Specific Learning Disorders: motor-training methods

Pietro Montesano, Antonio Ascione, Department of Sport Sciences and Wellness, Parthenope University, Naples, Italy.

The Specific Learning Disorders (SLD) are developmental disorders that can affect the personal identity development, thus the whole school learning process with the involvement of some specific skills referred to the intellectual functioning appropriate to the age. The educational disadvantage concerns subjects that have difficulty in acquiring reading, writing and calculation skills, which in some cases are also causes of school drop-out in higher education institutes. The use of personalized and / or individualized teaching strategies for the strengthening of motor skills can allow to reach an adequate level of educational success.


I Disturbi Specifici di Apprendimento (DSA) rappresentano un disturbo dello sviluppo che può compromettere la maturazione dell’identità personale e, di conseguenza, tutto l’apprendimento scolastico con interessamento di alcune specifiche abilità in riferimento al funzionamento intellettivo adeguato all’età anagrafica. Lo svantaggio formativo riguarda soggetti che evidenziano difficoltà di acquisizione delle abilità di lettura, scrittura e calcolo che in alcuni casi sono anche cause di abbandono scolastico negli Istituti di Istruzione Secondaria. L’utilizzo di strategie didattiche personalizzate e/o individualizzate per il potenziamento delle competenze motorie, può consentire di raggiungere un adeguato livello di successo formativo.



The evolution of the concept of disability and the subsequent revisions of its classification (ICF, 2000) occurred over the decades have helped define a clear regulatory scenario, both nationally and internationally (ICD-10, DSM-IV), for the treatment of diseases, learning disorders and special educational needs.  In this context, the specific learning disorders (SLD) are fully part of the broad definition of educational disadvantage that, until a few years ago, was considered a borderline condition for authorizing improperly the intervention of educational support at school.

This condition, mainly linked to a lack of school-disciplinary disadvantage as a consequence of a non-acquired skill, represented a flexible limit as to induce the professionals in the field to consider differently also the cases similar in the appearance. The specific learning disorders were (and still are) referred to as frequent causes of early school drop-out in higher education institutes.

The approach to the SLD issues (Giordano et al., 1987) has paid increasing attention to the problems in reading, not only with respect to the activation of decoding skills (Cornoldi, 1995) but also to the more complex ones affecting the understanding process, which involve both cognitive (Benedetti, 1990) and non-cognitive (Mariani, Sarsini, 2006) mechanisms.

Linked to the problems in reading, also important are those related to writing and calculation, but it should not be underestimated that the acquisition of such skills is influenced by the demands of the environment, since the subjects with SLD are more familiar with oral and written communication.

Learning disorders are the characteristics that make the professionals consider initially the issue as generic and not specific. The generic difficulties (in reading, writing, calculating) are considered transient unadaptation conditions, due to a lack of experience in certain activities because of poor environmental stimuli, educational failures, a heavy load of intellectual and emotional stimulations by educational agencies, and the subjects (who do not have pathological characteristics) show an incorrect development of the I-external world relationship and of the poor practical functions (body schema, orientation, perception).


1. The Specific Learning Disorders

The Specific Learning Disorders (SLD) are developmental disorders that can affect the development of personal identity and, therefore, all the learning process at school (Marcia, Fletcher, Fuchs, 2007) with the involvement of some specific skills  in reference to intellectual functioning appropriate to the age.

The SLD problems were treated, over time, in relation to other diseases by examining the IQ (Kaufman, 2009) of subjects with learning disabilities (Rodis et al., 2001), while the term disorder DSM-5 was included in the classification system SMD-5 (APA .2013), and the use of the acronym SLD (Consensus Conference, 2010) was enshrined in the Italian school system by Law n° 170/2010. This Law pays particular attention to the use of compensatory instruments and dispensatory measures, and to the use of individualized and/or personalized special didactic strategies (Trisciuzzi, 1996), since the educational success of subjects with SLD is its main objective.

The compensatory, didactic and technological tools must facilitate, or in some cases replace, the deficit school performance. Vocal synthesis, recorder, video programs with spell checker, calculator, concept maps represent effective examples of compensatory instruments.

The dispensatory measures, short or long readings to carry out a test (classroom or structured test), are taken to avoid the subject with SLD further performance frustrations.

The individualized and personalized didactics strategies concern the objectives and application flexibility according to the characteristics of every subject.

The individualized training action poses common objectives for all the members of the group class, but is conceived by adapting methodologies depending on the learners’ individual characteristics, with the aim to ensure the achievement of key competencies of the curriculum, and thus by paying attention to individual differences in relation to a plurality of dimensions.

The personalized training action (Dunn, 1979) has, in addition, the aim to give every student the opportunity to develop his potentialities, hence it can be articulated with different goals for every learner, being it closely linked to the specific and unique personality of the student to whom we address them.

The synergy between individualized and personalized didactics determines, for the normal student and the student with SLD, the most favorable conditions for achieving the learning objectives (Hill, 2000).

1.1 Dyslexia

Dyslexia (Handler et al., 2011) is a disorder that is manifested in learning to read despite adequate education, in the absence of sensory, neurological and intellectual deficits and with adequate socio-cultural conditions; it is a clinical syndrome which hinders the normal process of interpreting graphic symbols (Stella, 2004). If not recognized, it may become cause of frustrations and severe psychological disorders. Thus dyslexia is a selective disorder manifested by difficulties in learning to read in the usual way, beyond any sectoral lack or dysfunction with which difficulties in spelling are associated.

Subjects with dyslexia (Stella, 2004)  make confusion between graphemes similar phonetically (e, en) or according to the form (q – p, b-d), invert syllables or groups of letters (ar, ra), make omission (ter, te), additions and replacements. It also involves a difficulty in managing breaks and rhythms in processing sentences, with difficulties in fully learning a written information.

These are disorders that have evolutionary character, for which classroom difficulties (that increase with the age of the child, the school needs and the reading skills)  become global in the absence of a treatment.

Dyslexia is considered a complex disorder, and complex (and also very different) are the causes to which it is referred. In addition to a language delay, dyslexia is often associated with a set of changes in the lateralization and space-time organization; it can be due to several factors: genetics, neonatal, perceptive and particularly visual factors, mental and emotional balance alteration, and socio-cultural deprivation.

In this regard, it is important to give the right value to any anticipatory signals, which can be identified since the kindergarten, avoiding confusing them as a simple slowing in the regular development process.

1.2 Dysgraphia and dysorthography 

The specific writing disorder is called dysgraphia or dysorthography, according to the dimension it affects (handwriting or spelling). Dysgraphia refers to the control of graphic and formal aspects of the handwriting, and is connected to the motor-executive time of performance. In dysgraphia, there are errors similar to those found in the reading: confusions, omissions inversions, difficulties in transcribing similar sounds, confusion of gender, number, coarse syntactic errors, and therefore difficulties in reproducing both alphabetic and numerical signs (Pratelli, 1995)

Dysorthography concerns the improper use of the linguistic code made when writing and, in particular, it can be defined as a written text encoding disorder, due to an operating deficit of the central components of the writing process, responsible for the transcoding of the oral language in the written language.

Dysgraphia is characterized by poor quality of the graphic aspect of writing, dysorthography is at the origins of a lower accuracy in the written text; both are assessed in relation to the student’s age.

1.3 Dyscalculia

Dyscalculia (Lucangeli, Janes, Mammarella, 2010) is a disorder that concerns the calculation ability, and is perceived generally as a specific difficulty in learning mathematics, or more exactly, in arithmetics, in relation to the processing of basic calculations such as addition, subtraction, and the execution of mental calculations.

This disorder makes it difficult to immediately recognize small amounts, explicate the mechanisms of quantification, seriation, comparison, the amount of composition and decomposition strategies, the calculation strategies in mind, the reading, the writing and the putting numbers in column.

Starting from early childhood, and progressively during  school age , it is necessary to pay attention to the difficulties in calculating (Butterworth, Yeo, 2011), recognizing the numeric symbols, and associating the number with the word (such as the number 8 to the word “eight”) . It is also important to evaluate the difficulty in remembering numbers, especially in the right order, that to sort items by size, shape or color. The subject with SLD often avoids games where the use of numbers, counting and other mathematical concepts are required. Further disturbances signals to be investigated and treated can be the use of fingers to count, instead of more sophisticated mental strategies, poor sense of direction and the difficulty in distinguishing left from right and in remembering phone numbers and scores in a game.


2. The operational steps for the treatment of SLD

Recognizing a SLD in a subject should occur quite early: the disorder should not be underestimated and should be treated early, which could result in an established pathological situation. The educational agencies, mainly family and school, must pay attention to the auxological stages and the behavioral and performance demonstrations of children, youths and adolescents. There are frequent cases of subjects in evolutionary age (Giordano et al., 1989) who attend the 1st and 2nd Grade Secondary Education Institutes showing unidentified disorders, and therefore are not treated at school because the problem, over time, has been addressed by delegating external specialists and not by valuing the internal resources in school institutions.

The evolutionary stages, starting with the attendance in kindergartens, should pursue a fair and harmonious development of the child by paying attention not to anticipate the reading-writing teaching and formal learning stages (Boscolo, 1997). In this sense, the clinical indications, according to which the diagnosis of the SLD can be made with certainty at the end of the second grade of primary school, are perfectly in line. Therefore, the learning disorder is present in the early years of schooling but its resolution and treatment should also be based on methods suitable to the students’ conditions, considering the training needs in relation to inclusion (Montesano, Peluso Cassese, Tafuri, 2016 ). If the identification is not made in adequate time, the young guy/ teenager will always find increasing difficulties in secondary school, which requires a growing mastery of instrumental skills (reading, writing and calculation) and the adoption of an effective method of study,  denoting unmotivated and renunciation attitudes.

Law n° 170/2010 established that the Class Council can and should develop a working tool, the Personalized Didactic Plan (tab. 1), drawn up based on the documentation submitted by the family, the information obtained through the observation and assessment of the educational benefits for the student.

The PDP is a contract between families, schools and socio-health institutions, developed to organize a specific training program in which mainly compensatory and dispensatory measures that help the realization of the academic success of students with learning difficulties are defined. For each discipline, the most efficient compensatory and dispensatory tools must be identified to allow the student to achieve the objectives just like his classmates, and not only by making use of traditional tools, but also of those computer and telematic ones.

The school training programs, drawn up by considering also the indications of the empowerment extra-school programs, must include writing, reading and calculation skills acquisition and strengthening exercises through the use of strategies that facilitate learning. The PDP must represent a working tool that connects extracurricular actions performed by other formative/empowerment figures, such as tutors.

Clinical documentation issued by the relevant health authorities, in addition to the specific indications of the disorder found, can provide information in relation to associated disorders and the recommended therapeutic pathways (speech therapy, psychotherapy).


3. The motor-training methods

Individuals with specific learning disorders often develop clumsy, uncoordinated behaviors inconsistent with an adequate spatial dimension. The slow,  uneconomical movements are often followed by deficiencies in the development of coordination and laterality, some of the many causes included the difficulties in reading and writing. The characteristics of these activities require the acquisition of the concepts of sequence, duration, pace, as well as a correct perception and evaluation of space and time, and an efficient eye-hand coordination. So there is a clear correlation between the difficulties in reading/writing and a correct motor development. Motor activity is an effective development and adaptation tool (Piaget, 1971) possessed by the individual who acquires the sensory and motor patterns of behavior evolving in coordination skills (Magni, 2009), which is a subject’s neurophysiological function allowing him to finalize and ration, in terms of direction and intensity, the motor gesture. Therefore, the individual’s psychophysical development is realized through a series of stages that are closely related to each other, aimed at an optimal structuring of the body schema, meant as the knowledge of their body parts and those of the others, their functions and position. These developmental phases or stages are characterized by fundamental motor and mental-sensory goals.  Goals that, from the subject’s birth, result in the elevation and orientation of the head, in the ability to crawl, go on all fours, stand up, walk, in the sensory perception of space and reality, in the attitude to establish emotional relationships with the surrounding environment until refining and enhancing these acquisitions and reaching adulthood. The knowledge of the body schema and the relationships with the environment, the correct acquisition of the posture, the awareness of one’s own image projected in an adequate perceived spatial dimension, the numerous stimulus situations, are essential prerequisites for an effective psychomotor development. Considering that the learners’ age coincides with puberty, activities centered mainly on individual and team motor games (Colina, 2015) will involve:


Tone and relaxation


Knowing one’s own body and the structuring/restructuring of the body schema

Time/space structuring and restructuring (knowledge, orientation, perception etc.)

Global motor skills (balance and coordination)

Fine motor skills


Joint mobility

General coordination

Specific coordination

Conditional skills: endurance-strength-speed

Individual and team games



The pedagogical principle according to which all individuals have the same rights, in particular that to be educated, but all have some specific characteristics that determine  diversified learning times and modalities, is perfectly adapted to the challenges of subjects with SLD. In fact, the specific learning disorders represent a phenomenon that is often underestimated but, if early identified and treated, will be more easly solved, or at least, properly managed. The warning signs of a disorder must be identified in the early years of life, and the kindergarten and the first years of primary school are crucial to monitor the proper physical and mental development and the implementation of appropriate learning mechanisms that are, by nature, complex and influenced by many variables. The motor-sports field is particularly suitable for pursuing the objective of educational success, from the standpoint of motor habilitation with educational verifiable effects on other disciplines. The acquisition of skills related to body and motor schemas and coordination skills must be a key component to plan diversified educational programs for students with SLD, by using individualized and/or personalized teaching strategies.

The aids proposed by Law 170/2010, indicated in compensatory and dispensatory tools and measures, have also strengthened the possibility to provide an efficient educational service to students with specific learning disorders, in order to achieve educational-training objectives tailored to the learners’ abilities and in line with those included in the National Guidelines aiming at the principles of inclusion.




APA (2013), DSM-5 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, American Psychiatric Association. 15 maggio 2013

Benedetti P. (1990), Neurologia dell’età evolutiva, Il Pensiero Scientifico : Roma

Boscolo P. (1997), Psicologia dell’apprendimento scolastico, UTET : Torino

Butterworth B., Yeo D. (2011), Didattica per la discalculia. Attività pratiche per gli alunni con DSA in matematica, Erikson : Trento

Consensus Conference (2010), Disturbi specifici dell’apprendimento, Roma 6-7 dicembre

Colina D. (2015), 150 giochi in movimento. Potenziare i prerequisiti motorio-prassici per l’apprendimento, Erikson : Trento

Cornoldi C. (1995), La promozione delle abilità di decodifica in ragazzi dai 9 ai 14 anni con problemi di lettura , in Friso G., Molin A., Poli S., Difficoltà di lettura nella scuola media, Erikson: Trento

Dunn R. e K. (1979), Programmazione individualizzata, Armando : Roma

Giordano G., Vertucci P., Militerni G., Ferraro R. (1989), Neuropsichiatria dell’età evolutiva, Idelson-Gnocchi: Napoli

Handler SM, et al. (2011), Learning disabilities, dyslexia, and vision,  Pediatrics. 127 (3): 818–56.

Hill W.F. (2000), L’apprendimento, Zanichelli : Bologna

Kaufman A.S. (2009), IQ Testing 101, Springer Pubblishing : New York (NY)

Kirk, S. A. (1962), Educating exceptional children, Houghton Mifflin : Boston

Lucangeli D, Janes D., Mammarella I.C. (2010), La Discalculia e altre difficoltà in matematica, Erikson : Trento

Magni A. (2009). L’ottimizzazione delle capacità coordinative nei tempi d’intervento. Perugia : Calzetti e Mariucci.

Marcia A. B., Fletcher  J., Fuchs L. (2007), Learning Disabilities: From Identification to Intervention, The Guilford Press : New York

Mariani A., Sarsini D. (a cura di) (2006), Sulla metacognizione. Itinerari formativi nella scuola, Clueb: Bologna

MIUR (2011)- Linee guida per il diritto allo studio degli alunni e degli studenti con disturbi specifici di apprendimento – Allegato al Decreto Ministeriale 12 luglio 2011

Montesano P., Peluso Cassese F., Tafuri D. (2016), Analisi di una proposta inclusiva per soggetti BES attraverso la pratica sportiva di squadra, Giornale Italiano della Ricerca Educativa, anno IX – numero 17 – pp. 183-190

Organizzazione Mondiale della sanità, ICF (2002) – Classificazione Internazionale del Funzionamento, delle Disabilità e della Salute, Erikson : Trento

Piaget J. (1971), Psicologia ed epistemologia: per una teoria della conoscenza, Loescher : Torino
Pratella M. (1995), Disgrafia e recupero delle difficoltà grafo-motorie, Erikson : Trento

Rodis P., Garrod A., & Boscardin M. L. (Eds.). (2001), Learning Disabilities & Life Stories,  Allan & Bacon : Boston (USA)

Stella G. (2004), La dislessia, Il Mulino : Bologna

Trisciuzzi L. (1996), Manuale di Pedagogia speciale, Laterza : Bari


Leggi l’articolo su Scienze e Ricerche: Pietro Montesano, Antonio Ascione, Specific Learning Disorders: motortraining methods, in Scienze e Ricerche n. 47, aprile 2017, pp. 17-21