How to Eliminate Second Language Reading Anxiety (Without Drugs or Alcohol)

Zhou (2017) looked at what makes second language readers “anxious” when reading. The factors Zhou examined, including amount of study abroad, previous study in the language, heritage language background, and number of foreign languages studied, accounted for only about 15% of the anxiety measured.

I think a better way of addressing this issue is to consider that reading anxiety is a result of attempting to read a text that is too hard for you. The key variable, then, is the relative difficulty of the text for the reader. This is true in both first and second language reading (and listening, of course).

The more incomprehensible the text – either due to unknown words, lack of background knowledge, or both – the more anxious you will feel reading it.

If this is correct, then the key to reducing anxiety in the L2 classroom is simply to make the reading relatively easier for the reader. As the match between the reader and the text gets closer, anxiety will drop.

This, not paradoxically, would also be good for language acquisition. Readers can then “leverage” their existing L2 vocabulary knowledge more readily to help them acquire the meanings of unknown words in the text. It also lowers the Affective Filter and thus facilitates acquisition more generally.

What actually happens in many L2 classrooms, especially intermediate foreign language classes, is quite different: students are given texts that are far too difficult for them, causing many to abandon FL study completely, as Dupuy and Krashen (1993) documented nearly 25 years ago (see also here and here).

Zhou’s qualitative data also supports this conclusion. The 400-level students had more anxiety than 200- and 300-level students, which Zhou no doubt rightly attributes to the fact that 400-level students were required to read unmodified texts in Chinese (p. 166), which were relatively harder for them than the texts the lower-level students were asked to read.

Life for both teachers and students can be made much easier by making sure the texts students are asked to read are ones close to their current reading levels. And the best way to do that is to allow them to read extensively with self-selected texts.

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

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