Disorders of Reading and Writing

Below are descriptions of reading, writing, and spelling disorders. Although these descriptions are listed separately, individuals can experience deficits in multiple areas. For example, deficits in word recognition and reading comprehension often co-occur; the terms “poor readers” or “garden variety readers” are sometimes used to describe these individuals. Similarly, a person can have difficulty with the writing process as well as with generating the written product.

Labels for reading disorders include dyslexia, reading disability, reading disorder, specific reading disorder, andspecific reading comprehension deficit. Writing disorder labels also vary, with some being dysgraphia, writing disability, writing disorder, and specific writing disorder.

Reading disorders and writing disorders can occur alone but are often present together. Spelling impairment can affect both reading and writing; there is a bidirectional relationship between spelling and word reading such that difficulty or progress in one area can influence performance in the other area.

Deficits in reading, writing, and spelling can affect one or more language domains (see table below). For a detailed description of the language domains as they relate to spoken and written language, see language in brief.

Metalinguistic and metacognitive skills (awareness of language and of one's own thinking and behavior) are incorporated within the table. Metalinguistic awareness has an impact on both spoken language and written language abilities, to varying degrees. Phonological awareness is one type of metalinguistic skill, which has been shown to be highly correlated with later reading and writing skills (Al Otaiba, Puranik, Zilkowski, & Curran, 2009).

Areas to consider in assessing and treating written language disorders as well as differentially diagnosing within and across spoken and written language disorders are also included in the table. For more comprehensive lists, see the Assessment and Treatment sections of the Written Language Disorders Portal Page.

  Description of Disorder Language Domains Primarily Affected Focus of Assessment/Treatment
Phonology Morphology Syntax Semantics Pragmatics
Reading Word Recognition

Sometimes referred to as Dyslexia

Difficulty exists despite adequate instruction and absence of intellectual, sensory, or neurological difficulties

  • Difficulty with accurate and/or fluent word recognition difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition
  • Poor spelling
  • Language comprehension relatively intact
X     X  
  • Alphabet/letter knowledge
  • Phonological awareness (rhyming, segmenting and blending, awareness of sounds and syllables in words)
  • Sound-symbol correspondence
  • Sight word knowledge
  • Reading decoding
  • Reading fluency
  • Spelling
  • Vocabulary
Reading Comprehension

Sometimes referred to as Specific Comprehension Deficit or Hyperlexia

  • Inadequate reading comprehension
  • Adequate or advanced word recognition skills
  • Adequate reading fluency
  • May have social, cognitive, or linguistic deficits

Differentiate hyperlexia from precocious reading, the presence of advanced word recognition and advanced reading comprehension skills in typically developing children

  X X X X
  • Print awareness
  • Knowledge of basic story structure and story components
  • Vocabulary knowledge (including multiple-meaning words; synonyms and antonyms)
  • Understanding meaning from context
  • Figurative language and ambiguities (e.g., multiple meaning words and ambiguous sentence structures) in text
  • Paraphrasing and summarizing
  • Making inferences
  • Knowledge of different text structures and genres
  • Use of strategies to facilitate comprehension (e.g., skimming, rereading, taking notes)
  • Using strategies to self-monitor comprehension
  • May need to address spoken language difficulties
Writing Writing Process

Sometimes referred to as Dysgraphia

Dysgraphia is a term used for problems with transcription; it can occur alone but often accompanies dyslexia and may occur with other learning disabilities

Dysgraphia encompasses both motoric and linguistic-cognitive aspects of writing; linguistic-cognitive aspects are involved in the writing process and the writing product

  • Pattern of difficulty in letter formation, sequencing, and spelling
  • Difficulty may be secondary to issues with letter formation, sequencing, and spelling

Dysgraphia, as it relates to the writing process, involves difficulty planning, drafting, reflecting on, revising, and editing one's writing

  • Poor discourse planning and organization
      X X
  • Using pictures to tell stories
  • Writing for different purposes (e.g., entertain, persuade, inform)
  • Writing for different audiences
  • Planning (e.g., brainstorming; use of story maps; webbing)
  • Drafting (e.g., referring to story maps, webs, planning notes)
  • Using digital technologies (e.g., internet) to gather information for writing
  • Revising and editing content
  • Spelling
Writing Product

Sometimes referred to as Dysgraphia

Dysgraphia, as it relates to the writing product involves

  • Difficulty organizing and adequately expressing thoughts in writing
  • Difficulty constructing grammatically correct sentences of varying types and difficulty using writing conventions (e.g., capitalization and punctuation)
  • Limited written fluency
  • Syntactic formulation problems (complexity and correctness impacted)
  • Word choice limitations (in variety and appropriateness)
  • Numerous words spelled incorrectly
  • Pretend writing
  • Writing letters of the alphabet
  • Printing first and last name
  • Labeling pictures
  • Producing text via handwriting and/or keyboarding
  • Copying text
  • Writing from dictation
  • Writing a variety of grammatically correct sentence types
  • Judging correctness of grammar and morphology and correcting errors
  • Writing cohesively (e.g., including detail, linking ideas, elaborating)
  • Using conventions of writing correctly (e.g., capitalization and punctuation)
  • Knowledge of different text structures and genres
Spelling Can Affect both reading and writing

Sometimes referred to as Dysorthography

Difficulty with the encoding of phonological information; this is a particular area of weakness for most individuals with dyslexia

  • Impaired ability to represent the phonological structure of regularly spelled words
  • Difficulty remembering and reproducing the patterns of irregularly spelled words
  • Lack of morphemic awareness in spelling
  • Difficulty spelling words (and inflecting them correctly) in sentence contexts
X X      
  • Using letter-sound knowledge to spell words as they sound
  • Understanding phonological, morphological, and orthographic aspects of regular and irregular spellings
  • Correcting spelling errors
Spoken and Written Language Can Affect Reading, Writing, and Spelling

May be referred to as Oral and Written Language Learning Disability

Oral written language disorders involve problems of similar severity that cross multiple systems.

  • Marked difficulty with oral language may result in difficulty pronouncing complex words and problems with reading decoding, spelling, and language comprehension
  • Address areas of difficulty in reading, writing, and spelling as indicated above depending upon the constellation of difficulties.
  • Treatment should match the degree to which sound/word structure knowledge and sentence/discourse level knowledge are impaired across spoken and written modalities—listening, speaking, reading, and writing

Al Otaiba, S., Puranik, C. S., Zilkowski, R. A., & Curran, T. (2009). Effectiveness of early phonological awareness interventions for students with speech or language impairments. The Journal of Special Education, 43, 107-128.

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