5 Effective Reading Comprehension Strategies for Your ESL Students

How many words do you read every day?

Let’s put things in perspective.

In this post alone, you are going to rack up over 1400.

Given that, you can imagine you are probably reading thousands of words every day.

What you read might be primarily (or completely) in English because, just like me, you are an ESL teacher. If English isn’t your mother tongue, you might be reading more in another language.

Well, either way, think about the way you learned to read English: You learned this critical skill gradually. Your own teachers in the past helped you acquire this ability, and now you can see how learning to read well can transform your world and facilitate better understanding.

Could we say that reading skills come naturally to learners of a foreign language? No, not really. That’s not always the case because the learner—no matter his or her age—should learn reading skills in a way that helps them gradually acquire numerous other elements of the language. Reading is not learned in isolation. In other words, reading skills need to be built up using effective strategies, and it’s the teacher’s role to figure these out for their students.

5 Simple Strategies for Developing Your ESL Students’ Reading Comprehension Skills

1. Figure Out the Whys and Hows of ESL Reading Skill Development

Why should students learning English acquire good reading skills?

First of all, don’t forget that reading and listening are called receptive skills, as they are the ways we receive information from language. By means of receptive skills, we come to understand written and spoken language. On the other hand, writing and speaking are called productive skills, since they need to be actively produced.

In order for learners of English to be able to understand simple written texts (short sentences, short articles, newspaper headlines, etc.) or longer texts, complex thinking processes nee to be developed and practiced.

Students need pre-existent knowledge of the words (vocabulary) and the concepts that are described in the text. Therefore, age and language level are important to take into account. So, the younger or less experienced the learner, the easier and more accessible the reading material needs to be.

But…why do people, ESL learners in particular, need and want to read?

We could say that there are two main reasons for reading: (1) Because they have to understand lots of necessary written details that come in front of them while learning the language (i.e. texts, exercises, holiday leaflets, signs, websites, newspaper articles, etc.), and (2) because it is enjoyable for them to read something they like, such as the lyrics of their favorite English songs, stories or novels, English subtitles on online films, the news bulletins, e-mails, messages on social media, etc. 

So, those are quite a few types of reading. You students will need different tools in their linguistic toolbox to parse more complex texts, identify and understand challenging vocabulary, tackle tricky new grammar and understand what is going on in any text. They will be confronting different writing styles, content and difficulty levels.

The big question is now: Which reading skills should we teach our students? How do we make sure they are prepared for absolutely anything written English throws at them?

The answer is that they will need to develop their skills so they can: (a) identify the topic of any text, (b) skim until they get the gist (general understanding) or any text, (c) scan and quickly read to glean specific information, (d) do in-depth reads for detailed information and (e) interpret longer texts with more complex concepts.

As a result, our role is to facilitate our learners’ skill development in these areas and help them figure out each step of the learning process. Okay, okay. Straightforward enough. But how is this done and what do we have to take into account?

2. Consider Your Students’ Ages and Skill Levels

When you ask your younger or less experienced students to read a text that is quite long or which includes lots of unknown words (or both), this is often rather inappropriate for their language level. In turn, this creates a barrier to understanding and it could also demotivate them.

In other words, you cannot expect younger learners and less experienced learners to understand difficult texts without previous knowledge of most of the vocabulary included. Young learners need reading material based on familiar content for their age group as well, as more complex concepts may go right over their heads even if the language is understandable.

A great idea for younger learners is the use of picture dictionaries and illustrated short stories so that it all becomes more accessible to them and the reading material is gradually understood. Translation into the learners’ mother tongue has to be avoided as more appropriate techniques such as mime and gesture or the use of flashcards and pictures can help your students with understanding the unknown vocabulary and also understanding the story.

Generally speaking, when a new text is presented in a more creative and more imaginative way (i.e. using guessing techniques, adding warm-up activities that include sound, images or movements), younger learners are intrigued to read as they have guessed and also been involved in something that is both useful and pleasurable.

Even for teenagers or older students at intermediate or advanced levels—even for candidates sitting for language exams—reading needn’t be tedious! For example, a nice way to present a text—even a difficult one—to teenage or adult learners could be by showing them pictures related to words or ideas that will appear in the text they are about to read later. Even abstract nouns or unknown words can be connected with images. For instance, a difficult text talking about “GM foods” or “intolerance” can be combined with images or a song as a warm-up activity.

Naturally, the well-known T/F questions, ordering paragraphs or multiple choice questions can follow as while-reading or after-reading activities at intermediate or advanced levels. However, other imaginative activities, such as picturing the text or thinking of an alternative ending will certainly strengthen teenage and adult learners’ reading skills and their motivation to learn and use the language.

3. Combine Reading with Writing, Listening and/or Speaking

Effective reading does not happen on its own. It employs the learners’ thinking processes and is best combined with the rest of the skills.

For example, you could ask your intermediate and advanced students to listen to instrumental music that is related to a text (i.e. the soundtrack of a film about a biography or a historical event). While listening to this music, students use their imaginations and guessing techniques. Then they are shown some random words or the title of the text. This way they are gradually presented with new vocabulary, concepts of the text or the plot of a longer story.

Furthermore, after-reading activities could include a role-play, discussion or debate. Writing an alternative funny story based on the text or a book review in groups makes it more interesting for learners and does not separate reading from the rest of the skills!

All in all, guessing, predicting, skimming, scanning techniques and reading for specific or detailed information can be combined with stimulating pre-reading activities. These reading skills can also be linked to other language skills in the while-reading or follow-up activities.

4. Promote Extensive Reading

Let’s get one thing straight here before continuing. Extensive reading is linked to an enjoyable, lengthy process that is done silently by the students on their own, often at home or on their own time. Intensive reading is less relaxed and usually done with the help of a teacher.

You should remember that extensive reading is pleasant and requires good planning on your part. You cannot simply ask them to start reading a book silently!

What kind of resources, materials and ideas are used to promote extensive reading? First, a variety of graded readers (appropriate for their age and level) is what you should start with. If your school library includes such books, you’re lucky. Otherwise, you have to decide how students can obtain them.

Reading in a Second Language: Moving From Theory To Practice (Cambridge Applied Linguistics)

Ask students to form small book clubs according to the particular book title they have chosen. Depending on the type of the book each group has chosen to read and research, activities can vary. In general, you have to be as creative as possible!

You could get more ideas from this book and this activities guide for extensive reading.

5. Prep Reading Skills for Language Exams

Depending on the Exam your students are sitting for, the reading paper is  always a demanding section and candidates have to be well prepared for. The internationally renowned Cambridge Exams© (PET, FCE, Advanced, CPE, IELTS) or Michigan Exams © (ECCE or ECPE) give special tips both to candidates and teachers concerning the reading sections.

In general, good time management, reading for gist, not paying too much attention to every unknown word, scanning the texts and catching the underlying parts of the text (i.e. words, phrases or whole sentences) where the answer to the question has been found are among the necessary techniques your students need to follow while tackling the reading sections.


As ESL educators, we have to remember that effective reading skills make our students better readers, therefore better learners.

Moreover, classroom activities must be creatively linked to other skills in order to lead to effective language learning.

Now, get out there and instill in your students the love of reading!

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