Learning Disabilities and Reading

Learning disabilities (LDs) are brain-based difficulties that reflect impairments in one or more of the psychological processes. The majority of students with identified LDs struggle with some aspect of reading. In fact, it is estimated that 89% [1] of individuals with LDs have an LD in the area of reading.

Even students who have not yet been identified as having LDs may display early warning signs. It is critical that educators be aware of the early signs of difficulty and offer immediate remediation, in order to prevent students from falling further and further behind.

The Processing Areas and Reading

LDs that impact reading are diverse, and may take many different forms. This section of the module describes how difficulties in the various psychological processes may lead to reading challenges, and is based on information compiled from the York Waterfall Chart.

Click here to access the York Waterfall Chart - Understanding Learning Disabilities: How Processing Affects Learning.

Colourful BrainStudents with phonological processing difficulties may struggle with the following reading-related tasks:

  • Identifying or making rhyming words
  • Clapping the number of words in a sentence
  • Breaking a word into chunks
  • Separating sounds in words (e.g. /t-o-p/ for “top”)
  • Blending sounds to make words
  • Remembering sounds in spoken and written words
  • Connecting their sound awareness to their sound-symbol knowledge

Reading is also affected by language processing difficulties, which may cause challenges in understanding:

  • Vocabulary
  • Word order and grammar in sentences
  • The key points of stories and conversations
  • Factual and abstract information, humour, figurative language, and nuances

Visual-spatial processing difficulties may impair reading ability, because of challenges with:

  • Remembering letter formations and letter patterns
  • Knowing how to use transitional words appropriately (e.g. first, then)
  • Picking out important visual details
  • Reading or working with charts, maps, tables, graphs and pictures to extract the needed information

Students with memory challenges may experience difficulties:

  • Remembering information long enough to use it and understand it
  • Remembering sight word recognition and spelling

Processing speed may affect reading because of difficulties with:

  • Recognizing simple visual patterns and scanning visual information quickly
  • Reading for comprehension in an efficient manner

Finally, students with attention or executive functioning difficulties may struggle to maintain consistent levels of attention while reading, and may miss details or fail to complete a reading task.

Specific Learning Disabilities in the Area of Reading

According to Lovett et al [2], “Two decades of research have indicated that there were a small set of core deficits in speech and language development and in more global processing abilities that characterized most of our children with reading disabilities.” They describe the two core deficits as follows:

  • Phonological awareness and phonological processing: This deficit affects students’ ability to work with the sounds of spoken language.
  • Word identification: When students do not automatically segment words into smaller letter groupings, this causes difficulties in decoding and in rapid accurate word identification.

Both of these deficits, and strategies to address them, will be discussed in the Decoding section of this module.


Dyslexia is a term that educators may come across in the literature, and is just one example of a specific learning disability in the area of reading. For more information about dyslexia, click here to access the article Dyslexia: When Hidden Talents are Awakened.

Teacher working with a primary student

Know your Students

It is important to remember that no two students are the same, and LDs will present differently in each student. Take time to get to know your students’ strengths and needs. Understand their IEP and psychoeducational report, which will give you better insight into the ways in which their LDs affect their reading. Remember to help them leverage their strengths when faced with challenging tasks, such as reading.

For more information on understanding the psychoeducational report, click here to access the webinar recording Why Should I Read that Psychoeducational Assessment?.


[1] (Gabel, Gibson, Gruen, LoTurco, 2010; Semrud-Clikeman, Fine, & Harder, 2005) as cited in Fitzer & Hale, 2015

[2] Lovett, Lacerenza, Steinbach, & De Palma, 2014