Although stress is frequently claimed to impede foreign language (FL) reading comprehension, it is usually not explained how. We investigated the effects of stress, working memory (WM) capacity, and inferential complexity on Spanish FL readers’ inferential processing during comprehension. Inferences, although necessary for reading comprehension, vary in inferential complexity and WM demands. We measured 55 intermediate-level Spanish FL learners’ reading comprehension, using questions with three levels of inferential complexity: non-inference (factual), bridging inference (pronoun referent), and pragmatic inference. We measured participants’ WM capacity and varied their stress level between blocks using a video camera. Results showed that higher WM learners were more accurate overall. Inference construction during comprehension was negatively related to inferential complexity. Stress increased processing time overall, with a trend toward greater effect on response times (RTs) for questions requiring greater inferential complexity. Higher WM learners showed a greater effect of inferential complexity on RTs than lower WM learners. More generally, and consistent with the Eysenck, Santos, Derekschan, and Calvo's (2007) Attentional Control Theory, analyses showed that higher WM learners strategically traded reading speed (processing efficiency) for greater comprehension accuracy (processing effectiveness), whereas lower WM learners only did so under stress and did so less successfully. Thus, stress impedes FL reading comprehension through interactions between WM capacity and inferential complexity, and such effects are moderated by strategy use.
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