22 Telltale Signs of a Reading Disability

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As a child learns to read, it is not uncommon for that child to experience some struggle. Learning to read is a complex and somewhat lengthy process, so it is typical for most students to struggle a little. But what about the child who continues to struggle with reading? Who is frustrated and responds to reading with anxiety? It could be the first sign of a reading disability. When teaching reading, it is helpful to be able to recognize these 22 telltale signs of a reading disability.

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As a child learns to read there may be some struggles and it is helpful for teachers to know these 22 telltale signs of a reading disability.

22 Telltale Signs of a Reading Disability

When I was teaching third grade, I had a student who was very behind in reading. Very, very behind. All her data (and I collected a lot of it) suggested she ranked in the bottom 7% of my class and the bottom 5% of the entire third grade at my school. Despite all the interventions I could offer she just wasn’t making progress like my other struggling readers were.

I decided to investigate a little further. I talked with the teacher she’d had in second grade, who reported the same things I had been seeing. Looking more closely at the data, this poor child’s graph lines were practically horizontal. She had made negligible growth over the last year, and that was problematic.

So, I filled out the mountains of paperwork and took my concerns to the IEP board… where they were promptly dismissed. You see, yes, this little girl had made such minimal gain it could hardly be considered as such, but she was also an English Language Learner. She was originally from South Korea and English was her second language, so the IEP board sent me on my way with a gentle pat on the head.

But I knew in my heart this was not a second language problem. This little one had been living in the same house in our town since she and her family moved to the United States five years prior. She spoke English well, albeit sometimes making very strange connections between concepts, and both of her parents spoke English as fluently as me. No, I could not chalk this up to a second language issue.

But, what choice did I have? I kept more data and worked even harder with her small group and I sent home specialized homework in reading that was designed just for her. I continued to keep notes and data and finally did my own in-depth assessment to try to identify where the problem lay.

And I went back to the IEP board. This time, three months later, they took me seriously and her parents consented to have her evaluated.

Sure enough, the struggle this little girl had been experiencing in learning to read was not related to the fact that her first language was Korean, it was related to the fact that her brain just wasn’t making the connections as easily as her peers, or at all.

She had a reading disability.

This little girl finally started receiving the services she needed, but what I would have given to know what I do now about identifying reading disabilities.

Reading Disability Defined

A reading disability is a type of learning disability wherein a child struggles and shows extreme difficulty in learning how to read resulting primarily from neurological factors. A reading disability is sometimes referred to as a reading disorder or “reading impaired.”

Recent research suggests that structural or functional problems within the brain may be the culprit for reading disabilities, but the truth is, like other learning disabilities, the absolute cause for reading disorders is unknown. What the evidence does tell us is that children who have a reading disability have a much harder time identifying and sequencing phonemes and making associations within context than their peers. While other students in their classes continue to progress, these children tend to flat line.

Three Types of Reading Disabilities

Researchers have identified three types of reading disorders:

  1. Phonological deficit – suggesting a core problem in the phonological processing system of oral language.
  2. Processing speed deficit – affecting speed and accuracy of printed word recognition (problems in fluency).
  3. Comprehension deficit – often coinciding with the first two types of problems, but specifically found in children with social-linguistic disabilities (e.g., autism spectrum), poor vocabularies, generalized language learning disorders, and learning difficulties that affect abstract reasoning and logical thinking.

Signs of a Reading Disability

There are several signs to look for that help identify if a child does indeed have a reading disorder. Some are basic learning habits, such as the following:

  • poor pencil grip
  • penmanship
  • attention problems
  • anxiety in reading
  • task avoidance
  • lack of impulse control
  • easily distracted
  • problems with comprehension of spoken language

Other signs of a reading disability are related more closely to the act and process of reading. They fall under the more general categories of decoding, comprehension, and retention difficulties. Signs of a reading disability may include the following:

  • consistent difficulty sounding out words and recognizing words out of context
  • confusion between letters and the sounds they represent
  • slow reading rate when reading aloud (reading word-by-word)
  • lack of expression while reading
  • ignoring punctuation while reading
  • confusion about the meaning of words and sentences
  • inability to connect concepts and ideas within a passage
  • omission of, or glossing over, detail
  • difficulty identifying significant information from details
  • high distractibility during reading
  • trouble remembering or summarizing what is read
  • difficulty connecting what is read to prior knowledge
  • difficulty applying content of a text to personal experiences
  • inability to view content from different or new perspectives

What to Do if You Suspect a Reading Disability

If you have gone through the checklist and feel like your child or student may have a reading disorder, here’s what to do next.

  1. Learn about the symptoms of reading disorders.
  2. Keep a journal (aka data) of behaviors associated with said symptoms and their frequency.
  3. Follow your school’s protocol for learning concerns.
  4. Discuss your concerns with your child’s teacher and pediatrician.
  5. Get a formal evaluation.
  6. Meet with IEP board to discuss results and write up a plan.
  7. Explore more ways to help the child learn to read.

Thinking back to the little girl in my third grade class, I didn’t suspect she had a reading disability, per se. I just knew something was not right. There was something blocking her from making progress in reading because there was no other reason for her not to be making the same kind of gains as her peers. I wish I had had a checklist like those above to help me clarify the behaviors I was seeing in her reading.

***As we continue to learn about the Science of Reading, we want to be up-to-date so that our articles are research-based. This post has recently been updated to be Science of Reading aligned.***

Guest post by Sarah from Stay at Home Educator

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22 Telltale Signs of a Reading Disability


  1. I am 84 and find reading a real chore. Subject matter that interest me just does NOT fall into place. I wound up in art school and worked my whole carrer in advertising and marketing. I was able to listen to books on tape and had no problem understanding the story line. During my creative efforts I got about a dozen US Patents and was able to research and understand patent documents. Now, late in life, I am realizing that this reading thing has troubled me my whole life. What should I have done?

    1. Wow what an awesome career you have had! Thank you for your sharing and proving that success isn’t always based on test scores or academics. I find that looking back and wanting to change things seems to bother us more than the actual events. So rather than what could you have done I suggest celebrating what you HAVE done because it’s amazing! And now you will be able to be more aware of any reading troubles for your friends or family should they run into them because you have so much experience and wisdom. Wishing you all the best!

  2. Hello I’m a little older than some of the above comments, I’m a senior in high school and im so close to graduating but i cannot graduate unless I receive my reading requirement, all my teachers have said to me was to study and read a lot. For many years since the 3rd grade, I have not been able to get a passing score on my reading skills. This is my last year taking this specific test and im not sure i can pass it no matter how hard i study or read. When i do try to read i am not able to understand anything im reading. Also during school if a teacher asks me to read aloud im still not able to understand a word that i read. I thought I had ADD until I found this disorder. Please help me out!

    1. Hi Aria,

      I’m glad you are finding the article helpful! Reading disabilities can be really complex – so the important thing is to start to advocate for yourself and get the proper screenings/help that you are seeking. If you are in school, we recommend talking to your teachers or doctor about any testing they may offer to help you get to the bottom of it. Many public and private schools will offer services, and qualifying for them is not a bad thing – they are there to help!

      Our expertise is in early childhood, but there are many others who are experts in this for young adults and college students. You are doing the right thing by asking questions and getting the ball rolling. We are wishing you all the best in your journey – you got this!

  3. I have a 5 year old kinder student. She is having a hard time remembering her sight words. Her twin brother is not having this issue. We practice the words over and over again with some progress. Is it to early to be worried?

    1. Hi there!

      Thank you for reaching out. Every child is so unique and will learn at different rates. I would continue to practice sight words and we have many resources that are fun and interactive to help you do so! I would also recommend continuing to observe your child and write down any concerns you may have. Your local district team will be able to provide you support and resources should you have any concerns. Let us know if you need help finding activities! 🙂

  4. Good morning,
    My daughter is 9 years old and she will be 10 by January and in grade 3 in a french school she is struggling with reading french and not able to comprehened some words in English language, i have insisted that she get Evaluated for dyslexia but the school said they have a plan,which they have been using and its not working. please what can i do as french is a second language to us.
    thank you. Joyce

    1. Hi Joyce!

      It sounds like you are advocating for your daughter to get her the help she needs to be a successful reader, and that is definitely the biggest step! It sounds like you are in Canada? I am not familiar with all of Canadian school policies, however, no matter your location, I would ask for a time to sit down with the school and teachers to review their plan and voice any concerns you have with it. You could also ask about anything that would support this plan in and out of school, and for them to talk with you about what they think is working and why the plan should move forward. Learning multiple languages is a challenging and amazing task that your daughter is taking on, and I wish you all the best as you help her! Please come back for any resources or help anytime.

  5. My son is 9 years old and is in 3rd grade. (held back in 1st). He has an IEP under the OHI (other health impairments) for ADHD/SPEECH. He cannot read the directions for his work without help. He has been given headphones at school, a calculator, and he does his work with a small group and teachers aid. He was evaluated at a local child development clinic at 6 years old. The results were he had ADHD, speech concerns, need for OT (Occupational Therapy) and it was too early to tell for some things. He was also evaluated at a Behavioural Health Clinic at 5. The results were the same. He is far behind his peers. His father has a reading disability. I am very worried about his reading abilities and future school years if something isn’t done soon.

    1. Hi Caitlin! It sounds like you are fighting hard for your son! Continue to advocate for him as we know early intervention is key to future success. It sounds like you are working with a team of professionals, but do reach out at any time for support or if you need help finding resources.

  6. I’m not sure if my daughter has a reading disability. We’ve reached 8 years old and she’s in second grade. Her writing has not changed since she was a kindergartner. They started an intervention process with her at school and that has improved her recognition of site words, but she still is reading only picture books and her writing is illegible. I suspected dylexia, but since her site word recognition improved I don’t think so. She still asks us every single time if she’s looking at a “b” or a “d” though…

    1. Hi Danielle, happy to chat more with you about this. Without knowing the full picture of your daughter or the intervention processes being used, I would at first say that b’s and d’s are commonly reversed even up through 2nd grade, but it sounds like her intervention team has been working on this? If you are suspecting dyslexia I would recommend that you request a meeting with her intervention team and ask about possible changes to the plan, or you can also work with your pediatrician for recommendations/referrals. Hope this is helpful!

  7. My daughter is In fifth grade. She is in the high ability class and has been since second grade. She struggles with reading and cannot understand when she reads alone. I have gone to her teachers since second grade and I’m told she just needs more practice. We do practice a lot but she is not making much progress. She skips words, adds in words that aren’t there, substitutes words for other words that may look like that word. I work with her. It is very frustrating for her and me. What can I do?

    1. Hi Libby! While all kids will of course respond to strategies and interventions differently, I would suggest cutting the reading down into smaller chunks and working on accuracy strategies. The CAFE book is an excellent resource (you can even google CAFE strategies and see what info you can find from the authors) for tips on the components of literacy (the A is for Accuracy).
      It could also be helpful to use a ruler or a reading highlighter (that covers lines in color) to guide your daughter as she reads so that there isn’t too much to attend to. You may also try printing out some reading on different colored paper and see if that helps, or getting tinted plastic reading sheets to slide paper into. Has your daughter been evaluated formally? I know you said she is in the high ability class, but has she had other evaluations into her reading that can help you get better insight? Feel free to email us via the contact tab or at hello@ thelettersofliteracy.com if you want to chat more! We are happy to help. : )

  8. Hi,
    I see so many of these signs in my son. It has been so frustrating for him and us. He tries really hard, but just can’t seem to get over the “hump”. He does not read on his age level . He has been tested for Dyslexia, but reports states he “does not meet the criteria” for the condition. The main problem continues to go un addressed. He cannot even get accommodations to assist him in the classroom at school because he does “not have a diagnosis”. He does has poor retention and poor comprehension in his reading. It is such a struggle. What can we do? We have been battling this problem for about 3 years strong now. I am told by the school he may need to have a Full Individual Evaluation. I am told all areas are tested with this test. Is that so? Can you assist me in any way with helping my son be a productive, fluent reader, that can comprehend what he reads? thanks!

    1. Hi Tina, I feel for you and your son – it can be a hard process to get to the bottom of things and really get the services that a child may need. You are doing the right thing by advocating for him. Different schools will have different tests and criteria. Are you in public or private school? I would love to chat more with you about all of this and see how I can help. Can you email me at alex@thekindergartenconnection.com – that will allow us to communicate more freely. Talk soon!

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