A woman reading a book.

5 ESL Reading Comprehension Strategies

Reading in English can feel daunting to ESL learners. 

They might feel that they’re doomed if they don’t understand every word.

But with the right strategies and materials, they can go from flailing to thriving and actually learn to love reading.

In this post, we’ll cover five ESL reading comprehension strategies to help your students acquire the skills they need to read with confidence.

With your help, they’ll develop a lifelong skill that will allow them to learn and grow in and outside of the classroom.


1. Scaffolding

Like a wooden framework that supports workmen constructing a building, proper scaffolding should support your students’ learning process.

You can combine reading passages with scaffolding activities such as fill-in-the-blank exercises created from a summarized version of the passage. These exercises are effective for gauging students’ understanding of the text.

You can also use learning organizers such as concept mapping or cluster webs to help your students identify main ideas and subtopics in informational texts

First, model concept mapping for your students by writing the topic of the text 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. 

By using concept mapping, your students will be able to unpack the text and understand its contents better without getting overwhelmed by the plethora of information. 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) to find the answers.

It’s 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. You can 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 without requiring them to spend a lot of time or energy on it.  Skimming also helps them to later find the details they need to know about the topic when they read more closely.

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 extract the main ideas of the passage. Word associations such as “eruption,” “lava” and “ash” all point to the fact that volcanoes are being discussed. 

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 have them look for word associations in a passage and write them down. They can then display the words and categorize them into sensory details such as sound, sight and smell.

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’ll realize 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 have been offensive or disrespectful. 

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

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:

  • Figure out the part of speech of the unknown word. Its ending or position in the sentence might offer a clue.
  • Look for word collocations. For example, if the word is a noun, does it have an article?
  • Look for words like but, however, and or so, which might give a clue to the relationship of the word to its context.
  • Look at the form of the word for clues. You can teach your students some of the main prefixes to help with this. For example: bi means two, pre means before, anti means against and re means again. So if they see a word like pre-war, they can assume it means before the war.

5. Summarizing

As a post-reading activity, you should provide opportunities for your students to summarize what they’ve 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’ve utilized learning organizers discussed earlier, your students can use the main points they’ve 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 or supporting evidence. This skill can be mastered through consistent practice.


The next time they read a text, have your ESL students try a combination of these reading comprehension strategies.

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

Next, check out these super-effective reading comprehension activities for your next ESL class: 

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