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How Stress Affects Reading

How Stress Affects Reading

There are several possible causes of reading difficulty. You can get an overview of them from our website at The essential key to getting a child reading confidently is to be able to identify any underlying cause of difficulty and fix it.
One cause of difficulty that can stand alone or be combined with any of the others is stress. Some children develop a downward spiral of stress when reading that leads to a virtually complete breakdown in ability.
To understand how stress can achieve that, we need to look into the neurology involved.
Reading is very much a higher brain function, based in the cerebral cortex of our brains. It co-opts the visual cortex, auditory cortex, linguistic cortex, prefrontal cortex and motor control cortex into action. Every lobe of the cerebrum is involved.
To look now at stress, the origins of our stress response mechanisms have an evolutionary explanation. In evolutionary terms, when confronted with a dangerous situation – and danger would be represented by encounters with large aggressive animals or groups of other humans – the best form of response was “fight, flight or immobility”.
You will know that different people respond to danger in different ways, but in almost all cases the cerebrum tends to close down and the brain stem (or “lizard brain”) takes over to analyse which of these three options to take. It is only with training and practice that someone can get good at “thinking through” a highly stressful situation.
So stress is a very uncomfortable bedfellow of reading. The two are virtually incompatible. And yet learning to read can be one of the most stressful activities of a child’s life. It is very demanding and often involves a lot of “public” failure.
And by public I am not only referring to being at the front of peers or being on stage. A failure can feel public when a child is sitting on the sofa with a parent and getting stuck on the word was yet again. Children hate to fail at things just as much as adults do and early reading practice in English can be seen as a series of failures.
The symptoms of a stress pattern like this are fairly obvious: strong negative emotions to reading, coupled with an apparent ability to read satisfactorily at moments which can downgrade into a spiral of stress when making reading mistakes.
The solution to this is to provide a structured environment where the child is not faced with impossible tasks that lead to failure. Frequent encouragement is an absolute must, along with creating achievable goals which you as a parent are confident will be met.
Author bio: David Morgan is creator of the Easyread System, an online synthetics phonics course which teaches struggling readers through short daily lessons. Find out more at or
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