How to Teach ESL Reading

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When teaching ESL reading skills to second language learners, the most important concept to convey is that reading, like writing, is a process. Strong readers don't just sit down with a text, read it once, and completely understand it. Whether readers are aware of it or not, they employ techniques like pre-reading and making predictions to connect the particular text they are presently reading with texts they have read before. For ESL students, breaking this process down into distinct steps is an effective way to build reading comprehension.

Pre-read Technique

Getting ready to read is one of the most important parts of the reading process. Situating the text in terms of its genre and audience can help ESL students approach reading with a critical mindset. Before reading the assignment, ask students to think about the following questions to encourage them to construct a context for the reading:

  • Where did the material come from? Is it an excerpt from a book, a magazine, an online article, or a journal? Knowing where the material comes from tells a great deal about how the piece of writing may be arranged and its purpose. An editorial is intended to persuade readers to believe what the author believes, whereas an article from a scholarly journal is typically written to inform.
  • Who wrote the article? Do you know anything about the author? What other types of materials has he/she written? How could you find out more about the writer? Knowledge of who the author of the material is allows ESL students to enter into the conversation as active participants in the rhetorical process and not passive observers.
  • What is the title of the piece? Can you determine the topic of the issue that will be discussed from the title? What else has been written about this topic? What do you already know about the issue at hand? Having ESL students relate to readings through their existing knowledge system will inspire a more personal interaction between the reader and the text.
  • Who are the intended readers? What does the writer know or assume about his/her audience? How does the author address this audience? Who might have a strong opinion about the topic the reading addresses? An understanding of audience allows ESL students a chance to better understand how writing functions to persuade, influence, entertain or inform.

Make Predictions

Instructors will assist student comprehension by constructing questions about the reading for students to answer before they read the assigned text for the first time. Doing this helps students make predictions about the text and encourages critical interaction when they read. For example, if the students will be reading an article on animal rights, you may ask questions that help provide a background on the issue.

  • How many groups of people can you think of that have strong feelings about animals?
  • What are the feelings of these groups towards animals? How are they similar? How are they different?
  • What might cause someone to change how they feel about animals?
  • Judging by the title, what do you think the purpose of this article is?
  • The article first appeared in People magazine? Who do you think the audience is?

Introduce Vocabulary

ESL students often struggle to understand new words and phrases. Reading exercises are an ideal way for these students to expand their working vocabularies. Instructors should create a vocabulary list of important or challenging words from the reading to hand out. Students can look up the words in a dictionary and write down the definitions. This exercise encourages ESL students to both learn the meanings of new words and phrases and to apply those meanings to the understanding of the assigned text.

First Reading

Have the students read through the text one time. Their main purpose during the first reading is to achieve a working understanding of the text. After they finish reading, have them answer questions that connect the earlier steps of the reading process with their working understanding of the text.

  • Did any of your predictions about the text based on the title turn out to be true?
  • What, if anything, surprised you?
  • What is the author's purpose or argument? Is he/she trying to persuade, inform, describe, etc?
  • What kinds of support are provided by the author to make his/her case?
  • Does the author want the readers to take an action of any kind?


After developing a working understanding of the text, students should look for the author's claims and assertions and determine if he/she backs them up effectively. Also, look for stylistic choices the author makes and analyze them for their effectiveness.

  • Highlight the major points of the writing. Note the thesis statement (the paper's main point) and the other major claims the author makes.
  • Highlight the evidence and supporting information the author provides in a different color than you used to mark the major points.
  • Mark up the text! Ask questions and write comments in the margins.
  • What is the style of the article? Formal? Informal? Funny? Scholarly? Is it effective?

Final Thoughts

The above process of how to teach ESL reading skills can be extended in many different directions depending on the purpose of the assignment, the level of the student population, etc. Students could summarize the reading or respond to it by extending an aspect of the reading they found interesting. Instructors could also assign short answer questions that further encourage critical thinking or use the exercise as a starting point for a larger writing assignment.