Woman holding a book over her face
6 Dec 2021

Dyslexia vs reading difficulties

Reading is a key skill that opens the doors to educational opportunity and enjoyment. But reading can be a challenge. Many parents worry about their children’s reading. Why doesn’t my child want to read? Are they reading too slowly for their age? Can I do anything to help them progress?

While reading is not a race, there are times where extra support is necessary to enable a child or adult to reach their full potential. First it can be useful to identify whether the child’s challenges with reading are linked to reading difficulties or dyslexia. With a deeper understanding of the context of the problem, it is easier to offer effective and tailored assistance.

Although dyslexia, reading difficulties, and reading disabilities are frequently used interchangeably, it is useful to know how they differ in meaning. Reading difficulties and reading disabilities are part of a wider category of learning differences, while dyslexia is the term for a specific learning difficulty that encompasses more than just reading.

Here we explore this important topic in more detail.

What are reading difficulties?

It’s hard to ignore the chat online and at the school gates about other children racing ahead with their reading while yours seems to be hesitant to get off the starting line. You worry that your child will be left behind. Reading difficulties are common, and part of the vast diversity of learning styles and speeds in the classroom. Some children immediately pick up reading skills while for others it takes more time.

Struggling and reluctant readers

The two main sources of worry for parents are children who struggle with reading, and those that are reluctant to read. Both are forms of reading difficulties. Reluctant readers are just not interested in turning the pages of a book. They tend to read well – when they put their mind to it. But most of the time they resist reading.

With these reluctant readers, try switching topics or types of books to engage their interest. Children learn to read with many types of texts – comics, computer game magazines, instructions for model building, non-fiction books…. even subtitles on TV programs.

Struggling readers can be slow and find reading a stressful business. They may want to read but find it hard. They struggle to remember the letter sounds or forget frequently used words. Struggling readers can benefit from extra attention to practicing reading and by choosing the right books to help them thrive and enjoy the process.

What to look out for at home

Both struggling readers and reluctant readers are experiencing reading difficulties. At home, they may show no interest in engaging with books. You can try and read with them, but they can’t sit still, and their attention wanders elsewhere. They may have become anxious about reading so that the thought of a bedtime story fills them with dread.

What to look out for at school

School staff is often the first people to spot reading difficulties. In school, children may struggle with the skill of linking sounds with letters or decoding words (known as phonological processes). Or they may have problems comprehending the text and the meanings – hidden or on the surface – within the stories. A child may experience reading difficulties because their fluency is slower, and they make more mistakes than other children, requiring more time on a text.

Children find reading problematic for a number of reasons. They could be bored with the subject matter or have problems sitting still and concentrating. They may be overly anxious about words and reading. They could be experiencing hearing loss or speak English as an additional language.

Their reading difficulties may also relate to dyslexia.

What is dyslexia?

According to the British Dyslexia Association , “Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling. Characteristic features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed. Dyslexia occurs across the range of intellectual abilities” (Rose (2009) definition of dyslexia).

Dyslexia is an information-processing condition that impacts on how people remember and process words and images that they see and hear. Dyslexia may affect the speed and success with which a child picks up literacy skills. It ranges in severity and impacts different people in different ways. It is important to note that dyslexia does not only affect reading, although this is a key aspect of the learning difference. It also impacts on organisation, memory, and coordination, among other key life skills.

Dyslexia symptoms

Signs and symptoms of dyslexia are commonly picked up when a child begins school and focus on reading and writing skills. Every person with dyslexia is unique, but there are shared symptoms in children aged between 5 and 12.

According to the NHS in the UK, dyslexia symptoms include:

  • difficulties with letter names and sounds
  • problems with spelling
  • switching the order of letters and figures
  • slow reading speed
  • slow writing speed
  • handwriting difficulties 
  • experiencing words moving around or blurring while reading
  • struggles with writing things down

Teenagers and adults may display poor organizational skills, difficulties with planning and writing reports, problems with revision skills, poor spelling, difficulty meeting deadlines, and general avoidance of the written word.

Dyslexia diagnosis

The earlier dyslexia can be correctly identified and diagnosed, the better. A child with a diagnosis of dyslexia hopefully benefits from tailored support and intervention that helps promote progress throughout their life.

If you are concerned about your child’s reading, speak to their teacher in the first instance, or other relevant staff in their school or nursery. It is also helpful to rule out any other health conditions that could be affecting reading, such as hearing problems, vision problems, or other learning conditions like ADHD.

If there are no underlying conditions to consider, children can be assessed for dyslexia by an educational psychologist or a specialist dyslexia teacher. In the UK, the school’s special educational needs coordinator (SENCO) is a good first contact, if the child needs special educational needs support. An assessment looks at language development, vocabulary, reading and writing skills, memory, information processing speed, organisational skills, logic and reasoning, and approaches to learning. The US has a similar assessment process that can lead to a dyslexia diagnosis.

Difference between dyslexia and reading difficulties

Reading difficulties sit within a wider category of educational disability or disorder, which includes difficulties in reading comprehension and fluency. Dyslexia is a specific learning difference that includes issues not only with reading, but information processing, memory, and organisational skills.

Dyslexia is hard to diagnose, as the symptoms of the condition are not always obvious. Numerous other factors may be impacting on a child’s learning, resulting in reading problems.

Mixed feelings around dyslexia and reading difficulties

Stigma still remains surrounding the labels “dyslexia” and “reading difficulties.” Many parents avoid assessments and tests through the fear their child will be treated negatively or with prejudice if they are diagnosed with dyslexia. Or, they worry that their child will be labeled a poor student if they are not diagnosed with dyslexia.

Yet knowledge and understanding are powerful, and individuals can benefit from structured and effective interventions to help make reading more pleasurable and less problematic. Every reader is unique, and making dyslexia and reading difficulties an accepted part of human diversity reduces the stigma of dyslexia and allows each child to flourish within their individual strengths.