Teaching Reading Strategies to ESL Students

Instructor: Sarah Mills

Sarah is an educational freelance writer and has taught English and ESL in grades k-12 and college. She has a master's degree in both Literacy and TESOL.

Reading strategies help improve student literacy, but which strategies are appropriate for English as a second language (ESL) students? How can teachers incorporate reading strategies into their instruction to improve ESL students' literacy skills? Keep reading to find out.

Reading Strategies

Teachers are expected to teach students not only how to read, but also how to really engage with the text. Explicitly teaching students reading strategies helps them understand that reading is an active process--you don't just read the words, you absorb and interact with them. These strategies also help promote comprehension and literacy skills, and establishing an authentic purpose for reading will help students stay focused on the text.

Reading strategies can be particularly beneficial for ESL students. However, it's important to include additional tools and supports to help these students bridge the gap between their language barrier and understanding. Let's look at some specific methods for helping your ESL learners use reading strategies in your classroom.


Don't just tell students how to do something--show them! Model think-alouds, or spoken thoughts that occur when active readers engage with a text. For example, when reading aloud to the class, pause occasionally to say:

  • This reminds me of...
  • I have a question about...
  • I predict...
  • I think this means...
  • I really like this part about...

Once students get the hang of think-alouds, allow them to practice the strategy with their peers before applying it independently to a new text.

Using Graphic Organizers

Graphic organizers can help students keep track of information in a visual way without having to produce too much English. Students can use Venn diagrams, double bubble maps, K-W-L (knows, wants to know, learned) charts, flow charts, and timelines to help them stay engaged while reading.

Activating Prior Knowledge

Help build students' background knowledge prior to reading. Students who were not born in the United States may have difficulties understanding cultural references in some texts. Preview the text to look for any concepts you may need to teach in advance.

Also, ask ESL students to share comparisons between their native culture and U.S. culture. For example, before reading a text about Valentine's Day, ask students if this holiday, or something similar, is celebrated in their native culture.

Another method for activating prior knowledge is to use a picture walk to preview the pictures in the text and ask students to predict what the text will be about. Allow students to share their thoughts and opinions about the pictures and the corresponding topic.

Defining Vocabulary

Teach students to not simply skip over unknown words--especially words that may be essential to understanding the text. Students don't necessarily have to stop reading each time they encounter an unknown word. Instead, they can use a highlighter or pencil to mark in the text, or keep track of unfamiliar terms on a piece of paper.

Afterward, you can teach them methods to learn the new words, including word sorts, games, and pictures. Then you can encourage students to re-read the text with their new understanding of the vocabulary.

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