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Effective Reading Comprehension Strategies for EFL and ESL Students

Updated on May 16, 2020
Paul Kuehn profile image

Paul has spent many years teaching English as a foreign and second language. He has taught EFL in Taiwan and Thailand, and ESL in the U.S.

Reading for Comprehension


Teaching Reading Comprehension to EFL and ESL Students

Applying effective strategies for teaching reading comprehension will go a long way in improving the reading skills of EFL and ESL students. All too often, many people erroneously think that by only knowing all of the words in an article or story they will be able to completely understand its meaning. Nothing is farther from the truth. This article suggests reading strategies that I have successfully used in my EFL and ESL classrooms.

Traditional Way of Teaching Reading

It's amazing how so many reading teachers today insist that students must know the meanings of all words in an article or story before they tackle it. I have seen a great number of reading textbooks in both Taiwan and Thailand which have long lists of English vocabulary followed by Chinese or Thai translations preceding each article or story in the books. What's more, there are examples of new grammar or sentence structure followed by lengthy Chinese or Thai explanations. Before students even begin to read, teachers are making sure that everyone understands the new words and grammar. Oddly, there isn't much discussion about the background of the subject matter which the students will read.

The author as an EFL teacher at Saint Joseph Bangna School in Thailand in 2009.
The author as an EFL teacher at Saint Joseph Bangna School in Thailand in 2009. | Source

Alternate Reading Comprehension Strategies

When I was learning to read Chinese and Thai, my teachers often used the traditional strategy. I dreaded having to learn 60-100 words before starting to read a news story. Most of the time, I never had internalized the meaning of the words, and hence could not understand how they were used and what they meant in the story.

Since I began teaching reading comprehension to middle school EFL students, I have employed alternate reading comprehension strategies which I have introduced through the following steps:

Pre-reading Activities

1. Activate Previous or Background Knowledge

Before my students begin reading an article, I activate their previous or background knowledge about a subject through pictures, voices, and any other aids which stimulate their senses. For example, if an article is about food like bacon, the class will see pictures of it, hear it sizzling in the pan, and hopefully taste and smell bacon. Pupils will be asked to share their experiences of eating it, and knowledge of where bacon comes from.

2. Read Similar Articles in the Students' Native Language

I utilized this activity when I was teaching newspaper Chinese to native English speakers. As an example, when we were reading a news article about Taiwan politics, I made sure that my students read articles about this topic in English. We then discussed Taiwan politics in English noting vocabulary, personalities, places, and ideas which we might encounter in the article. This is an excellent way to get background knowledge which is so useful when you are trying to predict or guess the meaning of unknown words in a text. The teacher obviously must know his or her students' native language before engaging in this activity. If the teacher doesn't, an EFL teacher speaking the native language of the students should be engaged in team teaching.

3. The Need to Answer Information Question Words

In reading any news article or story, it is necessary to answer the important information question words of who, what, when, where, how, and why. It is important to constantly remind students that the purpose of their reading is not to understand every word in a passage, but rather to answer all significant question words.

Reading Activities

1. Get the General Idea and Summarize

I tell my students that the summary of most news articles is found in the first sentence. Here the most important information question words of who, what, when, and where are answered. In the headline of a newspaper story, the answers to the most important who and what questions are revealed.

2. Look for All "Who," "What," "Where," and "When" During the First Reading

During the first reading of an article, I have my students make a list of all "who," "what," "when," and "where." Students are discouraged from using a dictionary to look up words they don't know.

3. Map Associations of Words, "Who," and Sequence of Actions

During the second pass through an article, I instruct my students to make associations among all of the "who" and other nouns in the story, They also begin mapping the sequence of actions after the teacher guides them in understanding key unknown verbs through associations and context.

4. Answer How and Why Questions

During the third reading of an article, students are usually ready to start answering the more difficult how and why questions. At this point, the teacher introduces cause and effect relationships and also answers any questions about elements of the story still not understood.

Knowing all of the words and grammar of a text is not essential for comprehending its meaning. What's more important is utilizing the reading strategies which I have introduced in this hub. In my next article on this subject, I will illustrate and explain how reading strategies are used in a sample EFL news article.

Reading Comprehension Strategies

What should be done first when teaching reading comprehension to EFL and ESL students?

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Paul Richard Kuehn


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    • Robert Levine profile image

      Robert Levine 

      8 months ago from Brookline, Massachusetts

      Great ideas, Paul. As an ESL tutor myself, I'll keep them in mind. I agree about not needing to know every word before reading; on the contrary, the text can be a great way of learning new vocabulary from context.

    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      2 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      Thank you once again for your comments, Tim. Most people in Thailand will also sit a cup on either a table or the floor. I am pleased that my reading comprehension strategies are useful to you.

    • Tim Truzy info4u profile image

      Tim Truzy 

      2 years ago from U.S.A.

      Thanks, Paul.

      One of my fondest memories is when my ed. psych. professor stated researchers tested kids from an inner city school on intelligence. One question asked: "Where do you sit a cup?" The options were: a saucer, a table, and the floor. The kids chose the table or the floor. Naturally, the researchers had scored these kids as not very bright until they found out they didn't have saucers in their houses.

      The kids I work with are pretty bright; such strategies as you presented will be in my tool box. Thank you again.

    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      2 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      Tim, you make a good point in stating that teaching ESL is very similar to teaching students with disabilities. Cultural context is always important when focusing on comprehension. Thanks for the inspirational comments.

    • Tim Truzy info4u profile image

      Tim Truzy 

      2 years ago from U.S.A.

      Reading your article reminded me that teaching ESL is very similar to teaching students with disabilities in a few ways. With my students, I really focus on comprehension (meaning and understanding gathered from the text), but that's not what is always required. The National Reading Panel gave us guildelines to work with such students, but cultural context must be considered. great Hub. Keep writing and teaching

    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      8 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand


      Thanks for the favorable comments. Based on my experiences teachng, I hope to have more on this topic in the future.

    • profile image

      Steven Daniels 

      8 years ago


      Great strategies. I wish my teachers had done more of this when I was learning to read Chinese!

      I especially like the pre-reading suggestions. Often the hardest part of reading in a foreign language isn't the vocabulary or grammar, but the situation or context of the material.


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