How Stress Can Cause Reading Problems

There are several possible causes of reading difficulty. 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.

It is true that stress often goes hand in hand with other common causes of difficulty. But sometimes, stress can stand on its own as the only thing responsible for derailing early literacy achievements. To understand how that is, we must first look at the neurological processes that the brain undergoes during both the reading task and stress response.

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.

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!

You can see that the two processes are essentially incompatible. When the stress response is misapplied to non-life-threatening situations like reading, higher brain functioning still shuts down and the reading process becomes virtually impossible.

For some children, learning to read is one of the most stressful activities of 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.

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 child’s stress response has been disabled, confidence grows and the child regains an interest in reading again. At this point, good progress can begin 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 helping children with dyslexia, highly visual learning styles and auditory processing deficits. For more information, please visit