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10 Useful Tips to Boost Your Intermediate ESL Students’ Reading Comprehension

ESL reading comprehension can be difficult to judge just by listening to your students read news articles, fictional stories, blog posts and the like.

They might know how to pronounce the words correctly, but that doesn’t mean they actually understand everything. So how can you improve your class’ reading comprehension?

The following tips may help them learn faster and improve their skills, instead of spending their time translating the words into their native language—which defeats the purpose of teaching them in English!


1. Get them to read fiction and nonfiction material.

It’s essential that you get your students to read all types of written text—whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.

At this point in their education, your students will likely read more nonfiction than fiction. In many cases, your students will use textbooks, recipes and the like more than novels or storybooks. However, you’ll want to give them some experience with both types.

Here’s how you can do that:

  • Nonfiction: Check out newspapers, magazines and other texts the students can read for practical reasons. Alternatively, you can ask your students to bring in interesting clips they’ve found. This ensures the pieces will be the right level for the class, and also ensure your students will actually like and learn from what they’re reading.
  • Fiction:  You don’t have to start them off with full-length novels. Take a pick from any of these short stories for ESL students of all levels

2. Choose material that’s appropriate to their level.

If you can, skip anything that’s inappropriate content-wise. For example, you want to avoid:

  • Sexual content: You could end up losing students if you hand them, say, a risqué article from Cosmo magazine.
  • Content that has a lot of expletives: This is self-explanatory.

Instead, give them:

  • Materials specifically designed for ESL students: You can start with ESL news websites, for example.
  • Materials they can relate to: It may be difficult for a student living in a two-room home with ten other people to understand an article aimed at wealthy Americans. Choose food articles or other stories your students can read without finding themselves completely out of their element.

3. Teach them how to scan.

Before your students read aloud, have them scan the text. They should be able to get the gist of the article or story they are about to read. 

You can:

  • Demonstrate how to scan first. It can be tough to do this in a different language, so show students on a projector or whiteboard how to run through an article. They should be able to quickly read the subheadings and bullet points to pick up the main ideas.
  • Give the students a passage to read and have them skim the content. Then ask what they think the article or story is about. Point out the important words they should have picked up on.

4. Encourage them to look up unfamiliar words.

There are bound to be words your students don’t know as they read. To help them make the most of this task, you can:

  • Ask them to write down the unfamiliar words. Tell them that it’s okay if they can’t understand most of the text—that’s part of the learning process!
  • Give them a good dictionary. Alternatively, you can ask them to download a dictionary app to their phone.

And if you have students who are visual learners, they can benefit from a program like FluentU. Essentially, they’ll be watching videos with interactive subtitles where they can click on any word to see its definition. Aside from the dictionary definition, they can also see the context where it’s used, example sentences and other videos that use the word.

5. Have students write down questions.

Part of ESL reading comprehension practice should involve questioning what’s in the text rather than taking all of it at face value.

As much as possible:

  • Encourage your students to write down anything they’re curious about or don’t understand. Let them know that there’s no such thing as a “stupid” question!
  • Have them read out their questions after everyone has read the passage. This can help encourage discussion among the students. For example, if there’s an idiom someone doesn’t understand, see if anyone else in the class can explain it. Not only will this help your students retain what they’ve learned in class, but they can also bond with each other through this activity!

6. Use worksheets.

If you have a large class, it can be difficult to gauge reading comprehension by asking verbal questions. A worksheet will help you see exactly who needs extra help.

You don’t have to create the worksheets from scratch. You can:

  • Download pre-made worksheets online. Here are some ESL worksheets you can use for different types of text. 
  • Alternatively, just create a simple questionnaire. Write down the questions you want to ask the students and leave space for the answers to each question. Make sure everyone writes their name at the top so you can see at a glance who truly has mastery of English reading comprehension.

7. Have students create a map.

Earlier, I mentioned that you may want to do something extra to engage visual learners. Another way to do so is by having them create a map if the text involves following directions or knowing about a location.

Here’s how you can do that.

  • Have your class draw maps after they have read a passage. Hang all the maps on the wall and see who drew the most accurate one.
  • Once the students have finished making their maps, draw one on the chalkboard. Let your students take the wheel on this one. For example, they might shout out where each piece of furniture is located in a room, or you could ask what is on the north side of the park. Try to draw the map as accurately as you can. 
      • Use Google Maps. This will help your students plot a route according to directions.

8. Write your instructions on the board.

Here’s a great way to challenge your intermediate ESL students: write instructions on the board at the beginning of class. You can prohibit speaking and make a point of writing everything down. Students will have to follow your instructions to complete the day’s class.

For example, you can:

  • Have them build something using only the written instructions. For example, you can give students a recipe to make in groups of two or three. The results can be hilarious and everyone will have a lot of fun laughing at their mistakes. Also, you can easily check from what they’ve done if they understood what you wrote down.
  • Have your students write out a couple of paragraphs explaining how to do something. Then, divide your students into pairs. Each student will have to follow their partner’s written directions to complete the task or activity.

9. Test the students.

After all the exercises you’ve asked them to do, your students should now be able to demonstrate how well they’ve understood their readings. A few ways you can test them are:

  • Give your students a sheet of questions related to the text. Ask them to keep an eye out for the answers as they read and write them down on the paper. You can look over their filled-out papers and discuss the answers with them later.
  • Ask them the questions in class. You can also have the students read their assigned texts first and then ask them the questions later.
  • Do a straight-up quiz. Assign your students a particular reading and give them a written exam about it the next day.  

10. Encourage reading beyond the classroom. 

The last thing you want is for your students to see reading as a chore. Reading should be fun—no matter what language it’s being done in!

Some ways you can help your students develop a love of reading English materials are:

  • Pick something fun and interesting and have them read it in class. Make sure the students are practicing all the reading skills you’ve taught them.
  • Give them homework. This can be useful for students who are a little behind their peers. Again, pick something fun and interesting for them to read.
  • Ask students to share any interesting English materials they’ve seen recently. If they can do this, it’s a good sign that they’re taking the initiative to read in English on their own and aren’t just doing it for class credit. 


I encourage you to try at least one of these tips to boost the ESL reading comprehension skills of your students. The more they read in English, the more comfortable they will be with the written form of the language and the more their skills will improve. 

And now, hare reading comprehension activities you can use in your class to boost your students’ reading skills: 

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