Introducing ESL Students to Reading Passages

As English as a second language (ESL) students build their language skills, the day will come when they’re ready, with guidance, to read passages of a few paragraphs. Guidance is important because it will maximize students’ success and prevent the frustration that comes from having a book written in English for them to read plopped onto their desks. Structure initial reading activities with attention to students’ interests and with pre-reading to ensure ESL students read effectively.

Consider Students’ Interests

With the wide variety of texts to choose from, use students’ interests to guide your selection of reading passages. A week before introducing the passage, or even at the beginning of the course, ask students what they’re interested in, what hobbies they have, where they want to travel, and so on. Use the feedback you get to find interesting passages.

Recipes, descriptions of tourist attractions, movie reviews, and descriptions of cultural behaviors were all reading passages my teachers used when I studied German. If you want other ideas, consider connections to concepts you or other classes are teaching. For example, recipes fit well when teaching how to give commands in English. Use reading passages that are relevant to students, and they’ll be more motivated to understand them.

Use Pre-Reading Activities

You must ease students into the daunting task of reading multiple paragraphs.

  1. Ensure students can read aloud by working on pronunciation. Review silent letters, the effect of single versus double consonants on pronunciation, and vowel combinations.
  2. Draw attention to and define new vocabulary in the text.
  3. Have students skim the passage. They should then be able to explain what the text appears to be about.

Pre-reading is more important than the actual reading at this level of English fluency.


Have students take turns reading a sentence or two out loud. Tell them to underline words and phrases they don’t understand so that you can help them understand at the end of the paragraph, if by then context hasn’t helped. After each paragraph, ask questions about the content, or ask a student to summarize. Throughout the exercise, provide positive feedback to encourage students.

Little by little, you’ve helped students take on the challenge of reading their first passages. These strategies are also useful if you teach other languages. As students read more, they can do more of the work of translating and determining the meanings of words from context, but if they get the gist of the first reading passage, that’s sufficient progress.


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