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Struggling to Learn

Home » Understanding and Recognizing »

Reading Disabilities


Why Reading Matters

"The moment our eyes fall on a passage of text, a complex set of physical, neurological and cognitive processes is set in motion, enabling us to convert print into meaning."

Of all the skills children learn, reading is arguably the most important. It is a means of gaining knowledge about many different subjects and of understanding the world. Today, especially in the developed world, it is considered a fundamental skill required for success. Unfortunately, for many children with reading disabilities, learning to read is one of the most arduous and frustrating activities they will ever face. All too often, the barriers they face outweigh their desire to read and, without proper guidance, they never overcome them.

Learning to read is a sequential process; each new skill builds on the mastery of previously learned skills. Early on, for example, children learn to break down words into their most basic sounds in a process called decoding. Later, they begin to comprehend the meaning of words, sentences and, ultimately, entire passages of text.

Decoding creates the foundation on which all other reading skills are built. For many, decoding comes naturally, quickly becoming an automatic process. For people who struggle to decode words, however, the process requires such extreme concentration that they often miss much of the meaning in what they read. Indeed, according to many experts, decoding problems are at the root of most reading disabilities.

The following medical and educational facts emphasize the importance of recognizing and addressing a reading problem early on, when a child still has the opportunity to maximize the development of fundamental skills like decoding, and further underscore the importance of early intervention:

  • Roughly 85% of children diagnosed with learning difficulties have a primary problem with reading and related language skills.
  • Most reading disabilities are neurodevelopmental in nature.
  • Neurodevelopmental problems don't go away, but they can be managed.
  • Most children with reading disabilities can become proficient readers and can learn strategies for success in school.
  • When a child's reading disability is identified early, that child is more likely to learn strategies that will raise his or her reading to grade level.

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Easier Said Than Done

The process of reading, which most proficient readers take for granted, is anything but simple. The moment our eyes fall on a passage of text, a complex set of physical, neurological, and cognitive processes is set in motion, enabling us to convert print into meaning: As the eyes track across the page in a smooth, coordinated movement, nerve impulses from each retina simultaneously stimulate an area near the back of the brain that allows us to distinguish the light and dark areas on a page. A region of the brain farther forward converts the letters and words our eyes see into abstract representations of sounds and translates those representations into language. Finally, another part of the brain converts the collection of words in any given sentence into meaningful ideas.


At the most basic level, readers recognize that letters represent the sounds of spoken words. As children master each letter of the alphabet, they map these letters to the sounds they represent, a process that enables them to begin to decipher whole words. By breaking up words into their component sounds, called phonemes, and sequencing the individual phonemes in their proper order, children can sound out words. For example, the word "bag" is made up of three phonemes, "buh," "aah," and "guh." Children who decode easily hear these three sounds, not because the ear hears them that way — the ear hears one pulse of sound — but because the brain automatically separates them. With time and practice, decoding becomes automatic for the normally progressing reader.


The chief objective of reading is to gain understanding. This ultimately depends on one's ability to decode and then master "sight words," the words that can be recognized immediately without having to sound them out. When word recognition is automatic, readers are better able to concentrate on the meaning of whole sentences and paragraphs. This allows them to distinguish between the main points of a passage and ideas that can be overlooked, and to connect what they read to related pieces of information elsewhere in the passage.


The last, and arguably most important, objective in reading is retaining, or remembering, what we read. Doing so relies heavily on the other two skills — decoding and comprehension — and is further aided by a reader's ability to organize and summarize the content of what they read and connect it to what they already know. Reading retention enables students to keep information in their long-term memories and to call upon and apply it in the future.

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Signs of Struggle

Although reading presents challenges for nearly every child, those with reading disabilities struggle inordinately — and, until recently, inexplicably. Reading and other learning problems that used to be attributed to laziness, experts now agree, often have causes that no amount of hard work can completely overcome.

As with most learning disabilities, the exact cause of reading disabilities is unknown. However, recent studies suggest that structural and/or functional brain problems may cause people with reading disorders to identify and sequence phonemes less efficiently and to have a harder time making associations within the context of what they read than do normally progressing readers. This neurobiological difference, if it exists, suggests the potential for future medical treatments for reading disabilities. In the meantime, most experts agree that the best course of action is early recognition of problems, followed by sound strategies to help struggling readers.

Helping a child who is struggling with reading begins with recognizing signs of struggle. The following are some of the most common signs indicating a problem in one of the three main developmental areas of reading:

Decoding Difficulties

Dyslexia is one of the most common reading disabilities, affecting as many as 15 percent of all Americans. Contrary to a common misconception, dyslexia is not characterized by letter or word reversal but by a simple inability to decode, or break down, words into phonemes. Reading requires the ability to map the phonemes we hear to letters on a page, and vice versa, making this a painstaking process for someone with dyslexia.

Signs of a decoding problem, or dyslexia, include:

  • consistent difficulty sounding out words and recognizing words out of context
  • confusion between letters and the sounds they represent
  • slow reading rate when reading aloud (reading word-by-word)
  • reading without expression
  • ignoring punctuation while reading

Comprehension Difficulties

Comprehension relies on a mastery of decoding. Children who struggle to decode find it difficult to understand and remember what has been read. Because their efforts to grasp individual words are so exhausting, they have very little mental energy left for understanding.

Signs of a problem with comprehension include:

  • confusion about the meaning of words and sentences
  • inability to connect ideas in a passage
  • omission of, or glossing over, detail
  • difficulty distinguishing significant information from minor details
  • lack of concentration during reading

Retention Difficulties

Children are commonly asked to read passages and to answer questions, verbally or in writing, based on what they've read. This requires the ability to retain, which relies heavily on a child's decoding proficiency and ability to comprehend what is read. As students progress through grade levels, they are expected to retain more and more of what they read — from third grade on, reading to learn is central to classroom work and, by high school, it is an essential task.

Signs of retention difficulty:

  • trouble remembering or summarizing what is read
  • difficulty connecting what is read to prior knowledge
  • difficulty applying content of a text to personal experiences
  • inability to view content from multiple perspectives

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