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Three tips for overcoming reading anxiety in exams

Updated: Oct 5, 2022

A few months ago, I wrote a post about reading anxiety - when non-native speakers find reading in a foreign language very stressful. This post received positive attention on social media so I thought that it was a topic that might be worth returning to. This time, I'm going to focus on reading anxiety in exams and how you can help yourself overcome this problem. First, let me repeat something I wrote in the first post:

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!

I believe that in exams, a great deal of anxiety is caused simply by poor preparation or a weak exam technique as much as by not being able to read. Let's explore how these problems might be overcome so that you can walk into the reading exam with confidence.

  1. Preparation:

    1. At the risk of stating the obvious, you need to do a lot of reading practice before the exam! I say this because I have worked with so many clients who avoid doing the things they dislike or feel anxious about. If you know you find reading difficult or that reading triggers anxiety for you, you need to begin working on this a long time before your exam. If you do this, you will be able to start with easier materials and build up slowly, thereby gaining in confidence. You cannot solve a problem by avoiding it!

    2. As part of this practice, it is essential that you develop a plan for what reading strategies you will use and how you will manage your time. I once had an IELTS client who had several learning difficulties. This client was terrified of looking at the clock and therefore, although their reading was actually quite strong, was incapable of managing their time and repeatedly scored poorly in their reading exam. In the end, I taught them that 'the clock is your friend and is there to help you'. Once my client understood this, they were able to learn proper time management and their reading score improved significantly. As well as time management, you need to choose and practice appropriate reading strategies. These vary according to the exam but as an example, you might need to learn when it is best to skim read the whole text first or when it is preferable to begin by answering the questions. By practising these skills, you will develop the correct reading habits for your chosen exam.

    3. Finally, during your preparation phase, embody a growth mindset and always learn why you made a mistake. It can be very tempting to do some reading practice, check the answers and move onto the next thing without really digging deep into what you got wrong and why. Every mistake you make is a lesson to be learnt and your reading will improve if you choose to learn from the mistakes you make during your preparation phase.

  2. Mindset:

    1. It's important that you focus on what you can do and are achieving rather than on the things that are difficult. Yes, of course you need to be aware of your weaknesses, but so many learners only consider their weak points and fail to observe positive changes in their abilities. Make sure that you praise yourself regularly, if not daily, by telling yourself that your reading is improving every day and you are making good progress. The words you say to yourself are the most important ones you will ever hear so make sure they are good words!

    2. It's also important to read for pleasure as well as for exam practice. If your only experience of reading is doing difficult tasks that you don't enjoy, it will be hard to develop positive feelings about your reading. Make sure that at least some of your reading time is devoted to things that you like to read, even if it's recipes for chocolate cake or analyses of football matches!

  3. In the exam:

    1. It is really important that you keep to your strategies and overall exam plan. Never deviate from this! Particularly if you have created an exam plan with a teacher, you must stick to it. Going off the plan is like going for a walk in the woods without a map; you might lose track of time or allow yourself to get stuck on one question. Being really strict about this will give you a sense of control and help you to manage your anxiety better.

    2. As part of your exam plan, it's important that you come back to difficult questions later rather than waste valuable time tying to find an answer. Very often, it's easier to locate a difficult answer once we have thought about something else for a while so don't be tempted to give a hard question extra time - keep moving through the exam and come back if you have time later.

    3. Finally, I suggest that you prevent overwhelm by taking micro breaks every 15 minutes. A micro break is a tiny break of a few seconds and is a great way of managing stress and maintaining focus. My favourite micro break is to close my eyes and take three deep breaths. Just doing this every 15 minutes or so is enough to keep me calm and concentrated, exactly what you need for overcoming your reading anxiety!

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like to read how to keep your brain calm or how to stay relaxed while you are studying

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