• https://www.sla.org.uk/control/uploads/images/natural/300/contained/examreader~1603444831.jpeg

Guest Blog: Anxiety, technology and accessibility

21 October 2020 Share

By Julia Clouter, Head of Education / ScanningPens

Anxiety is not conducive to learning. If you are a struggling reader, the ability to interpret symbols that are all around you, as you navigate your education can be overwhelming. To the untutored eye anxiety around reading can be interpreted as poor behaviour. If left unchecked and unidentified this behaviour then becomes the most observable problem. The prognosis for these students is not good. Reading anxiety is a very real and very debilitating experience that contributes to school anxiety and weak self-esteem.  

Reading and learning is intertwined with academic success. The journey starts in early years and if difficulties are not identified and addressed, then understanding and the feeling of belonging to a learning community erodes. On the surface the learner can look robust, but if you tap too hard on the pressure point, the impact can be very detrimental. As a teacher I have seen many unhappy young people breaking up like meringues under increasing academic pressure. The requirement to engage with reading materials at an age related stage, when this is not appropriate causes self-esteem to crumble.  So how do we support and strengthen reading success? And how do we make accessibility tools part of our normal ways of working, accepted by all without fear or anxiety of having attention drawn where it is least wanted?  

This little blog is about reading, anxiety, assistive technology and what we can do differently. 

Often we observe students rushing through texts when asked to read aloud, we hear non words, approximations of the text linked to an image. A familiar story is one of reading to younger student to encourage reading enjoyment. We encourage and support, then when they read back to us we suspect that they have learnt some parts of the text by heart. Sometimes we have the suspicion that the student is hoping that we don’t notice their inability to follow the text. If you look closer you may see trembling hands, flushed features or jiggling body motions. The experienced obfuscator learns how to change the subject, they ask about your pets or your holidays, they chat creatively. They aim to create a diversion that causes reading time with you, to speed by without any reading actually taking place. 

Some students approach reading with grit and determination. They are eager to please, but they read without enjoyment. The undercurrent of worry and self doubt is evident but the reasons for this can remain elusive. When the learner starts to question their intelligence, their self-esteem starts to crumble. Sulzby (1985) proposed that students can become “hopelessly confused” about our expectations, and our instructions become a tangle that is unfathomable.  Coping strategies become essential to survival. I have seen students creating nose bleeds or picking at scabs that then need medical attention, complaining of dreadful stomach aches and sickness and accidentally knocking over water to create a mess that needs immediate action.  When asked to produce their reading book, it is missing. They find tasks to complete that they know will provide a distraction, pencil sharpening, object sorting, or they regale you with fantastical stories.  

What happens when our well meaning efforts to support the students reading progress fail? What happens when anxiety becomes phobia? Where does this fear of reading come from? 

Over time a number of unhelpful labels have been used to describe learners with reading difficulties, fortunately we are more sensitive to the impact of the language we are using and there has been a shift in terminology. We now tend to talk about ‘weak reading skills’ which is more helpful, as it suggests that it is possible to support these readers to improve. Terms like ‘illiterate, ‘students at risk of reading failure’, ‘reluctant readers’ and ‘children who read below grade level’ all contain the implication that the child is at fault and have negative connotations. In our current terminology we do not take into account that anxieties, fears and phobias that are precipitated by engaging in reading activities. 

From a psychological perspective we know that anxiety and feelings of helplessness impairs learning. For the student, the intensity, duration and extent to which anxiety becomes a barrier to reading can be dependent on the experiences they have had. An experience of repeated reading failure may cause students to be afraid of exposing themselves to being seen as a failing learner (Clabby & Belz, 1885). The cycle of anxiety makes it more likely that they will quit trying rather than expose themselves to potential ridicule or the negative attention of their peers.  

Zbornik (2001) tells us that reading anxiety is a specific, situational phobia towards the act of reading that has physical and cognitive reactions. This includes the release of adrenaline that instigates the fight or flight reaction. It also produces effects like rapid breathing, tension headache, feeling shaky,  faint or nauseous. What is left in reserve to complete the task of reading when the body is producing these overwhelming reactions? The task of decoding and comprehending print will be an even greater challenge if approached in a state of anxiety.  

What then can we do and what sort of questions should we be asking? 

Finding time to unpick the underlying issues is not always an available commodity, but there are some questions that could be framed to support the student to gain a better understanding of what it is they are experiencing. Questions like:

• If you are in a situation where you may be asked to read out loud, what do you think about? 

• If you are chosen to read aloud, what do you worry about?

• What does your body feel like when you are reading? 

• What do you do when you feel like this?

can provide us with some insights and help to open dialogue about how the process of reading is experienced by the learner.

What can we do to support? 

Making an investigation of the feelings the learner has around reading is the starting point. From here it is possible to open conversations about accommodations and assistive technology that can support with reading. Encouraging the student not to give up but to become engaged in the investigation of what technology can be used to support and overcome the difficulty is a positive and empowering step forward. Sometimes students are already carrying the technology around in their pocket. Mobile phones often have inbuilt tools that support accessibility. These include screen readers, the potential to change the display with contrasting colour options, magnify, or provide voice access. These accessibility options are also embedded in the tools provided by Google and Microsoft that are freely available when accessing reading content through a web browsers.  

To support the challenge of reading printed text in a classroom or library, ReaderPen can be a helpful and discreet tool that is worth investigating. This is a pen that scans text and converts it to speech.  The words can be listened to through headphones, so are a good option for the wary young person who doesn’t want to be seen as receiving support from an adult when reading. 

The challenge to Investigate tools that support reading independence need to be highly visible in schools. A culture that actively encourages the use of accessibility tools is equally important. In this way learners can reach the conclusion that reading can be for everyone and stigma of difference can be alleviated. 

Ultimately, the goal for us should be to provide the conditions where equality of access is the normal approach to learning. We are in the technological age, and so let’s use the technology to change the narrative of reading anxiety. If the learner is refusing to read, provide access to the resources that they are interested in. Give them the tools to explore what they want to learn independently. In this way we can start to nurture a love of learning and a better understanding of how to manage your learning needs rather than living with limiting  aspirations and self-perceptions.