When Reading Difficulty is not Dyslexia

reading difficulty

Reading disability is often attributed to dyslexia. People frequently use the terms dyslexia and reading disability interchangeably. However, not every student who experiences difficulty with reading is dyslexic. The student may have a developmental language disorder which impairs reading skills. Although both impact reading comprehension, the term reading disability is part of a more general classification and due to multiple causes. Whereas dyslexia is a specific learning disability that comes with its own distinct symptoms.


A child with dyslexia has difficulty primarily with phonological processing, and thus confuses letters and struggles to sound out words. As a result, oral reading is slow, laborious, and inaccurate resulting in decreased comprehension.  When another person reads a story aloud, a student with dyslexia usually comprehends and remembers the information. The difficulty is with written language, not spoken language.

Reading difficulty

Kids with reading deficit due to developmental language disorder will present with deficits in understanding word meaning (vocabulary) and word order in a sentence (grammar) and how word order affects meaning. The child may sound out words easily and read fluently but will not comprehend the meaning of the words. They read fluently because they know the sounds letters make and the rules for pronouncing words. But, they cannot tell you what those words mean. For example, the sentences “The dog is on the rug” and “The rug is on the dog” have the exact same words but a different word order resulting in very different meanings.

A child with developmental language disorder may read the sentence accurately but not recognize the difference in meaning. This difficulty is not specific to written language. There are similar impairments in understanding spoken language. Spoken sentences such as “The dog chased the boy” and “The boy was chased by the dog” have the same meaning but the later sentence may not be understood because of the different word order. Thus, a differentiating characteristic from dyslexia is that difficulty with reading comprehension reflects difficulty with comprehension of spoken language.

Students experiencing reading difficulty may have over lapping characteristics but different causes. Regardless of the cause, a child experiencing difficulty with reading requires treatment to prevent academic struggles and frustration at school. You can learn more about dyslexia by reading Understanding Dyslexia. If you are concerned with your child’s reading or understanding of spoken language, we offer free screening for speech, language, and reading skills. Contact MOSAIC Health and Rehab at (406) 388-4988 for further information.