Reading in the ESL classroom: how to get it right

As an ESL teacher, your classes could vary from private tutoring to working with small groups in academies, or even teaching a class of over 20 kids! Whatever the type of class, reading is a fantastic resource in the ESL classroom, but when you might have students who have different levels, knowledge of vocabulary, or even just generally different interests, it can also be tricky to get right.

Think about a time that you picked up a book or article and it was just too difficult. Perhaps you were unfamiliar with the vocabulary or the topic. Even if you have a decent range of vocabulary, there’s a chance you don’t have a firm grasp of grammar in that second language.

Therefore, the changes in tense, word order, and sentence structure can cause a lot of confusion.  How does it feel to read text that’s incomprehensible or very difficult to get through? Most would agree that it feels extremely frustrating.

It’s necessary to be challenged when learning, but we should always make sure that it’s not too much too soon. Even the best professional athletes in the world started training small and worked their way up gradually.

This can be summarised in the table below. As you can see, once a text is above an independent reading level, and on an instructional level, the student needs the teacher’s support.


Independent  The student can read the text on his/her own with ease. Very few errors are made and the student understands what is read. Reading at this level boosts confidence and improves fluency. It’s ideal for independent and silent reading.
Instructional The student needs the support of the teacher or parent. This is the level at which new vocabulary and concepts are introduced and where the greatest progress in reading occurs. This level is ideal for guided reading groups.
Frustrational Decoding words, vocabulary, and concepts are too difficult for the student. Being forced to read at this level will most likely turn students off to reading and cause issues with self-esteem.

This is a guide, not an exact science. In addition, there are many factors that come into play when leveling texts and leveling students; There are so many factors that results sometimes vary. Therefore, as long as the child is not very frustrated and is learning from the reading, you’re on the right track.

As an ESL teacher for kids, you’ll probably be in situations where your students are forced to read at a ‘frustrational’ level. If it’s in the context of science or history, try your best to find alternative texts that teach the same concepts but in a way the students can comprehend.

Find materials that work

In an ideal world/classroom, you would have an endless supply of books and articles, but the reality is you may not have access to a huge selection, especially if you’re working in a country where English is not the first language. One way to help with this issue is to utilize websites.

When teaching nonfiction, Newsela and ReadWorks are fantastic sites that provide high-quality texts broken down by level. Both of these sites also provide additional activities, such as comprehension questions and assessments.

Breaking News English contains news articles, audios with different accents, and activities at seven different levels. Tween Tribune, a site created by the Smithsonian, also offers various levels on the same topic/event. COMMONLIT is similar, but contains high-interest fiction as well.

Similarly, with fiction novels, the goal is to help students get books that fit them well. Many books are leveled, which helps to serve as a guide when trying to match books to students. This site gives you some idea: “Book Lists for Every Level”.

Of course, interest is always a factor when it comes to learning and motivation so make sure to take that into account when you’re choosing materials.

How do I assess reading levels in children?

Click here (F&P text levels) to see a guide of where students are expected to be reading at each grade level (when English is their first language). Fountas & Pinnell,  F&P Leveled Books, provide in-depth information and tools, but you need a subscription to access everything. They provide one leveling system, but there are several others. If you’re interested, this chart gives a side by side comparison of some of the different leveling systems that you’ll find: Comparison Chart.

If you don’t have access to leveling kits, do your best to assess with this simple guide. For a nonfiction unit, for example, sit with a student and have him/her read an article that you assess to be around the right level and answer these questions:

  • How fluently can the child read?
  • How long does it take the child to decode words?
  • When you ask the child to summarize the text and define vocabulary, how well are they able to do this?
  • How does the child feel reading the text? Frustrated? It is easy or just right?

If it’s too hard or easy, try an article that’s a different level and start the process again.

How do I manage a class if students aren’t able to read the same thing? 

Here’s an idea of how a one-hour reading class may look that allows students to read different books or articles. We should approach this in a workshop style and the idea is that the teacher is not teaching a concept or story; the teacher is teaching a reading strategy.

The introduction to the class should last between 10-15 minutes and the remaining time should be used for students to read. Imagine the class is learning how to read nonfiction text.


Mini-lesson Sample: (10-15 minutes)
Subject: Reading
Unit: Reading Expository Nonfiction
*Students will be able to identify text features and explain how text features help the reader
1) Connection and teaching point: The teacher could say, “Yesterday we learned about all kinds of text features in expository nonfiction, such as headings, diagrams, timelines, charts, types of print, etc. Today we’re going to think more carefully about how these text features help the reader comprehend the material.”
2) Demonstration: The teacher gives an example or two from the mentor text (one text that you use to model examples for the entire class.) and writes the examples on a chart for students to refer to. The teacher could say “For example, this timeline at the bottom of the page is there to help the reader understand the time period that this animal became extinct. Rather than skim over it, I should pay close attention to it.”
3) Guided practice: Prompt students to try the new strategy with the mentor text. To get everyone involved, have students turn and talk to a partner or write a response in their reading notebook.
4) Compliment students and clarify if necessary.
5) Repeat the teaching point and instruct students to read and practice the new strategy with their own book/article for the remaining class time.

At this point, students may all be reading different books/articles, or perhaps one-quarter of the class has one text, one quarter has another, etc. Remember the idea is to teach a strategy, not to teach a concept (nonfiction) or a story (fiction). The class is not based on memorizing details or taking quizzes just to try to catch students who didn’t do their homework.

What does the teacher do during this time? Circulate the room and conference with individual students or small groups. Monitor their understanding and give feedback. Refer back to the mentor text and the class chart to remind students of the reading strategies and examples. Call the class back together before class ends, for about five minutes, and have some students share their work. Again, compliment, clarify, and repeat the teaching point.

Reading is one of the most important things for students to grasp and a key element to help them improve their English. In the ESL classroom, it can be tricky to get it right, but hopefully, this blog has helped demystify how to master gauging levels and also dealing with a class with students of different reading levels. If you’d like to contribute to our blog about an ESL teaching topic, write to [email protected] and we’ll give you more information.


Author: Megan Zambell is a TtMadrid & ITA graduate with a degree in elementary education and psychology. She taught fourth and fifth grade in New Jersey for thirteen years prior to moving to Madrid to teach ESL.