The ABCs of A B C: Reading Comprehension Strategies That Work

The ABCs of A B C
Reading Comprehension Strategies That Work

Susan Verner
by Susan Verner 33,253 views


It’s a little word that encompasses so much. As one of the core skills in learning English as a second language, you know it’s important. But exactly what elements of reading should be the priority as you teach your ESL students? After all, native speakers spend twelve years in school with reading (or English) as a core subject. How do we know what second language learners really need? Well, it’s not as complicated as you might think. Yes, there are lots of different skills and strategies you need to address with ESL students, but more than anything you want your ESL students to increase their reading comprehension. You want them to understand what they read. You can do this in many different ways, but the most effective generally fall into one of three categories: building background knowledge, building vocabulary, and checking comprehension frequently. Each of these items can be done in many different ways. Here are some ideas for you to incorporate into your teaching.

3 Reading Comprehension Strategies That Work

  1. 1

    Building Background Knowledge

    New information links to old information in the brain. That’s why the more your students already know about what they are going to read, the more easily they will assimilate new information in their minds. That’s also why it is extremely important to prepare your students before reading. You want all the knowledge they already have to be in the forefront of their brains so it’s ready to connect with the new information students will read about. Here are some ways you can prepare your students to read by bringing up what they already know and giving them the background knowledge they will need to best understand the text.

    • Prepare for reading by playing a soundtrack that matches what students will read. If you are reading something that has been made into a movie, use that music. Otherwise, just choose something that has the same mood or message as the piece your students will be reading.
    • Look at pictures related to the piece you will read. If there are illustrations or photos included in the reading selection, use those. You might also look at pictures of the setting of a story or events in the story that students will read about.
    • Do a role play of a situation they will read about in the text. For example, if you were going to read the Hobbit, you might have your students role play a dinner party where the guests were uninvited.
    • Give a virtual tour of the text. Go through the different pieces of what students will read including the title, subheadings, table of contents, etc.
    • Have a class discussion on the topic of the piece you will read. Start with some discussion questions about the topic. Then ask students to share any personal experiences they have related to the topic.
  2. 2

    Build Vocabulary

    You can do all the preparation in the world, but if your ESL students don’t understand the words on the page, they aren’t going to get a full picture of what they are reading. As an ESL teacher, building vocabulary is part of every class you teach, but here are some specific ways to accomplish that during reading class.

    • Use picture dictionaries or illustrated stories and other visuals to help teach unfamiliar vocabulary without translation to L1.
    • Preteach vocabulary students will encounter in the reading selection. Give short, simple definitions of tough words so your students can understand them and don’t need to look them up during the reading process.
    • Teach directional or signpost words like because, therefore, however, etc. Though they may not carry a lot of content, they are important for understanding the relationships between ideas in the text.
    • Teach students to interact with vocabulary on the page. Encourage them to highlight or underline unfamiliar or difficult words, to write explanations and make notes in the language, and draw connecting lines between unfamiliar words and context clues. The only thing you should prohibit is writing a translation of the word into their first language.
    • If students insist on looking up unfamiliar words in their first language, have them make a page in a reading notebook for these vocabulary words. Ask the student to write the English word on a sticky note and put it in the notebook. Then have them fold the sticky note up to make a flap under which they can write the translation. That way students won’t see the translation unless they go to the effort to unfold each flap.
  3. 3

    Check Comprehension Often

    Have you ever gotten lost and decided to just continue on in hopes of finding the right road to turn on? And then made another turn only to find that it wasn’t the right road in the first place? And then continued to make the wrong turns from the wrong roads until you were utterly and hopelessly lost? I hope you haven’t because if you aren’t sure where you are at the beginning, going on will just get you more and more confused. It’s like that with our students and reading comprehension. If they don’t understand the foundation of what they are reading, they most certainly won’t understand the information that builds on that foundation. That’s why the more frequently you check comprehension with your ESL students, the more certain you can be that they are making the right turns at the right time. Here are some ways you can check your students’ reading comprehension.

    • Have students put the information they read into an Idea map or cluster map. Though we often use this strategy for coming up with ideas to write about, it also works for checking understanding, and it is fun to create and a hands on activity as well.
    • For something a little more formal, have students complete an outline of the passage as they read or after they finish reading a section. To make the process a bit easier for your students, give them a blank outline where they can just fill in the important ideas rather than creating their own from scratch.
    • Ask questions at various levels – observation (what does it say questions), interpretation (what does it mean questions), and application (what should I do about what I have read questions). Always start with observation and then move on to interpretation and application. Stop and ask these questions at several points in the reading.
    • Have students complete graphic organizers with the information in the reading. Some of the most helpful and simple are Venn diagrams and flow charts.

Reading is not only a pleasure.

It is also a tool and one your students should never be without. These ideas will help your students increase their reading comprehension of specific texts as well as give them the tools and strategies they need to understand what they read in the future. Now it’s just up to you to give them the right directions that lead to success.

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