5 ESL Reading Comprehension Strategies That Work Like a Charm

Have you ever attempted learning a foreign language?

If so, you probably have some idea of how daunting your ESL students may find reading.

The good news is, if we use the right strategies and materials to help us read better in a foreign language, we can achieve our learning goals pretty quickly.

So you should be applying this theory to your ESL reading lessons!

Your students need to learn a series of “how-to”s so they aren’t left flailing.

Your don’t just need to teach them grammar and vocabulary.

You need to teach them how to “unpack” a given text and make sense of it.

In this post, we’ll cover strategies to help your students acquire the reading skills they need to attain confidence and continue reading independently in the long run.

So read on…

Choosing Appropriate Texts

Before we get into specific strategies to apply to reading comprehension, it is imperative that your students work with materials suitable for their reading competence level. For example, intermediate readers have unique needs, and so do beginners. Also, a text that is too dense is off-putting, while one that is too scanty can defeat the purpose of reading.

The key word here is “comfort.” Students should feel comfortable with the text they are working with and not feel threatened by it. The chosen reading passage should arouse their interest and its topic should be something that they can relate to. So, pay attention to your class demographics in terms of gender, ethnic background and interests.

Now, let’s look at several effective strategies you can use in teaching ESL reading comprehension.

5 ESL Reading Comprehension Strategies That Work Like a Charm

1. Scaffolding

Like a wooden framework that supports workmen in constructing a building, proper scaffolding should support your students’ learning process. Scaffolding can come in the form of graphic organizers, concept-mapping, visual aids or fill-in-the-blank exercises. Trawl the Internet for reading passages accompanied by exercises or use cluster webs to help your students organize their ideas based on a passage read.

Fill-in-the-blank exercises

Combine reading passages with scaffolding activities such as fill-in-the-blank exercises created from a summarized version of the stories featured. These exercises are effective for gauging students’ understanding of texts read.

Learning organizers

Learning organizers such as concept-mapping or cluster webs will help your students identify main ideas and subtopics in informational texts. By filling in the spaces provided, students will be able to unpack the text and understand its contents better.

Let’s look at an example: 

Taking place once every four years in a different city, the Olympic Games make up one of the most popular athletic events in existence today. At the Games, competitors from all over the world represent their countries while taking part in various sports and physical challenges.

The ancient Olympic Games began in Greece in 776 B.C. or earlier, but the modern Olympics as we know them only started in 1896, when they were brought back by the Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin. The Games have since become an important celebration of international friendship and goodwill.

Today, the Olympic Games include both winter and summer Games. These are held two years apart, and each is hosted in a different part of the world.

First, model concept-mapping for your students by writing the topic “The Olympic Games” in a central box. Then, discuss the ideas surrounding the topic. Get your students to identify the main points in every paragraph and actually write them in boxes surrounding the topic. For example:

  • Taking place every four years
  • First game held in Greece in 776 B.C or earlier
  • Summer and winter games

By using concept mapping, your students will be able to access the text easily and not be overwhelmed by the plethora of information in it. Concept-mapping also comes in handy for extension activities such as summarizing, oral activities and revisiting topics.

Scaffolding can be gradually removed as your students gain autonomy in their language skills.

2. Scanning

When pairing reading passages with questions, train your students to look for the key word(s) in questions and then scan the passage for the same key word(s). The answers are usually found around the key words.

It is best to get students to circle key words in each question first. A useful tip is to use color coding, such as shown in the example below, to allow students to see the connections better.

  1. When did computer mice first appear?
  2. What was the first company to market a computer with a mouse?
  3. What other features have replaced mice today?

While they only became commonly used in the mid-1980s, computer mice first appeared on the market in 1981. Many people might be surprised to know that the first company to market a computer with a mouse was Xerox. Today, while computer mice are still common, other features like touchscreens and touchpads have replaced mice on many devices.

In Question 1, key words include “when,” which denotes the time or year, “computer mice” and “appear.” To teach students how to scan, demonstrate how to look for the term “computer mice” and the word “appear” in the passage. Go over the passage line by line. It is best to cover the rest of the passage using cardboard strips to prevent distraction.

For Question 2, you could get students to circle the key words “what,” “first company” and “market.” You could also explain to students that “what” denotes a noun or nouns.

For Question 3, you could highlight the word “what” again, circle the key words “features” and “replaced,” and run through the next sentence in the text. Here, you could stress to your students that the word “like” means “such as” and tends to precede examples. So, the answer will be the nouns that come right after “features like.”

3. Skimming

Skimming is an essential skill as it gives students an idea of what the text is about. It prepares them for the details they would like to know about the topic when they read closely for meaning.

For an example of a longer reading passage, take a look at this sample passage on volcanoes on the IELTS Mentor site.

You can see how through skimming, readers can get to assuming that this passage is about volcanoes and not, for example, Siberian tigers. Word associations such as “eruption,” “lava” and “ash” all point to the fact that volcanoes are being discussed. Once the topic of the passage has been identified, students can form questions in their minds about volcanoes and get them answered when they read for meaning.

Circling key words and writing them down on the board will help students identify the word associations and hence see the main idea. Once your students have mastered the art of skimming, you can get them to work independently in pairs or individually by getting them to look for word associations in a passage and writing them down on pieces of paper or cards. They can then display the words and categorize them into sensory details such as sound, sight and smell. What an effective and thought-provoking way to teach a class!

4. Context clues

Consider this sentence:

He was sent to the principal because he made insolent remarks towards his teacher.

Readers may ponder what “insolent” means, but upon close reading, they will notice that they can easily guess its meaning. We, as readers, assume “he” is a student and if the teacher were to send the student to the principal, the remarks made by the student must be unpleasant. The reader may argue that the teacher could have dealt with the student himself or herself if the remark made was not very offensive. For the student to be brought to the principal’s attention will signal to the reader that the student must have demonstrated disrespect, possibly by spewing abuse at the teacher.

As illustrated above, awareness of contextual cues can help your students guess meanings of unfamiliar words in context. This skill can be gradually mastered through practice.

Here’s another example:

Daniel procrastinated to avoid his homework by watching TV and playing computer games.

Before asking your students what “procrastinated” means, have them look closely at the context. Daniel avoids doing his homework by watching TV and playing computer games. Therefore, “procrastinate” means to avoid doing something or delaying or putting off a task.

Guessing unfamiliar words from contextual cues trains English language learners not to be too reliant on a dictionary. When students are heavily dependent on a dictionary, their reading fluency and comprehension can be disrupted.

Here are a few helpful tips offered by educator Scott Thornbury on guessing from context that you can put to use with your students:

1. Figure out the part of speech of the unknown word. Its ending or position in the sentence might offer a clue.

2. Look for word collocations: For example, if the word is a noun, does it have an article?

3. Look for words like but, however, and or so, which might give a clue to the relationship of the word to its context.

Here’s an example of one way this tip could work for your students:

In Australia, she is an eminent surgeon even though she is totally unknown in Europe.

Students will have to understand the effect “even though” has on a sentence before arguing that “eminent” is the opposite of “unknown.” If they do understand it, though, they should be able to see that “eminent” clearly means “known” or “famous.”

4. Look at the form of the word for clues.

One way you can put this tip to use is to consider that most prefixes are derived from Latin or Greek. Hence, it may help if your students learn the meanings of some of the main prefixes. For example:

Bicycle: Bi means two, so they could guess this is a vehicle with two wheels.

Pre-war: Pre means before, so they could guess this means “before the war.”

Anti-aging: Anti means against, so students could guess this means “against the process of looking old.”

Reappear: Re means again, so if they know this, students could correctly assume the word means “make a repeat appearance.”

5. Summarizing

As a post-reading activity, you should provide opportunities for your students to summarize what they have read. Summarizing a passage is an effective way to gauge their understanding of the reading material. This can be conducted orally or written in a paragraph.

First, get students to extract the main ideas in the passage discussed. If you have utilized learning organizers discussed earlier in this article, good for you! Your students can use the main points they have already written down to write their summary.

The most important part of summary writing is to teach students to string words or phrases into complete sentences of their own. They should learn to do this while omitting any symbolism, flowery language, unnecessary adjectives and supporting evidence. This skill can be mastered through consistent practice.


So the next time they read a text, have your ESL students try a combination of the above-mentioned reading comprehension strategies.

Through practice, they will continue to improve their reading skills and become better readers of the English language!

Emmie Sahlan has taught English Language and Literature for ten years and has been teaching ESL for the past five years.

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