Reading Disabilities Explained

Whether it be through doctors, charts, blogs or magazine articles, first-time parents are told of the milestones their children should be reaching and when they should be reaching them.  Although there are developmental milestones, once your child enters into elementary school there are academic milestones. It is often unclear whether your child is in fact on track with others in the same grade.  If your child is below average and struggling with reading skills, it is common to ask yourself if your child is simply just not grasping a concept or if it is in fact a specific learning disability (SLD) in reading.

Literacy development encompasses a number of skills required to be able to read. These skills include recognizing letters, calling on experiences and language skills. Many children with speech and language disorders should be carefully monitored as they are at increased risk for experiencing reading challenges.  It is important to identify children at risk for reading difficulties at an early age.  This is due to the fact that literacy skills take years to build up and for a reading impaired child it takes even longer.  The brain is a muscle and the sooner your child’s brain starts to train in the specific way they need, the sooner they will remember how to use these skills on a regular basis and become better readers. 

There are several different types of deficits and reading disabilities. I wanted to touch upon each in order for you to understand where your child may possibly fall.  Labels for reading disorders include dyslexia, reading disability, specific reading disorder, and specific reading comprehension deficit.  For purposes of this post, “reading impaired” children shall be those who score below the 30th percentile in basic reading skills.  Although the different types of reading deficits are listed separately, individuals can experience deficits in multiple areas. When children have deficits in both phonological and orthographic processing, it is known as the dual-deficit model.  These children typically take longer in their reading intervention process.

Accuracy/Phonological Deficit

About 70-80 percent of children with a reading disability have trouble with accurate and fluent word recognition and poor spelling and decoding abilities.  These difficulties cannot be explained by general developmental skills or lack of instruction. In other words, a child’s reading skills are poorer than expected and, despite having had proper instruction in reading, the child still has a difficult time reading compared to their achievements in other subjects. 

More often than not, trouble with word recognition is due to a weakness in phonological processing. Reading accuracy, or phonological processing, deficits tend to arise when a child struggles to break down the sounds of spoken language or “sound out” words (also called decoding). These children find it incredibly challenging to spell, match sounds with written symbols, sound out words and understand written words.  The term dyslexic applies mainly to this group. 

One can detect deficits in phonological awareness during early childhood because to have phonological awareness, you must have the pre-requisite skills in phonemic awareness.  Phonemic awareness is the foundation of phonological awareness.  It is the understanding and ability to process individual speech sounds, so that they can be broken down (segmented), blended together (decoded) and rearranged or substituted (manipulated). Children who struggle with phonemic awareness should receive extra supports for these skills as early as possible.

Fluency/Speed/Orthographic Deficit

Most studies of word reading focus on accuracy, not speed.  But speed can be a reading disability on its own.  10-15 percent of children with a reading disability appear to have accurate word recognition but are extremely slow in recognizing words and automatic recall of word spelling.  This group has difficulties with the visual print structure of the language and regularly struggle with letter reversals such as b/d/p/q.  These children are often unable to look at letters and quickly recognize what that letter (or letter group) is in order to pair a sound. Letter groups such as t, th, tch, or tion can frequently confuse children with an orthographic deficit.  Once a child is able to recognize letters, the next challenge for these children is processing words quickly enough to complete the literacy process with speed and accuracy. The term dyslexic sometimes applies to this group as well.

These children have trouble developing automatic recognition of words by sight and tend to spell phonetically but not accurately. In spite of these weaknesses however, children with an orthographic deficit have relative strengths in phonological processing and phoneme awareness. The nature of a deficit in the speed of word recognition is still being debated by reading scientists. Some argue that the problem is primarily one of timing or processing speed, and others propose that there is a specific deficit within the orthographic processor that affects the storage and recall of exact letter sequences.

Comprehension Deficit

Another 10-15 percent of children with a reading disability are able to decode words better than they can comprehend the meaning of those words. One can distinguish these children from dyslexic readers because they can read words accurately and quickly and they can spell. This type of reading deficit is caused by disorders of social reasoning, abstract verbal reasoning, or language comprehension.  Children who struggle with reading comprehension may have difficulty with word meanings, tying information together, making inferences and remembering what they have read.  Deficits in comprehension often coincide with the phonological deficits and fluency, but specifically are found in children with social-linguistic disabilities (e.g., autism spectrum), vocabulary and/or working memory weaknesses, generalized language learning disorders, and learning difficulties that affect abstract reasoning and logical thinking.

It is extremely common for children with a reading disability to also experience related and coexisting disabilities including but not limited to:

  1. faulty pencil grip and letter formation;
  2. attention problems/ADHD;
  3. distractibility;
  4. anxiety;
  5. task avoidance;
  6. weak impulse control;
  7. problems with comprehension of spoken language; and
  8. confusion of mathematical signs and computation processes.

Remember that early, intensive instruction in language and different aspects of reading is the best way to improve reading skills. The most appropriate treatment strategy depends on the needs of the individual.  With early intervention, children with these disorders can overcome specific problems, learn to read, and improve fluency and comprehension with proper instruction.