Reading Anxiety

child reads a book against a bright wall

When a child with reading anxiety is called upon to read in class, his/her mind instantly becomes flooded with worries: fears that he/she will stumble over words, come across a word that is too difficult to pronounce, or that other students will make fun of him or her. These thoughts and emotions become so overwhelming, he/she begins to connect reading with negative experiences and emotions.

Reading anxiety is a real phobia and a strong negative emotional reaction to reading that can seriously impact performance in school and other areas of life.

In many circumstances, a student with reading anxiety is fully able to read, but fears he/she isn’t capable of doing so. These negative emotions impact how the child thinks about reading, creating a cycle of increased anxiety and lowered reading skills.

Reading anxiety causes the brain to become so focused on these strong negative emotions that it makes it difficult to process new information, resulting in impaired learning.

Since reading is a fundamental skill that is important in all areas of learning, reading anxiety has a major impact on academic performance. If a student is struggling with reading anxiety, he/she is likely struggling in other subjects as well.

Although reading helps lots of people unwind, for some kids, reading is anything but relaxing. It stresses them out. Even just thinking about reading, may cause anxiety.

Some common reasons why kids get anxious when reading:

1. Trouble sounding out words

Reading isn’t fun when every word is a chore to get through. Sounding out words can be extra stressful for older kids whose classmates have already mastered this skill.

2. Trouble with vocabulary

Kids get frustrated when they don’t know the meaning of a lot of the words they’re reading. This can get worse over time if kids are so frustrated that they avoid reading. Less time reading means less time being exposed to new words.

3. Trouble staying focused

Kids who have trouble with focus may struggle with paying attention to what they’re reading which subsequently affects comprehension. Not understanding the text will make it impossible to answer questions about the text resulting in increased anxiety.

4. Thinking about past mistakes

This is often the biggest source of reading anxiety. Kids remember getting teased for reading slowly or mispronouncing words. Even small things can feel like failures to struggling readers and thinking about past mistakes can heighten reading anxiety.

Sensible suggestions to help anxious readers feel more confident:

Suggestion 1

Take turns reading.

Reading long books or pages can feel overwhelming. Sharing the load can make it feel more manageable. Try reading aloud together and trading off pages. This gives kids a break and lets them hear fluent reading.


Suggestion 2

Give choices.

Some kids have trouble focusing on reading if the topic doesn’t interest them. When possible, let kids pick their own books. Or let them choose different formats, like magazines or graphic novels.


Suggestion 3

Use a ruler or index card.

When kids lose their place, it makes reading stressful and time-consuming. Have them use a ruler to keep track of which line they’re on. Or cut a small window in the middle of an index card to help kids focus on a few words at a time.


Suggestion 4

Remind them of a ‘reading win’.

Remind them of a recent reading win — big or small. Maybe it was knowing the meaning of a tricky word in a reading assignment. Ask them to describe how that win felt. This can help kids connect a feeling of success to new challenges they face.


Suggestion 5

Praise their efforts.

Notice when kids make progress in their reading and praise them for it. For example, “I noticed you read that tricky word correctly. Nice work.” Specific praise can build self-esteem and encourage kids to read more.

Teaching kids with dyslexia to read:

A structured literacy approach is the best way to teach children with dyslexia how to read.

A structured literacy approach is:

  • Systematic: Reading skills are taught in a logical order. Kids have to master the basics before moving on to more complex skills. Example: A teacher makes sure kids can blend two letter-sounds before asking them to find those blends in words.
  • Explicit: Teaching is clear and direct. There’s no guesswork. Example: A teacher points to each letter in the word sit and says, “The first sound is /s/, the next sound is /ĭ/, and the last sound is /t/.”
  • Diagnostic: Teachers constantly assess students to make sure they’re mastering concepts before moving on. Instruction is individualized. Example: After working on blending sounds, a teacher notices one student needs more practise.


Recommendations for implementing a structured literacy approach:

1.    Make reading multisensory.

Help connect letters and sounds by engaging the senses, like writing a word in shaving cream or sand while sounding it out.

2.    Tap out the syllables.

Say a long word out loud and tap out each syllable. This can help readers focus on and remember each syllable.


3.    ‘Chunk’ words into phrases.

Instead of reading word by word, try pausing between short, meaningful phrases: “The brown dog / played / with the red ball.”


4.    Use a whisper phone.

Help readers hear subtle differences by making or buying a phone-shaped tube to amplify the sounds as they read aloud.


5.    Listen to audiobooks.

Use software that read text out loud. Audiobooks and text-to-speech (TTS) can help kids become better readers.

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