ADHD and Dyslexia

I’m often asked, “What is the difference between the learning difficulties experienced by a child with an attention disorder and those seen in a child with a specific learning disorder like dyslexia?”

This is a tough question because children with attention disorders and children with dyslexia usually receive low scores on standardized achievement tests. In order to make a distinction between dyslexia and ADHD, one must look beyond test scores and consider the types of errors the child makes.

Understanding Dyslexia

Dyslexia is a specific learning disorder that is diagnosed based on a specific set of developmental and skill deficits including problems sounding out words, difficulty reading accurately, and non-phonetic spelling that is difficult to make out.

Understanding ADHD

An attention disorder may cause a child or teen to struggle with reading too, but her errors typically include contextual substitutions (mom for mother), numerous repetitions, inconsistent reading fluency and variable reading comprehension for details, cause/effect, compare/contrast, and inference.  Although dyslexia is limited primarily to reading and spelling, the child or teen with an attention disorder often struggles with multiple step and multi-faceted tasks such as math procedures (carrying and borrowing), math problem solving, and organizing written narratives.

Comparing, Contrasting, and Embracing Differences

I have developed the following detailed comparison of these two challenges based on research from numerous sources including Yale University and the University of Toronto.



Phonological Awareness

How sounds go together to make up words.

Phonological Memory

The sequence of sounds in words.

Rapid Naming

The ability to quickly name numbers, letters, objects.

Good phonological awareness if focused on the task.

Phonological memory may be a problem due to internal distractibility,   variable mental effort, and superficial processing.

Rapid naming may be a problem if word-finding is a problem.

Poor phonological awareness and phonological memory.

Often mixes up syllables and sounds in words.

Rapid naming can be strong in many students.  Some may show inconsistencies depending on   the nature of the task.


The ability to sound out words.

Good skills at sounding out words if focused on the task.

Struggles to sound out words because of poor phonics skills.

Reading Accuracy

The ability to read words by sight in a list and within the context   of a passage.

Few accuracy errors when reading words in a list.

When reading passages, accuracy errors may include:

  •   Contextual substitutions

  •   Omissions

  •   Additions

  •   Repetitions

Numerous accuracy errors when reading words in a list and within the   context of a passage.  Errors most   often include:

  •   Mispronunciations

  •   Substitutions based on first or last letters   of the word.

  •   Contextual substitutions

  •   Omissions

Reading Fluency

Good reading fluency sounds smooth as if one is talking.  Reading rate is age-appropriate.

May have “uneven” fluency due to self-correcting apparent errors,   inconsistent mental energy, losing his place, trying to help herself with   recall for comprehension.  Usually has   a fast reading rate.

Reading fluency is often slow and word-by-word.  At best, it sounds hesitant and   choppy.

Reading rate is very slow.

Reading Comprehension

The ability to understand and use what you have read.

Reading comprehension errors often include:

  •   Details

  •   Cause/effect

  •   Compare/contrast

  •   Predicting outcomes

  •   Inference

Inconsistencies may occur because the passage is lengthy and detailed   or the topic is outside the student’s interests at the time.

May or may not have problems with reading comprehension.

Problems occur when he struggles to read key words needed to answer   questions.

When language and intellect are strong, he may be able to comprehend despite   numerous reading errors.


The ability to spell words correctly.

Often spells words the way they sound (phonetically).

May over use recently learned spelling rules (adds silent e to all   words).

May make errors sequencing sounds in words due to weak working   memory.

Spelling errors are often not phonetic and show poor and highly   inconsistent awareness of sounds in words.

Spelling errors are often “far off” and difficult to read.

Written Expression

The ability to organize one’s ideas into written sentences and   narratives.

Poor handwriting could be due to fast work or often related fine motor coordination problems.

Written work is rarely hampered by spelling.

Problems with written work often occur because of poor planning,   inconsistent sentence structure (fragments, run-ons), inconsistent use of   transition words, rare use of modifiers (adjectives/adverbs), poor organization   of ideas, and missing story elements (beginning, middle, ending).

Poor handwriting could be due to poor spelling or often related dysgraphia.

Numerous spelling errors hamper his ability to share his knowledge in   writing.

May spell the same word many different ways within the same written   passage.

May avoid using age-appropriate words because he cannot spell   them.


The ability to complete computations, math procedures and math   problem solving.

May struggle with multiple-step math procedures.

May struggle to recall math facts and may have slow computation   speed.

May use more out-loud self-talk to guide actions (rather than inner   speech)

May struggle with multifaceted, complex math problem-solving.

In word problems, may not recognize what information is important and   what information is not important.

Rarely struggles with math computations.

May struggle with math word problems due to the inability to read key   words.



Developing Different Educational Plans

Because of the clear-cut differences in their struggles, children with dyslexia and children with attention disorders require very different educational plans.

Research shows that the child with dyslexia benefits from explicit and systematic teaching aimed at improving phonological awareness, phonics skills, reading accuracy, reading fluency, and spelling as described in detail by the International Dyslexia Association.

In contrast, the child with attention difficulties benefits most from an education plan that addresses two specific needs: (1) Structuring aimed at helping her build her own internal structured approach to dealing with her specific learning and executive functioning challenges, and  (2) Flexibility of accommodations for the specific weaknesses associated with her unique attention needs.

Need More Help Understanding and Addressing Your Child’s Needs?

Call 817.421.8780 to schedule an appointment!


(c) 2009-2013, Monte W. Davenport, Ph.D.