Patterns of reading difficulty provide an educationally useful way to think about different kinds of reading problems, whether those are mainly experiential in nature (those common among English learners) or associated with disabilities (those typical of children with dyslexia).

We look at how teachers can use assessments to identify various reding problems in children and help them overcome it.

Types of Reading Difficulties

the three common patterns (often termed profiles) of poor reading involve specific word-reading difficulties (SWRD), specific reading comprehension difficulties (SRCD), and mixed reading difficulties (MRD).

Children with SWRD have problems related specifically to reading words, not to core comprehension areas such as vocabulary or background knowledge. Those with SRCD have the opposite pattern: poor reading comprehension despite at least average word-reading skills. And those with MRD have a combination of weaknesses in word-reading skills and core comprehension areas.

Knowledge of these patterns is useful for helping students with many kinds of reading problems—not only those involving certain disabilities but also more experientially based reading difficulties, such as those sometimes found among English learners or children from low-socioeconomic-status backgrounds.

Determining Patterns of Reading Difficulties

The three types of difficulties mentioned in the preceding section involve underlying patterns of strengths and weaknesses in specific language and reading abilities, sometimes termed components of reading. Important components of reading include phonemic awareness, word decoding, fluent text reading, vocabulary, and listening comprehension.

The first step in determining a struggling reader’s pattern involves assessment of these abilities that underlie reading development.

Effective Instruction and Interventions for Each Pattern

Interventions differ in various ways. Children with SWRD typically require highly explicit, systematic phonics intervention. More advanced students with SWRD — those learning to decode two-syllable or multisyllabic words — often benefit from learning syllabication strategies and structural analysis.

Children with SRCD need interventions focused on the specific comprehension areas in which they are weak. Children with MRD need phonics interventions and opportunities to apply decoding skills in reading text, coupled with explicit teaching targeting their specific comprehension weaknesses.

Of course, most classroom teachers have very limited time for implementing interventions with struggling readers. However, information about common types of reading difficulties can still be helpful to general educators in differentiating classroom instruction.

A primary-grade teacher could differentiate instruction through small flexible groups, with one group to meet the most frequent needs of third graders with SWRD (e.g., additional explicit phonics instruction focused on syllabication and decoding of two-syllable and multisyllabic words) and another to meet the most frequent needs of those with SRCD (e.g., additional instruction in vocabulary and background knowledge).

Children with MRD might participate in both groups. This approach is unlikely to meet the needs of all struggling readers in a class, but it could still benefit many students.

Additional Information About the Patterns

Each pattern of reading difficulties may emerge relatively early or relatively later in schooling, with early-emerging problems generally defined as reading difficulties evident by grade 3 and late-emerging problems as those first manifesting in grade 4 or later.

Early-emerging reading difficulties often involve problems in decoding — that is, either an SWRD or MRD pattern (Leach et al., 2003)—because learning to decode is central to children’s early reading development.

Take Action!

  • Identify a struggling or at-risk reader in your classroom.
  • Consider available assessment data, and administer any additional assessments of language or reading needed to help you identify the child’s pattern of reading difficulty.
  • Think about whether the child’s difficulties involve decoding only, comprehension only, or a combination of both areas. If the child has problems in reading fluency, consider whether those problems involve decoding, language comprehension, or a combination of both areas. Also, consider the child’s strengths.
  • If you are struggling to identify exactly what aspect of reading is struggling with, refer them to an educational psychology assessment to help pinpoint the problem and advise the correct action plan going forward.  
  • Decide on the child’s pattern of reading difficulty.
  • Use this information to differentiate instruction or plan an intervention. Also, decide the best way to monitor the child’s progress.

For more information about reading problems in children, or to book a consultation, contact Anel Annandale at 021 423 0739 or via email at