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Understanding Reading Disorders: A Guide for Parents 

As a parent, it's natural to want the best for your child and ensure they get every opportunity to succeed. That's why it can feel overwhelming if you suspect your student may be struggling with reading. This article will help navigate these challenges, offer valuable information on reading disorders and how it is diagnosed, provide insight into dyslexia, and explain why it is important to get to the root cause of your child’s specific learning difficulties.  

We'll also address some of the most pressing questions and concerns of parents whose children may struggle with reading, such as how to approach your school if you have concerns about your child's reading abilities.  

What is a reading disorder? 

Reading disorders are a type of specific learning disability that can make reading challenging. However, parents need to know that these disorders are not developmental or a sign of their child's intelligence. The most common reading disorder is dyslexia. This brain-based disorder is typically due to difficulty in phonological processing, including rhyming and sound repetition in words. This limitation affects an individual's ability to read, speak, spell, and even learn a second language, according to the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. Dyslexia can be developmental (genetic) or acquired (resulting from a traumatic brain injury or disease).  

Although dyslexia represents 80–90 percent of all learning disabilities, a child's reading disorder may be more than dyslexia. Why? Reading is a complex process that contains many factors. One study indicates that these include executive functions, processing speed, vocabulary and phonological skills, and cognitive abilities such as visual perception and letter naming. Based on these complex functions, those with reading disabilities often have different combinations of symptoms, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), including: 

  • Difficulty sounding out words 
  • Comprehension issues 
  • Poor spelling 
  • Slow reading 
  • Difficulty recognizing sounds and the letters making up those sounds 

Some reading disorders result from specific differences in how the brain processes written words and text. With this understanding, there are many subtypes of dyslexia. Examining the underlying cognitive and linguistic processes that support proficient reading skills is essential for properly identifying these subtypes and implementing interventions that will help your student to succeed. 

Types of dyslexia and appropriate interventions 

There are different subtypes of dyslexia and various approaches to categorizing symptoms. By determining the subtype, teachers and psychologists can help create appropriate interventions to help your child. Here are three of the main subtypes:

Surface dyslexia 

A student who can easily sound out new words but fails to identify familiar words by sight may have dysphonetic or surface dyslexia. In this form of dyslexia, the brain fails to recognize what a word looks like to process the word quickly. Symptoms may include difficulty with whole word recognition or problems reading words that sound differently than they are spelled. 

Phonological dyslexia 

Phonological dyslexia is the most common kind of dyslexia and is characterized when someone has difficulties matching sounds to symbols and breaking down language sounds. Symptoms may include trouble learning sounds made by letters or letter combinations or problems sounding out unfamiliar words. 

Mixed dyslexia 

An individual who struggles with both fluency and decoding may be showing the symptoms of mixed dyslexia.  

Additionally, there are other learning difficulties that a student may experience, such as comprehension issues and dysgraphia. Dysgraphia causes problems with writing and other fine motor skills that affect word spacing, spelling, and expression. Dysgraphia may have a similar presentation to dyslexia.  

With so many types of specific learning disabilities, predicting success in reading and writing skills is essential because it sets the stage for many of the other skills students will need. Many tests can help indicate if a student is above, at, or below grade reading level. However, comparing an individual to their peers is less important than understanding their specific areas of strengths and weaknesses. Finding a professional who can use a targeted assessment that can reveal your student’s specific strengths and weaknesses can help narrow down the proper intervention and support needed. 

Parents' common questions, concerns, and answers  

Now that you've learned about various reading disorders, you may have questions about the appropriate identification and support for your student. First, reach out to your child’s teacher or the school’s learning support team. During this meeting, share your concerns and provide any additional information about your child's learning difficulties.  

The school can provide insights and guidance on next steps, such as ideas for interventions or strategies that could help at home. Additionally, families should consider scheduling routine vision and hearing exams to rule out any potential problems that could influence their reading skills. 

You may want to have the following documents on hand when meeting with your child’s school: 

  • Teacher notes 
  • Report cards 
  • Graded reading tests 
  • Examples of your child's written work 
  • Results from any standardized tests 
  • Reading/education/health assessments 

After the initial meeting with your child’s school, if you are still concerned, it may be time to request an evaluation to determine if your child is eligible for special education services.  

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides procedural safeguards and ground rules for how parents will work with the school during this process. As a parent, you have the right to request an evaluation for your child if you suspect they may have a learning disability.  

The process for getting your child evaluated for a learning disability typically involves the following steps: 

  1. Request an evaluation: Submit a written request for an evaluation to your child’s school. Be sure to include specific concerns about your child's learning difficulties. 
  2. Consent for evaluation: The school will ask you to sign a consent form that grants permission for the evaluation to take place. Review this form closely and sign it promptly to avoid any delays in the evaluation process. 
  3. Evaluation process: The evaluation team will conduct a comprehensive assessment of academic skills, cognitive abilities, and other relevant areas. This may involve standardized tests, observations, interviews, or reviews of school records. 
  4. Evaluation report: The team will compile a report summarizing the findings of the evaluation. This report will include information about your child's strengths, weaknesses, and any recommendations for support.  
  5. Eligibility determination: The evaluation team will review the results and determine if your child meets the criteria for a learning disability under the applicable laws and regulations. This determination will be based on the evaluation data and eligibility criteria set by your state or district. 
  6. Individualized Education Program (IEP) or Section 504 Plan: If your child is found eligible for special education services or accommodations under Section 504, the school will work with you to develop an appropriate plan to support your child's learning needs. This may include specialized instruction, accommodations, or related services. 

This process may vary depending on your location and school district. It's important to communicate openly with your child's school and stay involved throughout the evaluation process to ensure your child receives the support they need. 

Additional resources and community help 

Your school may have a group for parents whose children receive special education services. Also, check with your state PTA office to see if there's a special education PTA that brings together parents from different schools in your district. You may also want to contact a school counselor about support groups in your area.  

Other resources to consider: 

Ultimately, if you suspect your child has a reading disorder, it is important to seek help so you have the data to understand your child’s educational needs. Connect with your school, parents, and community and ask what resources are available for your student. With early assessment, intervention, and tailored instruction from trained professionals, your child will be on their way toward a bright future.  

Read a case study on how the Feifer Assessment of Reading (FAR) helped two students to identify their reading disorders and dyslexic subtypes and how their teachers and school psychologists were able to use that information to create interventions that helped them to succeed.