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How to deal with anxiety when you are reading

Updated: Jun 6, 2022

Although Second Language Anxiety is most commonly associated with speaking, all the skills can trigger anxiety at certain times and reading is no exception. In particular, exams or being asked to read difficult texts at work can cause anxiety, stress and even panic!

In an exam, you have a strict time limit as well as being under pressure to succeed and pass the exam. This in itself is enough to make people feel nervous while they are reading, regardless of their level. When you can't find the answer to a question in the text, you may start to panic which makes locating the answer even more difficult. If this is combined with a poor exam technique whereby candidates do not keep moving through the exam but insist on trying to solve questions that are too difficult, it can spell disaster! Sometimes at work you may have to read complex documents or be in a meeting where someone is sharing very dense presentation slides. You may struggle to read these as fast as your colleagues and again, may start to panic or feel like a failure (you're not!). All this can leave you feeling unsure of what's happening and afraid of asking for clarification.

Common causes of reading anxiety

  • Learners whose first language does not use Roman letters, for example Korean, Chinese or Arabic learners, often find reading in English very challenging. Unfamiliarity with the letters used in English can lead to mistakes like confusing 'b' and 'd' as well as a general feeling of uncertainty

  • Poor sound - spelling understanding means that you may not know what a word sounds like. It can also mean that you fail to recognise words you actually know because you don't understand the spelling combination

  • Weak understanding of chunking also causes problems. Chunking is all about how texts break into small, easy-to-read sections. Strong readers read in small chunks rather than individual words. Reading chunks is quicker than reading individual words and chunking a text generally makes it easier to understand overall.

  • Trying to read things that are too difficult can be very demoralising. If there is too much new vocabulary or if the grammar is too advanced you may simply not be able to read the text and can feel very worried about this

  • Not having enough cultural awareness to understand the text as a whole is another common problem. Not understanding cultural references, humour or a colloquial phrase are examples of this.

Five solutions to reading anxiety

  • Work on your pronunciation! Pronunciation is connected to every skill, not just speaking. Understanding pronunciation gives you a better chance of being able to read well because you will be able to 'sound' the words in your head while you are reading

  • Work on spelling patterns. English spelling is particularly troublesome, even for native speakers! Although it may seem that there is no logic, there are recognisable patterns that do connect with specific sounds. Having an understanding of this makes reading significantly easier, and quicker.

  • In your reading practice, make sure you are reading at the correct level for your reading ability and if this is lower than you abilities in other skills, don't be ashamed of dropping down a level, or even two!

  • In exams or stressful situations, keep calm and remember this is not your fault or a reflection on you as a human being. Close your eyes and take 3 slow breaths to centre yourself, then keep going.

  • If you're struggling with reading at work, do you have a sympathetic boss or colleague? If so, it might be a good idea to explain that you are finding things difficult and ask for extra time to read things. There is an increasing awareness of the need for native speakers to do more to support their non-native colleagues so if you have someone at work that you trust, I would encourage you to seek their help.

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