How To Improve ESL Reading Comprehension

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Start With Simple Texts

The teacher should choose very simple texts to assist intermediate or beginner students who are struggling with ESL reading comprehension. A person learning a second language is like a baby learning his first language. The learner needs to listen to the sounds of the language, and learn and understand vocabulary before being able to reading and comprehend texts. Before asking the student to answer comprehension questions, the teacher should take the initial step of reading aloud various texts for students, while stopping at certain points, pointing out vocabulary including individual words, phrases and idioms and discussing their meanings with students.

Strategies for Teachers

The following simple strategies should help teachers to improve ESL reading skills among their students.

  • Basic English grammar and acquisition of vocabulary are important tools towards the students’ reading comprehension. Before introducing students to reading comprehension, ensure that they understand English words and can associate meanings with the words.
  • Set the pattern for students to follow. In the introductory reading lesson, read a simple passage from a school textbook, fiction or non-fiction book. Students should be provided with copies of the text being read, so they could follow along; however, reserve magazines and newspapers for when students reach an advanced level.
  • While reading the first passage, stop at certain points and explain what you have read. Explain the author’s purpose before, during, and after reading the passage. Ensure that students are familiar with the vocabulary and give them the meanings of words or expressions, which are new to them.
  • Now, it is the students’ turn. Provide them with a text, which they will take turns at reading. Indicate written prompts at certain points in sections or paragraphs where they should stop to discuss what they have read and understood. These prompts would help students to begin expressing their thoughts. Some of these prompts might include: I think…; I noticed…; I like the part where…; I don’t believe/think…” Before beginning the lesson, students should acquaint or re-acquaint themselves with these expressions.
  • Ask them meaningful questions about the content of the passage and the author’s purpose.
  • Allow the class to engage in discussion after each passage read by each student.

Strategies for Students

The following strategies are meant to assist ESL students in improving their reading skills on their own.

  • Review each paragraph after reading it. If you are confused, find the topic sentence, again.
  • Look for transitional words, phrases and paragraphs, which change the topic.
  • Read the first and last paragraph of your text or the first sentence in each section.
  • Monitor if you have missed an idea, backup and reread.
  • Pay attention to vocabulary. Collect new words in a notebook especially for that purpose. Look up the new word in a dictionary and study its meaning. Try to fit the right synonym into context of the sentence. It is a good idea to learn the antonym of the word at the same time. Reading for vocabulary is very important in improving your reading comprehension.
  • When you are building your vocabulary, concentrate on roots, prefixes and endings. This will help you tremendously to recognize new words you will come across.
  • Ask yourself questions about each paragraph. Write the answers down in a notebook.
  • Move ahead on your own, reading as much as possible in the new language. Broaden your background knowledge by reading as many magazines, newspapers and books that you possibly can.
  • Get together with classmates and discuss reading material. This is a great way to improve comprehension.

Teacher Assessment and Student Self -Assessment

Teacher assessment of intermediate and advanced beginner students and students’ self-assessment should be done on a regular basis. Teachers should assess whether or not students can understand the purpose and main meaning of short simple texts, simple instructions such as those in their textbooks; and simple everyday material like advertisements and timetables. Students should perform self-assessments to determine if they can understand isolated words and phrases in texts that come before them for the first time as well as if they can understand signs, menus and very short, simple written descriptions of familiar persons, places and things.


Even native speakers of English have difficulty in understanding texts at times. In addition, native speakers of English engage in a life-long process of learning new words. This process is even more important for the student of English as a second language. The strategies listed in this article are beneficial to both students and teachers alike. To improve ESL reading comprehension, the ESL student should motivate him or herself to keep working diligently, as well as ask for assistance from the teacher if problems continue to confront him or her.