Will My Child with ADHD Struggle to Learn to Read?


ADHD may make learning to read particularly challenging for your child. Learn to recognize signs that your ADHD child is having difficulty with reading readiness, and find out how you can help your child learn to read.

How ADHD Can Make Learning to Read Difficult

ADHD can impact the process of learning to read in several different ways. These include your child's ability to maintain attention, resist distractions, and organize information.

Attention & Focus

Learning to read requires the ability to stay focused. Children with ADHD frequently struggle with sustained attention, making it difficult for them to concentrate on written material. This is especially true if the subject matter is less interesting.

In addition, ADHD children must fight to ignore distractions, both internal and external. A blinking light or ringing phone might easily pull them away from the task at hand. Their own thoughts may also distract them. Particularly if the reading material does not appeal to them, their minds may wander to more interesting topics.

Find books and stories that cater to your child's interests, especially in the early stages of learning to read. Use this strategy to help sustain your child's attention and make learning to read a more positive and enjoyable process.


ADHD can interfere with your child's ability to recall what was read, due to an inconsistent level of attention. Poor recall of a story's events can lead to an incomplete or confused understanding of a text, which creates frustration.

As you read to your child—or let your child read to you—periodically ask for a recap of the story. In this way, you can gauge how well your child is retaining what was read. If you notice that information has been misremembered, ask your child to go back a page or two to review the text.

Organization of Information

Due to issues with executive functioning, ADHD children may have to work harder than their non-ADHD peers to keep track of events in a story. They might also have difficulty separating the main ideas from inconsequential details.

Asking your child questions as you read together will improve reading ability.
As you read together, have your child summarize the story for you. Ask your child to identify the main idea of the story or chapter you're reading. If your child focuses too much on details that are not important to the plot or theme, point out the main ideas and explain why those ideas are more significant.

Decoding Words & Reading Comprehension

The process of figuring out what unknown words mean is called decoding. A reader might try sounding out an unfamiliar word, or look for familiar parts of that word (like roots, suffixes, or prefixes). Often, context clues can provide the needed information to understand a new word. No matter what method is used, patience is required for decoding.

For a child with ADHD, however, patience may be in short supply. A child who is impulsive due to ADHD may be too impatient to decode unknown words. Instead of taking the time to figure out new words, that child might simply skip over them while reading, or just guess at their meaning.

Sometimes, ADHD children don't bother to read through entire words. For example, an ADHD child might mix up ''passage'' and ''passenger,'' because both words start with the same letters. Impatience while decoding, however it manifests itself, can seriously impair reading comprehension.

Frequently ask your child to read aloud to you, so you can catch these decoding errors. Urge your child to read more slowly and carefully to avoid them. Remind your child that every new word learned will make reading progressively easier.

ADHD & Language Processing Disorders

Due to problems with both executive brain function and attention regulation, children with ADHD may experience language processing disorders. These disorders may impinge upon their reading abilities.

Many children with ADHD have language processing disorders, which can affect their reading abilities.
You may notice that your child takes longer than expected to answer questions. He or she might lose the thread of a complicated story, or hear and repeat words without really understanding them.

Another symptom of a language processing disorder is the tendency to use generic words in place of specific ones. For example, your child might say ''I had food for dinner,'' instead of ''I had pasta for dinner.''

These language-processing disorders can affect your child's ability to recognize differences in word meanings, to properly understand the nuances of a text, or to grasp a sequence of events described in writing.

ADHD or Reading Disabilities?

In 2010, educational therapist and literacy specialist Dr. Mary Beth Burns gave a presentation entitled ''Reading Difficulties in Children with ADHD'' at the 55th Annual International Reading Association Conference in Chicago. In her presentation, Dr. Burns discussed ADHD-related reading problems versus reading disabilities.

Learning specialists can determine whether a child has reading problems because of ADHD or reading disabilities. For instance, if a child struggles with reading but can easily distinguish between different word sounds, that child's reading problems are probably due to ADHD.

However, it is possible for a child to have both ADHD and reading disabilities. If this is the case, the child's teachers must work together to devise strategies to address both conditions.

Tips for Helping Your ADHD Child Learn to Read

Literacy initiative Reading Rockets offers several strategies to use when your child is first learning to read. The organization suggests reading with your child in a quiet area away from distractions such as video games or television.

Read for short sessions and stop when your child loses interest, so reading will not be seen as tedious or boring. You can always return to the story later, when your child seems interested again.

If your child is still a toddler, keep the story entertaining by reading each character's dialogue in a silly voice. You might also ask your child to make a stylized, exaggerated gesture for each character that appears in the book. For example, your child might mime swinging an ax to represent a woodcutter in a fairy tale, or curtsy to symbolize a princess.

Motion, such as squirming or fidgeting, is important for helping ADHD process information.
Your child may squirm as you read. However, squirming or other fidgeting behaviors don't necessarily mean a loss of interest. In fact, a recent study found that for children with ADHD, movement is a necessary part of cognitive processing. Tasks that require executive brain functions, such as working memory, are better performed when ADHD children are allowed to fidget and squirm.

While ADHD can impact the process of learning to read, its challenges are not insurmountable. With patience and understanding, you can help your ADHD child learn to read—and build a foundation for scholastic achievement and lifelong learning.

By Michelle Baumgartner
January 2020
k-12 learning with adhd

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