esl reading comprehension for beginners

6 Super Strategies for Improving ESL Reading Comprehension for Beginners

Reading is knowledge and knowledge is power.

Reading is your students’ bridge to language and culture in the English-speaking world.

It’s perhaps the most essential skill for beginning language learners to develop.

Once you’ve chosen the perfect reading material for your ESL students, where do you go from there?

If taught properly, reading comprehension skills will help students do far more than just read. Reading enhances other essential ESL skills like speaking, listening and writing.

Putting reading comprehension to use at the beginner level will also allow your students to build vocabulary, practice pronunciation and develop grammar knowledge subconsciously. Yes, subconsciously—the best way for students to develop those boring grammar skills is when they don’t even notice.

Once your students begin improving by reading, their thirst for more reading material will grow. They’ll most definitely turn to reading for education and entertainment.

They may want to read local news, learn more about places they’ll travel or become enthusiastic about the best selling English novels they hear about. Reading comprehension opens the door to infinite knowledge and your students will come to appreciate the time they spend in class honing their reading skills.

Reading comprehension is also a key component to almost all formal ESL tests worldwide. These are tests they may be required to pass in order to attend school abroad or get their dream job with an international company.

So, all that being said, how can we help our ESL students develop these crucial skills in the right way?

Here are a few helpful tips to give your students the key to reading comprehension success. 

Where Do I Start?

When discussing reading comprehension at the beginner level, it’s crucial for students to have some basic ESL skills to begin their reading journey.

Starting with the ABCs is the most obvious first step. You’ll then continue with basic vocabulary. After a foundation has been built, you can start tossing in more complex components like prepositions and articles.

Let’s see how this might look in a typical reading comprehension lesson plan. You’re ready to practice reading one day. Here’s how you get started.

For a class full of newbies, a quick ABC warm-up activity can be very beneficial before you start practicing reading together. Refreshing their ABC knowledge will allow the flow of the class to continue without much interruption during the practice section of the lesson.

Once the alphabet soup is out of the way, jump into words. Help your students pronounce and develop a quick thinking approach to saying words as they appear before them. Most native English speakers learned to read this way, and creating a firm foundation from the get-go will make your lesson more effective in the long run. Oversized flashcards, a powerpoint presentation or a verbal game can all be good vocabulary warm-up options.

One important side note: Choose to warm up with words that are relatable to your students, something they may have at home or take an interest in. The word “dog” is, of course, relatable to almost everyone in the world and can easily be used in a sentence.

Our example word “dog” can be magically implanted into the sentence, “Tom has a dog.” You can easily transform the words your students spent a few minutes pronouncing and discussing with their classmates into sentences.

Remember to build your lesson material like you would build a rock wall, brick by brick. This will allow your students to maintain a base knowledge of the material. Formulate sentences using the words previously discussed, adding context to them as you continue on.

Preparing ESL Students to Read Longer English Texts

Before unleashing your eager students into a literary garden of new words and sentences, you must first find material suitable for your class.

Know your students, their goals, needs and interests. Most children won’t be interested in articles on self-improvement, just as adults won’t always appreciate bedtime-style stories. Finding the best, most appropriate material for your students to read will keep them engaged and will ensure that they’ll want to read more.

Once you’ve passed around the day’s reading material, guide your students through some enticing pre-reading tasks. For example, create a short list of 5 to 7 key vocabulary words that are essential to the concept of the reading material. Your students will inevitably discover new words as they read, but taking a little legwork out of it will give them more confidence when they see and understand a word they just learned in the text.

Some other great pre-reading exercises include class or group discussions about the author of the reading material. You can use pictures and let your students discuss the genre the author writes about as well as where he or she is from, what he or she enjoys doing and so on.

You can also share important concepts within the reading material and discuss them briefly, giving your students a base knowledge of what’s to come. You may even want your students to try skimming the text. Skimming involves seeking out certain types of words and information in the text without reading. What jumps right off the pages? Numbers, colors, familiar vocabulary, places and names are often things that are picked out of texts at a first glance.

Set up the reading and success will follow.

6 Strategies to Strengthen ESL Reading Comprehension for Beginners

Now, when it comes to actively interacting with English reading material, you’ll need to give your students additional direction. Here are some great strategies for helping your ESL students get the most out of classroom reading practice.

1. Scanning

This is a great follow-up activity after skimming, enhancing your students’ comprehension of the reading even further.

Scanning is much like skimming, allowing your students more time to review the reading material, but without letting them stew or converse over every word. The goal behind scanning is to give your students the ability to deconstruct the material and take a closer look, picking up the specific details and combining them with the general information they discovered while skimming.

Basically, it’s just a quick read-through. You may want to set a timer for this activity to be extra effective.

2. Predicting

Yet another great method for ESL reading comprehension practice—giving your students more creative freedom.

Choose an individual paragraph and allow your students to discuss what will happen in the next one. This will open up discussion and get them really thinking in English. In order for them to discuss their predictions with their classmates, they’ll have to have a basic level of comprehension and they’ll practice their speaking skills. Saying new words and phrases from the text out loud will reinforce this language in their minds.

Plus, they can ask questions to clarify what’s going on if they missed something. They’ll likely even pick up a few textual details they may have missed from their classmates during conversations. As we’ve previously discussed, it’s always great when ESL students can learn from each other.

3. Summarizing

This is some next level stuff in reading comprehension, giving the students the opportunity to show off their new reading comprehension skills.

When a student can summarize a given piece of reading material in their own words, they’ve definitely developed an excellent understanding of the material’s main concept and message.

You can have students discuss their summaries with one another in groups. You could also give each student a different section of the text to read and have them present their summaries in front of the class.

4. Discussing

The exceptional reading comprehension methods above can all be combined with discussion-based activities that’ll allow students time to develop other sub-skills in ESL development.

Let your students communicate and explore their own unique styles for optimal reading. Prepare easy questions to ask them as a class after reading and, if you’re up to the challenge, think up a couple of controversial questions that’ll really get students fired up.

Multiple choice questions will let them think through what you’ve said and choose best possible answers. They’ll invariably give different answers. Students can then discuss, as a class, why they’d choose one particular answer as opposed to another.

5. Extracting

This sounds surgical, but it’s actually one of the most fun methods here! Take a vacation with your students by using tourist board information or travel agent brochures.

Most ESL students share a few things in common—the desire to explore new things is usually one of them. Utilizing tourist information or vacation brochures can allow your students to visualize the words in the text as they try to understand it more clearly. Pictures in these kinds of materials really make for a fun experience too!

6. Diving in

Using classified ads from newspapers or online websites is useful and fun.

Your students must negotiate what the advertisement is selling or offering in a short paragraph containing a few sentences. Most classifieds are descriptive and enjoyable to students. They can also give class or group presentations on the classified ads they read. They’ll really need to fully commit to diving into these authentic materials.

Whatever the material, it’s important to make sure it’s relevant to your students’ ages, English levels, interests and English goals and needs. Keep in mind that just reading can be boring for some, so keep an interactive dialogue going before and after each reading period.

Don’t let reading go too long—just long enough for your students to grasp the general and specific concepts in the text. Make it fun and enjoyable to harbor more enthusiastic and confident beginner students!


Stephen Seifert is a writer, editor, professor of English and adventurer. With over 7 years of teaching experience to students worldwide, he enjoys the many aspects of culture and traditions different from his own. A world traveler and adventurer, Stephen continues his search for the next challenge to inspire him and his writing, boldly enjoying life to the fullest.

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