Terms to Describe Learning Difficulties

One of the biggest challenges to tackle when you or your child have been diagnosed with a Learning Disability (referred to as Specific Learning Disorder with the DSM-5 Assessment) is to understand the terms that people in the education and psychology fields use to describe different Learning Disabilities and the terms for supporting or treating the LD.

We have grouped many of the terms here according to patterns of learning difficulties.

Accurate Word Reading & Fluency

Accurate Word Reading, also known as Word Recognition or Decoding. If you are weak in this area it means that you struggle to associate the letters (graphemes) within a word with their sounds (phonemes) and to blend those sounds together to read the word accurately.

Fluency means you can read at a good pace and with expression. People who struggle with accurate word reading also have a hard time reading fluently, particularly if the material you are reading (text) is quite hard for you to read accurately.
If you have to work hard to read the words accurately and at a steady pace, then that might distract you from being able to focus on comprehending (understanding) what you are reading. That is why assistive technology, like ‘text to speech’ is a really helpful tool for people who struggle with word reading (decoding).

Dyslexia: Dyslexia is a well-known term used to describe a reading disorder characterized by deficits in accurate and fluent word recognition. Spelling accuracy is impaired as well. The term, dyslexia, is not commonly used by psychologists as an official diagnosis when assessing for an LD. However, dyslexia is a term widely known, particularly by organizations, educators, and parents (i.e.organizations like International Dyslexia Associations and Decoding Dyslexia).

Learning Disabilities Association of Canada (LDAC) may identify these challenges as an impairment in phonological processing.

Phonological Processing is the ability to identify the different sounds that make words and to associate and manipulate these sounds within words we speak and write (sound blending, segmenting, playing with sounds, rhyming).

Phonemic Awareness Skills:
-blend the individual sounds into a word (reading/decoding)
-segment – break a word into syllables or individual sounds (spelling/encoding),
-manipulate or change the sounds within a word. Example: Change ‘cat’ to ‘sat’.

Phonological processing, including the more specific phonemic awareness skills, is a foundational skill needed for learning to read words accurately.

The DSM-5 Assessment tool describes this type of Learning Disability as: Specific Learning Disorder (SLD) in Reading; word reading accuracy, reading rate/fluency.


If comprehending (understanding) what you read or hear is what you struggle with, it may be because you have weaker language processing skills.

Language Processing: LDAC defines Language Processing skills as the understanding and expression of oral and written language; includes vocabulary, word structure, sentence structure, and meaning across sentences.

Language Learning Disability: LDAC defines a language learning disability as a disorder that may affect the comprehension and use of spoken or written language as well as nonverbal language, such as eye contact and tone of  speech, in both adults and children.

Vocabulary can be described as oral vocabulary or reading vocabulary. Oral vocabulary refers to words that we use in speaking or recognize in listening. Vocabulary also is very important to reading comprehension. Readers cannot understand what they are reading without knowing what most of the words mean.

Specific Learning Disorder (SLD) in Reading – Comprehension (DSM-5). DSM-5 does not focus on the underlying processing skills that may be causing you problems, but instead the criteria is if you struggle academically with reading, in the area of Comprehension.

Spelling and Writing Difficulties

Spelling is also hard for someone who struggles with reading words accurately because you have to do the reverse process: 1) orally break the word into its individual sounds (segment), 2) identify and remember which letters represent those sounds, 3) and then say or write them down in correct order.

Dyslexia: People who are identified as being ‘dyslexic’ will struggle with spelling, along with accurate word reading and fluency.

LDAC definition: Processing impairments related to spelling and writing:

Spelling requires the ability to encode the sounds of a word into their appropriate print symbols. “When students are given strong spelling instruction focused on the orthography of English and learn to spell well, it positively impacts their ability to read (Ehri, 2000)

Orthographic Mapping is the encoding process in the brain that maps sounds to letters, turning unfamiliar printed words into instantly recognizable sight words.

Writing – Language Processing is the understanding and expression of oral and written language; includes vocabulary, word structure, sentence structure and meaning across sentences.

DSM-5 definition. SLD with impairment in writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation, clarity or organization of written expression)

Math Difficulties

DSM-5: Specific Learning Disorder (SLD) with impairment in Math:
-Number sense
-Memorization of arithmetic facts
-Accurate or fluent calculation
-Accurate math reasoning

Dyscalculia is a common term for a math disability characterized by poor number sense and arithmetic calculation.

Dyscalculia is a specifier of a Specific Learning Disorder (SLD) in Math in the DSM-5 definition.

LDAC Definition – Processing Impairments

The Learning Disabilities Association of Canada (LDAC) has identified specific processing challenges:  Learning Disabilities result from impairments in one or more processes related to perceiving, thinking, remembering or learning.

These include, but are not limited to:

Language Processing​: is the understanding and expression of oral and written language; includes vocabulary, word structure, sentence structure, and meaning across sentences.

Phonological Processing: is the ability to identify the different sounds that make words and to associate and manipulate these sounds within words we speak and write.

Visual Processing: is the ability to make sense of information taken in through the eyes. Difficulties with visual processing affect how visual information is interpreted, or processed by the brain.

Processing Speed: refers to the pace at which you are able to perceive information (visual or auditory), make sense of that information, and then respond.

Memory and Attention: Short-term memory is the process by which you hold on to information as long as you are concentrating on it.
-Long-term memory refers to the process by which you store information that you have repeated often enough.
-Attention: is the ability to sustain attention to a task

Executive Function is needed for planning, organization, strategizing, attention to details and managing time and space.

Fine & Gross Motor Difficulties

Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD) is a lifelong condition that makes it hard to learn motor skills and coordination. It’s not a learning disorder, but it can impact learning. Kids with DCD struggle with physical tasks and activities they need to do both in and out of school.

Dysgraphia is having difficulty with the physical act of writing.

More recently, DCD has become the more recognized term used to describe challenges with motor skills and coordination, such as difficulty with the physical act of writing. Occupational Therapists (OTs) may work with a person struggling with dysgraphia or DCD  to improve motor skills.

Nonverbal Learning Disability (NVLD)

Nonverbal Learning Disability (NVLD) describes a well-defined profile that includes strengths in verbal abilities contrasted with deficits in visual-spatial abilities. Individuals with NVLD often have trouble with some of the following: organization, attention, executive functioning, nonverbal communication, and motor skills.



LDAC Official Definition

DSM-5 Definition of Specific Learning Disorder


LD Online

LD Association of America (LDAA) 

Book: Multisensory Teaching of Basic Language Skills. By Judith Birsh & Suzanne Carreker