Digital Age Teaching and Learning

5 Simple Ways to Help ESL Readers

5 Simple Ways to Help ESL Readers

Reading and literacy are challenging for many people, even more so for ESL readers who aren’t as familiar with the language. ESL students need even more support when it comes to reading – here are 5 simple ways you can help them develop their reading abilities and comprehension.

1. Review Tests and Work Sheets

Most of the stories, books, articles – the texts you use in the class – aren’t directly under your control. They are written by other people, so the language they use and how they use it isn’t easily alterable for an ESL reader. However, there are a few things you can control, notably your tests, quizzes, worksheets and handouts. Review everything you create to make sure instructions are clear and sentences are short and to the point. There’s often multiple ways to say the same thing, but what might seem clear to a native speaker, might be more complicated to an ESL reader:

  • Compare and contrast Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer either by drawing a Venn diagram or writing a paragraph.
  • Compare and contrast Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. Draw a Venn diagram OR write a paragraph.

Sometimes wordy or long sentences can get ESL students lost in a maze of words and doubt. The shorter, the better. Complicated syntax in instructions can be the downfall for an ESL reader.

2. Pre-Teach Key Vocabulary

Before handing out any reading assignments, look them over for words that could make or break an ESL reader’s understanding. It’s one thing to pick out big, more academic or advanced words to pre-teach the class, and another to find the words that are essential for understanding. Many students may be able to figure out some words from the context of the sentence, but if the meaning of a paragraph or sentence centers around a key concept or word, it’s best to pre-teach that first, so ESL readers have a better chance of succeeding. If the text is about an historical event for example, you may need to go over it first. Once I worked with an ESL student, reading about the Civil War and slavery. Even though she was in 5th grade, she didn’t know the word ‘slaver.’ How could she even begin to understand that reading without going over the key ideas first?

3. Set the Context: Make Connections and Predictions

If you have never tried learning another language, just think of a time you’ve gone to a noisy restaurant. At the start of a conversation or a question, with all that noise, it can be difficult to understand. But what if the conversation started before going into the restaurant? It’d probably be a lot easier to keep talking without having to ask ¨what did you say?¨ every five seconds. Having a context is essential. If you know you are talking about politics, then it’ll be easier to predict what your friend is saying (especially if you already have an idea of their political leanings). Knowing the general idea or theme – even if we don’t catch all the words – we can fill in the blanks much more easily.

It’s the same for ESL readers. Give a little background context to the reading – have them look at the title and cover. What do they think they are going to read about? What are they reminded of when they look at the pictures and the titles? What does the student already know about the topic? Have them ask questions about the topic they think the text might answer. This way, students will be looking for key ideas, access previous knowledge, predict what is coming next, and help them comprehend the text better, and even learn new vocabulary words from the context of the text.

4. Teach Reading Basics: Structure, Skimming, Scanning

This might seem like reading 101, and maybe you think students already know they should read the title, headings, index, the first sentence of every paragraph, and introductions and conclusions first. Unfortunately, sometimes the easiest, most basic things are the ones that are always overlooked. I tend to struggle with basic math for example, even though I did well in Calculus. Why is that? Take away the calculator, and I’m useless. We need to make sure the foundation is solid, and keep on checking it to develop those essential skills.


Remind your students until you can see them doing it automatically on their own to read the structure of the text first. This will help set a context, familiarize them with what they are about to read and – you guessed it – start to make connections. When ESL readers skip this essential step, they may not be able to fully understand what’s important about the reading. If a title says ¨Photosynthesis and How it Works¨ a student can assume the following section is going to tell them what photosynthesis is, and how it works, and that those are the most important details, the ones he or she should be looking for.


Most people want to read a text from start to finish – that’s how I like to read books, anyway. Unfortunately, this isn’t the most effective way to actually understand what you’re reading. If the student’s goal is to read and understand every word, this could really get them lost in the text. On the contrary, if students quickly skim the reading, picking out essential details and concepts, they’ll be able to focus on the overall detail – which is usually more important anyway. When you hand out a text, tell students they only have a minute or two to skim it over, then ask them what the overall idea was – or better yet, give them a few options to choose from. This could also be a confidence booster to help them keep going without getting so frustrated when they run into words they don’t understand.


Practice looking for words and phrases. Often, comprehension questions directly reference words in the text. If students don’t automatically remember the answer, they’ll need to know how to look back and find it. Not everyone knows how to scan a text for a specific word or phrase, and some students might get caught up in trying to read it all, all over again! Help students find answers more quickly by working on this important skill.

 5.Check Comprehension

Whenever I read out loud, even though I never stumble, and everything sounds smooth, when someone asks me a questions, I always feel like I’ve miss some of the details. Your ESL students may seem like they understand everything because they read out loud perfectly, or finished early, and can create a general summary, but make sure you check comprehension on several levels. Here are some examples of different ways to check comprehension:

  • Literal: Summarize the text. What do the characters do or say? How do they act?
  • Interpretative: Why do the characters act the way they do? What is their motivation?
  • Applied: Do you think the characters made the right decisions? Should they have done something differently?

Once students are able to not only see the literal understanding, but also to form a more personal opinion about the text, they’ll be able to internalize, understand and remember what they’ve read more easily, and hopefully apply it to other readings later one in their lives.