Did You Know? Stress Makes You Worse At Reading

Stress is an often overlooked but prominent contributor to reading difficulty which is often seen in combination with other root causes. Some children become so stressed about their inability to read that the downward spiral of frustration and anxiety leads to a complete collapse of reading ability.

To understand how this can happen, we need to examine the neurology behind both the reading and stress response processes.

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 analyze the meaning

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

Stress causes chemical reactions in the body designed to protect us from danger. As a part of this stress response, a few things happen:

  • Our brain elevates the hormonal levels of adrenalin and cortisol to give us the burst of energy we need to fight or run.
  • Our brain stem takes over in order to decide whether to fight, run, or freeze instinctively or almost unconsciously. The analytical function of the cerebrum is reduced by 60% or more.
  • All non-essential body functioning shuts down to conserve energy – this definitely includes reading!

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 we feel anxious about.

Learning to read can be one of the most stressful activities of a child’s life. It is demanding as we have seen, and involves a lot of failure while others are watching – be they a parent, teacher or classmate. Children hate to fail just as much as adults do! So you can see that the reading process grinds to a standstill when a child feels stressed about it. 

In order to disable this stress response to reading, a structured learning environment must be created where the child is presented with small, achievable tasks. We do that by reducing the task into elements or giving far more assistance than is normal in a conventional setting. For instance, we might read out a word and ask the child to select it from three options. And we use Trainertext to make it possible for the child to decode any word unaided.

Encouragement should be liberally given as the child slowly advances through attained goals. 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.