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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

How Stress Affects Literacy

One very common but often overlooked cause of reading problems that can hold a child back from achieving full literacy potential is stress. Stress often goes hand in hand with other common causes of difficulty like a bad sight-reading habit, poor short-term memory, or weak auditory processing. But sometimes, stress can stand on its own as the only thing responsible for derailing early literacy achievements. But everyone gets a little stressed now and then, right? 

How Much of a Factor Can it Really be?
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 is a complex task for the brain to perform, involving every lobe of the cerebrum. Your brain has to activate its visual processing, auditory processing, motor processing and a whole lot in between! It’s no simple task and because of that, it qualifies as a higher brain function.   

Stress Responses are Instinctual: 
Stress, on the other hand, is a very instinctual, automated brain function.  Stress triggers chemical reactions in the body that are designed to protect us from danger. For example, our brain elevates the hormonal levels of adrenaline and cortisol to give us the burst of energy we need to escape a tricky situation. Our higher brain function decision-making area deactivates and the very basic brain stem takes over in order to decide whether to fight, run, or freeze. 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!

Stress and Reading are Incompatible:
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.  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. 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. 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.

How Can We Disable the Stress Response to Reading?
In order to disable this stress response to reading, a structured learning environment that uses “scaffolding” techniques must be created.  It is essential to present the child with small, achievable tasks.  You can do that by reducing the task into small parts or giving far more assistance than is normal in a conventional setting.  For instance, you might:
  1. show a child a word and ask him to select which one it is from three options that you provide. 
  2. decode the word and ask the child to blend it. 
  3. agree to read every word longer than 5 letters, if the child does the rest.
Encouragement should be liberally given as the child slowly advances through attained goals. Once a good level of self-confidence has been reached, the stress response is disabled and good learning progression can start up again.

By, David Morgan

David Morgan is Managing Director of Oxford Learning Solutions and creator of the Easyread System. Easyread is a computer-based program that helps children with dyslexia, auditory processing disorder and highly visual learning styles improve their reading and spelling through Guided Phonetic Reading techniques.

David Morgan is also the founder of the not-for-profit site: www.HelpingEveryChildtoRead.com

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