that highlight strategies the person has.

Exploring for strengths and coping strategies

Begin this stage of the interview asking the student to describe a time in their life when they experienced success through a learning experience (the experience may be in work, education or informal learning). If the person is unable to respond prompt with questions about their prior work, involvement in sport, community engagement. Dig deep into the experience with the person asking exception and coping questions to draw out as much information as possible about the experience. Make notes and summarise what you have heard with the student at the end of the interview. Questions you might ask include:

  • What was different in this situation?
  • Sometimes it’s easier to give up when it’s hard, but not you - what kept you going?
  • What obstacles did you face along the way? How did you overcome these?
  • How would someone observing you explain what they saw you doing?
  • What was different with this teacher / supervisor / mentor to others where you didn’t experience the same success?
  • How did you feel?
  • Have you used these strategies in other situations? 
  • What would you say was your strongest attribute in this situation? 

Strength Based Interview Notes

Download : lined paper for strength based interview notes

Step Four: Preparing for formal Assessment

Specific learning disabilities occur on a continuum where it is recognised that each profile (person’s experience of the SLD) is unique to the individual. Assessment is understood as the profiling process. This process involves testing that includes the application of a number of specially designed and normed assessment tools (tools that have been tested across a broad population to determine an expected range of ability), used mainly in the domains of educational psychology. Disability practitioners can utilise similar screening tools however where the informal exploration thus far has clearly identified significant indicators of a specific learning disability, it is not recommended that further informal assessment occurs. Continuing to assess across areas of difficulty can result in heightened stress and anxiety for the student that is unnecessary when there are clear indicators already highlighted. Instead it is important now to discuss with the student why a formal assessment is recommended. This discussion must include:

  • The requirement for formal assessment to enable reasonable adjustments in the learning environment that will directly respond to the specific learning profile for the student.
  • The type of psychometric tests that may be included in the full assessments (please refer to Appendix A for learning areas that will be assessed through the formal assessment).
  • Where a referral can be made in the local area and the costs of assessment.
  • Options for financial assistance (if available).
  • What requests will be made for inclusion in the assessment report i.e. recommended accommodations including relevant assistive technologies.
  • How the assessment will guide the academics, student and disability practitioner to ensure barriers to learning are eliminated or reduced as far as practicable.
  • The interim accommodations that can be put in place, pending the formal report and its recommendations.
  • Information about how other students with specific learning disabilities are managing the academic environment.
  • Information about strategies to manage the academic environment that are not implemented as reasonable adjustments – for example the Assistive Technology such as text readers and dictation software that might be already available to the student.

It is especially important to have an in depth discussion about the potential outcomes of assessment – exploring what a diagnosis (label) will mean for the student. At this point we can introduce what many students have 8revealed - that they prefer a label such as dyslexia over their previous feelings and self-labelling of being dumb or stupid. Students tell us that when they find out that they have intellectual capacity but experience difficulties in specific learning areas that can be addressed through appropriate interventions – it is empowering and life changing for them.

Discuss the answers that an assessment can provide. In doing so, it is also important to honour the student’s position. If they do not want an assessment the next step is guidance on strategies that the student can source and implement independently.

If the student agrees that a referral for assessment is the appropriate next step, the referral letter (found below) can be completed with the student. The letter is designed to provide a snap shot of the information gathered through interview.

Referral Letter (Letterhead)

Download referral letter (blank)


Summary of learning areas that are usually explored by a qualified Educational Psychologist through the formal assessment for SLD.

A brief explanation of each of the academic skills that are explored through assessment is provided below:
Both reading and writing demand knowledge of vocabulary and syntax (rules for forming sentences). Many students with SLDs in reading and writing have difficulties with sentence structure and spelling, In addition, vocabulary develops through extensive reading, so limited reading can negatively affect vocabulary. Difficulties with reading, writing, spelling and comprehension are the most common forms of Specific Learning Disability. Up to 40% of students diagnosed with dyslexia will also have difficulties with mathematical calculations and reasoning9.This difficulty occurs because the cognitive difficulties related to dyslexia are also essential mental processes required for math calculations and math reasoning i.e. processing speed, short term memory, visual perception and sequencing10. Other students may only have persistent difficulties with memorising basic number facts in all four mathematical operations (+ / x / % / -). The following skills are typically assessed when exploring for a specific learning disability.

Reading Fluency

Skilled readers can recognize a large number of words by sight and can pronounce these words accurately and automatically without hesitation. Readers who have difficulties with efficiently and automatically identifying a broad range of words tend to be slow hesitant readers. This hinders the higher order processes involved in constructing meaning from the text and understanding underlying themes and meanings. It is common for students with specific learning disabilities to have a limited vocabulary of sight words that they can recognize and read automatically.


Fluent readers embed prosodic or melodic features of spoken language – stress, pitch variations, intonation, and rate, phrasing, and pausing – in their voices. This embedding of prosody shows that the reader is trying to make sense of or comprehend the text. Expressive reading happens once a degree of automaticity is established, and expression is one way in which a reader constructs meaning while reading11.

Phonological awareness

Phonological awareness refers to the knowledge of, and ability to use sound information in processing spoken and written language (i.e. blending sounds, knowing sounds within words, breaking words into smaller units and rhyming). Phonological awareness is crucial to the development of reading and spelling skills. When learning to read children need to understand how the printed letters relate to the sounds in words. Then they can then learn to read and write using phonics principles. If children cannot hear and manipulate the sounds in spoken words then they have difficulties with spelling and with learning to decode words when reading.

Phonemic Decoding Efficiency

The ability to match speech sounds with letters or groups of letters without hesitation underpins the development of reading skills. To do this, students must be aware of the individual sounds which make up each word (phonological awareness) and the letters or letter blends which represent the sounds. Knowledge of phonics underpins the development reading and spelling skills. People with dyslexia cannot easily transform the alphabetic letters into oral language. Students with SLDs will often have significant difficulties in this area.

Single word reading

Competent readers learn to recognize words automatically and effortlessly using visual memory skills. This process increases reading fluency because it reduces the need to decode or sound out words. It also improves comprehension of passages of writing because less time and attention is taken up with decoding each word, allowing for a greater capacity to process the meaning of the material. Students with literacy based learning disabilities struggle to develop a store of words that they can read automatically. Tests of single word recognition skills where students are required to read a list of unrelated words, with no context clues, are therefore important in detecting problems in this area.

Phonological Processing

Phonological processing relates to the ability to use the sound structure of oral language to process written language (reading and writing) and oral language (listening and speaking). Phonological processing is a basic skill involved in learning to read and spell; it involves the ability to link speech sounds in oral language with a letter (e.g. /ã/ for the sound that the letter a makes in “apple”) or group of letters (e.g. “ough” for the “oo” sound in “through”).

Nonsense Word Reading

Nonsense words are words with no meaning, for example ‘hep’ ‘spoud’, ‘sheg’. The ability to read nonsense words which are not real words requires the ability to apply phonetic decoding skills, in order to sound out the nonsense words correctly; as these words cannot be read by whole word recognition. The ability to match speech sounds with letters or groups of letters without hesitation underpins the development of reading skills. To do this, students must be aware of the individual sounds that make up each word (phonological awareness) and the letters or letter blends which represent the sounds.


Phonological awareness and phonological knowledge underpin the development of age appropriate spelling skills. It is common for students with SLDs to have lower skills in one or both of these areas compared to others of a similar age, this leads to significant problems with spelling.

Rapid Naming

The ability to name letters, numbers and objects rapidly requires the rapid retrieval of phonological information from long term memory. The capacity to execute a sequence of operations quickly and repeatedly requires the ability to link a visual symbol automatically with a verbal label. This is an essential operation in reading.

Mathematical Reasoning (Specific learning disorder with impairment in mathematics - Dyscalculia)

Exploring whether the person can give numbers meaning, including size and quantity. This includes knowing simple comparisons, recognising quantity disparities by sight, processing written numbers automatically and mental computation of numbers. Typical difficulties for people experiencing dyscalculia include understanding and drawing maps, spatial design, understanding time and direction. Similar to literacy based difficulties people with dyscalculia may also experience difficulties with concentrating and attending, coordination and handwriting and organisation.

Executive Functioning

Executive functioning is the part of the brain used for planning, organising, memory, time management, multi-tasking and flexible thinking. Executive functioning also oversees the working (short term) memory and helps organise what is in the working memory at a given time, it is therefore critical for new learning. Deficits in executive functioning will impact memory and retrieval processes.



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[2] Snowling, M. (2012). Early identification and interventions for dyslexia: A contemporary view. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs. DOI: 10.1111/j.1471-3802.2012.01262.x.
[3] Mather, N. Gregg, N. (2006). Specific learning disabilities: Clarifying, not eliminating, a construct. Professional Psychology Research and Practice. Vol 37(1). Pp 99-106. DOI:10.1037/0735-7028.37.1.99.
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[7] Fry, J. (2015). Facilitating Success in Tertiary Education for Students with Specific Learning Disabilities: A Framework for success.
[8] Webber, J. (2016)
[9] Butterworth, B. (1999). The Mathematical Brain. London: MacMillan.
[10] Mitchell, A. Arkell, H. (2006). Dyslexia and Maths. Speld (SA) Spring Newsletter.
[11] Rasinski, T. (2011). Assessing Reading Fluency. Pacific Resources for Education and Learning. Retrieved from