How to Teach English Reading

The worst thing you can do in an English reading class is to go through some dreary reading material and expect the students to engage well with it.

The standard English reading articles for ESL classes can be so dull.

Do you like to read it? No?

So why do you imagine your students want to read it?

Prepare every reading class to ensure that you maintain the interest of the students plus give them the chance to take a few steps up. Their reading comprehension must improve a fraction each time they are in your class.

But what to do? Where to start?

Rather than just drag out the same old textbooks let’s look at a few key steps we can take to:

See Improvement

Retain Interest


Want to know how to do it?

Let’s get into it right now.


Build Vocabulary

For your students to read with better comprehension, they need to build their vocabulary.

Likewise, for them to build their vocabulary, they need to read with better comprehension.

One of those dreaded Catch-22 things. But that is the case with all the English skills.

You want to be better at writing? Do some reading!

Your speaking skills not up to speed? Start listening!

This is frustrating to the English student but they need to get into the habit of building their vocabulary. This means making notes of new words they find and writing down meanings along with making their own sentences using these words.

It is tiresome. It is dull.

But it is a great basis to build all the other skills — especially reading.

No comprehension without understanding.

And no understanding without finding out what the words mean.

Make sure your students all have their own vocabulary notebooks and build a habit of writing down new words.

Make the students write all the new vocabulary in a vocabulary notebook. The more they build their vocabulary and collocations, the more they can improve in reading.


Teach Sight Words

For beginner students, they need to learn sight words to build up speed in reading.

What are sight words?

These are words that appear commonly such as who, he, by, from, does, has, no, put, some.

Younger students and beginners stumble over every single word. The quicker they learn the sight words the faster they can see an improvement in their reading comprehension.

How to teach sight words?

You can use very simple reading material or flashcards but if your students are older, they may become disheartened by this. I had an adult student before who questioned if the material we were using was for children. She was not happy that she had to use the same learning material as a child.

Another way that you can teach sight words in reading is through games.

Ironically, even though they are games, adults engage much better with this. Everyone likes to do something fun while learning so use this to your advantage.

I found this huge resource of sight word games here. Take a look.


Use a Wide Variety of Reading Material

Don’t be that teacher that just rocks into class and uses whatever the reading is for the day in the textbook.

In my experience, the students hate reading these boring articles. The teachers also hate them. The only people that think they are any good are the book publishers that make all the coin out of selling them.

There are so many other things that you could bring to class for reading.

Just off the top of my head, you could choose from:


Short Stories


Song Lyrics


Social Media


Find a really gossip-worthy piece of news that would appeal to your students. This is where you have to understand what makes your students tick.

When I was teaching Chinese students, I found that many of them were obsessed with Korean K-pop bands. It was easy for me to dig out an article in English about one of these bands. Or even better, find a piece of scandal about one of the singers.

Now instead of reading some dull article, the students are reading about something they have a very close interest in.

It’s all in English and you can create your own comprehension questions around the news article you brought into class.

It’s easy.

Think creatively when using reading material in your reading class.


Pre-Read the Reading

Before diving into the reading material you should just get one of the students to read out the headline and maybe the first two or three sentences.

Then ask the class what the article is about.

Have a discussion and extract ideas from the students about what they think the reading could be about. This prepares them for the topic at hand. They can engage with the reading much better as they think about all the possible things it could be about.

When you prepare your reading material, you could think of some warm-up questions to ask the class about the header of the reading.

You need to drag the students into the main topic of the reading. Get them thinking about it and making opinions about it before they even start reading.

Then they are invested in the reading.


Read Out Loud

What is the point of having a reading class if you don’t get to hear the students reading?

In every reading class, you need to get the students to read out loud. You need to hear them reading so you can steer them in the right direction.

The students may not wish to be the first to stand up and read in front of the class — and if they are beginners, you should probably not do that!

But by listening to the students read out loud individually then you can hear all the different issues that each student might have.

Very few people in the world read anything out loud so by getting your students to do it you are accomplishing two things:

One, you are giving them the chance to associate the sounds of English words with the written words before them. They can see and hear a connection between the two English skills.

All the skills are connected and you are enabling the students to see this connection.

Two, you are giving the students a big boost in confidence by allowing them to read out in front of their classmates. You should encourage them strongly and tell them how great they did. This will make them want to read out again in the next class.


Prepare Your Reading Comprehension Questions

You can do reading comprehension checks during the reading or after. It all depends on the level of the class and how much they are engaged with the reading material.

You must ensure that you have all your reading comprehension questions prepared before class. And also be careful of asking questions that are too closed or easy to answer.

No questions that have a yes or no answer — or very few anyway.

And no questions like was the man driving a green or red car? Instead, you could just ask the class to describe the car.

The importance of reading comprehension questions is to determine that the students have understood what the reading was about.

It helps you to figure out which students were paying attention or not.


Discussion Questions

Finally, you can go into the production stage of your lesson. You need to prepare a list of discussion questions related to the reading material at hand.

By having an in-depth discussion you can find out which students have grasped the topic and which ones have not.

It is very easy to find ESL topic questions related to your reading class. You can go to this site here or simply do a Google search for the questions in your topic area.

For example, if you are reading under the topic of fast food and its detriments to our health just search for these terms:

Fast food health ESL questions

You should find some questions to help you. You can come up with your own questions too.

A discussion also helps the students as they can connect with the topic at hand. It gives them a chance to engage with the topic and give their opinions.

It is also good fun in the class as it does not seem like working or studying.



Your reading classes need not be dull.

The way to avoid this is by avoiding all the pre-made reading material you can find in all the ESL textbooks. This is often so generic that is doesn’t actually appeal to anyone at all. It is too vanilla.

Once you know who your students are and what makes them tick, you can prepare your own reading material for them. You will find that they are much more engaged with it and they will get more from it.

It just requires some preparation on your part but it will serve you well in the long run. Also, once you have prepared the reading material, you can use it again and again in other classes.

I hope these steps can help you put into place some ideas for your next reading class.

Let me know in the comments below.

5 thoughts on “How to Teach English Reading”

  1. Great tips for teachers, David. They all lead to our core learning challenge: motivation. Without motivation we are hard pressed to learn anything. And since reading is one of the strongest overall ways students can learn a new language, motivation for reading is doubly important.

    1. I think much of teaching relies on motivation. For many students learning English, they don’t really want to sit in a class studying. For many Asian students they have no choice. They have to attend English classes after their regular school classes and then have classes all weekend.
      So for these kind of students it definitely comes down to motivation.
      The teacher needs to ensure that the classes are at least somewhat interesting or the students just resent being there.
      And anyway, if the lesson plan is interesting to both the teacher and the students that means that everyone is engaged in the lesson.

  2. Yes it is so true that many students are required to learn English and often don’t want to be there. In fact they are often terrified of English! People don’t realize that this can especially be true in EFL where motivation is vital and often the only thing that scaffolds their learning.

    1. That’s another thing that EFL teachers have to deal with – the fear that students have of opening their mouths to speak English.
      In fact, that is a whole new blog article right there.

  3. Absolutely correct which brings us back to square one: motivating students especially EFL students who are required to take English. Make the motivation outweigh the fear!

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