What are Reading Disorders?

Kerrie Main

Typically characterized by the impairment of reading speed, accuracy and comprehension, reading disorders can affect any age and any demographic. When a person has a reading disorder, he or she typically cannot perform reading tasks equivalent to his or her intelligence level. There are two basic types of reading disorders: reading problems and reading comprehension problems. Both types typically can be diagnosed in childhood, and there are treatment options available.

Children with reading disorders may need individual tutoring in phonics.
Children with reading disorders may need individual tutoring in phonics.

Reading disorders can significantly interfere with a child’s academic achievements, daily activities and self-esteem. They are different from other types of learning disorders such as mental retardation or attention deficit disorder, because there is a gap between the expected performance level and actual results based on the person’s intelligence. Reading disorders can affect a person on many different levels and extremes. Some researchers claim that up to 50 percent of reading disorder cases are inherited.

Reading disorders are typically diagnosed during childhood.
Reading disorders are typically diagnosed during childhood.

Reading problems such as difficulty understanding sounds, letters and words are sometimes called dyslexia. Dyslexia can affect spelling and writing as well. Some symptoms of this type of reading disorder include problems with letter and word recognition, slow reading speed, reversal of words or letters when reading and difficulty pronouncing words out loud (phonics).

Reading comprehension problems include difficulties understanding the meaning of words, sentences and paragraphs. Symptoms of this reading disorder include remedial vocabulary skills, memory problems, omission of words when reading aloud and poor comprehension of what was read. This type of reading disorder can be more difficult to detect than dyslexia and is sometimes misdiagnosed.

There are several ways to detect and diagnose the different reading disorders. Learning to read involves several components, such as coordination of eye muscles, visual memory, ability to sequence, integrating visual cues with learned phonetics and the association of sounds with meanings. When any part of the process is disrupted, reading disorders occur. Affected persons typically have symptoms including difficulties identifying words, problems with word meanings, spelling problems, transposing words or letters and poor comprehension.

Treatment options are available for reading disorders. Complete evaluation of the child’s hearing, vision and intelligence should be done to see if there are any other learning disabilities affecting the reading ability. Some children also have autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as well. Once the problem is pinpointed, a specific treatment program can be created. Treatment can include medication, individualized tutoring, corrective reading exercises and positive reinforcement.

Reading disorders can significantly interfere with a child's academic achievements.
Reading disorders can significantly interfere with a child's academic achievements.

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Discussion Comments


@NathanG - I agree that phonics is important, but it’s not the whole story. The fact is that children need to develop a variety of reading strategies in order to improve their comprehension. It’s great that you can sound out individual letters, but do you really know what you’re reading? Kids need to be taught to look for visual clues, look at the context, look at pictures (where available) and kind of map everything out when they read so they fully understand the bigger picture. That’s what comprehension is after all. Word attack strategies are important and can complement phonics, not replace it.


@NathanG - It’s great to her about your success story and I’m glad you acknowledge that there are actual reading disorders that exist. One of the most embarrassing of these kinds is dyslexia.

Dyslexia symptoms include jumbling up letters and it can be a very embarrassing condition, especially when kids are asked to read aloud in class. Kids with dyslexia need lesson plans and programs that the teacher develops in cooperation with the parents.

The teacher monitors the child to find out where the actual difficulties are and then creates exercises to work on those weak spots. The programs do involve phonics so that the kids can make the proper connection between letters and sounds, however they do much more than that. The teacher will listen in as the child reads aloud and give positive feedback and tailored instruction as the child progresses.


I think it should be pointed out that sometimes reading disabilities can be misdiagnosed. I have a friend whose daughter supposedly had reading problems. The girl was in fourth grade and was having difficulty making out words and was slow in comprehension. My friend was worried sick that her daughter had some terrible condition that would impair her ability to read for the rest of her life.

I finally asked a simple question—were they using phonics to teach the girl how to read? They were not. I told her to drop her teacher and find someone who taught phonetically. She did that, and her daughter improved dramatically.

It was not a reading disorder in her case, but a teaching disorder. I think one of the worst things the public school system did was abandon phonics in favor of “whole language” and some of these other educational fads. Anyway, I’m not saying there aren’t actual reading disabilities—there are. All I’m saying is that we shouldn’t be so quick to jump to conclusions before checking out what kind of instruction is being used.

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