15 ESL Reading Comprehension Activities Your Students Will Love
Do your ESL students sometimes struggle to understand what they’ve read? Reading comprehension is notoriously difficult for students, and for teachers. You have to make it interesting and effective, otherwise students will lose interest.
In this post, I’ve compiled 15 awesome and effective ESL reading comprehension activities that your students will surely enjoy! And from personal experience, I know that they’re also very effective.
- 1. Picture Quiz: Brown Bear, What Do You See?
- 2. Sequence: Putting Humpty Back Together
- 3. Story Retelling: Showtime!
- 4. Cause and Effect: Who Solves the Mystery?
- 5. Following Directions: It’s a Treasure Hunt!
- 6. Multiple Choice: Get It Right!
- 7. Short Answers: Tell Me a Story
- 8. Vocabulary Focus: Choose the Right Words
- 9. Paragraph Summary: Tell It Another Way
- 10. Quiz Writing and Giving: Stump Your Classmates
- 11. Puzzle Making: Cut and Paste
- 12. Taboo: Don’t Say That!
- 13. Class Discussions: Talk It Out
- 14. Class Debates: Fight It Out
- 15. Class Presentations: In-class TED Talks
- Why Do ESL Reading Comprehension Activities?
- Have Fun with ESL Reading Comprehension
1. Picture Quiz: Brown Bear, What Do You See?
When your students finish reading a story, short text or long article, most reading comprehension activities look very similar to the following:
Sarah went to the (beach/park). There, she met a friend who went to (science class /summer camp) two years ago.
You can find free worksheets like this on K12Reader.com and Mr. Nussbaum.com, so you never need to spend time making one on your own.
But, because we want to make everything a bit more colorful and creative, we’re not going to use words and sentences. Instead of giving students two options to choose from or having them fill in the blanks, why not give them a bunch of pictures and do some matching?
If we use the example above, we can have several pictures labeled as A, B, C and D. Picture A can be a beach, Picture B can be a park and so on. Students can then sort through the pictures and write in the correct picture letter in the blank space.
Additionally, you can use connect the dots to connect pictures to its relevant sentences. Feel free to also throw in an irrelevant picture to make the activity a tad more tricky.
2. Sequence: Putting Humpty Back Together
Use pictures to retell the story and help your students to remember the main plot points, characters and events of the text. Here’s how:
To prepare, you’ll need to make a worksheet of a bunch of pictures that are labeled with either numbers or letters. Make sure that there are spaces or lines immediately below the pictures so your students can label the pictures based on what they see. Depending on the level of your students, you can turn the labeling exercise into the perfect drill for practicing spelling and sentence construction.
You’ll also need copies of two stories. Make sure each is single spaced, and printed on a separate piece of paper. Label each story “Story 1” and “Story 2.”
1. Give your students the picture worksheet and talk about what’s happening in each picture.
2. Ask your students to turn over the picture worksheet, and hand out the two stories to read.
3. After students finished reading, have them turn to the back side of the story papers. Without looking at the story, students should cut out the pictures and glue them to the back of the right story in chronological order.
If you need some inspiration on how to create a great picture reading comprehension worksheet, try ESlFlow.com. There are also some interesting picture worksheets on Cal.org that focus specifically on health literacy for ESL adults.
In the end, you’ll probably find (like me) that it’s more fun to find a story online and download images from Google to make your own picture stories.
3. Story Retelling: Showtime!
This is a great activity, especially for your drama lovers. Story retelling is about reading a text or story and then acting it out to other students.
Depending on the level of your students, you can read the story together in class before dividing them into groups for further discussions.
1. Go to ESLfast.com or any place to find short stories. Print them out and make copies.
2. Divide students into small groups, and give each group a different story that they’ll need to act out in front of the class.
3. Prepare or have your students prepare a list of short answers/multiple choices/true or false reading comprehension questions to not only engage the audience, but also to evaluate how well the actors capture the events of the story.
4. Then, once students have had enough time to prepare, it’s showtime!
4. Cause and Effect: Who Solves the Mystery?
Cause and effect questions help students to think outside the box and better understand the ripple effect of events. Text materials that have a mysterious plot or a historical background are excellent choices because they require students to understand the context of the mystery, the clues and the characters to fully appreciate the thrills of crime solving.
Give this interesting crime scene a try by reading it together with your students in class. The story also ends with the question: Why isn’t Inspector Coderre satisfied with Ms. Webb’s version of the event?
Divide students in groups and answer this question together:
1. Create a cause and effect map to capture the first part of Ms. Webb’s testimony, which ends right before the sentence, “The inspector was very sympathetic and told her that it was very natural to not want to damage somebody’s property.”
Here is an example of the map based on what we read:
- (effect) Ms. Webb could see the study room → it was well-lit. (cause)
- (cause) Ms. Webb broke a small window → to get into the house. (effect)
It doesn’t matter how we order the cause and effect. The point is to help students notice details in the story and make an effective analysis.
2. Ask the students to identify the part of testimony that made the detective lose his sympathy. Analyze that testimonial section with another cause and effect chart. Do they notice any inconsistency?
3. Discuss student findings as a whole class or in small groups.
5. Following Directions: It’s a Treasure Hunt!
When we think about reading comprehension materials, stories and short stories are usually the top resources that come to our minds. However, ESL teachers can do some hands-on activities to encourage students to read and thrive in a fun environment.
The treasure hunt reading comprehension game does just the trick. To play:
1. Hide different treasures (cards, small balls and beanies) in the classroom or schoolyard.
2. Write a short story and clues that tell where to find each treasure.
3. Divide students in groups and give them a map and a clue sheet to locate the treasure.
The map can be hand drawn or printed. Give unique names to the basic geographic features of the classroom/schoolyard so students can navigate the rain forest or dark caves without getting lost!
The clue sheet should begin with a short text that describes an actual or fictional event in the past. The story should include the name of the characters and vague descriptions of the treasures involved. The rest of the clue sheet should be filled with hints, codes and even secret messages for students to decode.
For example, if you hid a diamond playing card on the third shelf of a bookcase in the corner, you can give the following clue:
It stands in a corner with lots of pages for you to read. The diamond is on the third floor and right under a fairy tale.
The first group that finds their treasure wins the game. But they are always welcome to join other teams to help them find their treasures too!
6. Multiple Choice: Get It Right!
Multiple choice has been a favorite for teachers and students throughout the history of education. It is known worldwide and used in K-12 classrooms as well as higher education and also found on various tests in multiple fields of study.
Multiple choice for ESL is no different, and you can use this old standard to your advantage since it is still a relevant way to challenge and check your students’ comprehension level.
Multiple choice activities are a wonderful way to ease your students into new material. They are also excellent for building much-needed confidence before moving into more challenging ways of checking reading comprehension.
It’s a great idea to use “scaling” in your multiple choice questions, making each question slightly more difficult than the one before it. This will ensure confidence building and encourage your students to continue the exercise.
A good way to get started is:
- Ask students to read a short story, article or even a blog post.
- Give them a few concise multiple choice questions afterward.
- Go over the questions and answers as a class.
I know it’s a simple activity, but it almost always works to get students thinking about what they’ve read because they don’t want to give the wrong answers!
7. Short Answers: Tell Me a Story
An ESL reading comprehension activity involving short answers is another great way to check your students’ comprehension of their new reading material. Oftentimes, a specific topic can be noted as your students read through an article or short story.
Short answer activities can challenge your students to look further into the details that surround a specific topic, promoting more in-depth English thought.
This activity can be constructed in a few different ways:
- Allow students time to read (or assign it as homework)
- Pair students up and have them develop short answers together.
- Have pairs read their short answers to other pairs.
This ESL reading comprehension exercise promotes communication, writing, grammar and pronunciation as sub-skills. Your students can really get a lot out of it.
8. Vocabulary Focus: Choose the Right Words
During reading comprehension activities, you may be asked various vocabulary questions about the reading material by your eager students.
This exercise is a great way to put some of those new words to use, and you can develop a wonderful reading comprehension exercise from it by using your own exceptional teacher creativity.
Learning vocabulary words in reading comprehension does not need to be boring. You can utilize new words that appear in the reading to challenge your students in ways they may find appealing and fun.
- Pair students up and have them underline key words in the target text.
- Have them look up any words they don’t know.
- Have students present their vocabulary terms to another pair.
Vocabulary question activities are also a great way to build team and class enthusiasm as your students work together and collaborate to find the answers to the challenging questions you provide.
9. Paragraph Summary: Tell It Another Way
Very similar to the short answer activity discussed previously, a paragraph summary activity promotes writing and in-depth English thought about the new reading material you present to your students.
Paragraph summary activities are a great way to challenge your students and can be used to develop their unique English voices.
- Put students in groups.
- Have them come up with a collaborative paragraph summary, using different words and sentence constructions.
- Present their summaries to another group.
- Answer any questions that arise.
Putting an emphasis on discussion in every lesson is a great way to keep your students enthused and interested in the material you are presenting, and they will practice and follow up in production.
10. Quiz Writing and Giving: Stump Your Classmates
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.
- Put students in groups.
- Have them create a quiz for the other groups.
- Have the groups grade the quizzes.
- Discuss the quiz question and answers as a class.
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.
11. Puzzle Making: Cut and Paste
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).
- 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.
12. Taboo: Don’t Say That!
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.
- Put students in groups of 4-5.
- One student goes first. They draw a word to describe. For example, if the word is “financial,” the student won’t be able to say “bank,” “money” or “financial” of course.
- The student who guesses which word fits gets a point.
13. Class Discussions: Talk It Out
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.
- Put students in groups.
- Have them write 2-3 discussion questions.
- Use the questions as a basis for class discussion.
14. Class Debates: Fight It Out
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
- Then the facilitator (usually you, although you could choose a capable student) gives feedback.
15. Class Presentations: In-class TED Talks
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.
- Show them a relevant TED talk in class, so they can get the hang of the format.
- You can make the development of the presentation homework, or give students time in class to develop their TED talks.
- It also can be a group activity or a solo one. Both work well from my experience.
Why Do ESL Reading Comprehension Activities?
We know why reading is important, right? Not only does reading teach ESL students grammar, word usage and idea expression, but it also enables them to acquire new information about their second language’s culture.
Additionally, reading helps students to see how English is communicated through writing, which is why a good writer is also a good reader.
But reading anything in a second language is never easy. ESL students who are still juggling new vocabulary, grammar rules and even phonics may find reading not only tedious, but also challenging.
Most of the time, students may read an assigned story or text for the mere purpose of “doing” it. Other times, students may have diligently poured over the text—but for one reason or another—completely misunderstood the content.
This is because reading is a complex cognitive process. It involves your student recognizing individual words and putting a string of words together in their relevant context. Depending on the syntactic structure of the sentence and the overall paragraph theme, the semantic of each word may shift to carry on new meanings.
Having reading comprehension activities in the classroom helps students to test their understanding of words in written context, while enabling them to get the most out of their reading assignments.
While you have undoubtedly used the conventional reading comprehension tests to quiz your students, there are ways to make reading comprehension activities effective without relying too much on pencils and papers.
For example, you can integrate watching videos with subtitles into your classroom for a fun twist on reading comprehension. The key is to use videos that have subtitles, like some do on YouTube.
Another idea is to use resources that have transcripts. Some podcasts do this, so that students could read the words first, then listen to the episode to combine listening and reading comprehension.
FluentU also does this, providing authentic videos with accurate transcripts. Have students read the transcript first, then watch the video. Students will also have additional support as they watch the video since any word can be defined by hovering the mouse over it as the video plays.
Have Fun with ESL Reading Comprehension
Sure, there is a time for your students to read for its sheer pleasure. However, reading comprehension activities maximize the benefits of reading by making it more relevant and personal through creative reinforcements.
Let’s help students to personalize the “read information” in applicable and meaningful manners with fun reading comprehension activities.
In the process, you will have opportunities to clarify misunderstandings, discuss points of ambiguities and enhance students’ vocabulary, word usage and interpretation skills.
Who knows, with a few dashes of drama, entertainment and creativity, your ESL students will “read” happily ever after!