Rapid evidence review on the causes and identification of individuals with specific learning difficulties (SpLD)


UK Government Council for Science and Technology

The Council of Science and Technology (CST) advises the Prime Minister on science and technology policy issues related to government policy.




Professor Julia Carroll

Project overview

In January 2020, Professor Julia Carroll was invited to provide a rapid evidence review on recent research on Specific Learning Difficulties for the UK government. This review is now available to read on GOV.UK.

Project objectives

The primary aims of the report are to highlight the relevance of new research for policymakers and to suggest potential avenues for future research. Professor Carroll included a series of key points for policymakers, educators and researchers. This included suggested ways in which teachers and schools could increase their understanding of, and support for, SpLDs. The report also highlighted discrepancies between the support in place for individuals at schools and colleges and at higher education. Finally, it highlighted the need for large-scale longitudinal studies of SpLDs.


It has been over a decade since the seminal government review of research evidence around dyslexia, the most common SpLD (Rose, 2009). Since then there have been significant changes in our understanding of SpLDs, both in terms of how the difficulties are defined and described and in terms of our understanding of their causes. In view of a general update and review of special educational needs support in schools, the CST felt that a series of updated evidence reviews would be useful. This report, focusing on causes and identification of SpLDs, is part of a series of four reports on different aspects of SpLDs.

The review consisted of approximately 8,000 words focusing on four related SpLDs: dyslexia (difficulties in literacy), dyscalculia (difficulties in mathematics), developmental co-ordination disorder (difficulties in movement and co-ordination) and developmental language disorder (difficulties in spoken language). The review also highlighted the high level of overlap between these disorders, and also between SpLDs and other diagnoses such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It proposed that Pennington’s (2006) multiple deficit model provides a useful explanation for these different, but related, disorders.

Professor Carroll was invited to present this report at a seminar for CST employees and Department for Education representatives in March 2020. The report was reviewed by academics and by members of the team at the Parliamentary Offices of Science and Technology, and they anticipate it will be published online in the upcoming months. The report will be used as part of a set of reports to improve provision available for individuals with SpLDs.


The 'Specific Learning Difficulties: current understanding, support systems, and technology-led interventions' rapid evidence review is now available to read on GOV.UK.

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