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How Stress Affects Reading Ability

How Stress Affects Reading Ability

Published: 11/19/2012 by David Morgan

» Health and Wellness

There are many causes of reading difficulty which can hold a child back from achieving full literacy potential. One that is very common but often overlooked is stress. But everyone gets a little stressed now and then, right? How much of a factor can it really be?

To understand how stress can achieve that, we need to look into the neurology involved.

Reading involves higher brain function. It mainly takes place in the cerebral cortex of our brains, which is the most developed two-thirds of our brain matter. It involves several key areas including: the visual cortex to interpret the patterns on the page; the cerebellum and motor cortex to focus on the words; the auditory cortex to map the letter patterns to sound patterns; Wernicke’s area to make sense of the linguistics; the prefrontal cortex to analyse the meaning.

As you can see, it is not a simple process and in fact every lobe of the cerebrum is involved.

Stress, unlike reading, is an automatic response that is triggered by some physical or psychological stimulus. The stress response involves multiple instantaneous physiological changes. Levels of adrenaline and cortisol are increased throughout the body which can cause jitteriness, sweaty palms, and bursts of energy. The so-called ‘lizard brain’ or brain stem takes over control and makes primitive, instinctive decisions about whether to fight, run or hide. This can cause aggression, tears or an inability to make a decision. Non-essential physical processes shut down and all resources are devoted to combating the perceived threat.

Unfortunately, this stress response can be misapplied to situations which aren’t really life threatening – like a job interview, a driving test, or any task which makes us feel anxious.

Learning to read can be one of the most stress-inducing tasks of a child’s life. It involves lots of ‘public’ performance – reading in front of parents, teachers or peers – and is cognitively demanding in a way that few other tasks have been in life so far. For children who struggle when their peers are advancing, that stress response is only amplified.

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.

Once a good level of self-confidence has been reached, the reader regains an interest in reading and good learning progression can start up again.


David Morgan is Managing Director of Oxford Learning Solutions and creator of the Easyread System, an online course which teaches children how to read and spell. Easyread specializes in cases of children with dyslexia, highly visual learning styles and auditory processing disorder.