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Learning Difficulties in Children: Dyslexia and Auditory Processing Disorder

Updated: Jul 19, 2020

A neurologically based condition which poses as a life-long challenge, “learning difficulties” is a term that is used to describe a range of specific challenges in learning such as Dyslexia, Auditory Processing Disorder and Dyscalculia.

Learning difficulties are also known as “hidden disabilities” as the individuals have above average intelligence but may be under-achieving in school and/or the workforce.

Learning difficulties can interfere with a person’s grasp of basic skills such as reading, writing and spelling, and may also impact higher-order learning skills such as organisation and planning, reasoning and attention. However, with early intervention and adequate support, individuals with learning difficulties can achieve progress and success in daily living, learning in school, as well as relationships with peers.

In this article, we will explore the following forms of learning difficulties: dyslexia and auditory processing disorder.


Commonly known as a “reading disorder”, dyslexia can affect reading fluency, decoding, reading comprehension, recall, writing, spelling, reversals in letters and/or numbers, poorer working memory and rapid visual-verbal responses, and sometimes speech. It can exist along with other related disorders such as Dysgraphia (a condition that affects one’s ability to write coherently) and Dyspraxia (a developmental disorder of the brain in childhood which poses challenges in activities requiring coordination and movement).

Dyslexia is usually first noticed in preschool when the child is not reading, writing and spelling at an age-appropriate level. Here are some signs and symptoms of dyslexia to look out for:

  • Confuses letters that look alike (e.g. b/d, p/q, m/w)

  • May reverse letter sequences, e.g. “was” for “saw”, “on” for “no”

  • Difficulties in mapping letter to letter sounds, and vice versa

  • May reverse numbers (e.g. 81 and 18)

  • May be confused by similar looking mathematical signs (e.g. + and -)

  • Reading effortfully and hesitantly, often below age level

  • Poor recognition for high frequency and/ or common words

  • Mixes upper- and lower-case letters in writing

  • Misreads similar looking words (e.g. “from” vs “form”)

  • Loses placing when reading (e.g. skipping a word or row)

  • Spelling below age level

  • Poorer standard of written work compared to oral ability

  • Difficulty with sequencing, organising information and multiple step instructions

  • Word retrieval recall (i.e. tip of the tongue type of experience)

  • Difficulties with abstract concepts (e.g. time, money)

  • Poor working memory (e.g. cannot recognise the same word at the top and bottom of the page – when it shows up again)

  • May have difficulty with math computations and problem sums

  • May have difficulty with handwriting

Auditory Processing Disorder

Auditory processing disorder is also known as Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD) and is defined as “what we do with what we hear”. Individuals with this condition usually have difficulties recognising and interpreting sounds, such as decoding speech in noisy environments.

While often difficult to detect and diagnose, CAPD is usually diagnosed after the child turns 7. It is usually identified in primary school children (often in upper primary) via the following signs and symptoms:

  • Trouble paying attention to and remembering information presented orally, and may cope better with visually acquired information

  • Easily distracted with background noise (e.g. television, noisy food court)

  • Hypersensitive to sounds (e.g. vacuum cleaner, blender, etc.)

  • Difficulties forming speech sounds into meaningful words

  • Easily confuses similar sounding words (e.g. “cat” and “bat”)

  • Problems carrying out multi-step instructions given orally – only able to follow one-step instruction at a time

  • Difficulty in remembering names

  • Need more time to process information

  • Often saying “what” or requiring a repeat of information

  • Shorter attention span

  • Difficulties sustaining attention during storytelling in a group

  • Language difficulties (e.g. they confuse syllable sequences and have problems developing vocabulary and understanding language)

  • Difficulty with reading, comprehension, spelling, and vocabulary

  • Poorer listening and oral conversational skills

Who can diagnose learning disabilities in children and what are the tests that they need to go through?

Typically, a clinical or educational psychologist can diagnose learning disabilities in children. The common tests carried out for this purpose include:

  • Intelligence and achievement tests (i.e. The Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children and Differential Ability Scales)

  • Working memory tests (i.e. The Digit Span and Spatial Span subtests of the Wechsler Intelligence Test for Children)

  • Tests for motor and processing Skills (i.e. Beery-Buktenica Developmental Test of Visual Motor Integration)

What can parents do to help their children excel in school despite their learning difficulties?

With the right support and guidance, children with learning difficulties can certainly do well at school. However, it is important for parents to understand that their progress may be slower and that setting progressive goals for gradual improvements can help their child achieve success and stay motivated in their learning.

Here are some things that parents can do to help their child in the learning journey:

Be aware of the areas of difficulty

Understand the areas of difficulty that the child experiences and how it affects their learning in the classroom setting. Speak with the child’s teachers or other professionals working with the child or explore resources to gain an understanding on what contributes to the difficulties observed.

Know their learning style

Every child has their own strengths and methods by which they learn best. You can provide an environment for optional learning for your child by adapting learning tasks in ways that are interesting and motivating for them.

For example, if your child faces difficulty with math skills, counters can be used to strengthen their understanding of the math concepts as this provides additional visualisation and hands-on learning.

Seek help from professionals and teachers

Depending on your child’s learning needs, he/she may need help with specific components of learning and rote practising alone may not effective. Coaching sessions with trained professionals such as a speech therapist or educational therapist may be beneficial in addressing the underlying causes.

On top of that, you can also support your child’s learning at school by communicating and collaborating closely with his/her teachers to share and gain feedback on his/her progress. It is also possible to request necessary accommodations to be made as long as it is within the limits of the standard classroom environment. These arrangements need to be reviewed regularly to ensure that the correct level of challenge is provided for your child.

Don’t leave out play and physical time

Children with learning differences often spend more time on their academics due to the additional coaching and practice required. However, opportunities for physical play and time for participation in other activities of interest are also important in enabling the child to stay motivated and persist with challenging academic tasks.

Whenever possible, involve your child in planning their study schedule, with non-academic tasks scheduled as breaks or rewards. If your child has difficulty with sustaining attention, allow for quick movement breaks during study time. Timers can also be utilised to help them to keep track of time.

Make things manageable and praise often

You can boost your child’s confidence levels by breaking down the tasks into more manageable steps and celebrating small successes. Along the way, do encourage your child and acknowledge his/her efforts by giving specific praises (e.g. “You did very well with your homework today”).

Where can parents whose children are facing learning difficulties turn to for support?

There are various channels that are based both locally in Singapore and overseas to which parents with children who are facing learning difficulties can turn to for support.

Here are some notable channels to check out:

For parents whose children are diagnosed with dyslexia

Dyslexia Association of Singapore website and Facebook Group

For parents whose children are diagnosed with ADHD

Society for the Promotion of ADHD Research and Knowledge (SPARK) website

General caregiver support for children with special needs

SG Enable website

Recommended reading for parents whose children are facing learning difficulties

Learning Disabilities Association of America website

Article contributed by the MindChamps Allied Care Team.

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