Reading Difficulties: Top Strategies for Improving Reading Skills

reading difficulties

Reading is a fundamental life skill. However, over 7% of children have a reading disorder, and 20% of the population has Dyslexia.  

Individuals can struggle with reading in various ways. Some experience challenges with decoding, the ability to translate letters into sounds that blend to form forms. Many individuals have difficulty with reading comprehension. This is the ability to understand the information conveyed when reading. 

In this comprehensive guide to reading disorders, we’ll discuss how to identify different types of reading disabilities and what the potential causes of reading disorders are. Most importantly, we’ll review evidence-based strategies that can be used to improve an individual’s reading comprehension skills.   

How to Identify Reading Disabilities

Signs of reading disabilities include limited vocabulary, spelling difficulties, trouble decoding words, and more.  

Being able to recognize the signs of a reading disability is crucial as this is the first step toward providing individuals with the support they need. 

Common signs of reading disabilities include: 

  • Limited Vocabulary. Individuals with a limited vocabulary have difficulty understanding and/or using a variety of words functionally. Vocabulary is a foundation for reading comprehension, so difficulties in this area can result in an individual having challenges understanding words that are read. 
  • Poor spelling. Difficulty with spelling can cause an individual to have challenges with decoding words and understanding their meanings. Poor spelling is linked to word recognition deficit, also known as Dyslexia
  • Struggling with comprehension. A reduced ability to understand and recall information presented from text is a sign of a reading disability. Some individuals may be able to read words, but do not understand the meaning they represent. 
  • Difficulty decoding words. Individuals who have difficulty decoding words can not consistently sound out words by recognizing the relationship between letters and sounds. This is a fundamental skill required for reading. 
  • Reversals and Substitutions. Reversing the letters, when certain letters are read or written as if they appear backwards or upside down, is a sign of Dyslexia, a common reading disorder. Individuals with Dyslexia often substitute one letter for another, such as confusing the letter “b” with “d”. 
  • Challenges with Sequencing. Individuals with reading comprehension difficulties often have trouble understanding the order of events within text such as what happened first, next, or last in a story. 

Causes of Reading Difficulties

Understanding the underlying causes of reading difficulties can help therapists, educators, and caregivers customize their support. This can improve how effective reading interventions are. 

Reading is a complex skill influenced by various factors, such as phonological awareness, attention, auditory processing, environmental factors, and more. Here we’ll explore these further. 

Phonological Processing Deficits

Phonological processing refers to how an individual uses sounds within their language to process spoken language and written language, according to the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA).  

Phonological processing includes phonological awareness – the ability to recognize and manipulate sounds. 

Phonological awareness skills have long been recognized as a strong predictor of later reading skills. According to research, these skills are a critical factor in an individual’s ability to comprehend text. An individual who struggles with phonological processing skills such as phonological awareness could be at risk for reading difficulties.    

Genetic and Hereditary Factors

According to research, genetic components related to reading difficulties are present. This means reading disorders can run in families. For example, multiple genes specific to the reading disability Dyslexia have been identified.  

A family history of reading difficulties can be a cause for a reading disorder in an individual. Understanding what specific skill a family member struggled with and what treatment approaches were effective could potentially help in tailoring an individual’s reading improvement plan.  

Brain Processing Differences

Differences in the way an individual’s brain processes information can result in reading difficulties. 

Studies show that although some individuals might be able to recognize and decode words accurately, their processing speed deficits can affect reading efficiency. This includes individuals with ADHD, who may have a slowed processing speed.   

According to Harvard research, subtle differences in the white matter of the brain can affect reading abilities. 

Attention and Concentration Challenges

Individuals who have attention challenges may experience difficulty concentrating on extracting and retaining information while reading. This can interfere with reading comprehension. Distractibility while reading can lead to frequent misinterpretations of the text.  

Specific Language Impairment & Learning Disabilities

Children who have been diagnosed with a specific language impairment and those with learning disabilities are more likely to develop reading difficulties. 

Emotional and Psychological Factors

Various emotional and psychological factors such as anxiety, having a negative or positive attitude towards reading, and self-efficacy can greatly impact an individual’s reading ability. 

An individual’s level of motivation and interest are critical in the process of learning skills such as how to read. Studies have shown that how interested an individual is in a topic impacts their reading comprehension for text related to that topic.  

Types of Reading Disorders

Recognizing and understanding different types of reading disorders can guide effective intervention and support. These are some common reading disorders: 


Dyslexia involves difficulties translating printed text to speech. Individuals with Dyslexia often have difficulty with accurate word recognition and decoding. This can lead to labored reading at a slower rate. Signs of Dyslexia include letter or number reversals. 


Alexia refers to the loss of reading abilities that were previously proficient. This can occur due to a brain injury or illness. An individual with Alexia is typically able to spell, write, and speak, but has difficulty reading. 


Hyperlexia involves highly proficient decoding skills, such as the ability to read at a very young age, along with below-average oral language skills. A child with Hyperlexia may have an increased preference and focus on letters and numbers, but low language comprehension skills and delayed expressive language skills.  

Phonological Processing Disorder

A Phonological Processing Disorder involves difficulty recognizing and manipulating sounds. This can lead to difficulties decoding words when reading. 

Individuals with a phonological processing disorder may have trouble with tasks such as identifying or naming rhyming words, or naming certain sounds heard within words. 

Strategies for Improving Poor Reading Comprehension

Developing and implementing effective strategies is critically important to enhance reading skills. Let’s discuss some practical strategies that have been proven to help individuals overcome reading difficulties.

Vocabulary Building

  • Consistent reading and exposure to books can introduce individuals to a wide variety of words and their meanings. 
  • Having caregivers narrate daily activities out loud and sing songs can increase a child’s vocabulary. 
  • Create flashcards to practice understanding the meaning of new vocabulary words. 
  • Incorporate the use of educational apps and games. 

Reading Aloud

  • Encourage the individual to read aloud, which may improve their decoding skills and reading comprehension. 
  • Reading aloud to a helpful listener gives the individual opportunities to practice and allows the listener to suggest supportive strategies. 

Contextual Clues

  • Learning to use context clues can help individuals infer the meanings of words they may have difficulty reading. 
  • Teach individuals how to identify context clues and encourage them to look for these clues while reading text. 
  • Stress the importance of the meaning conveyed by words. 

Assistive Technologies

  • Text to Speech (TTS) can be used to read electronic text (on websites, documents, etc.) as the individual sees it.
  • Audiobooks or books with audio features that allow an individual to follow along with text can improve their reading fluency skills. 
  • Utilizing Display Control on a screen allows the individual to alter the text size, font, color, or spacing. 

Visual Aids

  • Graphic organizers can be utilized to improve reading comprehension by allowing the individual to take notes while reading. 
  •  Magnified text and guided reading strips can improve an individual’s ability to focus and track the text as they read. 

The Benefits of Using Forbrain in Reading

Forbrain is an innovative auditory stimulation headset that is designed to enhance various aspects of communication, including reading comprehension. The unique device delivers sound directly to the individual’s inner ear through bone conduction technology. This can enhance the auditory feedback loop. 

Forbrain is designed to benefit individuals with reading difficulties in the following ways: 

  • Enhance Auditory Processing: Enhanced auditory processing skills can lead to an improved ability to accurately decode words and understand spoken language. 
  • Improve Articulation: The immediate auditory feedback that Forbrain provides can help individuals correct articulation errors. This can enhance the individual’s reading fluency when reading aloud. 
  • Encourage Focus and Attention: The sound delivery method that Forbrain provides may help increase attention for individuals who have difficulty focusing during reading tasks.   
  • Expand Vocabulary: Hearing words articulated with clear, intelligible speech can improve an individual’s vocabulary.   
  • Build Confidence: The improved articulation and comprehension skills that Forbrain is designed to provide can lead to stronger confidence in the individual’s reading abilities. The individual may then have a more positive attitude towards reading and be willing to read more frequently. 

FAQs on Reading Difficulties

Reading disorders are multifaceted and require a comprehensive understanding in order to provide individuals with the most effective support. Here are some frequently asked questions surrounding reading difficulties.  

How do reading difficulties affect learning?

Having a reading difficulty can negatively impact learning, because it can prevent individuals from being able to participate in various academic tasks. 

Reading comprehension difficulties can impact an individual’s ability to understand and retain information taught across different subjects. Decoding, fluency, and comprehension skills are required for academic tasks such as reading directions and solving word problems. 

How do reading difficulties affect communication?

Reading difficulties can result in difficulties with the receptive and expressive areas of communication. 

Reading difficulties can make it difficult for individuals to understand written directions or other information presented through text. Challenges reading aloud can make it difficult for an individual to verbally communicate with others. 

Do speech problems affect reading?

Yes. Children with speech sound disorders may be considered more likely to have reading difficulties. This is because of potential deficits in their auditory, phonologic, and verbal memory skills. Children with articulation disorders may have trouble sounding out words accurately due sound substitutions, distortions, or omissions present when they speak. Speech and language disorders are common, and affect up to 10% of children. These children should be monitored for reading difficulties due to the co-occurrence of these disorders.  

What is the most important factor that affects reading?

Phonological processing skills are the building blocks for reading development, and are the most important factor affecting an individual’s reading ability. This includes an individual’s ability to recognize and manipulate sounds of language. Phonological processing plays a critical role in several key components of reading, such as: 

Decoding words: translating written letters into the sounds. 

Fluency: the speed at which an individual can proficiently read requires strong phonological awareness skills. 

Vocabulary development: Phonological awareness, a component of phonological processing, has been linked to the ability to understand and retain new words.

How do you treat reading difficulties?

Reading difficulties should be treated through a comprehensive approach that tailors to an individual’s specific areas of need. 

Early intervention can result in the best outcomes for individuals who have a reading disorder. Therefore, children who are at risk for a reading disorder due to factors such as those with a family history of the disorder should be monitored for the need for intervention. 

Appropriate assessments of reading skills should be completed at a young age to facilitate early intervention. A Speech-Language Pathologist can complete a literacy evaluation using standardized assessments. The results of these assessments can pinpoint an individual’s areas of difficulty (i.e., phonological awareness, reading comprehension, decoding, fluency). 

Intervention for reading disorders can be provided by a Speech-Language Pathologist or reading specialist. Reading programs such as the Orton Gillingham Reading Program or Lindamood-Bell can be implemented by a trained specialist or therapist during individual sessions or within small groups.

Many reading programs follow a multisensory approach to reading instruction; encouraging the individual to use senses such as touch, sight, hearing, and movement, to connect language with letters and words. 

Assistive technology can also be incorporated into an individual’s treatment program for a reading disorder. This includes technology such as text to speech programs and Forbrain, an auditory stimulation headset. 


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Liu, H., et al. (2022). Factors influencing secondary school students’ reading literacy: An analysis based on XGBoost and SHAP methods. DOI: 

Milankov V, et al. (2021). Phonological Awareness as the Foundation of Reading Acquisition in Students Reading in Transparent Orthography. DOI.

Amy Yacoub

Amy Yacoub, MS, CCC-SLP is a Speech-Language Pathologist. She has over 12 years of experience working with children who have a variety of diagnoses and disorders, including speech and language delays, Childhood Apraxia of Speech, and Autism. She is also an experienced consultant within the field.