10 Sure-fire Ways to Get the Most Out of Reading Activities in Your ESL Classroom

Are you tired of seeing your students’ interest levels flatline?

Lucky you — we have a linguistic defibrillator on hand here.

By following a few simple guidelines, you can ensure that your students genuinely enjoy reading time!

The main goal: to make reading practice relevant and exciting to your students.

The bored student scenario is all too common.

Sure, there is a time and place for awesome in-class games and racing the clock. But sometimes it has to be reading time.

When that time rolls around, your ESL lesson plan will have to keep students focused and productive without resorting to fun game time.

Picture this. You are preparing for your Thursday night group lesson.

Your students are three businesspeople who love discussing business-related topics. They also really take to business-related role-play ESL activities such as meeting or negotiation simulations.

The textbook they use is right for their level and meets their needs for the most part, but it’s not really business-focused in any way. You can see their interest totally die out when they are in the middle of a non-business chapter.

You open the textbook to the pages for the next class. Unfortunately, you see that they will start a new chapter — the theme is medicine and science.

On top of that, your class will cover a page-and-a-half reading activity on Louis Pasteur.

Double lame.

There is no hope for you keeping them enthusiastic today, right?

In this post, we will look at how to deal with this and other potential pitfalls of reading activities. We will also be sharing 10 tips to help you and your students get the most out of reading activities in your lessons.

In-class Reading Activities: Merits and Potential Pitfalls

What are the good points of reading activities in class?

First of all, readings provide a foundation for fluency. You can use the topics of reading activities to provide a springboard for lively discussion activities or debates. If the potential for discussion seems limited, you can expand via additional ESL activities such as role-plays.

They are great for pronunciation practice. Having your students read passages aloud in class provides a fantastic opportunity for them to sharpen their intonation and pronunciation. Take note of sentences they have trouble reading smoothly or words they struggle with, and have them repeat.

Students can improve their reading comprehension. Getting your students to skim passages for main ideas and scan for specific details can help them hone the skills they will need to do well on standardized tests like the TOEIC and TOEFL.

Finally, any reading passage is bound to have at least a few new words and phrases for your students. Readings are great for learning new vocabulary because your students can see how the terms are used in context. This makes it easier for them to figure out what they mean and make their own original sentences.

That’s all well and good, but what about the pitfalls?

For one, sometimes readings are just too long. Just getting through one reading — and ensuring the students understand it completely — will take up most of the class, if not all of it.

Readings may be above the students’ levels. This happens often enough: you open up the book during your prep time, and the passage for today is full of vocabulary, grammar and literary devices that you know your students are going to struggle with. You can see the lesson being centered on you explaining the reading rather than the students using it.

Readings may be about something neither you nor the students know anything about. Take, for example, the Louis Pasteur example. You vaguely remember learning about him in elementary school but cannot recall the details. You did not major in medicine. A quick glance at the reading in the textbook and you are already reaching for your dictionary. Later, you begin your class by asking your three students if they know anything about him. You get three students saying “no” in return. Where do you go from here?

Don’t worry! I’m not going to leave you hanging. Next, we will look at 10 sure-fire ways for you to get the most out of reading activities in the ESL classroom. After that, we’ll put everything together and look at how to avoid the pitfalls above using those techniques.

10 Sure-fire Ways to Get the Most Out of Reading Activities in Your ESL Classroom

Ways to Improve Comprehension

1. As a post-reading activity, get your students to summarize the passage. Summaries are perfect for testing comprehension of both main ideas and details. They are also worthwhile for students as they boost their talking time and force them to think about how best to structure their speech. You could get your students to simply summarize the whole reading passage or, to add further challenge, have them summarize whole paragraphs or sections in just one or two sentences. You could also get them to do role-play style summaries. For instance, they could have to pretend to summarize the reading to their five-year-old child.

2. Have your students quiz each other about the reading. Students generally get lots of opportunities to answer questions in class, but not as many to ask them. Try checking their comprehension by having them ask their classmates questions about the passage they have read. If you are teaching a private lesson, get the student to ask you questions. Increase the difficulty level by having them ask questions with the book closed or make true or false statements instead of questions. This would also be done as a post-reading activity.

3. Turn the passage into a puzzle. This could be done as either a pre or post-reading activity and works best in groups. Photocopy the passage, cut it into pieces (chunks of one or two paragraphs are best) and get your students to put the reading together. Alternatively, you could white out the topic sentences in each paragraph and write them on the board, then tell the students to fill in the blanks. Activities such as these take a bit more prep time but are great ways to engage the students’ critical thinking skills and get them communicating with their classmates. 

How to Focus on Vocabulary

4. Preview key words beforehand. If you know who you are teaching, you should have a fairly good idea what words or phrases in the passage will be new to them. Among those words and phrases, you will also know which ones are the most important for what you want your students to accomplish in your lesson. As a pre-reading activity, preview these key words on the whiteboard. Then, have your students scan the reading for the key words and underline them.

5. Explain words from the context. As a follow-up activity, get your students to explain what the key words mean in the context of the reading. Encourage them to do the same thing if they come across additional new vocabulary in the passage. Expand by having them make their own sentences with the key words, or ask their partners questions using them.

6. Play Taboo. No game is better than Taboo for both practicing vocabulary and livening up your lesson. I usually play a quicker, simplified version where the students have to explain what the key word they are thinking of means without using the key word itself or synonyms of any kind. A good alternative activity is a verbal fill-in-the-blank game where students make sentences with the key words but say a nonsense word, such as “fiddle faddle,” in place of them. For example, if the key word is “financial,” they might make a sentence like “Tokyo is the fiddlefaddle capital of Japan.” The student who guesses which word fits gets a point.

Aiming for Total Fluency

7. Facilitate a discussion about the article. Many textbooks with reading activities will provide post-reading discussion questions. You can use these, come up with your own questions or, if your students are at a high enough level, have them come up with the questions themselves.

8. Run a debate. If the passage is about something topical, you could use it to organize a debate. For best results, make it structured. There are many debate structures you can follow, but the one I usually use is pretty simple: one-minute argument, one-minute rebuttal, questions, summary and then the facilitator (usually you, although you could choose a capable student) gives feedback.

9. Conduct a role-play. The topic of the passage may allow you to turn it into something functional. For example, if you’ve just read an article about what makes a good brand, you could role-play a meeting where your students discuss the strengths and weaknesses of their company’s brand image.

10. Get your students to deliver presentations. To go from a passage into a fluency activity, presentations work wonders pretty much every time. Lead your students to consider how the topic of the reading – or the vocabulary used in it – could relate to them. For instance, going back to the article about the qualities of a good brand, the students could each deliver two-minute presentations about their favorite brand and what makes it special.

How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Reading Activities

First, let’s revisit that Louis Pasteur example from the top of the post. A good way to get around this problem is to focus on the vocabulary in the reading and one or two core ideas and apply them to a different context.

Louis Pasteur may not have been a businessman, but he was a pioneer and an innovator. So, why not go hard on the vocabulary used to describe Pasteur and his discoveries? Then, for fluency, have your business-oriented students describe an entrepreneur they respect, or a time in their career when they accomplished something by thinking outside the box.

That leaves two major pitfalls: the reading is too long, and the reading is above the students’ levels. Unfortunately, these two often seem to happen at the same time! First and foremost, it’s important not to let the passage suck you in. The point of your lesson should be doing something with the passage, not simply reading and fully understanding it.

Try sticking to just one key section of the passage, or focus only on the paragraphs which carry the most important information. Preview the main ideas and the vocabulary well beforehand and, for comprehension, set pre-reading questions so that your students will know what they are looking for. For fluency, a simple presentation or summary based on the section you looked at will do the trick and leave your students with a much greater sense of satisfaction at the end of the lesson.

Enter your e-mail address to get your free PDF!

We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe