Literacy and LDs

According to the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat document, Paying Attention to Literacy, K – 12, literacy involves the ability to use language and images in rich and varied forms to read, write, listen, speak, view, represent, discuss and think critically about ideas. Click here to access the document.

Students with learning disabilities (LDs) often have difficulties with learning to read and to write efficiently, which can negatively influence not only the development of their literacy skills but also their progress in all academic subjects.


Reading is the process of taking in and understanding information from written language. Much has been learned in recent years about the different components of reading, and the more we learn about how the reading process works, the more complex it appears.

Two decades of research on reading has shown that the following components are necessary in order to learn to read fluently and with understanding:

  • Phonological Awareness – sensitivity to the sound structure (rather than the meaning) of speech
  • Phonemic Awareness – the ability to deal explicitly and segmentally with sound units smaller than the syllable (i.e., phonemes)
  • Alphabetic Principle – the insight that written words are composed of letters of the alphabet that are related to segments of spoken words
  • Orthographic Awareness – sensitivity to the structure of the writing system (e.g. spelling patterns, orthographic rules)
  • Fluency – the ability to read text quickly, accurately, and with proper expression
  • Vocabulary – an understanding of the meaning and use of words
  • Comprehension – use of strategies that help students attend to, remember and understand what they read.

Many students with reading LDs have a harder time with letter sounds than their peers and need to be explicitly taught phonological skills because their inability to identify speech sounds can affect spelling, word recognition, and vocabulary development. Sometimes the term Dyslexia is used for learning disabilities which affect reading.

Students with reading LDs need to practice reading fluency, and if they do not understand the words they are reading and cannot derive meaning from context, they need to expand their vocabularies and develop a repertoire of comprehension strategies.

Students who continue to struggle with reading by junior and intermediate grades need both remedial instruction and accommodations. With access to books in electronic format students can study novels and textbooks at their language comprehension level rather than at their reading level, at the same time as they are strengthening their reading skills.


Writing involves the physical act of putting letters on paper, i.e. handwriting (or keyboarding on a computer/tablet screen), but also involves written expression – getting ideas out in an organized written format. Sometimes the term Dysgraphia is used for learning disabilities which affect writing.

Difficulties with writing can involve:

  • Graphomotor functions (e.g. motor memory for the shape of letters, eye-hand coordination, effortful fine motor skills)
  • Spelling and grammar
  • Language production - putting thoughts into words
  • Vocabulary
  • Working memory (e.g. remembering what you want to state in a sentence while thinking about how to spell a word)
  • Organization and sequencing abilities
  • Planning and prioritizing

Writing is one of the most complex academic activities. Written expression involves juggling many things at the same time: letter formation, grammar, spelling, vocabulary, punctuation, capitalization, content, and following the directions of the teacher.  All of these skills must be automatic for writing to be effective.

Many students with LDs struggle with written output and can find written assignments taxing, unrewarding and perhaps even humiliating.  Sometimes it is not immediately apparent how hard they are struggling, and they may come across as being unmotivated or display their frustration in avoidance behaviours.

Supporting students with LDs in writing and written expression involves components such as:

  • Knowing which writing skill areas are affected and working on those skills
  • Teaching strategies for idea generation, organization, self-questioning, editing
  • Using accommodations to bypass the writing weaknesses so that students can produce written assignments (e.g. dictating, writing on computer with word prediction software, using voice dictation software)
  • Understanding that written work requires a lot of effort and time for these students and that they need encouragement.

Relevant Resources on the LD@school Website

Click here to access the article Teaching the Brain to Read: Strategies for Enhancing Reading Decoding, Fluency, and Comprehension

Click here to access the article Improving Reading Fluency: Which Interventions are the Most Effective?

Click here to access the article Writing an Autobiography: A Reflective Strategy to Improve Literacy Skills

Click here to access the article Strategies to Develop Handwriting and Improve Literacy Skills

Click here to access the article Strategies to Assist Students with Writing Difficulties

Click here to access the article Interventions for Students with Writing Disabilities

Click here to access the article The Balanced Literacy Diet – Putting Research into Practice in the Classroom

Click here to read the answer to the  'Ask the Experts' question: How can assistive technology be used in the classroom to support the acquisition of reading skills by students with LDs?

Additional Resources

Think Literacy: Cross-Curricular Approaches, Grades 7 – 12 offers a variety of instructional strategies that can be used by educators to help students: generate ideas to write about, develop and organize their ideas before writing, revise and edit their written work, and learn how to write with a purpose. Click here to access the resource.

Regina G. Richards authored an article which is posted on the the Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario website, Helping Students who Struggle to Write, which discusses why students may struggle with the writing process, as well as offers some possible solutions which can be applied in the classroom. Click here to access the article.

Edwin S. Ellis wrote an article entitled Strategies for Increasing Reading Comprehension, which was published in Teaching Adolescents with Learning Disabilities, 2nd Ed. The article outlines the paraphrasing strategy and how it can be implemented in the classroom, as a strategy to assist students with their reading comprehension. Click here to access the article.

The Balanced Literacy Diet: Putting Research into Practice in the Classroom, developed at The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, offers educators a framework for understanding and teaching literacy. Click here to access the website.

The Florida Center for Reading Research is a website resource for educators of students from Kindergarten through Grade 3. The site offers information on the building blocks of reading, strategies for measuring reading skills, how to use reading assessment results to guide instruction, and ideas for how to assess the effectiveness of reading instruction. Click here to access the website.

Reading Rockets is a national multimedia project that offers educators a library of effective, research-based classroom strategies to help build and strengthen literacy skills in print awareness, phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and writing. Click here to access the website.

The Centre on Instruction has sponsored a free online course, Intensive Interventions for Students Struggling in Reading and Mathematics, which provides research-based guidance for intensifying instruction in reading and mathematics for students with significant learning difficulties, including students with disabilities, in kindergarten through grade 12. Click here to access the free online course.

The International Reading Association offers a number of resources related to reading comprehension strategies, including lesson plans, webinars, and podcasts. Click here to access the website.

Educational Research Newsletter & Webinars published an article entitled Four Interventions that Help Students with Learning Disabilities Improve their Writing. Click here to access the article.