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Is It ADHD, a Reading Disability, or Both?

As a parent of a child with ADHD, I know a great deal of time is spent on the age-old question, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” In other words, is my child struggling with reading because he can't pay attention? Or, is he having trouble decoding the words?

Reading challenges often show up with behaviors quite similar to those associated with ADHD. This can lead parents of kids with ADHD to mistakenly think a reading issue is a behavior-problem, and not a problem with the way the child is processing information. While students with ADHD are often excellent readers and spellers, many students with ADHD are also diagnosed with a reading disability.

Whether a student has ADHD or not, a reading disability is present when deficits in the phonological system are identified (dyslexia).  That is, when symptoms can be traced to a problem in the way that a student processes phonological information, parents can determine the most appropriate solution for support.

It might be a Reading Disability If… 

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The following are observable signs of a Reading Disability at different ages:

The Preschool Years

  • Trouble learning or appreciating nursery rhymes
  • Mispronounced words and/or persistent baby talk
  • Difficulty learning (and remembering) names of letters

Kindergarten and First Grade

  • Failure to understand that words can be broken into smaller parts (snowball is made up of snow and ball)
  • Inability to connect the sounds to letters (the letter ‘b' says the sound /b/)
  • Reading errors that show no connection to the sounds of the letters (the word big is read as goat)
  • Complaints about how difficult reading is, or avoiding reading time with behaviors like running and hiding, or going to the restroom
  • A history of reading problems in parents or siblings

Second Grade On

  • Guessing at words based on the first letter (pickle is read as purple, wounded as wondered)
  • Speech that is not fluent (lots of “um”s during speech)
  • Difficulty remembering isolated pieces of verbal information (rote memory) such as dates, names, telephone numbers or math facts
  • Omitting small “function” words, such as that, an, in
  • A fear of reading aloud
  • Oral reading filled with substitutions, omissions, and mispronunciations
  • Inability to finish tests on time
  • Terrible spelling (the word people is misspelled 4 different ways on the same page)
  • Homework that never seems to end, or with parents often recruited as readers
  • Messy handwriting

In early reading instruction, students with ADHD and students with reading disabilities both have difficulty engaging in the process. Later on, reading comprehension issues can be due to the inability to decode words (phonological processing/dyslexia), or the inability to pay attention to the text (memory). It is only through thorough error analysis of reading assessments that an appropriate diagnosis and treatment can be found.

If you see the signs listed above, it may be time to have your child's reading assessed.

The earlier a reading issue is found, the easier it is to create a successful reader.

And since being a successful reader is the first step toward becoming an enthusiastic reader, it's all the more important for you to identify potential underlying reading problems.

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