Teaching Reading to ESL Students

When teaching reading to ESL students, should you have your students read silently or aloud? When should you use authentic texts and when use graded materials? How can you motivate your students to read more? 

This article answers the above questions. For actual class activities see ESL reading activities 

Silently or Aloud?

When teaching reading to ESL students, should the students read silently or aloud? Reading silently is usually the more natural of the two, and it allows the students to focus on the meaning of the text. Reading aloud can be good for bringing the class together at certain points

With very young children there's little choice. They should usually read aloud, but when teaching reading to ESL students a little older, a mixed approach can work very well. With older children some parts of the text should be read aloud, but some experimentation should be done having the students read quietly while they search for information.

With teenagers and adults it is usually better for the reading to be done silently, while the students complete a task. This is because reading long texts aloud can distort the learner's pronunciation. In many countries students learn to read at school by reading aloud. I believe this contributes to poor pronunciation, not of individual words, but poor pronunciation in terms of the stress and rhythm of English.

By reading aloud the students can develop an unnatural rhythm and this can affect their listening too. Many students are unaware of weak forms in English, to quote just one example. See teaching English pronunciation for more details. Also the language of most texts - unless the text is a dialogue - is often in a more formal written style, making it less suitable as a model for pronunciation. Of course, poems, rhymes and dialogues often meant to be said aloud.

Finally, reading aloud very long texts can be extremely boring, and reduce motivation. I've come across classes of students who hated their class readers, and when I began to ask questions, I found out that their teacher was making them stand and read 4 or 5 pages of dense text in the class. If you really do want to have your students read aloud, vary the methods you use, and don't expect your students to read words they have never seen before.

Choosing Texts & Type of ESL Reading Activity

A lot has been written on whether it's best to use graded or authentic materials when teaching reading to ESL students. I believe that most teachers use both - as I do. Using authentic texts is motivating - provided they can understand it. Using graded texts makes understanding much easier.

They both have their place, but whatever text you use - if there are too many new words the material will become more or less impossible to use - however much preparation you do. So choose well, students will never be interested if they can't do the ESL reading activities you have prepared for them.

This leads on to the choice of ESL reading activities you should use. There are many to choose from, but you should also be clear in your mind whether you wish to carry out intensive practice - where students gain more or less complete understanding of the text. Or whether you want them to gain extensive practice - where they read for gist and general understanding. In this case it's not necessary for the students to know all of the words.

In parts of the world with more traditional education systems, convincing students that they don't need to fully understand every word in a piece of text may be difficult. It can help to explain that even ignoring a fairly large section of the text is alright. It's best to do this before they begin the task you have set.

How Can You Motivate Your Students To Read More?

This is one of the hardest tasks to achieve when teaching reading to ESL students. Choosing interesting text to use in class helps a lot. Giving interesting texts to read for information, as homework can help - as long as it doesn't begin to seem too much like work. A well chosen - and well taught - class reader can help. Teaching reading to ESL students is made easier if you have access to a school library from which the students can borrow books.

Once I was teaching reading to ESL students who were using 'A Tale of Two Cities' by Charles Dickens as their class reader. The students were intermediate level teenagers. I was warned by some experienced teachers that this would prove difficult.

Although the reader was well graded with reasonable pictures, I decided to use the original - and memorable - opening lines. With some explanation their interest was aroused. In the back of the book [the original version] I found some notes from the time. I told the story of how a boy had been executed for not bowing to a passing group of monks. My students were outraged by this. We then discussed the difficulties of life during those times.

They were now interested to read the story. I was lucky enough to have access to a TV and video. I bought a copy of a very old black & white version of the film. I was a little concerned how my students would react to black & white. This was their first experience of a black & white film. I showed it as a serial - 15 minutes a class. The result was much better than I had imagined. The reader and film was something the students looked forward to.

No magic formula here, I'm just showing how - by mixing in real stories from the times, and through the use of video - I was able to stimulate a lot of interest, in this particular case.