Students’ reading anxiety can be reduced by teaching techniques that intentionally control heart rate, as demonstrated in a study by Fatemah Kermani and Parviz Birjandi at the Islamic Azad University in Tehran, Iran.
Students vary in how prone they are to language learning anxiety. Anxiety decreases activity in areas of the brain associated with language learning, which may consequently make students even more anxious. Reading anxiety, more specifically, occurs when reading L2 texts, and more anxious students retain less information after reading.
The heart constantly signals to the brain, influencing our cognitive and emotional state. Heart rates tend to be more irregular when experiencing negative emotions such as anxiety. Controlling heart rate can feedback to control anxiety, and improve attention, memory and reasoning.
One process which may be linking heart rate and brain activity is stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system. This system, which is not generally under conscious control, acts to calm down the stress response so that we can ‘rest and digest’.
Kermani and Birjandi taught self regulating techniques, developed by the Institute of HeartMath, to Iranian university and high school students aged 16-25. Then they tested the students’ ability to control reading anxiety.
The HeartMath techniques taught included:
- Freeze-Frame: Focus on the heart area and normal, even breathing while re experiencing positive emotions such as love or compassion.
- Cut-Thru: Be aware and observe the current negative feeling, then shift focus to the heart area and solar plexus (in the abdomen) while reexperiencing a positive feeling and viewing the negative feeling as if it belonged to someone else.
- Heart Lock-In: Focus on the heart area and breathe in through the heart and out through the solar plexus, while sustaining a caring, compassionate feeling towards the self and others.
Heart rhythm was measured before and after practicing the techniques, and then before and after the reading tasks while using the techniques. The heart rhythm data was collected using a monitor attached to the student’s earlobe and recoded on a computer.
Reading anxiety was measured using the FLRAS (Foreign Language Reading Anxiety Scale). Unlike general language anxiety, reading anxiety varies depending on the specific writing system of the L2. The more difficult students think it is to read in L2, the more anxious they are, and the lower their reading comprehension scores tend to be.
Students with more variation in their heart rate also had greater reading anxiety. Using the techniques to make the heart rhythm smoother and less variable reduced reading anxiety. These self-regulating techniques should have the broader, highly desirable consequences of improving emotional well-being generally, boosting learning and improving classroom behaviour – and they work well for teachers too.
- Kermani, F. M. E. and Birjandi, P. (2019) ‘Heart-brain coherence: Relationship between high coherence ratio and reading anxiety among Iranian EFL learners.’ Journal of Research in Applied Linguistics, 10(1): 32-50.