Reading is an essential part of learning a new language, but it can be a source of frustration for students and teachers alike. Often, ESL students are eager to work on their speaking and listening skills, but find reading rather dull. With some patience, creativity, and lots of variety, it’s easy for any teacher to increase their ESL students’ reading skills.
What do I mean by variety? First, consider the many different strategies for reading that exist. Not one has ever been used with 100% efficiency. That’s because each student is a different type of learner; what works well for one may not work for the next.
To start with, introduce a wide variety of reading materials to your students. Include fiction and non-fiction, short stories, magazine and newspaper clippings, even TV Guide articles. Before diving in to any example, get your students feeling relaxed and comfortable by activating their prior knowledge. Take a look at everything surrounding the text- titles, pictures, captions- and guess what the story might be about. Find out what they already know about this topic. For example, if your class is about to read a fairy tale, discuss what other fairy tales they know. What elements do they share in common? If students have something concrete to grasp onto before jumping into reading, they’ll feel more confident.
A great method for activating prior knowledge before reading is the KWL approach, created by Donna Ogle. On the board, make three columns and label them Know, Will Learn, and Learned. Before reading, have students list in the first column what they already know about this topic. In the second column, have them predict what they think they might learn, or want to learn, from the selection. After reading, fill out the third column with what they learned, and compare and contrast with second column. You can read more about the full method at readingquest.org.
In addition to a variety in reading materials, give students a variety in strategies. Have them scan an article to find a specific piece of information, then skim a different article and sum up the main idea or “gist.” Most importantly, explain to your students that no native speaker analyzes every word when reading, and neither should they. The focus should always be on context, not individual vocabulary words.
Variety in reading methods will also help increase your ESL students’ reading ability. Silent reading is important, but reading aloud should be done regularly, both by students and by teachers. For students, reading aloud reinforces good pronunciation. And when the teacher reads aloud, the natural stress and pauses will indicate to the students which words are most important to the context. Try reading a passage aloud to your students while having them mark on their copy the words you emphasize, and the places you pause. Then when they read silently, they’ll have a better idea of what phrases to focus on.
A variation in classroom set-up will also benefit students. Individual reading time is great, but try paired or group reading as well. When pairing students, try having a better reader matched with one that needs a little extra help. Children learn through observation; simply watching another student’s reading process can help a struggling student more than any explanation. In pairs and groups, students are exposed to consistent modeling and receive constant feedback.
Every student can find a strategy that works for them as a reader. By introducing a wide variety in all aspects to the ESL classroom, teachers can help every student increase their ESL reading skills.