Learning Disabilities in Basic Reading Skills

Boy having problems in finishing homework
ridvan_celik / Getty Images
Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Learning disabilities in basic reading, also known as reading disorders, affect a person's ability to decode and comprehend individual words and passages of text. People with reading disabilities may also have difficulty understanding the relationship between letters and sounds.

Because the ability to read is an early predictor of educational achievement, students with reading disorders are at risk of poor academic performance throughout their school years. They may experience low self-esteem and negative outcomes later in life if they don't receive the help they need.

As with all learning disabilities, there is no cure for reading disorders. However, a variety of teaching methods are available to help students cope with their disability and learn to read successfully.

Types of Reading Disabilities

Learning disabilities in reading fall into two main categories: problems with word recognition and difficulty comprehending the meaning of words. Each type affects a different part of the reading process, and a person may be diagnosed with more than one disorder.

Specific Learning Disorder (SLD)

You may also come across the term specific learning disorder (SLD). This term is used in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to refer to one of the disability types covered by that law.

If your child is diagnosed with a reading disorder, it may be printed on school documents as "SLD in basic reading."

Word Recognition

The most well-known learning disability in word recognition is dyslexia. This disorder impairs a person's skill to recognize, decode, and spell words, even those they already know. Due to their difficulty with individual words, people with dyslexia often have trouble with reading comprehension as well.

Dyslexia is by far the most common learning disability, making up 80–90% of all learning disability diagnoses. It's estimated that dyslexia affects up to 20% of the population.

Reading Comprehension

Also known as specific reading comprehension deficit (SRC-D), this disability is characterized by difficulties with semantic and syntactic processing. People with SRC-D have a hard time decoding the meaning of the words themselves (semantics) as well as differentiating between various word orders (syntactic meaning).

For example, "The boat is in the water" has the same words but a different meaning than "The water is in the boat." People with SRC-D may also find it hard to express themselves verbally and to understand the words of others.


While there is no single cause of learning disabilities in reading, experts believe they are linked to abnormalities in language processing and visual reasoning centers of the brain. This results in difficulty understanding written words.

Genetic conditions, environmental factors, and developmental differences in the brain may also play a role. Learning disabilities in reading are not due solely to vision problems, hearing difficulties, speech and language disabilities, or lack of instruction.


People with learning disabilities in basic reading have difficulty understanding the link between sounds and parts of words or individual letters (known as phonological awareness). As a result, they may not be able to decode words or use phonics skills to sound them out.

Children with reading disorders may exhibit some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Difficulty in spelling and sounding out words
  • Frustration with or avoidance of reading-related tasks
  • Inability to explain what they have read
  • Trouble naming objects

Due to the extra effort required, reading can be physically and mentally draining for people with a learning disability. Without recognition of their disorder and specialized help, these students are more likely to fall behind their peers in some or all of their classes.

If they are ostracized or bullied for their disability, making friends and maintaining a positive self-image can be tough as well. If your child has a reading disorder, stay alert to signs that they are struggling in class or with their peer group.


People who have reading disorders often exhibit language delays early in life, which is why most diagnoses are made in school-aged children. However, a brain injury can cause someone to develop a learning disability at any age.

If you suspect that your child has a learning disability in reading, you have a legal right to request that the school conduct an evaluation.

Diagnosis of learning disabilities is a complex process. IDEA states that the determination of whether a child has an SLD should be made by a team composed of the child's parent, teacher, and a professional qualified to conduct SLD testing such as a psychologist or speech-language pathologist.

A learning disabilities evaluation can provide information to help educators identify the specific types of reading errors a child makes. Through observation, analysis of the student's work, cognitive assessment, and possibly language assessment, the team can make an accurate diagnosis.

If your child is diagnosed with an SLD in reading, they will be eligible for an individualized education plan (IEP). This action plan is created by school teachers and staff with parental input. It allows students with disabilities to receive an education that is tailored to meet their needs.


Using information from your child's evaluation, the team will choose from research-based strategies to work on reading skills in the most effective way for that child.

Every student has their own unique learning style. In addition, the same reading disabilities may look slightly different from one child to the next because of how they each process words.

Strategies focus on pre-reading tasks, developing sight word vocabulary, mediated reading instruction, phonics, and possibly language therapy to help students learn. As children build basic reading skills, teachers will introduce activities to improve fluency as well.


Students with learning disabilities may appear less capable of learning than they really are. While they may seem uninterested in their classes or assignments, this is usually far from reality.

As explained on the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development website, "reading disorders are not a type of intellectual or developmental disorder, and they are not a sign of lower intelligence or unwillingness to learn."

Most students with learning disabilities have a general learning ability that is equal to or higher than their peers, which can cause tremendous frustration for the child because of the extra effort they must put forth to get their work done.

People with learning disabilities often know they are behind their peers. The discrepancy between their learning pace and that of others in their class can understandably affect their self-esteem and motivation in school and other areas of life.

It's vital that parents and teachers show extra patience and compassion for the challenges that students with reading disorders encounter on a daily basis. While they may exhibit frustration with schoolwork, these students are most likely working far harder than their peers to reach their academic goals.

Support for Children With Learning Disabilities

If you believe your child has a learning disability in basic reading, contact your school principal or counselor for information on how to request an evaluation. They can help you get a referral for your child to an IEP team to determine if an assessment is appropriate.

For students in college and vocational programs, their school's advising office can assist with finding resources to help ensure their success. Be sure to stay involved with your child's teacher and any specialists to help support their progress.

A Word From Verywell

Students with learning disabilities face challenges in life that other kids don't have to cope with. As the parent of a child with a reading disability, you may find yourself feeling frustrated or uncertain of how to help your child at times.

Thankfully, there are many resources in communities, schools, and online to help families of children with learning disabilities. By reaching out to a pediatrician, teacher, or school counselor with your questions and concerns, you can help your child succeed not only in reading but in every area of their life.

11 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. What are reading disorders?.

  2. Hulme C, Snowling MJ. Reading disorders and dyslexia. Curr Opin Pediatr. 2016;28(6):731-735. doi:10.1097/MOP.0000000000000411

  3. American Academy of Pediatrics. Learning disabilities and differences: What parents need to know.

  4. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. About learning disabilities.

  5. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. IDEA Part B: Identification of Specific Learning Disabilities.

  6. American Speech-Language Hearing Association. Disorders of reading and writing.

  7. The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. Dyslexia FAQ.

  8. Learning Disabilities Association of America. Oral/written language disorder and specific reading comprehension deficit.

  9. National Institute of Child Health and Development. What causes reading disorders?.

  10. Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Phonological awareness.

  11. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. What are common treatments for reading disorders?.

By Ann Logsdon
Ann Logsdon is a school psychologist specializing in helping parents and teachers support students with a range of educational and developmental disabilities.