University of Phoenix

Project Description

Action Research Project ESL reading comprehension tests and anxiety.

Project Abstract

ESL learners feel anxious when doing reading comprehension tests
"Anxiety is a basic human emotion consisting of fear and uncertainty" (Sarason, 1988). Anxiety has its good and bad sides. On the one hand it helps avoid dangerous events that can be life threatening. On the other hand it causes people to freeze as they avoid non-dangerous situations. The mind cannot distinguish between what is life threatening or just a stressful situation. "One such event [that causes minds to freeze but is not dangerous] is testing" (Harris & Coy, 2003). Testing is not a dangerous situation. What can be done to trick the mind into believing that testing is not dangerous? "The aim of stress management is to break the link between irrelevant stress reactions (diffused attention, fear, etc.) and academic tasks" (Rubenzer, 1988). This research review will explain the relationship between anxiety and academic reading performance on English as a second language comprehension tests. The writer's aim is to research material for an action research on reading comprehension tests. The problem statement of the action research is that ESL students feel anxious when doing reading comprehension tests. The solution proposed is to use stress relievers to trick the mind into believing there is no danger. ESL students will be taught stress management to relieve anxiety when doing reading comprehension tests. It is believed that once students are relaxed they will be able to perform better.
In order to understand the problem statement that ESL students feel very anxious when doing reading comprehension tests, it is necessary to acquire an understanding of certain terms and their relationships. This paper will discuss in detail the literature on the following terms: Stress and exams, language and ESL anxiety, reading comprehension and foreign language reading anxiety, testing anxiety, stress management relievers, and ways of decreasing anxiety in the foreign and second language classroom.
"Foreign lanugage anxiety and irrational beliefs" (Tittle, 1997) are important issues that need to be considered for a better understanding of what ESL students experience in the ESL classroom. Mathew Tittle claims that ESL students "experience [a kind of] anxiety that is related [to] test anxiety, fear of negative evaluation, and communication apprehension"(Tittle, 1997, p.1). His studies do not conclusively indicate that there is a correlation between foreign language anxiety and irrational beliefs in learners of foreign languages. There seems to be a correlation when it comes to Russian ESL students. A similar study was done on ESL language anxiety in Mexican girls by Eleni Pappamihiel (Pappamihiel, 2001).The study concluded that ESL "girls are significantly more anxious about using English in their mainstream classes"(Pappamihiel, 2001). The study used English Language Anxiety Scale based on Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety Scale to examine the fears and intimidation ESL students feel when confronted with the option of moving into a larger and higher level classroom. This is a very important point to take into consideration when determining ESL class size. How ESL students feel is very important. It has a direct connection to the way they perform in the ESL classroom. "The emotional discomfort of worry, feelings of being overwhelmed, and the unpleasant physical sensations of anxiety distract attention from subtle cognitive tasks" (Rubenzer, 1988). ESL students cannot perform under pressure.
Feeling discomfort and anxious in the classroom does not enhance learning of any kind. Cristina Sanz has written a research paper on the relationship between reading, anxiety, and reading comprehension in foreign language learners (Sanz, 1999). Unfortunately "little research has been conducted to date on the role of anxiety in reading comprehension"(Sanz, 1999). Her studies were done on Spanish and not on ESL. Another reading comprehension research done on Japanese ESL students tried to find the relationship between foreign language classroom anxiety scales and foreign language reading anxiety scales. It seems that the two are not related. The two measure completely different components (Saito et al., 1999. p. 202). It would be interesting to repeat the research in another setting where English is the foreign language and Hebrew is the first language. Foreign language anxiety only increases students' problems with "decoding of a text and the actual processing of textual meaning" (Saito et al., 1999. p.215). The research implications concede that there may be differences between beginners and advanced ESL students. "In the case of beginning students confronted with unfamiliar phonology and scripts, the anxiety might be more immediate" (Saito et al., 1999. p.215). In the case of Hebrew ESL learners, unfamiliar phonology should be an important variable to consider. The latter may cause undue anxiety with regular and learning disadvantaged students who may still be struggling with the phonetic skill of decoding English. "Processing difficulties" may cause "reading avoidance" (Saito et al., 1999. p.215). ESL students will just give up if they can't process the words. The graphic system of Hebrew is difficult to learn. Does that mean that English is, therefore, problematic for Hebrew ESL learners? If so, how do disadvantaged students cope with it?
Dealing with phonetics and reading comprehension is a tough job for ESL learners. A study done on the phonological working memory and reading in test anxiety situation, demonstrated that "anxious subjects showed poorer comprehension than non-anxious subjects" (Calvo, 1996). What the researcher also found was that "high-anxiety subjects produced overt articulation more frequently than low-anxiety subjects" (Calvo, 1996). This information is relevant for ESL teachers. It can help them identify students who articulate as anxious. The study indicates that there is an "interaction between anxiety and interference on [reading] comprehension performance" (Calvo, 1996).
Anxiety and reading comprehension performance can be misleading. At times many other variables enter the picture. Many ESL learners also have reading disabilities. According to Karen Woodman, a linguistics professor at the University of New England in Australia, the challenge teachers need to face "is deciding when a student's problem relates to learning English, and when it is a disability" (SER, 2001). Marjolaine Limbos and Esther Geva have conducted a study on accuracy of teacher assessments of second language students at risk for reading disability. The study sets out to "examine the accuracy of various teacher assessment methods for screening children for reading disability" (Limbros & Geva, 2001).
Anxiety over tests makes parents nervous. Children's anxiety is reflected by how their parents "react to [their] child's performance on tests" (Anderson, 2002). Parents are models on how their children feel. Parents should "make sure [their] child doesn't equate ...grades on a specific test with [being] ... smart" (Anderson, 2002). Tests don't evaluate how good a student or person is...efforts and [confidence do]" (Anderson, 2002). "Test taking doesn't have to lead to test anxiety" (Jackson, 2001). So why does it?
Fear of failure is what stops students from performing well on tests. It's a vicious circle. "The test-anxious person generally believes that not succeeding on a test means [he] will be judged unworthy This feeling of unworthiness translates into increased test anxiety which in turn lowers [his] performance on [the] test" (Jackson, 2001). Pauline Jackson warns that parents can double their children's chances of being anxious unless they learn how to manage their own anxieties. There are many ways to manage anxieties. Pauline Jackson claims that since "tests are not going to go away" (Jackson, 2001), "learning good test-taking thoughts and behaviors will help [children] keep [a] healthy perspective about test[s], better control anxiety during tests and help to perform at a more successful level because they are not crippled by anxiety" (Jackson, 2001). Positive thinking is a very powerful means of turning thoughts of failure into thoughts of success. A study done at St. Clement school in Boston has a positive "affirmation program" which has "affected school performance and attitude" (Franklin, 1990). Teachers encourage students to "silently say their affirmations throughout the day" (Franklin, 1990). The children's grades have gone up as a result of these affirmations (Franklin, 1990). Is there a connection between positive statements and relaxations? Can relaxations improve academic scores? Is there a connection between relaxation and school performance?
A study done on "the relationship between exposure to a relaxation response curriculum and academic achievement ...examined ... middle school students" to see if there was a connection between school performance and relaxation exercises (Benson et al., 2000). "Teachers were trained in how to teach relaxation response exercises and self-care strategies to their students" (Benson et al., 2000). The results of the study showed that "students who had more exposures to the relaxation response curriculum showed an improvement in academic scores over the course of a two-year period" (Jackson, 2001). This indicates that relaxation exercises are an excellent way to relieve anxiety. A Hollywood school incorporates yoga instruction in classes. "Many school districts across the [USA] are examining yoga as a physical education option, and also to ease tension in stressed-out children" (Marshall, 2002). The school has had better grades as a result. San Francisco schools are using "yoga to calm and collect students" (Guthrie, 2002). Dr. Christophersen uses a "bubble" technique to "teach children that slow, even breathing can relieve anger and stress" (Stolberg, 2002). Blowing bubbles is like doing breathing exercises. Breathing exercises are "tactics to calm exam jitters" (Huston Chronicle, 2001). More and more teachers are taking the initiative and teaching children how to relax before a test (Toronto Star, 2003). Is this only a teachers' responsibility? Is it enough to learn to relax only in school? Who else should be involved?
"The best predictor of how a child will cope with stress is how the parents cope" (Stolberg, 2002) Parents can be role models for their children. Their reactions can teach their children stress management or mismanagement. "If a stressed mother slams the door and throws down her keys, she is teaching her child one way to relieve stress...If she goes out for a jog, mediates or practices yoga, she is teaching other ways" (Stolberg, 2002).
"Test anxiety affects every least occasionally" (Toronto Star, 2003). ESL learners exhibit anxiety when doing reading comprehension tests. The reasons have been stated. Positive thinking and encouraging words will go a long way to helping relieve stress. Relaxation exercises will trick students' minds into believing that they are relaxed learners. Dangers will disappear. As relaxed learners they will be able to score higher on reading comprehension tests.
ESL students will feel relaxed when doing reading comprehension tests. The writer of this literary research paper proposes that ESL students learn the techniques of positive affirmations, stress relievers and yoga breathing exercises to help them perform better on reading comprehension tests. This literary research has provided the writer with a better understanding of the variables that influence ESL students' anxiety. The variables are test anxiety, second language anxiety and reading comprehension testing anxiety.


Anderson, N. (2002, September 29). Parents network: Anxiety over tests makes mom nervous: [All editions]. Boston Herarld. Retrieved December 20, 2003, from,
Benson, H. M., Wilcher, B., G., Huggins, E., Zuttermeister, M. E., Myers, P. C., & Friedman, R.., (2000, Spring). Academic performance among middle school students after exposure to a relaxation response curriculum. Journal of Research and Development in Education, 33 (3).
Calvo, M. G. & Eysenck, M. W., (1996, May) Phonological Working Memory and Reading in Test Anxiety. Memory, 4 (3), p.289-307.
Guthrie, J. (2002). Om schooling: Schools reach for yoga to calm and collect students. San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved May 11, 2004, from
Franklin, M. C. (1990, February 25). Self-esteem is elementary positive thinking brings success at St. Clement school: [Third Edition]. Boston Globe, 33. Retrieved December 25, 2003, from
Harris, H. L. & Coy, D. R. (2003). Helping students cope with test anxiety. ERIC Digest.
Jackson, P. (2001, September 5). Test taking doesn't have to lead to test anxiety: [Community Edition]. Florida Times Union. Retrieved December 20, 2003, from
Houston Chronicle. (2001, April 10). Schools test tactics to calm exam jitters: [2 Star Edition]. Houston Chronicle Newspaper, 3. Retrieved December 20, 2003, from
Limbos, M. M. & Geva, E. (2001, March/April). Accuracy of teacher assessments of second-language students at risk for reading disability. Journal of learning disabilities, 34 (2).
Marshall, T. (2002, November 17). Yoga instructor's lessons getting high grades; Hollywood school incorporates exercises in classes: [Broward Metro Edition]. South Florida Sun, 1.B. Retrieved December 21, 2003, from
Matsuda, S., & Gibel, P., (2001). Quiet Apprehension: Reading and Classroom Anxieties Kyoto Sangyo University. Retrieved January 15, 2004, from
Pappamihiel, N. E. (2001, Winter). Moving from the ESL classroom into the mainstream: An investigation of English language anxiety in Mexican girls. Bilingual Research Journal, 25 (1/2), 31-39. Retrieved December 20, 2003, from
Rubenzer, R. L., (1988). Stress management for the learned disabled: ERIC Clearhouse on Handicapped and Gifted Children. Retrieved December 26, 2003, from
Saito, Y., Thomas, G. J., & Horwitz, E. K.., (1999). Foreign Language Reading Anxiety. The Modern Language Journal, 83(2), 202-218.
Sanz, C., (1999, October 8-10). The relationship between reading, anxiety, and reading comprehension. Paper presented at the 1999 Conference on L1 & L2 Acquisition of Spanish and Portuguese & Third Hispanic Linguistics Symposium. Abstract retrieved January 17, 2004, from
Sarason, I.G. (1986). Test anxiety, worry, and cognitive interference. In R. Schwarzer (Ed.). Self-related cognition in Anxiety And Motivation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. 19-34.
Special Education Report. (2001, March 14). Concerted effort needed to spot LDs in ESL students. Special Education Report, 27 (6), 5. Retrieved December 12, 2003, from
Stolberg, S. G. (2002, June 18). Stress management for kindergartners. Retrieved December 20, 2003, from
Tittle, M. (1997). The effects of foreign and second language students' irrational beliefs and anxiety on classroom achievement. EDRS Reproductions.
Toronto Star. (2003, January 20). Take deep breaths and relax before a big test: [Ontario Edition]. Toronto Star, E, 07. Retrieved December 20, 2003, from

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