Reading Strategies for Students with Learning Disabilities

Instructor: Sharon Linde
We'll define the terms decoding, fluency, and comprehension. We'll also list common errors that students with reading disabilities make with these skills, and address direct instruction methods teachers can use to assist these students.

What Are Reading Strategies?

When students read, several things are going on at once. First, they use their knowledge of sound/symbol relationships in phonics to decode words they don't know. Think of a young student reading - they decode many or most words in text as they build their sight word vocabulary and begin to rely less and less on sounding words out. As their sight word vocabulary grows, they gain fluency, or the ability to read text in a steady pace with accurate tone.

Finally, students learn to understand what they read, or comprehend. There are many comprehension strategies, methods we use to remember and understand what we're reading. These strategies include things like making mental images, inferring, or connecting to the text.

Struggles for Students with Learning Disabilities

Students with special needs who have been formally diagnosed with a learning disability, or a difficulty understanding language, often struggle with the strategies used when reading. Let's start with the basics.


Like we said above, emergent readers rely on their decoding skills to read text until they build a sight word vocabulary, or words they can remember without decoding. Decoding is reliant on several sub skills related to sound/symbol relationships embedded in phonics. Think about everything that goes into decoding a word, like 'cat.' First, you need to hear, understand, and be able to manipulate sounds, called phonemic awareness. Then you learn that letters represent sounds in speech, and remember what each letter/sound is. Finally, you call on these skills as you decode 'c,' 'a,' and 't,' blending the individual sounds into the word 'cat.'

Students with learning disabilities who struggle with decoding may have:

  • Low or no phonemic awareness skills
  • Lack understanding of letters and sounds
  • Issues with directional tracking, or moving from left to right
  • Inability to recognize the patterns found in print


Students rely on being able to accurately decode and build their sight word vocabulary in order to become fluent readers. Emergent readers who are just beginning to learn and apply decoding skills will not be fluent; instead, fluency is built as they increase awareness of print and build confidence as readers.

A lack of fluency skills, then, typically means a student is not yet reading with confidence and is decoding most text. However, if a student knows many sight words and still reads in a choppy, word-by-word manner, they may have speech or language processing issues that prevent them from becoming a fluent reader. The text may also be too challenging or the reader may not be getting enough practice to build confidence.


Understanding what we read and remembering it is central to the act of reading. Children with learning disabilities, however, think, process, and understand differently than other students. They may struggle with comprehending what they read for several reasons, including poor decoding or fluency. There are often more complicated reasons students with learning difficulties struggle to comprehend, such as:

  • Lack of vocabulary or understanding of words
  • Inability to connect ideas in the text to larger issues
  • Low attention or concentration issues while reading
  • A challenge in determining important ideas in text

Reading Strategies

Now that we know how students with learning disabilities struggle with decoding, fluency, and comprehension, let's shift to how we can help them find success as readers. Teachers can begin addressing these issues by using direct instruction, a method that teaches concepts explicitly and in a straightforward manner. Many students with learning disabilities lack the ability to connect ideas. When teachers use direct instruction, they use language that gets straight to the point and lets students know the purpose of learning and how to find success. The following are some ways that teachers can help students with learning disabilities.

Decoding Strategies

The following are some ways that teachers can help students who struggle with decoding:

  • Breaking down tasks into small, step-by-step pieces.
  • Following a predictable sequence.
  • Helping students organize information.

Teachers can help students learn the complex decoding process by breaking larger tasks into small, step-by-step pieces. For example, students with special needs may need a teacher to focus on one sound/symbol at a time instead of several. Teachers should also follow a predictable sequence in teaching, such as beginning with a review of the letter of the week, practicing with letter tiles, then writing the letters on a white board. Finally, teachers can help students stay organized about their learning by connecting to prior knowledge, things they already learned and found success with, and telling students learning objectives at the beginning and throughout lessons.

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