Exaggerated effects of word length upon reading-aloud performance define pure alexia, but have also been observed in semantic dementia. Some researchers have proposed a reading-specific account, whereby performance in these two disorders reflects the same cause: impaired orthographic processing. In contrast, according to the primary systems view of acquired reading disorders, pure alexia results from a basic visual processing deficit, whereas degraded semantic knowledge undermines reading performance in semantic dementia. To explore the source of reading deficits in these two disorders, we compared the reading performance of 10 pure alexic and 10 semantic dementia patients, matched in terms of overall severity of reading deficit. The results revealed comparable frequency effects on reading accuracy, but weaker effects of regularity in pure alexia than in semantic dementia. Analysis of error types revealed a higher rate of letter-based errors and a lower rate of regularization responses in pure alexia than in semantic dementia. Error responses were most often words in pure alexia but most often nonwords in semantic dementia. Although all patients made some letter substitution errors, these were characterized by visual similarity in pure alexia and phonological similarity in semantic dementia. Overall, the data indicate that the reading deficits in pure alexia and semantic dementia arise from impairments of visual processing and knowledge of word meaning, respectively. The locus and mechanisms of these impairments are placed within the context of current connectionist models of reading. © 2014 The Author(s). Published by Taylor & Francis.