Conditions that affect reading and literacy

There are many reasons why a child may have difficulty reading or learning to read. But when does a reading difficulty constitute a "reading disability"?

The journey of learning to read - and continuing to develop as a confident and enthusiastic reader - is often a bumpy one.

However, some people have more serious difficulty with the process than others. In some cases, there are specific reasons why a child is having trouble with reading – and alternative forms of help may be needed.

Difference between reading and learning disability

Serious reading difficulties or disabilities can affect anyone, including children who are extremely intelligent, motivated and educated. Sometimes a specific disability or disorder may affect a child's reading, either mildly or severely.

In general, the term "reading disability" is used to describe any condition that affects certain parts of the brain responsible for making sense of words and/or sounds.

This is different from a "learning disability" (like dyslexia) - although most learning disabilities will also, in turn, affect the person's ability to learn to read. 

There are also other disabilities or conditions which may affect a child's reading.

What can affect someone's ability to learn to read?

Where a child (or adult) has difficulty reading, it is important to try to identify the reason/s as early as possible, as the sort of help needed can differ dramatically.

Evidence suggests that early intervention is key.

For example, the kind of help a child needs to overcome problems with making sense of the sounds generated by letters or letter combinations is very different from that needed by a child who has "visual" problems reading.

Some of the most common disabilities that affect learning to read include:

  • Dyslexia
  • Speech and language disorders
  • Processing problems
  • Developmental disabilities
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Visual impairment

There is more detail on these below - but do remember that these are just a few of the possible reasons a child may have difficulty reading or learning to read. Professional expertise/advice is essential in identifying a problem. 


Recent research suggests that the cause of dyslexia lies in a specific gene. A difference in a single part of the brain makes learning language excessively hard.

The process of "translating" the letters on a page into the sounds of the words is disturbed, so that the whole business of decoding a word or sentence is made difficult.

From a very early age, a dyslexic child may well have trouble learning to understand speech and make him/herself understood and may have trouble recalling words and sequencing words or letters.

Learning to read by traditional approaches can therefore be extremely difficult - but there are alternative methods available, which are proven to be more effective. For example, children with dyslexia need direct instruction in the relationship between letter and sound.

Dyslexia can be difficult to recognize as many of its characteristics are those which most children go through as a natural part of growing up. It is when these phases seem to last longer than normal and child seems to be "stuck" in difficult stages that there may be an indication of dyslexia.

Identifying dyslexia

Someone with dyslexia may avoid difficult tasks (especially if they involve reading, writing or spelling), guess words instead of reading them, prop up the head when writing, and know a word one day but forget it the next.

They can often be very talented in other areas and may have a vocabulary which exceeds his/her reading ability. Sometimes a dyslexic child appears to be lazy, not trying hard enough, or just slow.

In fact, the dyslexic mind is working harder to bridge the gap between what s/he sees, hears and feels in the outer world, his/her thoughts about these things in his head and how to put them into words.

Speech and language disorders

This is a general term that describes problems with communicating - including understanding, speaking and forming sounds.

Sometimes it means that a child stutters, uses "babyish" language or has difficulty understanding words in a conversation or written material.

Speech and language disorders often accompany learning disabilities such as dyslexia.

Processing Problems

This term is used to describe situations where the information taken in by the senses is disturbed or distorted. This might include visual, hearing and motor deficits.

Although they are classed as learning disabilities, these difficulties overlap with speech and language disorders and specific learning disabilities like dyslexia.

Letters can be reversed and a child can easily lose his/her place while reading or forget simple instructions.

Developmental disabilities

There are many developmental disorders that may affect a child's reading.

The term autism (or autistic spectrum), for example, is used to describe any of a complex range of developmental disabilities.

Autistic disorders tends to appear during the first three years of life and may mean a number of challenges when learning to read, including difficulties in attention, motivation and problems with decoding.

A child can be very bright and go to mainstream school but have autistic tendencies. Autistic spectrum disorders can often be combined with learning difficulties and often seem to run in families.

An autistic child can have seemed "normal"' as a baby but then appeared to "regress" and lose the power of language.

Other characteristics can include obsessive tendencies, a liking of order/collecting things, and a general difficulty communicating with and understanding the outside world.

Autism affects more boys than girls, and has nothing to do with ethnic, socio-economic or educational background.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

ADHD is a disorder that affects hyperactivity, inattention and impulsivity. People with ADHD can often have difficulty staying still and maintaining attention, which can in turn affect the ability to read.

Researchers think that symptoms result from problems in the systems that regulate and control behaviour. ADHD affects up to 5 per cent of the population and is often accompanied by other conditions/disabilities.

Visual impairment

Accessibility of books (and other written material) is a problem for many blind and partially sighted people.

There are many organisations which offer services and support for reading, including:

  • Your local library
  • The RNIB, which has a huge library of audio books
  • Booktouch is part of the national Bookstart programme. It now offers a special Bookstart pack for babies with a visual impairment. The “Booktouch” pack contains specially selected books and a leaflet to help alert families right from the start to the services available
  • ClearVision is a UK postal lending library of mainstream children's books with added braille. The books all have braille, print and pictures, making them suitable for visually impaired and sighted children and adults to share.
  • The Living Paintings Trust is a registered charity that offers a completely free service for visually impaired people of all ages, their families, carers and schools. They produce specialist touch and sound packs that explain a wide variety of pictures for those who cannot see. These packs are distributed from their library by post. They are sent to all parts of the UK and Eire and there is no charge.

What next: getting help

Parents are almost always the first to sense a problem or difference in a child's development. However, they often assume that the child will catch up, just needs more time, or is simply not as "bright" as other children.

Sometimes their observations are a sign that there really is a problem - there is a disability or difference that is affecting the child's reading. In this case, an alternative type of help in reading development can often provide the answer.

Many people who have been diagnosed as being dyslexic, for example, have in fact average to above average intelligence. All they need is the right type of help and support to become confident readers.

It’s therefore important to trust your instincts and insist on getting the professional help and the extra support your child needs.

Ask your child’s teacher, doctor or health visitor for help – and insist you get it.

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