"Communication is at the heart of second-language study, whether the communication takes place face-to-face, in writing, or across centuries through the reading of literature." — National Standards, 1996

Reading is an essential means of communication. Reading involves the recognition of large units — words and word groups along with phonetic decoding. Reading is not just a passive activity; rather it is an active skill where the reader interacts with the text bringing many different skills into the process.


Strategies are deliberate steps that the learners take when processing new material. The students must not only know about these strategies, but they must also be trained in their use.

The skills from the native language may not always transfer into English, particularly in the lower levels of language instruction. Thus, these skills should be enhanced by aggressive intervention on the part of the reading instructor.

Reading skills develop along with other language skills. As the students work with the new language, they begin to read as they do their assignments and listen to various exercises that have a written component.

Students' ability in L1 reading has an effect on L2 reading skill development. In addition, the resources underlying L2 semantic and morphosyntactic processing as well as L1 semantic processing appear to contribute to L2 reading.

Reading ability then is tied to both the learners' home language and the new language.

Prereading exercises

Before reading the selection, the class can do some preview exercises to help get the class ready to begin.

Knowledge-pooling and brainstorming: Everybody shares what they know on the topic. If the reading is about lasers, for example, discuss light beams, CD players, laser operations, etc. Keywords can be written on the board. Students share what they know, what they don't know and what they hope to learn. They can work on word association tasks and come up with words that are organized around a content area: holidays, for example.

Consulting: Students go outside the text for more information. They can consult other books for more information, and talk to other students and teachers about the topic. Advanced learners can do a library search (i.e., find 10 uses for the laser). Problem-solving exercises should make students think about the topic. They can work in small groups to come up with solutions.

Skills to be taught

Eye movement: As a reader reads a page, the eyes do not move steadily across the print. Rather readers move their eyes in a series of jumps fixating on a series of points.

Prediction: Guessing and prediction play an important role based on knowledge of the subject matter, the language and graphic clues. If the reader makes a miscue, he or she rechecks and makes a correction.

Skimming and scanning: Students learn to scan through an unfamiliar passage in order to look for specific information such as numbers, dates or proper names. In a reading on Ohio, for example, the learners might be expected to find the names of the major rivers, the population of Toledo and the major ports. Students look for subject headings, highlighted passages, quotations topic sentences and captions under illustrations.

Text-based activities: Another activity would be trying to find out the main idea of the passage and relate it to the supporting details. Those with lower-level classes can teach collocations words that often occur together like dark night, red apple and green frog, for example. Students can read with anticipation thinking ahead as they process context clues.

Context: The following passage an example of contextual clues may seem basic, but it makes an important point:

"Jack's arrows were nearly all gone, so he sat down and stopped hunting. Then, he saw Henry making a bow to a little girl. She had tears in her dress and tears in her eyes."

The reader's first inclination is to understand "bow" as part of a bow and arrow set. The written word "tears" may be understood two different ways depending upon the context. The semantic message and the words should work together to transmit the information. Guessing from context helps the readers avoid looking up every single unfamiliar or forgotten word as they read.

Sample exercises

Activity 1: Word recognition. Mark the word that is different.

Each problem consists of words that are the same except for one. This type of activity is particularly useful for those whose language uses a different alphabet.

  • boy/boy/toy/boy
  • rat/hat/hat/hat
  • read/read/read/bed

Activity 2: Look at the TV guide and answer the questions.

Here one would use an authentic text. A TV directory does not go beyond the readers' ability to understand since they do not need to know every word, and the material is presented as a chunk of meaningful language that fits in with their previous knowledge.

Activity 3: Study these parts of speech and use them in the sentences.

Reading in ESL necessarily involves vocabulary acquisition. One way to enhance this process is to show how new words are derived by morphological changes.

Reading is an active skill that must be taught. Supporting activities, such as the ones illustrated, teach vocabulary, word development and grammar.

See more exercises in Part 2.