When your child can’t read
A psychologist explores the link between reading problems and learning disabilities like ADHD.
How do you know if your child has a reading disability (such as dyslexia) or if he is battling to get through the page because of his lack of focus (and thus indicative of a problem like ADD)?

Approximately 80% of children with learning disabilities have been described as reading disabled. Very often, learning problems such as ADD, ADHD and mild autism are first picked up when those children show delays with their reading.

Look back for signs

True reading problems that are not necessarily related to a learning disability will show symptoms even before your child begins to read.  Because reading is language-based, children who were late to talk or had unusual trouble with pronunciation as a young child may have trouble reading in primary school.

What part of reading is the problem?

Problems with reading comprehension are often symptoms of ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). The child has no problem understanding how to read or even reading itself, but due to lack of focus they often have problems remembering what they just read (and often have to read things over and over again).

They may also impulsively substitute a word with the same first letter as the one on the page. Failing to read small words such as: and, so, but, not, of, for in sentences, is another common phenomenon. Unfortunately, this often turns the focus onto the ‘reading problem’ when, in fact, an attention disorder is the real cause.

Dyslexia (a broad term often used to refer to reading problems, not just ‘swopping of letters’), on the other hand, is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling. A tell-tale sign of dyslexia is an inability to distinguish or separate the sounds in spoken words.

Some children have problems sounding out words, while others have trouble with rhyming games, such as rhyming "cat" with "bat." These skills are fundamental to learning to read.

One thing leads to another

The statistics show that a reading disability is seldom an isolated problem. Many aspects of speaking, listening, reading, writing, and arithmetic overlap and build on the same brain capabilities. It is not surprising that children can be diagnosed with more than one learning disability. For example, the ability to understand language underlies learning to speak. Any disorder that hinders the ability to understand language will also interfere with the development of speech, which in turn hinders learning to read and write.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) makes it difficult for children to control their behavior and pay attention. Non-verbal learning disabilities make it hard for children to understand non-verbal communication.

Find the answer for problem readers

If you have noticed that your child has problems with reading, then the first step will be to have him/her assessed to identify the true problem. For example, if your child has an attention disorder, by treating that directly, usually the reading difficulties come right on their own (although they can still benefit from reading therapy to catch up).

On the other hand, if a reading disability such as dyslexia is identified, then treatment is completely different and will involve intensive reading and speech therapy.

You also need to remember that each child is unique and has a specific combination of strengths and weaknesses. Placing a label on your child or putting them in a box (‘my child has ADD’) can severely limit what you believe your child is capable of. For example, not all children with ADD have the same symptoms when it comes to reading. Some children with ADD have spatial deficits and won't notice if a word is spelt incorrectly, but their comprehension is just fine.

Others are the other way around and spell just as well as their peers but battle to follow the story they are reading. Some children with severe ADD go undiagnosed for many years as they learn to compensate for their disability.  They memorise words (instead of understanding how to spell), or fill in the gaps by guessing (and still manage to excel in comprehension tests even although they didn't understand the story).

Spend time reading with your child and take note of where his/her unique difficulties lie. Also look if there are other symptoms apart from reading itself where your child may battle to keep up. Pass this information on to his/her teachers and therapists - after all, nobody knows or understands your child better than you do.

Does your child have a reading problem? Share your stories in the box below.

Read more:

Reading List for parents of problem readers
Does your child need reading help?

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