Improve Reading Comprehension for Intermediate ESL

Regardless of the material (news articles, fictional stories, blog posts, etc.), ESL reading comprehension can be difficult to judge simply by listening to your students read.

Many will grasp the ability to pronounce the words correctly, but that doesn’t mean they actually understand everything. So how can you improve your class’s reading comprehension?

4 Tips for Improving ESL Reading Comprehension

Teaching your class to use the following tips will help them learn faster and improve their skills over time. 

Ideally, the goal is to have them understand in English, rather than spend the time translating the words to their native language, which is where reading comprehension can fail miserably.

1. Scan the text first.

Before your students read aloud, have them scan the text. They should be able to get the gist of the article or story they are about to read. 

It helps to demonstrate how to scan. It can be tough to do this in a different language, so show students on a projector or whiteboard how to run through an article. They should be able to quickly read the subheadings and bullet points to pick up the main ideas.

To practice, give the students a passage to read and have them skim the content. Then ask what they think the article or story is about. Point out the important words they should have picked up on.

scan text

2. Look up unfamiliar words.

There are bound to be words that your students don’t know as they read. Have them mark these or write them down so they can look up the unfamiliar words in a dictionary.

For intermediate students, try getting them to read an English dictionary instead of translating the word.

3. Test the students.

Ask your students relevant questions, and then ask them to keep an eye out for the answers while they are reading. Questions might include:

  • What is the main character feeling?
  • Where does this story/article take place?
  • When does the story/article take place?
  • What is the point of this piece?
  • What does the main character look like?

4. Have students write down questions.

While your students are reading, they should write down anything they are curious about or don’t understand. Have them read out their questions after everyone has read the passage and encourage discussion among the students. If there is an idiom that someone doesn’t understand, see if anyone else in the class gets it and can explain it.

Activities for Intermediate ESL Reading Comprehension

It’s such an integral part of every day that your students need to learn how to quickly grasp the information they’re reading. The best way to do that is through practice.


Fiction vs. nonfiction

Both fiction and nonfiction have pros and cons. Chances are high that your students will be using more nonfiction reading than fiction at this point in their education. In many cases, textbooks, recipes, and other practical guides are going to be used by your students more than novels or storybooks. However, it’s a good idea to give them some experience in each type of reading.

When it comes to nonfiction, look at newspapers, magazines, and online texts that the students can read for practical reasons. Another option is to ask your students to bring in interesting clips that they’ve found. This all but ensures the pieces will be the right level for the class, so you can take a day or two to review the text before using it in class.

Choosing appropriate passages

While intermediate students can certainly handle more difficult pieces with some new words, the passages are meant to improve reading comprehension. This means the student should be able to read the piece fairly rapidly and pick out information from it.

Skip anything that is inappropriate content-wise, as well. You could end up losing students if you hand them a risqué article from Cosmo magazine, so keep it clean and simple. Take a look online for passages that are designed specifically for ESL students, as well.

Anything you give to your students should be something they can relate to. It may be difficult for a student living in a two-room home with ten other people to understand an article that’s written for very wealthy Americans. Choose food articles or other stories that will be something your students can read without finding themselves completely out of their element.

Quiz your students

The best way to ensure that students actually understand the passage they just read is to ask them questions. Quiz them on the main points of the story, but don’t forget to include some details as well. Students may pick up on the big things and completely miss the little mentions of details that could change the entire shape of the story or article.


Use worksheets

The internet is packed with awesome ESL worksheets for common books, or even with their own passages. You can easily create your own, as well. If you have a large class, it can be difficult to gauge reading comprehension by just asking questions verbally. Creating a worksheet will help you see exactly who needs extra help.

All you really need is Microsoft Word or another simple writing program to create a worksheet. Write down the questions you want to ask the students and leave space for an answer. Make sure everyone writes their name at the top so you can see at a glance who understood and who didn’t.

Have students create a map

Are your students reading something that describes a room or how to get somewhere? Have your class draw maps after they have read the passage. Hang all the maps on the wall and see who drew the most accurate one.

And once the students have finished making their maps, you can draw one on the chalkboard while soliciting key information from students. For example, they might shout out where each piece of furniture is located in a room, or you could ask what is on the north side of the park.

You could also use Google Maps to have each student plot a route from the text according to directions.

Follow written instructions

Another great way to get those ESL learners working on their comprehension is to write instructions on the board at the beginning of class. You can prohibit speaking and make a point of writing everything down. Students will have to follow your instructions in order to complete the day’s class.

Alternatively, try a fun reading comprehension test with an activity. Give students a recipe to make in groups of two or three, or have them build something through written instructions only. The results can be hilarious and everyone will have a lot of fun laughing at their mistakes. It’s also a very visual way to see if they understood what they read.

You could also have your students write out a couple of paragraphs explaining how to do something and then trade with another student. Each student will have to follow their partner’s written directions to complete the task or activity.

Read, read, read!

The next step is to get your class reading! Pick something fun and interesting and have them read it in class. Make sure the students are practicing all the reading skills mentioned above. Soon, they’ll be reading for fun in English.

If you discover that some of your students are a little behind their peers, you can send homework home with them. The written instructions ideas above all make excellent homework that students will actually enjoy.

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