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Right to Read: Inquiry into Reading Disabilities Backgrounder

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The Ontario Human Rights Commission is conducting a public inquiry into human rights issues affecting students with reading disabilities in Ontario’s public education system.


What are reading disabilities?

A reading disability, formally known as a specific learning disorder with impairment in reading,[1] affects a person’s language-based processing skills. Depending on the person, it can be more or less severe and can affect reading fluency, decoding, reading comprehension, recall, writing, spelling, and sometimes speech.

Dyslexia is the most common reading disability. It involves difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition, and poor spelling and decoding abilities.

People who have a reading disability may experience problems with:

  • Learning letters and their sounds
  • Organizing written and spoken language
  • Reading quickly enough to understand
  • Keeping up with and understanding longer reading assignments
  • Spelling.


What are the early signs of reading disabilities?

Some signs of a reading disability in young children may include:

  • Difficulty remembering simple sequences such as naming the days of the week, or reciting the alphabet
  • Difficulty rhyming words such as hat and cat
  • Trouble recognizing words that begin with the same sound (for example, bird, baby and big, which all start with b)
  • Difficulty retrieving words (often using words like “stuff” and “that thing” instead of specific words to name objects)
  • Trouble remembering names of places and people
  • Difficulty remembering spoken directions.[2]


What are some of the effects of failing to respond to reading disabilities?

Reading is a foundational skill. Without the proper interventions and accommodations, people with reading disabilities may not learn to read and may have difficulty with other subjects in school (for example, word problems in math). Along with academic problems, this can lead to social and emotional effects, including increased stress and anxiety, problems with self-image and depression.

In adulthood, low literacy can lead to under-employment and higher rates of homelessness, incarceration and suicide.

Some reading disabilities, such as dyslexia, run in families. Approximately 40% of siblings, children or parents of an affected person will have dyslexia.[3] Failing to address dyslexia can lead to intergenerational cycles of illiteracy.


What should be done?

When an effective and systematic approach is used, people with reading disabilities respond very well and the effects of the disability can be greatly reduced.[4] We are looking at these areas:

  1. Universal Design for Learning: First, all teachers should use scientific evidence-based instruction in the basic skills required for reading (e.g. phonics) when teaching all students to read. This is also known as Universal Design for Learning (UDL).
  2. Mandatory early screening: It is very important to identify reading disabilities early, because interventions are most effective in the earliest years of elementary school. Educators should screen every child in kindergarten (and not later than Grade 1) using scientific evidence-based early screening tools to identify students at risk.
  3. Reading interventions: Students identified as at risk should have access to timely, scientific evidence-based reading intervention programs.
  4. Accommodation: Students with reading disabilities should have ongoing support, including through timely and effective accommodation and assistive technology.
  5. Psycho-educational assessments: Where all of the other steps have happened but concerns remain, students should have access to timely and appropriate psycho-educational assessments.


Some key statistics related to reading disabilities

  • Reading disabilities affect approximately 10% of the population[5]
  • In 2013 – 14, school boards reported that 41.4% (75,543) of exceptional students identified by an Identification, Placement, Review Committee (IPRC) had a learning disability. This is the largest exceptionality group of the 12 exceptionalities specifically recognized by the Ministry of Education (MOE). The MOE states that it is a reasonable hypothesis that a significant portion of students receiving special education programs and services, but not identified by an IPRC, have learning disabilities (144,987 or 7.1% of total enrollment)[6]
  • Approximately 80% of people with learning disabilities have dyslexia[7]
  • 2018 – 2019 Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) results indicate that 26% of Ontario’s Grade 3 students and 53% of Grade 3 students with special education needs did not meet the Provincial Standard (Level 3 or 4) for reading[8]
  • Only 50% of students with special education needs passed the Grade 10 Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test, which measures whether students are meeting the minimum standard for literacy across all subjects up to the end of Grade 9. Successfully completing the literacy test is one of the requirements to earn an Ontario Secondary School Diploma. EQAO states that “the persistent discrepancy in achievement between students with special education needs and those without requires attention”[9]
  • Without appropriate instruction, more than 74% of children entering Grade 1 who are at risk for reading failure will continue to have reading problems into adulthood[10]
  • An estimated 40% of people with learning disabilities struggle with anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem[11]
  • In one study, 52% of homeless youth in Toronto had a reading disability[12]
  • 65% of people in Canadian correctional facilities have lower than elementary-level literacy skills[13]
  • Canadians with a learning disability were 46% more likely to have attempted suicide.[14]

[1] This is the diagnostic label in the current version of the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic or Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5.

[2]Adapted from International Dyslexia Association, “Dyslexia in the Classroom What Every Teacher Should Know” p 4 – 5; see also Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario International, Some Common Signs of LDs

[3] American Academy of Pediatrics, “Joint Statement – Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia and Vision” PEDIATRICS Volume 124, Number 2 (August 2009), p 838,

[4] For example, see Jim Rose, Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading: Final Report, Department for Education and Skills (March 2006)

[5] Thuraya Ahmed Al-Shidhani and Vinita Arora, “Understanding Dyslexia in Children through Human Development Theories,” Sultan Qaboos University Medical Journal, (15 July, 2012).

[6] Ontario Ministry of Education, “Special Education Update”, June 2016 p 5

[7] American Academy of Pediatrics, “Joint Statement – Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia and Vision” PEDIATRICS Volume 124, Number 2 (August 2009), p 838,

[8]Education Quality and Accountability Office, “Highlights of the Provincial Results Primary and Junior Assessments Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test LITERACY English-Language Students, 2018–2019,”

[9] Ibid.

[10] Lyon, G.R. 2003. Reading disabilities: why do some children have difficulty learning to read? What can be done about it? Perspectives. 29 (2)

[11] Integra, “A Handbook on Learning Disabilities,” (2009) p 23

[12] Melanie A Barwick & Linda S Siegel, “Learning Difficulties in Adolescent Clients of a Shelter for Runaway and Homeless Street Youths” (1996) 6:4 Journal of Research on Adolescence 649 at 657.

[13] Literacy and Policing in Canada: Target Crime with Literacy: The Link between Low Literacy and Crime” at chapter 2, fact sheet 2, online (pdf): Copian

[14] Esme Fuller-Thomson, Samara Z Carroll & Wook Yang, “Suicide Attempts Among Individuals With Specific Learning Disorders: An Underrecognized Issue” (2018) 51:3 Journal of Learning Disabilities 283 at 287.