How To Spot Learning Difficulties

How can parents spot learning difficulties in children early on and what can they do about it? Simple tips and activities to prevent those difficulties from becoming real ones.

How can parents spot learning difficulties in children early on and what can they do about it? Simple tips and activities to prevent those difficulties from becoming real ones.

By Subha Vaidyanathan

As parents, we need to be aware of warning signs and be watchful during the early years of our child. This will enable us to spot difficulties early and provide timely help before any labels are attached. Identifying some areas where development is not satisfactory, which make the child “at risk” for having certain learning difficulties later on, is crucial. We don’t brand them as having dyslexia or dyspraxia or dysgraphia within age 7.

When we look at the development of a child, there are some crucial areas like speech, language, listening and attention, motor skills (gross and fine) and social interaction. Some questions we can ask ourselves are: Did the child cry soon after birth or was there a delay? Were the milestones achieved on time or inordinately delayed? Were some stages in motor development skipped? Is the child speaking clearly? Is his language and vocabulary age-appropriate at least in the mother tongue? Is he/she on the move all the time and has an attention span less than 5 minutes? Is he/she very clumsy?

In attaining the milestones, some children are early, some others on time and some late. Missing a stage in the motor development like crawling can have an impact too.

Let us look at some of the key areas:


Delay in the onset of speech, speech not being clear, and too much baby talk are indicators. Parents are not aware of how long to wait before seeking help. A remark from a family member “oh you took a long time to speak too!” adds on to the delay in seeking help. If onset of speech is not there by a year, latest a year and a half, help has to be sought. Also, help has to be sought if a child starts speaking but then development stops.

Action points

A referral to a speech pathologist. A home programme may also be sought. Sometimes adults repeat the mispronounced word because it sounds cute. For e.g. ‘wabbit’ for ‘rabbit’, double keder for double decker etc., which leads to the child taking longer to correct himself. Parents should refrain from doing this.

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Age-appropriate vocabulary, the ability to talk in full sentences, to understand instructions and carry them out, interest in listening to stories and looking at story books, and repeating what has just been said are the parameters to look for.

Action points

Many children are brief and answer in monosyllables or gestures. Parents can insist on the child talking in complete sentences in their mother tongue as well as English. They can stimulate and build the child’s vocabulary on trips to school or the market or the park.

Having colourful books and reading aloud helps.

Play games like “in the pond, on the bank” or “Simon says” where the child is to do an action only if the instruction starts with Simon, for e.g: Simon says pick up the pencil” only has to be followed.

A lot of children learn and improve their vocabulary through action songs.

You say a phrase and the child repeats and goes on adding to it for e.g. a cat, a fat cat, finally a fat black cat is on the wall.

A small bean bag is useful in playing vocabulary and conceptual games. “Tell me what colour goes with this?” Say ‘sky’ and throw the bean bag to the child and he says “blue”. You could also do the same with the bean bag for opposites or rhymes.

Difficulty in naming letters or words

Some children take a very long time to master the name and shape of letters, remembering the sequence etc.

Action points

Use plastic letters. Let the child feel the letters, trace it in the air. Take a cloth bag and put 5 plastic letters in. As the child picks one he feels it and says what the letter is.

Rainbow letters: Arrange the letters in order like a rainbow with some letter missing and ask the child to find it. The child sings the A-B-C song and looks at every letter and then finds the missing one.

Rapid naming of pictures that have been stuck in a book is another useful activity.


Children should be able to differentiate between similar-looking and similar-sounding letters, identify rhyming words, blending sounds etc. Many children mistake ‘b ‘for ‘d’ or ‘n’ for ‘m’ which they ultimately outgrow but for some this continues.

Action points

Say what a rhyme is, and ask them to point the odd one out in pat, cat, get, rat.

Stretch the sounds so that you say ccccccccccccaaaaaaaaaaaattttttt and the child puts the sounds together to say cat.

Also ask what do you get when /s/ is added to /at/.

Working with clay to show how a straight line and a ‘c’ can make different letters: p, b, d etc.

Spatial concepts

Kids should have a sense of direction, understand words such as left and right/above/below/front/back. Also, they should know their own left and right as well as the left and right of a person sitting across.

Action points

Sit across the table facing the child and give the following instructions: Take the pencil in your right hand and transfer it to your left hand. Raise your left hand and touch the right ear with it. Take the book in your right hand and place it in my left hand.


Many children are not ready to hold a pencil and form the letters within the lines.

Action points

Children can be made to knead atta to strengthen their hands. They can work with clay making some things. Also playing games like “pallanguzhi” helps in the three fingers involved in writing. You hold the shells and drop them in each section, bringing about good one-on-one correspondence as well.

So in small children below 7 years of age parents can identify the area that needs to be worked on and focus on those areas not letting those difficulties become real ones. Learning can be fun as these are all play way methods also enhancing parent-child bond at the same time.

*Photo credit: Jeff Turner (Used under the Creative Commons Attribution License).


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