Examining ESL Student Anxiety as a Detrimental Factor in Reading in English

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The multi-faceted approach to learning English as a second language brings challenges and struggles for most students since speaking, listening, reading and writing skills must be acquired for true mastery of the language. However, since English is currently embraced by individuals in the field of science and the articles are published in English, reading is one of particular importance for students of all language backgrounds. This means that students who wish to remain relevant and up-to-date in their fields must be able to read studies and research with ease. With this in mind, teachers of reading the English language must consider the particular difficulties that students may have when learning this particular skill. One issue that many students face may be anxiety relating to reading in a second language and studies have delved into the topic to look at the specific areas that are problematic. Among the issues for English as a Second Language (ESL) learners is lack of vocabulary as well as a deficiency in reading strategies. The question of this study examines if this is true of students of Technical College in Saudi Arabia; are English foreign language (EFL) students struggling because of vocabulary and reading strategy deficits?


This study will examine two particular aspects of the problem: 1.) Anxiety among students due to gaps in vocabulary knowledge and reading strategies and 2.) The impact of these anxieties on the success of the students in the academic realm. The literature that exists on the topic covers the broad field of student anxiety and reading comprehension, as well as communicating in written and spoken English, but does not examine reading anxiety relating to vocabulary deficiencies and lack of reading strategies. Since vocabulary is a fundamental skill of reading and comprehending academic texts, it is worthwhile to examine student’s levels of anxiety regarding vocabulary and also examine this influence this has on the student’s success.

Significance of the Study

The desired outcome of this study is to better inform educators and students because, as mentioned, little or no research has been conducted on exploring the factors affecting Saudi students in reading. This proposed study will hopefully append new knowledge of the issue of reading anxiety and the effect on student success so that teachers of ESL/EFL courses can anticipate the needs of students and make proactive decisions in teaching methods. This information will be of use to teachers of all levels; elementary, intermediate, secondary and university students in their lesson planning. Administrators and principals will also find the information useful when making school-wide decisions regarding ESL/EFL education. Parents may also consider this information when offering their child support for homework or when conferencing with the child’s teacher about classwork.

Research Design

To examine the levels of anxiety and reasons for reading anxiety among students, a qualitative approach is most appropriate because measuring the thoughts and emotions of participants requires students to express their thoughts and opinions on the topic. This data is best served by qualitative research because it allows students “to understand and give explanation of participant meaning” (Morrow & Smith, 2000) and allows them to express themselves in a non-numeric fashion. Cresswell (2012) also suggests that qualitative research allows researchers to “explore the problem and understand central phenomenon” and understanding the common themes of student reading anxiety is vital to understanding how to make the students more successful ESL learners.

The selected participants will also be in their natural settings, which allows the researcher to build a “complex, holistic picture” that allows researchers to “analyze words [and] report detailed views of informants” (Smith, Mitton & Peacock, 2008). Thus, performing this study in a qualitative approach allows the researcher to study the phenomenon in the educational setting, where the student and their potential anxieties will be observable and provide context to the research (Morrow, Rakhsha & Castaneda, 2001). This is important because the educational setting is where many students discover and ensure their anxieties relating to reading.

Statement of the Problem

When new students join the study of English as their second language they are beginning an extensive process that may take years to complete because of the nature of learning a different language. Students must learn to understand and communicate through reading, comprehending, listening, speaking and writing to be considered masters of the second language (Eunseok, 2013). However, many students struggle with the early parts of learning English, specifically the immense vocabulary that must be learned in order to read and comprehend text (Zin, 2010). While this task may be inherently difficult, there are also other barriers that hinder student’s success, one being the anxiety involved in the process of understanding individual words, another being the student’s ability to overcome the lack of vocabulary understanding.

This topic is of high interest on two planes; one this that instructors and teachers must plan to incorporate skills and strategies to help learners overcome these anxieties and the other is that learners must be aware of their own anxieties in order to focus their studies for optimal success. Both involved parties want to ensure the success of the students and want ways to encourage this success through support and motivation. Administrators and parents also need to be aware of this information to offer programs and support to students and teachers. This research will help determine the level that anxiety impedes second language development and will also suggest strategies that may be effective.

The Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this study is to explore the fundamental issues and concerns that ESL/EFL students attending the College of Technology in Saudia Arabia face and how these factors contribute to reading anxiety.

Research Question

The goal of this study is to examine the ESL reading anxiety of university-aged students and their specific concerns relating to vocabulary. The second goal is to examine the potential reading strategies that can be used to help students overcome the gaps in vocabulary knowledge. The research question for this study is:

What are the fundamental factors of reading anxiety in English as a foreign language at the College of Technology in Saudi Arabia?

Philosophical Position

Research methodology involving phenomenology refers to a philosophy or research method that includes two aspects: descriptive and interpretive (Tuohy, Cooney, Dowling, Murphy & Sixsmith, 2012). The descriptive method means that “extraneous factors, such as religious or cultural thoughts” (Tuohy, et al.) should be put aside to examine the data effectively. Interpretive phenomenology is used to “describe, understand and interpret participants’ experiences” (Tuohy, et al.). The method that is most appropriate to this study is the interpretive phenomenology because the students are from a relatively homogenous group.

Literature Review

Students who learn English as a second language face many difficulties in their learning process and teachers who instruct them have searched for ways to better ways to help students to better understand. In the 2013 study “Foreign Language Reading Anxiety in a Jordanian EFL Context: A Qualitative Study” the researchers identified the factors that contributed to the anxiety of ESL students. Al-Shboul, Ahmad, Nordin, and Rahman found that the anxieties were clustered in fairly clear groups: the writing and lettering systems were unfamiliar to students and the cultural differences made comprehension difficult. Since some languages are comprised of non-alphabet symbols, it makes sense that students may feel anxious when looking at a page of completely unfamiliar script.

However, reading and comprehension are considered the most important skill for long-term ESL students to learn (Eskey, 1973; Carrell, 1998; Mohd, Rafik-Galea & Rafik-Galea, 2010). These researchers reasoned that since students were generally studying English in universities to read academic papers and texts, this skill would be of most use.

The reason that anxiety is so important to address in education is that if anxiety levels are too high, it damages the student’s ability to process the text (Oh, 1990). These students would be more likely to give up on learning a second language or may face more issues than a student who is less anxious. This is not the same anxiety that a student might feel when taking a test, where the student is nervous about their performance or outcome but anxiety that “impair[s] cognitive functioning to disrupt memory, to lead to avoidance behaviors” (Ensench, 1979; MacInty & Gardner, 1991; Jafarigohar, 2012). Avoiding classes or work related to an ESL class would be detrimental to a student’s success so instructors must use techniques that encourage students and help them cope with the related anxiety (Hui-Ju, 2011).

When teachers plan their lessons for their ESL students, reducing anxiety can come in the form of offering students reading strategies. Metacognitive reading strategies are one way that teachers can help students “think about thinking” (Ahmadi, Ismail & Abdullah, 2013) and cope better with difficulties they face in reading and learning. Explicit instruction using metacognitive reading strategies also allows students to transfer the abilities into other educational fields, helping students be stronger students overall, which also includes their performance in the ESL classroom (Aghaie & Zhang, 2012).



The participants in the study are 20 Diploma students who currently study at the College of Technology in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The subjects were chosen based on the convenience method relating to their involvement in the English Language Center. These students study three compulsory English courses and complete a course in their first semester that focuses on General English to improve their performance. These students are also studying English of Specific Purpose (ESP1) and ESP 2 as their selected major.


Exams are given regularly to students at the College of Technology to assess the student’s abilities and proficiency in English, these results will be examined to gauge whether or not a student has been successful. Surveys and interviews will allow participants to share their experiences as ESL students.

Experimental Design

This study will use a single-group survey and interview design. There will be a single group of 20 students who will complete a survey (Appendix B) regarding their comfort levels and anxieties relating to learning English vocabulary. They will also be interviewed about the reading strategies they use (if any) and answer self-reflective questions regarding their level of success in learning English as a second language (Appendix E).


The subjects will have completed a preliminary survey with the knowledge that they will be discussing the questions in more detail about their levels of anxiety and how they were able or unable to overcome them. The interviews will be approximately 35-40 in length and will be at a location and time that is convenient for the interviewees. To ensure that students are able to share the full scope of their experience, the interviews will be conducted in Arabic.

Data Collection

Data will be collected via a survey and vocabulary test first and also a focus group interview second. Collecting data via group interviews is a common qualitative research tool that allows participants to engage in open conversations to share their thoughts and struggles in a group setting (Creswell, 2012). The groups will be no smaller than 4 and no greater than 6 to ensure that a variety of participants have the opportunity to share in a setting that is not intimidating for those who are reluctant to participate. This method is also useful for the researcher because time is limited and it allows data to be gathered quickly. Interviews will be audio recorded for transcription and allow the researcher to return to the audio files to listen for tone and attitudes that may not be reflected in the transcript (Bryman, 2008).

The challenges of this method are the open nature of group interviews (they can be difficult to control) and transcription can be difficult (Bryman). To reduce the impact of these challenges the interview will be semi-structured and formatted as an ask-response basis; meaning that the interviewer will ask the question and individuals will respond in a pre-determined order (Bryman). Semi-structured interviews also allow researchers to develop a deeper understanding of the topic because participants answer the prompts but can also engage in discussion or on related topics that may enrich the study (Fontana & Frey, 2000). This will also help with transcription since individuals will be speaking one at a time.

The survey is a Likert scale with participants responding to statements on a 1-5 scale, from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (5). The survey questions will be as follows:

I feel anxious when I am asked to read in English.

I feel anxious when I am asked to read out loud in English.

I feel comfortable using informal English when speaking to friends.

I am able to understand my instructors when they speak in English.

I feel I have a strong English vocabulary.

I am confident in my ability to read academic English (textbooks, research articles, etc.).

I use reading strategies to help me understand what I am reading.

These responses will give participants a chance to rate their feelings of anxiety or confidence when using English in different settings and gauges their comfort level in both academic and informal usage of English.

The vocabulary test will examine the level of understanding of English vocabulary (Appendix C). As recommended by Paul Nation’s report “Measuring Readiness for Simplified Material: a Test of the First 1,000 Words of English” (1993), a test that uses visuals and statements will be used to measure the level of understanding of ESL students. An online version of this test is available; however, printed versions can be created for the cost of ink and paper (Appendix A).

Sampling Procedures

As previously discussed, students will be selected because of their affiliation with the English resource center and their willingness to participate in the study. The 20 students will need to be second-level students so they are able to reflect on the anxieties they had as first-level students and how they were able to overcome them. This information is vital to the study because of their experience in the matter (Creswell, 2012).

Data Analysis

Preparing and Organizing the Data

After surveys, interviews, and tests have been completed the data will be processed by the researcher. A spreadsheet will be created to note the participant’s identifying information, survey responses, vocabulary test results, and transcript data in response to specific questions to ensure that information is organized in a fashion that allows the researcher to examine data for correlations and connections (Creswell, 2012). Information will then be inputted into the NVivo program because of the ability to code with accuracy for more reliable results.

Coding the Data

Coding is the process of processing data into segments and labels to examine the data for themes (Creswell, 2012, p. 243). The data collected in the study will be coded by the type of response given; survey results use the Likert scale, the vocabulary test score will be graded on the number that the participant got correct, and interview data will be coded by positive or negative response codes. From the coding 5 to 7 themes will be selected, examining the prevalence of anxiety, the level of anxiety and the source of the anxiety.

Developing the Data

Themes cannot be developed until data has been gathered and examined for potential themes; however, this step connects to the research problem to “form in depth understanding of the central phenomenon” and the categories will be developed after the coded data is organized (Creswell, 2012). At this point, the data gathered from the surveys, interviews and vocabulary tests can be reviewed to look for patterns in the data.

Representing Findings

Once data has been gathered and reviewed, the data will be placed into a graph or chart and the researcher will clarify the impact of the data on the related field (Huberman & Miles, 1994). The response question will be used as the guiding compass for how the findings will result in the conclusion. In this study, the results of the interviews- and their connection to the success of the student- will be discussed. In this case, the guiding question is

Interpreting Findings

After all other steps have been completed, the data and results will then be compared to the literature regarding the subject as well as make connections for future studies and the researcher’s own views regarding the findings (Creswell, 2012). The researcher will also reveal how the data relates to the “larger meaning” of the question:

What are the fundamental factors of reading anxiety in English as a foreign language at the College of Technology in Saudi Arabia?


Credibility is what makes a study believable and if an article or author lacks credibility it is unlikely that the results will be included in peer-review and research. The researcher will provide the evidence that he or she gathered and offer educated hypotheses and conclusions regarding that data (Glasser & Strauss, 1967). To ensure credibility the researcher must ensure that the study is transferable, the data is dependable, that results can be confirmed or repeated, that strengths or limitations are considered, and that ethical rules are followed.


For a research study to be transferrable, it must be able to be replicated by another researcher using similar materials, structure, and practices (Glasser & Strauss). This does not mean that the study needs to be with the same population; however, there are certain parameters that should be followed. The purpose of this is to check the validity of the study, as a study that cannot ever be replicated may not be successful. The information included in the appendix and the descriptions provided can assist other researchers in performing a similar study and contributing their outcomes to the


Dependability means that research findings can be repeated in a similar environment and are therefore consistent. A researcher must double-check all information and measure the same aspect of something twice before it can be considered dependable (Glasser & Strauss). With this in mind, this researcher will return to the data a second time to ensure that the information is valid.


Confirmability means that the research study could potentially be used in a similar situation with similar results and that the data can be reviewed and similar conclusions can be made (Glasser & Strauss). In this case, the researcher may need to validate the research and outcomes by reviewing the data and making the connections again, if needed. However, researchers can also ensure that their results are confirmable by keeping organized data and records that could potentially be reviewed by peers.

Represent and Interpret the Results

When all stages of the research study have been completed, the data will be presented in a table or appropriate design and the researcher will also present the conclusions of the study with the appropriate connections presented as well. Interpretation of research means that the researcher considers the data in an unbiased way and explains the relationship between the results and the current literature. Interpreting the data honestly also means including problems that arose during the surveys and interviews in case these issues skewed the outcome of the study.

Strengths and Limitations

The strengths of this research study are that the student population is available and has information to share regarding their experiences as ESL students and that the vocabulary test that is used is one that is recognized across the world as being a reliable judge of participant’s vocabulary levels.

The limits of this research study are that the population is the small participant selection. The number was limited to 20 due to time constraints and ensures that the researcher had considerable time to conduct and analyze the research data.

Ethical Considerations

To ensure the privacy and safety of participants, ethical considerations must be followed for their protection. The researcher will seek approval from the Social and Behavioural Research Ethics Committee (SBREC) at Flinders University for their review and acceptance. Once approval has been gained, the letter will be sent to the Technical and Vocational Training Corporation (TVTC) to gain permission to conduct the study. The researcher will then contact the Dean of the college and the teachers of the College of Technology to get their assistance. When dealing with participant data the information will be stored in a secure, password-protected file to ensure participant privacy (Creswell, 2012).


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Ahmadi, M., Ismail, H., & Abdullah, M. (2013). The importance of metacognitive reading strategy awareness in reading comprehension. English Language Teaching, 6(10), 235-244. doi:10.5539/elt.v6n10p235

Al-Shboul, M. M., Ahmad, I., Nordin, M., & Rahman, Z. (2013). Foreign language reading anxiety in a Jordanian EFL context: A qualitative study. English Language Teaching, 6(6), 38-56. doi:10.5539/elt.v6n6p38

Bryman, A. (2008). Social research methods (3rd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Tuohy, D., Cooney, A., Dowling, M., Murphy, K., & Sixsmith, J. (2013). An overview of interpretive phenomenology as a research methodology. Nurse Researcher, 20(6), 17-20.

Zin, Z. d., & Rafik-Galea, S. (2010). Anxiety and academic reading performance among Malay ESL learners. Journal Of Pan-Pacific Association Of Applied Linguistics, 14(2), 41-58.

(Appendices A-E omitted for preview. Available via download)