9 ESL Reading Exercises for More Complete Comprehension

Reading is important. No doubt about it.

While it is often referred to as a “passive” skill in language learning along with listening, it is no easy tiger to tame.

It requires focus, motivation and knowledge.

Fortunately, as with any skill, active practice can greatly improve students’ comprehension levels.

Start Off on the Right Foot with Relevant Reading Materials

ESL students are a diverse bunch.

Whether teaching Bruneian 5-year-olds in small towns or Chilean business executives in high-rise buildings, the first rule of ESL teaching always applies: Know your audience!

English is a truly international language. There are books, magazines, translations, websites, blogs and newspapers printed to reflect every interest under the sun, no matter how obscure.

The best way to engage your students is to choose something relevant to their lives. Something that will beguile them and motivate them to persevere with this challenging aspect of language learning.

As much as possible, you will want to source and use authentic materials. Take reading out of the context of the textbook when you can. Have students read things that native English speakers like to read as well, not something tailored to learners.

Consider the skill levels of your students and their respective needs. Whether that means they will primarily need to read road signs or articles from The Financial Times, find something that will interest your students and be of use to them in their daily lives.

Something else to keep in mind is whether there are any additional relevant resources at your disposal.

With the FluentU program, you’ll be able to take a reading activity to the next level.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

By matching reading resources with the respective film or TV, you’ll be able to present the material in a new and dynamic way (plus the students love it).

An Introduction to Top-down and Bottom-up Reading Comprehension

There are three stages to improving reading comprehension work in the classroom:

1. Before we read

2. While we read

3. After we read

Three activities for each stage are suggested below to help students develop in their reading comprehension skills.

We can further differentiate the reading stages by considering the nature of the strategies most useful at each stage. Traditionally these are termed “top-down” and “bottom-up” strategies.

Top-down refers to the student utilizing their prior learning to understand something they read. They will use their own real-world experiences and their expectations based on that learning and experience. Context is key. This strategy encourages the student to consider patterns and make predictions, and it involves looking at the text as a whole rather than decoding each individual word and its meaning. An example of top-down processing would be reading a newspaper headline and predicting what you’d expect the story to be about.

Bottom-up processing gets the student away from their prior knowledge and into the realm of external stimuli. The seemingly arbitrary scribbles on the page are key here. The reader decodes each new word and searches their mental lexicon for the meaning, piecing the meanings together sequentially to understand the words, sentences, paragraphs and, ultimately, the text.

Reading comprehension clearly involves aspects of both processes, so a mixture of activities is suggested to offer the widest arrays of tools to encourage our students on the road to stellar reading comprehension.

9 ESL Reading Exercises for Top to Bottom Comprehension

Before Reading

1. Stimulate discussion

Prior to reading a comprehension text, you will want to engage the students and activate their current vocabulary, getting them talking in broad terms about the topic that they will be reading about.

For example, if the text they will be reading is generally based on the topic of tourism, instigate a discussion on tourism in their country. For example

  • What are the benefits of a strong tourism industry?
  • What are the best tourist destinations in their home country, and why?
  • What are major problems for tourism for their home country?

For some fantastic ESL-oriented conversation questions on a variety of topics, click right here or here. If you are leading business English classes, then these prompts should be more up your alley.

You can start by putting these questions on a worksheet with ample blank space for brainstorming and forming opinions independently. In addition to this (or instead of it) you can opt to have students break into pairs or small groups to discuss before class-wide discussion begins.

This is not a formal debate, but simply an opportunity for the students to pull their related English vocabulary to the forefront of their brains.

As you will already be familiar with the text they will be looking at, you can skilfully and subtly steer the conversation onto issues and areas that are related to the gist of the text to come.

These guidelines apply whether reading a simple piece of children’s book writing or more advanced academic writing. Contextualize the writing through discussion and activate their known topic-related vocabulary through talk.

2. Get key vocabulary out of the way

Now we get to the nitty gritty. Words and their meanings.

Firstly, keep in mind that you don’t want to teach all the vocabulary. Your students will benefit greatly from taking the opportunity to try to deduce meanings in context. This is an important skill to develop, a skill that even the most articulate of native speakers must employ from time to time. Don’t deprive your students of the chance to practice developing this skill by prior teaching every word.

That said, some pre-teaching should be done at this stage. If you don’t find that you need to do this, then the difficulty of the text you have chosen is likely too low for the abilities of your students. They should be encountering a good amount of new language every time they read something you give them.

Decoding phrases can be an area where students struggle the most, especially when it comes to idiomatic phrases. It even takes native speakers some time to recognize whether a phrase is idiomatic or literal, as we are blinded by our own familiarity. So, be sure to consider whether the words or phrases in the text are decodable through context. If one is not, then it may be a good candidate for pre-teaching.

It is a worthwhile exercise for you to scan through each text and isolate idiomatic phrases and a portion of the most difficult vocabulary. Compile these words and phrases and print them on a worksheet. At this point, you can ask your students to read the collection of words, employ the top-down process of prediction and have them write down or discuss what they think the text will be about.

Be careful to not overload the students. Too many words and phrases will bore the life out of them, leaving limited enthusiasm for the reading ahead. Stick to the essentials. What will be most difficult (or impossible) for students to understand on their own while reading?

Next, explain the words and phrases to the students. If you speak the students’ mother tongue, don’t be afraid to employ it judiciously—and for more information on the bilingual method, see here.

Illustrate meaning in a context the students can understand. Do they have a similar idiom in their language? Draw the connection! Use visual stimuli whenever possible. Check this post out for more vocabulary teaching ideas.

Now challenge your students to write sentences using the new vocabulary, either in class or for homework. This allows you to check for comprehension and tweak accordingly.

3. Read the questions first!

As with most things in life, a good technique applied well can maximize chances for success, and reading comprehension techniques are no exception.

It is important to offer students a systematic way to approach reading comprehension tests, particularly for students who are looking for academic or career advancement and plan to take exams such as TOEIC, TOEFL, IELTS, CEFR, etc.

Students should read the questions first, before they approach reading the main body of the text. Why? Well, for a number of reasons:

  • It orients the reader to the genre, topic and purpose of the text.
  • It allows the reader to activate their knowledge of related vocabulary, and to glean the key words and phrases they should seek to understand in the reading.
  • It provides a focus for the reading of the text, so they know what information is important and what is not.
  • It saves tons of time during any test of reading comprehension.

Encourage your students to underline key words and phrases, to make notes and translations above words where necessary. This will help them avoid the common error of not answering the question as it is written on the paper. A little time spent here can improve the overall accuracy and relevance of their answers.

While Reading

4. Read and repeat

For ease of discussion we often talk about the four abilities of language: reading, writing, speaking and listening.

We could also add a fifth: Thinking.

Even though these distinctions can be very useful in how we approach language teaching, they are often imprecise distinctions, a little arbitrary even. There aren’t always clear-cut divisions between the teaching of the abilities. So, don’t be afraid to focus on other abilities, even when your primary focus is on reading.

There are plenty of ways to blend reading comprehension practice time with the development of other skills. For instance, reading comprehension work affords you an excellent opportunity to get in some pronunciation practice. This will enhance their speaking and listening skills, all at once.

When working on a text in class, why not read it with the class? Read a sentence and have them repeat it. Check for correct pronunciation and assist accordingly. After you have worked through the entire piece have the students read it back to you paragraph by paragraph, taking the opportunity to correct where necessary.

5. True or false?

A useful method of checking for comprehension is by reviewing it with a series of true or false statements at the end of the text.

Take your featured text and create a good number of yes or no questions about it. Each question should be relatively simple, covering the main topic, events, themes, characters and anything else described in the text.

Read them out loud while students follow along on a worksheet. Have the students respond to the statements by giving a thumbs-up for a true statement or a thumbs-down for a false statement. This allows you to easily spot the students who are struggling to understand the piece and support them accordingly.

For longer and/or more complex pieces, you may wish to review the true or false statements at the end of each paragraph or page, rather than waiting until the end of the full text.

6. Summarize

This activity could easily be a post-reading activity, but it is also an excellent way of ensuring comprehension as you work through the text with your students.

Encourage your students to take notes, annotate and underline as they go. Discuss the ideas together. Ask them to talk about any personal connections that they have to the topics, or to put themselves in the shoes of someone featured in the text. Students will benefit from relating the learning to their own life, to anchor the vocabulary and its meaning.

At the end of a paragraph (or suitable portion of the text) have the students summarize what they have read in their own words. They should be instructed to write it out in no more than four or five sentences, or to share a spoken presentation that lasts 30 seconds to 1 minute. Reconstructing their learning in this fashion forces them to think clearly to piece together the information they have learned coherently.

After Reading

Don’t lose the impetus! The aftermath of a reading comprehension session is a great time to take part in a variety of activities to reinforce vocabulary and the concepts raised in the material. It also gives students a chance to engage their critical faculties and express their opinions on matters. Engaging in this manner is an important part of language skill development.

7. Quiz time

A fun post-reading activity is to have a quiz based on the reading comprehension text.

It doesn’t have to just be any old quiz. There are quite a few variations on this favorite classroom tool.

  • Oral quiz. This gives the students an opportunity use the vocabulary in speech.
  • Student-created quizzes. It can be extremely useful to break students into two or more team, and to have the students formulate the questions that will be posed to the opposing team. This helps to reinforce their learning, encourages them to identify important ideas in the text and gives them practice generating questions. There is one caveat, however—they must know the answers to their own questions!

8. Debate

Suitable for intermediate to advanced students, a debate offers a platform for students to share their own opinions about a given topic. Often, with a little imagination, a reading comprehension topic can segue into a debate topic that is relevant to the circumstances of the students’ own lives.

Recently, I was preparing a group of Thai teachers for the CEFR B2 exam in class. We had spent considerable time looking at a case study on tourism in Goa, India. The article explored the impacts, positive and negative, on the seaside town. This was very easily adapted to a debate topic: “Tourism: Do the benefits outweigh the burdens?” This resulted in a very animated debate, as the issues had very real consequences for them and their increasingly popular northern Thai town.

9. Close with cloze

Otherwise known as, “finalize with fill-in-the-gaps!”

Assigning homework can be a good way to reinforce vocabulary during the time between classes. After all, repetition is an important aspect of the language learning process, and class time is simply not enough on its own. So, why not set a cloze exercise for homework?

Preparing a cloze exercise can be simple, especially if you have a soft copy of the reading material. In this case, simply cut and paste sentences from the text into a new document. Now cut the words you want the students to work on and paste them into a box at the bottom of the page. The students need to choose the correct word from the box and copy it back into the passage in the correct space. Print it out for your students, and you are all good to go.


So there they are, nine nice ESL reading comprehension exercises to help your students get the most out of your lessons and reading materials together.

And though a cliché, it is no less true that reading is a gift that can open new worlds to the reader.

As one anonymous wit said it, “If you can read this, thank a teacher.”

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