What are reading disorders?

Reading disorders occur when a person has trouble reading words or understanding what they read. Dyslexia is one type of reading disorder. It generally refers to difficulties reading individual words and can lead to problems understanding text.

Most reading disorders result from specific differences in the way the brain processes written words and text.1 Usually, these differences are present from a young age. But a person can develop a reading problem from an injury to the brain at any age.

People with reading disorders often have problems recognizing words they already know and understanding text they read. They also may be poor spellers. Not everyone with a reading disorder has every symptom.

Reading disorders are not a type of intellectual or developmental disorder, and they are not a sign of lower intelligence or unwillingness to learn.

People with reading disorders may have other learning disabilities, too, including problems with writing or numbers. Visit our topic on learning disabilities for more information about these problems.

Types of Reading Disorders

Dyslexia is the most well-known reading disorder. It specifically impairs a person’s ability to read. Individuals with dyslexia have normal intelligence, but they read at levels significantly lower than expected. Although the disorder varies from person to person, there are common characteristics: People with dyslexia often have a hard time sounding out words, understanding written words, and naming objects quickly.1

Most reading problems are present from the time a child learns to read. But some people lose the ability to read after a stroke or an injury to the area of the brain involved with reading.2 This kind of reading disorder is called alexia.

Hyperlexia is a disorder where people have advanced reading skills but may have problems understanding what is read or spoken aloud. They may also have cognitive or social problems.3,4

Other people may have normal reading skills but have problems understanding written words.5

Reading disorders can also involve problems with specific skills:

  • Word decoding. People who have difficulty sounding out written words struggle to match letters to their proper sounds.
  • Fluency. People who lack fluency have difficulty reading quickly, accurately, and with proper expression (if reading aloud).
  • Poor reading comprehension. People with poor reading comprehension have trouble understanding what they read.


    1. Hulme, C., & Snowling, M. J. (2016). Reading disorders and dyslexia. Current Opinion in Pediatrics28(6), 731–735. Retrieved August 19, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5293161/
    2. Cherney, L. R. (2004). Aphasia, alexia, and oral reading. Topics in Stroke Rehabilitation, 11(1), 22–36. Retrieved February 21, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=14872397
    3. Ostrolenk, A., Forgeot d’Arc, B., Jelenic, P., Samson, F., & Mottron, L. (2017). Hyperlexia: Systematic review, neurocognitive modelling, and outcome. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 79, 134–149. Retrieved August 19, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28478182
    4. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (n.d.). Disorders of reading and writing. Retrieved August 19, 2019, from https://www.asha.org/Practice-Portal/Clinical-Topics/Written-Language-Disorders/Disorders-of-Reading-and-Writing/ external link
    5. Landi, N., & Ryherd, K. (2017). Understanding specific reading comprehension deficit: A review. Language and Linguistics Compass, 11(2), e12234. Retrieved August 19, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6051548/


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