5 Flavorful Practice Exercises for Healthy ESL Reading Comprehension

Looking for reading exercises your students can really sink their teeth into?

So are they.

Your ESL students want to feel confident and secure navigating daily life in an English-speaking country.

They want to take imaginative journeys while sitting on their sofas at home, leisurely reading a book or article in the sun.

Maybe they even want to write their own stories someday.

Giving your students better reading comprehension helps them develop the understanding they need to succeed in all walks of their ESL journey.

Reading remains one of the Big 4 ESL skills, yet there is great potential to teach your students all kinds of ESL sub-skills during reading comprehension exercises.

Practicing reading can be fun and exciting for your students.

But even more importantly, it’s essential!

Why Is Reading Comprehension So Important?

Teaching reading comprehension is a core part of teaching ESL.

Reading comprehension allows your students to develop their reading skills while also developing other sub-skills. For example, you can easily develop a reading comprehension lesson plan that illuminates vocabulary building, pronunciation and phrasal verbs and idioms while at the same time creating an atmosphere of communication among students in your classroom.

Reading can appear to be an unexciting activity for your students at first, but with a little creativity on your part, you can turn any reading lesson into a fun classroom exercise.

Reading comprehension will also open your students’ eyes to more possibilities for using the English language. With the right skills, your students can begin reading more in-depth articles and academic journals, and maybe even develop research topics in a professional or academic setting.

Challenging your students to read and surround themselves with reading comprehension concepts can also have a long-lasting positive influence on their overall English skills.

Within reading, the skills they develop will build their confidence and empower them to engage in English material or discussions they may have otherwise stayed clear of or ignored.

The bottom line is that reading comprehension practice is essential for the developing ESL student, and your students will be grateful to you for teaching them this aspect of ESL.

Now, when it comes to reading practice exercises that really work, it’s hard to beat the standards. But this doesn’t mean your students have to spend hours at their desks alone, each poring over long lists of questions and getting bored.

Here are 5 tried-and-true classic exercises you can open up to pairs, groups or the whole classroom, making them more fun and effective!

ESL Reading Comprehension Makeover: 5 Standard Practice Exercises with an Interactive Twist

1. Reading Comprehension Multiple Choice

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 to pair a short reading sample—whether it be an article, story or blog—with a few concise multiple choice questions. Remember that keeping your reading material relevant and level-appropriate is an important aspect of any ESL activity.

Here is a great way to spice up your lessons with multiple choice:

  • First, find an article or short excerpt from a story that will interest your students. Maybe something relevant to their hobbies or daily routines. You will want to break up the text into numbered lines or paragraphs in order to guide your students though the material. Depending on class size, you can have a student read one or two lines and then let another student take over. This is a great way to get everyone involved.
  • Once the short story or article has been read, open up discussion and let your students ask questions and converse about the new material they so patiently worked through. You can even add one or two topic questions to your worksheet to spark conversation. A good topic question could be about giving a summary of the material. For example, “What was the main character’s focus in the story?”
  • After a short discussion, pair your students up to answer the multiple choice questions together. This will promote collaboration and communication with their partners. A few example multiple choice questions could be:
    • Where was the main character going?
    • What adjectives were used to describe the main character’s mood?
  • Once the students are confident about their answers, review with them and answer any questions that may pop up. You can do the review as a class or turn the review session into a group activity.

This activity is a simple multiple choice reading comprehension exercise that promotes communication and discussion as sub-skills that are useful to your students’ English development. Here is a great sample worksheet you can utilize when developing your own unique reading activity lesson.

2. Reading Comprehension Short Answers

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, allowing students to work on their own or develop their short answers in a group or with a partner. Remembering to focus on sub-skills within a specific aim or objective will keep your exercise lively and more interesting.

Here is a great short answer practice exercise:

  • You can draw from various reading material for this reading comprehension activity. An article, short story or even small cartoon blocks with brief descriptions can be great material for short answer activities. It is important to craft your short answers from the material in a concise way that’s easy for your students to understand. Remember, “short” is the key here. Think of the questions as if they were multiple choice, but having your students write instead of choosing the correct answers. Here’s an example:
    • Describe the scene in paragraph 2. What is the focus of the main character’s action?
  • First, have your students read the material together or on their own, depending on your class size and what you have in mind. You can easily create a great worksheet students can have in front of them for this lesson as well, by placing the reading material on the front page and the short answer questions on the backside. If you utilize cartoon blocks, it could be a great idea to quickly discuss what each student notices in each cartoon. This will allow students to begin their English thought process with regards to the material.
  • Once your students have finished reading and looking over the material, open the floor for some discussion about what they have just read or let them converse in groups or pairs. They can compare their thoughts on the new reading material you have provided before moving into the practice activity of answering the short answer questions.
  • After they have had a bit of discussion, put forth the challenge and let them loose to answer each short answer on their own or with a partner.
  • Once all students have completed their task of answering the short answer questions, review the material. An excellent way to support writing as a sub-skill in this activity is to let each student read one of their answers aloud. This way, you can correct grammar and pronunciation as you see fit.

This ESL reading comprehension exercise promotes communication, writing, grammar and pronunciation as sub-skills. Your students can really get a lot out of it.

3. Reading Comprehension Vocabulary Questions

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.

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.

Here is a great procedure to follow for a vocabulary question exercise:

  • First, put together a worksheet with your vocabulary questions about the new reading material. An example of a question could be:
    • Find a word in paragraph 2 of the reading that means “dominant.” (Here they will search the reading material you presented, looking for any word in paragraph 2 that would relate to the word in question: “dominant.”)
  • Your students will take turns reading and you can open up the room for discussion before moving them into groups. A great way to develop your student’s vocabulary is make sure you have first discussed the word that pertains to the synonym word in each question. For example, “dominant” would be the synonym of “superior.” Give your students the essential tools to be successful in their activity before beginning the activity.
  • Once they are in groups, ask Group A to answer the first question. They will discuss with each other a word in paragraph 2 that means “dominant” and give you the answer. If they are correct, they get a point.
  • Next, you will do the same for Group B, asking them to answer the second question. The second question could be:
    • What is a word that describes “lazy” in paragraph 3? (This continues until each question has been answered and the group points are tallied, announcing the victor.)
  • Another great way to expand on this activity is to add in bonus definition questions. If Group A can define the word they find, then they get another point and so on. This is a great way to solidify meaning and context for each new vocabulary word and its synonym.

This ESL reading comprehension exercise promotes vocabulary building, group discussion and quick English thought and expression. This is a fun way to end the week and spice up your reading lessons.

4. Reading Comprehension Word Reference

Reading comprehension word reference activities are similar to vocabulary activities, only they get into the “those” and “that”s of a story.

This area of reading comprehension is often overlooked since teachers often assume their students understand the references made within a sentence. In many cases, ESL students may not fully comprehend what those references are actually referring to.

This is an important aspect of reading comprehension and is so common in written English. Spending some time on building word reference comprehension can be very useful to your students’ English growth, confidence and overall development.

Here is a great sample word reference practice exercise:

  • In this exercise, you can utilize an article or short story that uses several demonstrative determiners throughout the text. Using those demonstrative determiners, put together some reference questions that will allow your students to develop an ear for how they are used in English. An example of a word reference question is:
    • In paragraph 2, “those” refers to ___? (For this question, they will go to paragraph 2 of their reading material and search for the meaning of “those.”)
  • First, you will guide your students through the new reading material, making sure they are enunciating and pronouncing well while using good grammar practices in their speech.
  • After the reading is complete, you can open the floor for discussion and answer any pertinent questions regarding what your students have just read.
  • In this exercise, you can pair your students up. Have Student A ask their partner the first word reference question.
  • Student A will then note Student B’s answer on their worksheet or blank sheet of paper. This promotes writing as well as listening and speaking as ESL sub-skills within this reading comprehension activity.
  • The lesson continues as the partners work through each word reference question, each writing down their partner’s answers.

5. Reading Comprehension Paragraph Summary

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.

You can utilize this paragraph summary activity in group, pair or single student reading comprehension lessons. 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.

Here is a fun paragraph summary exercise:

  • First, construct your exercise around a relevant article or story that will interest your students. Relevancy is very important in this activity. Students will have to write a long answer pertaining to a question, so it is essential for them to have interest in the topic.
  • Let your students read as a class or silently at their desks, later opening the room for discussion about the new reading material. Let them bounce ideas off one another and develop their own way of explaining the new material to you and their peers.
  • Once all questions have been addressed and your students are looking confident, present them with the paragraph summary challenge. You can place your paragraph summary questions after a few multiple choice questions, thereby allowing your students to warm up a bit. This will build confidence and comprehension before they begin creating their own sentences and paragraphs about the reading.
  • Let the students look over the paragraph summary questions and then put them into groups. Each group will cover one of the questions. For example:
    • Why would Rodney not want to tell his mother about the encounter with the raccoons?
  • The group will discuss and collaborate on developing their answers. After group discussion has taken place and notes have been jotted down, close the discussion forum and let your students write away silently.
  • After all answers have been completed, pull the class back together and discuss the answers.

Another wonderful and engaging exercise you can utilize in this ESL reading comprehension activity is to allow your student groups to act out their questions from the story. This can be exciting and fun, and it can allow your students to build some more communication skills during the process.

Bonus: Mix and Match and Make the Material Your Own

Mixing and matching all the ESL reading comprehension activities discussed is an amazing way to ensure a whole range of reading comprehension. Each activity has its loopholes and students are very intelligent when it comes to finding ways to developing answers using them. For example, multiple choice answers can be easily guessed using process of elimination even if the student does not truly comprehend the reading material.

Developing your ESL reading comprehension lesson utilizing a few different activities is a wonderful way to ensure your students have total comprehension of the reading. You can also mix and match a few different sub-skills in each activity, allowing your students to practice areas of ESL that may have been left out during the week or previous week. Knowing each of your students will let you know what skills they need to develop.

Here’s a good order to follow when mixing and matching your ESL reading comprehension exercises:

  1. Multiple choice questions. These can be used as a warmup to get your students’ English juices flowing right from the start. It is an easy exercise that students feel very comfortable with as well.
  2. Short answer questions. Short answer questions will drive home various comprehension points that may be slightly overlooked during multiple choice. Make them easy and save the more challenging questions for last.
  3. Vocabulary questions. Utilize vocabulary questions to break up writing along with more thought-provoking activities like paragraph summary or word reference activities. These will require a bit more of your students’ brain power.

So, put your students to the test and challenge them with exciting reading practice exercises they will enjoy and find useful on the road to English fluency!

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. Stephen continues his search for writing inspiration, boldly enjoying life to the fullest.

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