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What Comprehension Strategies Are Best for ESL Students?

by Nadia Archuleta, studioD

Students learning English as a Second Language are studying at school in a non-native language. As such, they often face more challenges. However, teachers can utilize several comprehension strategies to help them in the classroom. Incorporating strategies such as direct vocabulary instruction, reading "think alouds," graphic organizers and follow-up activities help ESL students reinforce and internalize their new knowledge.


Vocabulary instruction is key to comprehension for ESL students. Teachers scan a text and identify words that pose potential problems, teaching this vocabulary before assigning the reading. Robert J. Marzano advises using pictures and examples for teaching new terms. Teachers then invite students to restate their understanding in their own words and create their own graphic of the term. With vocabulary instruction ESL students learn the meanings of new words and they eventually comprehend emotional associations and common word pairings.

Reading Strategies

Teachers can "think aloud," modeling for students how to deal with a confusing passage. Think-aloud strategies include re-reading a text, using context to infer meaning and utilizing students' prior knowledge of the text's topic. Once ESL students master the basic comprehension strategies, teachers show them strategies for literary and stylistic analysis. They talk the students through methods to analyze characterization, for example, by guiding them to identify characters' actions and motives and evaluate what that says about their personality.


Visual illustrations help ESL students with comprehension. In addition to pictures, teachers can utilize graphic organizers to help students make connections between key ideas. For example, a K-W-L chart invites students to identify what they already know, what they want to know and what they learned. Using this tool at the beginning and end of a reading allows ESL students to feel more comfortable reading the text and participating in a class discussion. Visual aids and graphic organizers allow ESL students to organize new information in ways that are not text-dominant.


Follow-up activities provide opportunities for ESL students to synthesize their new knowledge. Answering comprehension questions, participating in class discussions and writing responses to a text allows teachers to assess students' progress and allows students to assess their own progress. Teachers can provide games and competitions to review a lesson, for example. Marzano suggests allowing students to play with their new knowledge. Encouraging students to play with their new knowledge shows them learning is fun. When students have fun with learning, they internalize their new knowledge.

About the Author

Nadia Archuleta has a B.A. in English writing. She spent five years working abroad and has traveled extensively. She has worked as an English as a Foreign/Second Language teacher for 12 years.

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