22 Effective ESL Reading Activities Your Students Will Love
Do your ESL students sometimes struggle to understand what they’ve read?
Reading comprehension is notoriously difficult for students to learn and for teachers to teach. You have to make it interesting and effective. Otherwise, your students will lose interest and get discouraged from reading in English altogether.
In this post, I’ve compiled 22 awesome and effective ESL reading comprehension activities that your students will surely enjoy. Some are straightforward, while others require a bit of preparation prior to the main activity.
- 1. Pick the Right Word: Which Is It?
- 2. Picture Quiz: Brown Bear, What Do You See?
- 3. Connect the Dots: This Word Goes With That Picture
- 4. Sequence: Putting Humpty Dumpty Back Together
- 5. Story Retelling: Showtime!
- 6. Cause and Effect: Who Solves the Mystery?
- 7. Following Directions: It’s a Treasure Hunt!
- 8. Multiple-choice: Get It Right!
- 9. Short Answers: A Story Within a Story
- 10. Vocabulary Focus: Show and Tell
- 11. Decoding Idioms: Guess What the Phrase Means
- 12. Question Time: Prep for the Real Work
- 13. Read and Repeat: Get Pronunciation Down Pat
- 14. Paragraph Summary: Tell It Another Way
- 15. Quiz Writing and Giving: Stump Your Classmates
- 16. True or False: Give Me a Thumbs-up (Or Down)
- 17. Puzzle Making: Cut and Paste
- 18. Taboo: Don’t Say That!
- 19. Class Discussions: Talk It Out
- 20. Class Debates: Fight It Out
- 21. Class Presentations: In-class TED Talks
- 22. Class Presentations Redux: Tell Me About [A Favorite Topic]
- Why Do ESL Reading Comprehension Activities?
1. Pick the Right Word: Which Is It?
Most ESL reading activities designed to test comprehension look like this:
Sarah went to the (beach/park). There, she met a friend who went to (science class/summer camp) two years ago.
You can usually find exercises like this for free on K12Reader.com and Mr. Nussbaum.com, so you don’t need to spend time making them on your own.
They’re rather cut-and-dry as far as exercises go, but if you’re new to giving out ESL reading comprehension activities or are looking for a safe option, you can always fall back on this one.
2. Picture Quiz: Brown Bear, What Do You See?
If you’re looking for a more creative version of “Pick the Right Word,” you can also craft an ESL reading comprehension activity that doesn’t necessarily involve words and sentences (as strange as that might sound).
Instead of giving students two options to choose from or having them fill in the blanks, you can give them a bunch of pictures and have them do some matching.
Using the example above (Sarah went to the (beach/park) ...), you can label several pictures 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 the correct letter corresponding to the correct image in the blank space.
3. Connect the Dots: This Word Goes With That Picture
Alternatively, you could also use “Connect the Dots” for the same exercise above. This works especially well with younger ESL learners, who’ll be more appreciative of colorful pictures accompanying their learning activities.
Feel free to throw in an irrelevant picture or two to make the activity a tad more tricky and interesting. It’ll also more accurately gauge whether your students actually understand the answers they’re giving out or are just guessing them.
4. Sequence: Putting Humpty Dumpty Back Together
Nursery rhymes like “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall” are engaging for ESL learners of any age.
For this activity, use pictures to retell the story and help your students remember the main plot points, characters and events of the text.
- Create 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.”
- Make a worksheet of a bunch of pictures (related to the stories you’ve created) labeled with either numbers or letters. Make sure there are spaces or lines immediately below the pictures where your students can write their answers. Depending on your class’s level, you can turn the labeling exercise into the perfect drill for practicing spelling and sentence construction.
- Give your students the picture worksheet, and talk about what’s happening in each picture.
- Ask your students to turn over the picture worksheet, and hand out the two stories to read.
- After the students have finished reading, have them flip the papers with the stories over to the blank back side. 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 for fantastic picture reading comprehension worksheets, try ESlFlow.com. There are also some interesting picture worksheets on Cal.org that focus specifically on health literacy for ESL adults.
You’ll probably find that it’s easier and more fun to find a story online, and download images from Google to make your own picture stories.
5. Story Retelling: Showtime!
Story retelling involves reading a text or story and then acting it out to other students. If you have students who love role play, they’ll enjoy this one and similar activities.
- Choose from any of these short stories for ESL students, print them out and make enough copies for the whole class.
- Divide students into small groups. Make sure the size of each group matches the number of characters in the stories you’re handing out.
- Give each group a different story that they’ll need to act out in front of the class.
- Prepare (or have your students prepare) a list of short answers/multiple choice/true or false questions to engage the audience and evaluate how well the actors captured the events of the story.
- Once everything is set, it’s showtime!
6. Cause and Effect: Who Solves the Mystery?
Cause and effect questions help students think outside the box and better understand the ripple effect of events.
Text materials that have a mysterious plot or 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.
For example, you can read this interesting crime scene together with your students in class. Your objective with this activity is to answer the final question: Why isn’t Inspector Coderre satisfied with Ms. Webb’s version of the event?
- Divide students into groups.
- 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.” For example, you can write something like “(effect) Ms. Webb could see the study room → it was well-lit. (cause)” or “(cause) Ms. Webb broke a small window → to get into the house. (effect)” It doesn’t matter how you order the cause and effect—the point is to help students notice details in the story and make an effective analysis.
- Ask the students to identify the part of the testimony that made the detective lose his sympathy. Analyze that testimonial section with another cause and effect chart. Do they notice any inconsistencies?
- Discuss the students’ findings in class or in small groups.
7. Following Directions: It’s a Treasure Hunt!
You don’t have to limit ESL reading comprehension activities to short stories. You can also facilitate hands-on activities to encourage your students to read, such as this treasure hunt game.
- Create a map. It can be hand-drawn or printed. Give unique names to the basic geographic features of the classroom/schoolyard, so students can navigate the “rainforest” or “dark caves” without getting lost.
- Put together a clue sheet to help locate the treasure. It 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.
- Hide different treasures (cards, small balls and beanies) in the classroom or schoolyard.
- Divide your students into groups.
- Give them the map and clue sheet to locate the treasure.
- The first group that finds their treasure wins the game. But they’re always welcome to join other teams to help them find their treasures, too!
8. Multiple-choice: Get It Right!
Multiple-choice is a classic, wonderful way to ease your students into new material. It’s also excellent for building much-needed confidence before moving on to more challenging ways of checking reading comprehension.
You’ll want to use “scaling” in your multiple choice questions—i.e., making each question slightly more difficult than the one before it. This way, your students will be challenged just enough to keep going.
To get started:
- Ask students to read a short story, article or blog post.
- Give them a few concise multiple-choice questions afterward.
- Go over the questions and answers as a class.
9. Short Answers: A Story Within a Story
In this activity, your aim is to get students to dig deeper beneath the surface of what they’re reading. You want them to go beyond answering questions about the events and characters in the story, and talk about related topics as well.
For example, if a short story features lovers who are of the same gender, the students might want to formulate short answers about the concept of homosexuality. (Of course, if this is a taboo topic in the area where you’re teaching, or your students aren’t at the level where they can talk about such topics yet, you may want to pick an easier subject that’s less emotionally charged or controversial.)
There are a lot of ways to go about this activity. You can:
- Give students time to read the story in class.
- Assign the story as homework.
- Pair students up, and have them develop short answers together.
- Have pairs read their short answers to other pairs.
10. Vocabulary Focus: Show and Tell
This exercise is a great way to put some of your students’ newly learned words to good use. Plus, you don’t have to search far for new words—the ones that appear in the assigned reading will do.
All you have to do is:
- Pair students up.
- 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 their classmates.
11. Decoding Idioms: Guess What the Phrase Means
Decoding phrases, especially idioms, can be tricky for most students. That’s why it’s a good idea to devote an entire activity to this concept alone.
- Scan the assigned or target text for idioms that may be difficult to decode based on context alone.
- Compile these words and phrases, and print them on a worksheet.
- Ask your students to read the collection of phrases, and have them write down or discuss what they think the phrases mean. Be careful not to use too many phrases, or you’ll bore the life out of your students and discourage them from reading the assigned or target text further.
- Once everyone is done, explain the phrases to the students. If you speak your students’ mother tongue, you can also judiciously use the bilingual method of teaching English. Ask them if they have similar idioms in their language.
- Challenge your students to write sentences using the new idioms, either in class or for homework. This allows you to check for comprehension and tweak accordingly.
12. Question Time: Prep for the Real Work
Often, ESL reading activities involve answering questions after the text has been read. For this activity, it’ll be the other way around.
Pre-reading questions are great for reading comprehension because:
- They orient the reader to the genre, topic and purpose of the text.
- They allow the reader to activate their knowledge of related vocabulary, and glean the key words and phrases they should seek to understand in the reading.
- They provide a focus for the reading of the text, so students know what information is important and what isn’t.
- They save a ton of time during reading comprehension tests.
Encourage your students to underline key words and phrases, and make notes and translations where necessary. This will help them avoid the common error of not answering the question as it’s written on the paper. A little time spent going over their notes here can improve the overall accuracy and relevance of their answers.
13. Read and Repeat: Get Pronunciation Down Pat
Reading comprehension work gives you an excellent opportunity to get in some pronunciation activities for your ESL students. These will enhance their speaking and listening skills all at once.
For example, when working on a text in class, you can:
- Read a sentence in the target text.
- Have the students repeat the sentence after you, paying close attention to their pronunciation.
- If you notice anything off about their pronunciation, give them gentle feedback.
- Once you’ve worked through the entire piece, have the students read it back to you paragraph by paragraph. Again, take the opportunity to correct where necessary.
14. Paragraph Summary: Tell It Another Way
Similar to the short answer activity discussed earlier, paragraph summary activities can challenge your students and help them develop their unique English voices.
This activity could be done post-reading, but it’s also an excellent way to ensure comprehension as you work through the text with your students.
- Put students in groups.
- Give them the text as you usually would.
- Encourage your students to take notes, annotate and underline as they go. Ask them to talk about any personal connections that they have to the topic(s), or to put themselves in the shoes of someone featured in the text. Students will benefit from relating what they’ve learned to their own lives.
- At the end of a paragraph (or suitable portion of the text), have the students summarize what they’ve read in their own words. They should be instructed to write it out in no more than four or five sentences. Encourage them to use different words and sentence constructions.
- Have them present their summaries to the class. The presentations can last from 30 seconds to a minute each.
- Answer any questions that arise.
15. Quiz Writing and Giving: Stump Your Classmates
A fun post-reading activity is to have a quiz based on the reading comprehension text.
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’ve read.
I’ll go into the specific quiz formats later, but the activity will generally go like this:
- Put students in groups.
- Have them create a quiz for the other groups.
- Have the groups grade the quizzes.
- Discuss the quiz questions and answers as a class.
The quizzes don’t have to be in the usual pen-and-paper format. They can also come in the form of an:
- Oral quiz. This gives the students an opportunity to use their new vocabulary in speech.
- Game show quiz. Set up a game resembling “Jeopardy!,” or choose from any other famous TV game show to model your quiz on.
16. True or False: Give Me a Thumbs-up (Or Down)
True or false is yet another standard classroom activity that can be made fun for your ESL classroom.
- Take your featured text, and create a good number of “yes or no” questions about it. Each question should be relatively simple, covering the main topic, events, themes, characters and anything else described in the text.
- Read the questions out loud while students follow along on a worksheet. Have the students respond to the statements by giving a thumbs-up for a true statement or a thumbs-down for a false statement. This allows you to easily spot the students who are struggling to understand the piece and support them accordingly.
For longer and more complex pieces, you can review the true or false statements at the end of each paragraph or page, instead of the end like you would with simpler pieces.
17. Puzzle Making: Cut and Paste
This could be done as a pre- or post-reading activity and works best in groups.
- Photocopy the passage, and cut it into pieces. Chunks of one or two paragraphs are best.
- Get your students to put the reading together.
You could also do a cloze reading exercise like so:
- From the reading, choose topic sentences that you want your students to work on.
- Using your word processor software (like Microsoft Word or Google Docs), type or copy-and-paste the topic sentences into a blank page.
- From the sentences, cut the words you want your students to work on, and paste them at the bottom of the page. Replace the cut words in the sentences with blanks.
- Let your students fill out the blanks using the words pasted at the bottom of the page.
Luckily, here are some ready-to-use cloze activities on different topics you can swipe from.
18. Taboo: Don’t Say That!
Taboo is arguably the best game for practicing vocabulary and livening up your lesson. If you haven’t heard of it before, it essentially involves a student explaining what the key word they’re thinking of means without using the key word itself or synonyms of any kind.
Here’s another variation:
- Put students in groups of four to five members.
- One student goes first. They draw their key word on the board. If the word is “financial,” the student won’t be able to say “bank,” “money” or “financial.” They can only make gestures or add details to their drawing.
- The student who guesses which word fits the drawing gets a point.
19. Class Discussions: Talk It Out
Class discussions can take place before or after your ESL reading activities.
If you’re doing it beforehand, your goal should be to engage the students and activate their current vocabulary, getting them to talk in broad terms about the topic they’ll be reading.
For example, if the text will be about tourism, kickstart a discussion with questions like:
- What are the benefits of a strong tourism industry?
- What are the best tourist destinations in their home country, and why?
- What are major problems for tourism for their home country?
You can put these questions on a worksheet with ample space for brainstorming and forming opinions independently.
Alternatively, you could divide students into pairs or small groups to discuss the topic before reading the text. Since you’re already familiar with the text they’ll be looking at, you can skillfully and subtly steer the conversation into issues and areas related to the gist of the text to come.
If you’re doing post-reading discussions, you can use questions from ESL textbooks, 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 two to three discussion questions.
- Use the questions as a basis for class discussion.
For some fantastic ESL-oriented discussion questions on a variety of topics, click right here.
20. Class Debates: Fight It Out
If the passage is about something topical, you could use it to organize a debate.
There are many ways to structure a class debate, but the one I usually use is pretty simple:
- One-minute argument
- One-minute rebuttal
- The facilitator (usually you or a capable student) gives feedback.
Suitable for intermediate to advanced students, a debate offers a platform to share opinions about a given topic. Often, with a little imagination, a reading comprehension topic can segue into a debate topic relevant to the students’ own lives.
21. Class Presentations: In-class TED Talks
You know how watching a TED Talk often leaves you with a feeling that you’ve learned something new or even life-changing afterward? Recreate that format in class to further boost reading comprehension.
For example, if the class just read an article about the qualities of a good brand, the students could deliver two-minute presentations about their favorite brand and what makes it special.
To make the most of these in-class TED Talks:
- Show them a relevant TED Talk in class, so they can get the hang of the format.
- Give students time to create their own TED Talks. You could also assign it as a homework assignment instead.
- Decide whether the TED Talk should be done individually or in groups. Both work well enough, in my experience.
22. Class Presentations Redux: Tell Me About [A Favorite Topic]
Then again, your students might feel intimidated at the thought of having to recreate presentations that are given by big-name personalities and watched by millions of people around the world.
In that case, it’s okay to take a more down-to-earth approach to presentations. Give your students a bit more leeway with the format. Better yet, let them have the freedom to talk about any topic they choose.
This way, they’ll make more of an effort to communicate their passion for something in English. They’ll also have a solid incentive to brush up on the necessary vocabulary and express themselves in colorful ways. Watch them come alive as they talk about the things that matter the most to them.
Why Do ESL Reading Comprehension Activities?
- Reading doesn’t only teach ESL students grammar, word usage and sentence structure. It also enables them to acquire new information about the culture surrounding their target language.
- Reading helps students see how English is communicated through writing. As you know, good writing and being a good reader go hand in hand.
- Reading comprehension activities help students test their understanding of words in a written context. At the same time, they can get the most out of their reading assignments.
While you’ve undoubtedly used conventional tests to quiz your students, there are ways to make reading comprehension activities effective without relying on the same old methods.
For example, you can:
- Have your students listen to ESL podcasts. Some of them have transcripts, so students could read those first, then listen to the episode afterward and combine listening and reading comprehension.
- Use videos with subtitles in your classroom for a fun twist on reading comprehension. The key is to use videos that have subtitles, like YouTube and FluentU, the latter of which has authentic videos with accurate transcripts. Have students read the transcript first, then play the video in class.
Sure, there’s a time for your students to read for pleasure outside the classroom. However, in-class reading comprehension activities maximize the benefits of reading by making it more relevant and personal to them.
Also, as their teacher, you’ll have opportunities to clarify misunderstandings and ambiguities, as well as enhance students’ vocabulary, word usage and interpretation skills.
With a few dashes of entertainment and creativity here and there, your ESL students will come to love reading in English beyond its educational benefits.