Teaching Reading to ESL Students

Manuel Campos


Sometimes people might think that teaching speaking is probably the most difficult skill to teach, however, I think that all of them require a combination of knowledge and experience if we want to teach them well.

I think that you really need knowledge because, without some key concepts, we might go astray from the purpose that we want to achieve.

Let’s explore some of the most important concepts when it comes to teaching reading.

Top-Down and Bottom-Up Processing

The first two concepts that we have to understand when we want to teach reading are the top-down approach and the bottom-up approach.

The bottom-up approach requires learners to know the language because they have to decipher the meaning of individual words. 

The top-down approach is the opposite because you start trying to understand the general meaning of a text.

Background Knowledge

Once we know the type of reading activity that we want to do in the classroom, we have to activate the background knowledge that students have.

We also refer to this concept as a schema theory.  The premise of this theory is that you will choose a text that students are familiar with. 

For example, if you want to teach students about sports, it wouldn’t be a good idea just to start with a reading passage about rugby or American football if this sport is not played in the country where they live. 

If you want to have more success when students are doing reading in the classroom, you have to become familiar with what they know and provide reading passages that are relevant to them and belong to the context that they are in.

Type of Reading Passages

Another thing that every single teacher of reading should know is that there are a great variety of passages that they can use in the classroom. 

In my experience as a teacher, I have seen how teachers overuse one type of reading passage in their classes. 

I’ve seen new articles being used again and again in language classes. 

First of all, any technique or activity no matter how good it is tends to create fatigue and secondly using recipes, signs, schedules, reports, bills, menus, comic strips, forms, applications, and advertisements among other resources can truly help to spice up your reading classes.

Reading Passage Suitable for the Level

Once you know the type of reading that you want to do and once you have found a reading passage that is relevant to students,  you should examine the reading to see if it’s suitable for your students.

You have to remember a few things when you analyze a text. Written language tends to be more complex, it has a degree of formality and it uses a great variety of lexical terms so my recommendation is that you analyze the text using a vocabulary profiler.

How to Teach a Reading Lesson Framework

When you have the product that you’re going to use in your reading class, you have to follow the common approach to teaching languages. 

You have to activate the background knowledge that your students have and give them a reason for reading, those activities are called pre-reading activities and they are followed by while-reading tasks which are activities that are solved as they read. 

The end of the reading class has to do with putting into practice what students learned during the first two stages of the reading lesson.

7 Mistakes to Avoid when Teaching a Reading Lesson

I have taught so many lessons during my career and I have made a few mistakes. The more we talk about the mistakes we make, the better since hiding the flaws is not a pathway to professional growth

Let’s go straight to the point.

#1 Teacher not Following a Framework

One of the most common problems in reading classes take place when teachers are not following a framework.

The most common framework used to teach a reading lesson is the PDP approach which is made up of:

Those stages exist for a reason, you need to activate students’ background knowledge, give them a reason for reading and you have to provide activities to help them use the newly-learned words and structures.

You can’t go straight to reading and expect students to succeed at it.

#2 No Other Skills Involved in the Reading Lesson

Another major problem in reading lessons is that teachers are not including the other three skills.

A conversation came to my mind so I decided to write it down. I hope I get the message across well.

ACan you have a speaking task in a reading lesson?
AHow would you do that?
BThere are many ways to do that
AHow would you do that in the pre-reading stage?
BI would ask my students to brainstorm as much information as they can in teams
AHow would you do that in the during-reading stage?
BI could ask learners to talk and compare their answers by asking simple questions to their peers
AHow would you do that in the post-reading stage?
BYou can ask learners to record a reaction to the reading among other things.

If you know how to teach a reading lesson, I am sure you can come up with lots of other ideas.

You just have to set your mind to it and creativity will come.

#3 Readings not Suited for the Level

The third problem is having a reading lesson around a reading passage that is not suited for the level of the students.

You can get lots of readings about families from the web and books but not all readings are suited for beginners.

#1 How can you know what the level of a reading passage is?

You can do that easily using a vocabulary profiler.

A vocabulary profiler will analyze a text and will highlight the words which are suited for A1, A2, B1, B2, and C1 students.

If you ask me, I like how Vocab Kitchen does the job

#2 Can a Text be 100% suited for a specific level?

No, all texts are made up of words that belong to different levels of proficiency and some words don’t belong to any one of them.

The colors in Vocab Kitchen will tell you if the reading is way too difficult for some learners or way too easy for others.

#4 Boring Reading Passages

Sometimes you hear professionals advising teachers to motivate their learners but they don’t tell you how.

I can tell you how:

Stop using those boring readings you always use, we shouldn’t use reading passages that students can relate to.

Just stop doing that, it hurts your teaching.

Try to motivate learners with something that is relevant, readings about something they might know.

It is hard to activate background knowledge if learners have no idea what you are talking about.

#5 Not Making the Most out of a Passage

It is common to see teachers in a reading lesson using a reading passage only for one task

Why do they do that?

I don’t really know but I think it is a bad idea, you can ask students to read a short article once and solve a match.

You can ask them to read the article again and solve a multiple-choice quiz.

They can do that again and extract relevant expressions that they can use later in a role-play

Make the most out of that reading time, make the most out of one single resource.

#6 Using the Same Type of Reading

We should stop using the same type of reading over and over again.

A reading lesson doesn’t have to spin about new articles.

Use news articles, informal dialogues, a pamphlet, interviews, a WhatsApp conversation, a comment thread from Facebook, a comic strip, an email, a letter, or a journal entry.

Mix things up.

#7 Teaching in the ’80s

I totally understand that there are teachers out there teaching under horrible conditions and lacking essential resources for teaching.

However, there are some teachers with everything in the classroom to pull a rabbit out of the hat but they insist on doing things the old way.

If the old tactics are paying off, don’t change but if they are not, it is time for a change.

If you are one of those teachers who are lucky enough to have resources in the classroom such as the Internet for everyone, computers, and mobile devices. Why not incorporate them into your teaching?

Try to make your reading lesson more delightful by using videos and images to spark interest and activate background knowledge.

Use forms to gather answers quickly and use other resources to make creative use of what students just learned.

If you have the resources, you need to use them.

Questions to Think about

These are some questions that were solved and some of them will require reading some more:

  1. What’s bottom-up and top-down processing?
  2. What are the stages of reading?
  3. What criteria do you use to choose a reading passage?
  4. What’s the difference between skimming and scanning?
  5. What activities would you use to activate background knowledge?
  6. What are pre-reading tasks?
  7. What are some examples of pre-reading tasks?
  8. What are while-reading tasks?
  9. What are some examples of while-reading tasks?
  10. What are post-reading tasks?
  11. What are some examples of post-reading tasks?
  12. What are the two common forms that post-listening tasks can take?
  13. What are authentic and simplified texts?

Teaching Reading Articles