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Common Reading Disabilities Explained

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Reading disabilities are pretty common but can be confusing because there are several different reasons why your child may be struggling with literacy.  Educators and specialists often look at several areas when determining if a child has a reading disability.

The Simple View of Reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986)can help us understand what might be happening. The first idea is that there are two major components to reading: decoding and language comprehension. Together, these two components create reading comprehension.

Decoding is the ability to match letters to sounds to figure out a word accurately in a quick and fairly effortless way.

Language Comprehension is the ability to obtain meaning from spoken words and sentences.

These two components of reading are then put into a formula.

Decoding x Language Comprehension = Reading Comprehension

Just like in a math equation, if either number is 0, the product is 0. So, if students are struggling to decode, their reading comprehension is negatively affected. When students struggle to understand spoken language, their reading comprehension will also suffer.

It is our job as teachers and parents to determine if a student is struggling with decoding, language comprehension, or both.

The Quadrant Model shows the possibilities of reading performance.

Systematic, structured literacy is beneficial for all students, but critical for those struggling.Students with average ability in both decoding (sound/word level) and language comprehension (sentence/discourse areas) are considered typical learners.


The most common reading disorder is called Dyslexia.  It affects up to 20% of the population.  Dyslexics struggle at the  sound/word level.  This disorder is the most common, but most misunderstood.

People with dyslexia are highly intelligent, have strong oral vocabulary and comprehension, but struggle to decode and spell. It is caused by having problems with phonological processing. This means they struggle to recognize and manipulate the individual sounds in language.

There are approximately 10 million children in the United States impacted by dyslexia.


Students with high decoding skills often appear to be good readers.  This is called Hyperlexia or a Specific Comprehension Deficit. Students can decode well and sound fluent when reading grade-level passages.  However, they lack comprehension and struggle to retell or interpret what is read. 

These students need direct instruction and intervention in vocabulary, visualization, and metacognitive skills.  It is more difficult to identify these kids early on in their reading career.  They are often “missed” until in the intermediate grades when the content becomes more rigorous and more independence is expected.

Specific Language Impairment

When a child has low decoding skills and low language comprehension skills, they can be identifies as having a General Reading Disability or Specific Language Impairment. These students need intense instruction and  intervention with the foundational skills of reading and comprehension.

First Steps…

The first step when we see a child struggling with reading and writing is to assess what aspect of reading is problematic. Early intervention is key. Waiting to see if a child will “pick it up” or “outgrow” or grow into” is never a good idea. Knowing what area of the Simple View of Reading is impacting the child and then know how to intervene is vital.

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