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Deaf Students and the Qualitative Similarity Hypothesis: Understanding Language and Literacy Development
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Reading Disability versus Reading Difficulty

Given the research on and the underpinnings of Stanovich’s DLH and the QSH, it is important to continue the discussion of the emerging views on the similarities and differences between reading disability and reading difficulty (Kamhi & Catts, 2012; Phillips et al., 2011; Spear-Swerling, 2011). (Note: Similar situations involving language delay/difficulty and language disability are discussed in Chapter 2). There is no clear consensus on the descriptions of these complex constructs (Kamhi & Catts, 2012; McGill-Franzen & Arlington, 2011), yet a few scholars have argued that a distinction can and should be explicated (e.g., Phillips et al., 2011; Spear-Swerling, 2011). A case can be made that both constructs are socially constructed with respect to ideological (or power) issues associated with the concept of literacy of which reading is a subset (e.g., Gee, 1996, 2003; Paul & Wang, 2012; Street, 1984). Our aim is to shed some light on the confusion surrounding the use of these terms, including others such as reading challenges, reading failures, at-risk readers, struggling readers, and so on. Then, we apply the use of these terms with children who are d/Dhh.

Reading Disability     The label reading disability is often reserved for individuals whose reading difficulties are due to underlying biological–psychological or neuropsychological conditions (Phillips et al., 2011; Spear-Swerling, 2011). These children have extreme challenges in learning to read on grade or chronological age levels or even in learning to read at all. In this category, there might be little debate in delineating children with severe language impairment or those with intellectual or cognitive disabilities (Cain & Oakhill, 2007; McGuinness, 2004, 2005).

Children with dyslexia, especially severe dyslexia, can certainly be labeled as children with persistent reading disabilities; however, unlike other types of children, a number of children with dyslexia can become good readers—with appropriate interventions. Some scholars actually put children who cannot access the phonological code—for biological or psychological reasons—in this category of reading disability. In addition, with respect to the effects of English language proficiency for facilitating the understanding of English reading, McGuinness (2004) asserts:

Overall, a broad range of studies from a variety of disciplines show that no child, short of being deaf, mute, or grossly mentally disabled, is prevented by a language delay or deficit from learning reading mechanics—the ability to master the code sufficiently to read (decode) and spell (encode). The longitudinal studies, on the other hand, show that serious delays in core language functions like expressive vocabulary, syntax, and semantics put a child at high risk for difficulties with more advanced reading skills, like reading comprehension. This is due to a complex interaction of factors that, so far, have not been teased apart. (p. 12)
Thus, it can be inferred, according to McGuinness, that children who are “deaf, mute, or grossly mentally disabled” have reading disabilities that actually prevent them from learning to read. However, the meaning of the word deaf has not been explicated by the research synthesis of McGuiness (who, we assume, is not a researcher of d/Dhh individuals). Nevertheless, we can postulate that it refers to those students with serious delays in the language of print and the ability to access print in general—that is, “reading mechanics,” which includes decoding skills.

Although there might be specific conditions that warrant the label of reading disability, this term is also considered to be predominantly socially constructed (e.g., Alvermann & Mallozzi, 2011; Phillips et al., 2011). That is, the assignment of the label, reading disability, is dependent on the results on certain tests or tasks, most of which can be described as involving the ability to perform adequately on discrete skills such as retelling, answering questions, obtaining the main idea, synthesizing information, and so on. Whether these discrete skills portray an accurate or complete picture of what it means to be a good reader is debatable (Duffy & Israel et al., 2009).

Reading Difficulty

It has been argued that a number of children with persistent reading disabilities should actually be considered as children with reading difficulties (Arlington & McGill-Franzen, 2009; Phillips et al., 2011). On one hand, the term reading difficulty is often used generically in regards to any individual or group who is not—for lack of a better phrase—reading (or writing) on grade level or commensurate with the achievement level of typical chronologically age peers. This term is often used interchangeably with the others, most notably struggling readers, at-risk readers, and so on. When reading difficulty is used indiscriminately in this manner, it might mask the actual reasons for the challenges in reading achievement and lead to issues such as a self-fulfilling prophesy (low expectations of teachers, etc.), ineffective or lackluster instructional approaches, and negative attitudes, including low self-esteem or self-concept of the affected individuals.

For some researchers, reading difficulty has descriptive connotations whereas reading disability seems to be disposed toward explanatory adequacy (Cain & Oakhill, 2007; Nation, 2005; Phillips et al., 2011). The assertion is that the so-called persistent reading difficulties of children can be ameliorated by the intensive and extensive applications of appropriate language and literacy assessments and interventions. [Note: This may also be the case for a number of children with dyslexia or others in the reading disability category.] The use of specific instructional assessment and approaches varies according to the progress and needs (phonological processes, comprehension, etc.) of children, some of whom may experience difficulty at different grade levels and across different reading genres. Equally as important, it is necessary to address the mismatch between the requirements of school- or academic-based literacy content, language usages, and practices and what children from nonmainstream or minority environments bring to school during the beginning or early literacy period. The development of higher-order comprehension skills, relative to the use of content areas, is also a critical need for all readers, but especially those who experience reading challenges in the middle childhood grades (6 to 9) (e.g., Wharton-McDonald & Swiger, 2009).

Running the risk of oversimplification, it is feasible to assert that researchers and educators who favor the term reading difficulty have argued that factors that negatively impact the acquisition of reading are predominantly the result of a disconnect between mainstream academic tenets and those associated with the child’s sociocultural environment (e.g., Phillips et al., 2011). The problem is outside of or external to the child—rather than within, as is the case for reading disability. Ironically, it is possible that the inappropriate treatment of reading (and language) difficulties may lead to severe reading (and language) disabilities or what can be labeled as environmentally induced language or cognitive impoverishment. The longer this state of affairs continues, the more difficult it is to ameliorate the deleterious effects. This is related to Stanovich’s (1986) Matthew effect construct, discussed previously.


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