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Taking the Stress out of Reading

Perhaps as a parent you’ve struggled with how to help a reluctant reader. Books flying across the room sound familiar? Tears over homework? Sullen silence during reading practice?

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For 1 in 5 children, reading does not seem to come naturally. Despite initial success with early reading tasks, these kids quickly fall behind their peers and reach a reading plateau around age 7 or 8 which just will not budge. Stress rises every step of the way until it explodes into an outright reading refusal.

How can you take the stress out of reading for a child showing signs of reading failure?

Understanding the problem

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

To look now at stress, we share our automated stress response with many animals. When confronted with a dangerous situation (historically a physical danger), our brain is conditioned to  tell us to “fight, flight or freeze”. Different people respond to danger in unique ways, but in all cases the higher brain functioning tends to close down and the brain stem (or “lizard brain”) takes over to analyze which of these three simple options to take. Unfortunately, this stress response can be misapplied to situations which aren’t really life threatening.

If a child is struggling to read, it can become one of the most stress-inducing tasks of daily life. It involves ‘public’ performance – reading in front of others- and is more cognitively demanding than most tasks to date. The stress response is only amplified when children notice peers progressing.

Disabling the Stress Response

The solution to this kind of stress spiral has multiple steps.

1)      The first immediate step is to try to find the root cause of difficulty. There are several main causes that come up quite commonly. Once you know the cause, finding a solution is much easier. Here is one list:

2)      Provide a structured environment where the child is not faced with impossible tasks that lead to failure. Try a reading program on the computer that has short daily sessions, or break down a paragraph into little sections to conquer. Perhaps you as the parent read one sentence and then have your child read the next.

3)      Frequent encouragement is an absolute must. Try to praise your child for five words read correctly before pointing out an error.

4)      Instead of picking up a book, try creating games that serve as reading practice without feeling like it.

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 and your child will be well on the way to flying with reading!


Sarah Forrest is a System Coach for the Easyread System, an online phonics course for struggling readers, highly visual learners, children with dyslexia or auditory processing disorder, and more. Find out more at