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True Literacy: Differentiating Dyslexia From ADHD

In this installment of the True Literacy video column, Dr. Michael Hart discusses the difference between ADHD and dyslexia. He outlines the various neurological underpinnings while elaborating on how dyslexia manifests in reading, writing, and self-regulation.

Dyslexia and ADHD are both brain-based, but each has its own underlying neurobiology.


Dyslexia is a brain-based learning difference and reflects a difficulty with a specific set of world language skills. The result is difficulty in learning how to read, write, and spell fluently. It is not tied to intelligence, and the majority of people with dyslexia demonstrate average to above-average intelligence when tested.


ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), while also brain-based, has a neurobiological basis that differs from dyslexia. In the psychology world, ADHD is now considered to have three distinct subsets of the diagnosis:

1. ADHD with an emphasis on hyperactivity

2. ADHD where the primary symptomology is inattention

3. ADHD with a strong presence of both hyperactivity and attention issues.

The problem arises in that dyslexia and ADHD can sometimes look the same, and that means experts need to be hyper-aware and diligent during the diagnosis and intervention process to accurately tell them apart.

The Reading Process

In the reading process, people with dyslexia struggle and have extreme difficulty in reading because of oral language issues that impact their ability to decode and sound out words to move toward fluency. A dyslexic student may show distractability, become avoidant, and appear overactive in response to a difficult taskbut they do not have ADHD. It’s essential that experts evaluate correctly.

Distractability and Consistency

One way of differentiating distractability in reading is recognizing that ADHD students often suffer from a “bullet hole” learning approach. Attention has a way of shifting inconsistently on a daily basis. One day a skill level will be high, and the next day, the student will have difficulty in the same task. It is this inconsistent learning pattern that differentiates ADHD from dyslexia in reading comprehension. Distractability in ADHD and dyslexia may look very similar but the underlying neurobiology involved is quite different. 

The Writing Process

Differentiating between dyslexia and ADHD becomes more complicated when analyzing writing. Both groups often demonstrate fine motor skill issues that impede their ability to create output that is consistent with their true capabilities. People with dyslexia have difficulty because they haven’t been able to master the spelling process and other language issues, while ADHD students suffer from more of a broad-based problem with self-regulation.


One of the key differences between dyslexia and ADHD is in the area of self-regulation. Many kids with ADHD have issues that are diffuse and broad-based in self-regulation throughout all areas of their life. Whether it’s an academic task, a social problem of managing their body in space with friends, or even emotional impulsivity, they are dealing with a vast array of areas that impact their lives. When differentiating between ADHD and dyslexia it becomes crucial to parse out the differences in the areas of life that are affected.

Final Analysis and The Need for Teamwork

The bottom line is to take a careful approach during the diagnostic process. It’s essential to have a team of people that are recognized experts in all areas. ADHD analysis may use the help of a child psychiatrist, pediatrician, or psychologist with specific ADHD evaluation and training. Dyslexia support, on the other hand, might need additional assistance from speech and language experts, psychologists and others in the field. The next step is to bring all the various experts together to decide how to parse out the two areas, differentiate the multiple needs, and collectively decide how to intervene.

Head on over to trueliteracy.in for more in-depth analysis and to learn more about literacy learning.

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