What is reading anxiety?

elt reading reading anxiety Oct 22, 2021

By Dr Jeremy Koay

A limited view

Children who have issues with reading are sometimes described as poor, reluctant, or struggling readers (Jalongo & Hirsh, 2010). These descriptions tend to focus on children rather than their reading problems.

While it is important to focus on strategies to help children improve their reading skills, emotional aspects of the reading experience are sometimes neglected. Repeated ‘neutral’ experiences, such as reading aloud, paired with peer ridicule, for example, can cause learners to associate reading with negative emotions (Jalongo & Hirsh, 2010).

A holistic view

Reading anxiety is an anxiety that learners experience while they are reading in their new target language (Zhou, 2017). This can be caused by unfamiliar scripts and writing systems, or cultural material (Saito, Horwitz & Garza, 1999). For example, the Chinese script might cause difficulties for an English-speaking student because the two languages do not share a common writing system. Reading anxiety can also be a result of learners’ unrealistic expectations that they should be able to understand everything they read in the target language.

Reading anxiety can result in physical and cognitive reactions. Physical reactions may include the release of adrenaline and symptoms such as sweating, feeling shaky, a pounding heart, rapid breathing and stomach ache (Jalongo & Hirsh, 2010). Cognitive reactions may include an overwhelming sense of dread, low self-esteem, feelings of helplessness and expectations of public humiliation (Jalongo & Hirsh, 2010).

Theory and practice

Teachers can help learners cope with reading anxiety by helping them overcome unrealistic expectations. It is important to tell learners that even highly competent readers don’t always understand everything they read.

Students can use specific anxiety-reducing methods such as deep breathing or positive self-talk (Saito, Horwitz & Garza, 1999).

Knowing that unfamiliarity may cause reading anxiety, teachers should select authentic reading materials carefully (Saito, Horwitz & Garza, 1999). These materials should include vocabulary and language that learners are familiar with.

Finally, teachers can devote more time to pre-reading activities and revisit reading goals (Saito, Horwitz & Garza, 1999). These goals include identifying the purpose of the text and the main ideas, rather than understanding everything in the text.


Jalongo, M. R., & Hirsh, R. A. (2010). Understanding reading anxiety: New insights from neuroscience. Early Childhood Education Journal, 37(6), 431-435.

Saito, Y., Horwitz, E.K. & Garza, T.J. (1999). Foreign language reading anxiety. The Modern Language Journal, 83(2), 202-218.

Zhou, J. (2017). Foreign language reading anxiety in a Chinese as a foreign language context. Reading in a Foreign Language. 29(1), 155-173.

Dr Jeremy Koay is a New Zealand-based Independent Researcher and a Research & Development Consultant at EduMaxi. He obtained his PhD in Applied Linguistics from Victoria University of Wellington in 2015. His research interests include Discourse Analysis, Genre Analysis and TESOL.

Image source: Shutterstock.com/Oksana Kuzmina