Areas of reading difficulty

Written language is a code. The words we say are represented by letters on a page. Failure to learn to read is usually a result of processing difficulties relating to:

  1. hearing and remembering sounds in words (phonemic awareness and verbal short term memory)
  2. seeing and remembering letters (orthographic awareness)
  3. quickly recalling the sound that goes with letters in words (rapid automatic naming)

If a child has these processing difficulties you may have noticed they: 

  • can't remember all the alphabet
  • can't write many letters
  • can't remember sight words
  • has difficulty learning to write his/her name
  • often mispronounce words, especially longer words
  • had difficulty learning rhymes and songs
  • is showing behavioural changes - either withdrawing or acting out

As children begin to develop their reading skills, they build their awareness of what words look like (orthographic representation), and what sounds they are made up of (phonological representation). A child who has poor sound and letter awareness will have problems developing reading and spelling accuracy.

Reading difficulty: What causes Dyslexia

Executive functions may also be affected in children with reading difficulties. Executive functions refer to the ability to maintain attention as well as the higher level mental processes that manage and ‘supervise’ the cognitive components of reading and spelling. Children with poor executive functions (e.g. ADHD) will have trouble staying 'tuned in' to the finer details of learning to read an alphabetic code creating gaps in their learning. 

In contrast, children with weak rapid automatic naming (RAN) may have no difficulties with memory or attention but struggle to retrieve the sounds and words they learn. Children with RAN difficulties have poor reading fluencyFrom a parent's perspective signs of poor RAN include:

  • erratic memory – good one day, bad the next
  • recalls the wrong name for letter sounds and words they already know
  • slow and effortful recall – it’s on the ‘tip of the tongue’
  • reluctance and frustration with learning to read

Unfortunately some children have difficulties with both accuracy and fluency, or a double deficit affecting all core areas, which can severely affect literacy development. 

Levels of reading difficulty

Many students who find reading difficult have average or above average intelligence. Depending on the area of difficulty, they may be diagnosed as having one of the following learning disabilities: 

  • Dysgraphia difficulty with writing, due to poor letter processing;
  • Dyslexia - difficulty with reading and writing, due to poor letter and speech sound processing;
  • Specific language impairment - difficulty with processing the letters, speech sounds, and grammatical elements of a given language. 

Levels of Reading difficulty: Dyslexia, Dysgraphia and Specific Language Impairment


A diagnosis of dyslexia or dysgraphia should be based on the following criteria:

  • Your child’s performance in reading, writing, and/or mathematics is lower than expected, based on their intelligence.
  • Your child has not been diagnosed with any other developmental or neurological disorders that can cause learning problems (e.g., intellectual impairment, deafness, etc.).
  • Your child has not responded to a period of systematic and appropriate reading and writing instruction.

These learning disabilities may all result in reading problems. However, they are each the result of different underlying difficulties. Diagnosis of ongoing reading and writing problems relies on thorough assessment to ensure the correct intervention approach.

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