Let’s face it: creating interesting reading lessons for ESL or IELTS classes can be boring… really boring. And it’s not just the creation of the lesson, but the lesson itself. Too often, it’s a time when the students are quiet (or maybe trying to surreptitiously play games on their phones) and as teacher you maybe don’t have that much to do.

bored student reading a book
A familiar sight – bored students.

In short, it’s quiet and dull and everyone in the classroom is about to fall asleep.

So what do you do? How do you make reading lessons more interesting?

For me, reading lessons were always a bit of a challenge. On the one hand, it was kind of nice to have an “easy” class to teach. The students would get their heads down in the book and I wouldn’t have to run around, making sure every little thing was going right. If you’ve got a packed schedule, it can be nice to have that peaceful lesson. But on the other hand, it took ages to prepare them and it never felt good to have such a low-energy lesson.

In this article, I will try to explain a little about reading lessons and how to make them more useful, dynamic, and – dare I say it? – fun.

The Importance of Teaching Reading Skills

I probably shouldn’t need to start with this, but I’m going to do it anyway. Back when I was teaching, I would avoid reading lessons as much as possible. My students didn’t want to do it and I didn’t want to do it. Moreover, they didn’t think that they needed it. Reading is one of those skills you really can improve in your personal studies, which obviously makes it very different from speaking, which requires practice with other people.

Moreover, working with students in places like China, where there are very few foreign teachers and millions of local ones, there was this perception that native-speaking English teachers were better put to use with speaking and writing lessons. (That is true to an extent.)

reading is important

But of course reading should be part of any good language course. Your students may think that they know it all, and they may well have very good reading skills, but they also need to sharpen them. There is plenty more to be learned…

I believe that an English course should involve a mix of all four skills – reading, listening, writing, and speaking. Beyond that, those skills should be blended together to some extent. No class should be devoted 100% to any one of those skills. If you have a listening class, throw in a little speaking; if you have a writing class, do a little reading, too.

Which brings me to my first point…

Don’t Make it all About Reading

So reading is the focus of your lesson… does that mean everything has to be about reading? No! I really think that the lesson should be centered around a reading passage, but there should be other aspects thrown in: a little discussion, maybe a written answer, perhaps a video/audio clip that is tied to the topic somehow. It could be a vocabulary lesson or a grammar lesson… it doesn’t have to be just a reading lesson.

Imagine that you are learning a new language. For me, that language (right now) is Japanese. I’m interested in it and I want to get better, but if you put a long essay in front of me with nothing but text, and told me to read it and answer a bunch of questions, I would be pretty miserable, especially if this lasted for a whole hour. Sure, I might learn something, but it’s not an effective way of learning – at least not for most people.

When I make a reading lesson, I like to structure it so that there is more to the lesson than just a reading passage. I like to put together a lead-in that grabs their attention and piques their interest, then different types of activities to test their reading skills, mixed with some other sorts of activities to break up the reading. A good ESL reading lesson plan might look like this:

Lead-in: watch 2 min YouTube video about lions

Ask general Q about lions

Look at headline and ask what they think it’s about

Read for gist and answer Q

Pre-teach some vocab

Scan to find vocab in text

Answer Qs related to vocab

Discussion on related topic

That’s obviously a super basic outline, but it’s one way to possibly structure a reading lesson without going too heavily into reading. There would be no part of this lesson that is devoted to, say, 20 minutes of silent reading. It’s active and challenging and balanced.

Reading Can be About Vocabulary, too

You might think that the point of a reading lesson is to teach reading skills, and that is absolutely a great point. You should definitely be training your students to use these skills in each and every lesson you do. However, there is more to it than that. Reading is a great way to acquire vocabulary.

There are different ways to achieve this, and of course students will naturally pick up vocabulary through reading. However, I think that there are at least two great ways to approach this purpose:

  1. Pre-teach the vocabulary that will appear in the text.
  2. Allow the students to figure out the meaning from context. (And then that teach if necessary.)

I’m sure that certainly teachers will be aligned with one of those methods and think it’s the best, but for me they are both great options. I probably tend to use the first one more because the students I have taught in the past really seemed to respond to that. However, more curious (or younger) students might prefer the latter option. I suppose it depends on their learning style and your teaching style.

A video about learning difficult vocabulary for IELTS.

If you choose to pre-teach the vocabulary, you have the advantage of then letting them find those words from the text, and this helps with their skim reading. On the other hand, giving them a task like a set of questions and then letting them work out vocabulary from that can be beneficial, too. This probably requires more focused students who are more willing to speak, and might not work too well with very large groups.

Another thing that should be included here is synonyms. Synonyms are very important for IELTS reading and other forms of reading, and this is a perfect chance to teach them. At its most basic, I think it is useful to have students practice look at words in the question and then searching for words in the text that mean the same thing.

[Check out this article on the importance of synonyms for IELTS.]

Include Non-Reading Activities that Support the Lesson

As I mentioned above and as you can see from my very basic lesson outline, you should definitely include some non-reading activities within your reading lesson. If your students walk into the room and you put an article in front of them and a list of 100 questions, there really won’t be much learning taking place. You need to create fun reading activities for your ESL or IELTS students.

Therefore, I would suggest bringing in a little bit of speaking or listening or writing (or all three!) to complement the reading material. This could be a really interesting lead-in exercise to get them interested. Some time ago, I post a lesson plan that was based around a BBC article on rhinos. [Here is the link.] I used that lesson in different ways over several years, but it was most effective when I started with a video of a baby rhino! It sounds silly, but it really got the students interested. They had never seen a baby rhino before!

A video about a cute baby rhino.

I almost always put some speaking questions into the lesson, too. In fact, I think speaking is a very useful component of any ESL or IELTS class. It is at the heart of our language, after all. If your students are a bit shy or maybe just lacking in speaking skill, you should try to arrange the lesson so that most of the speech is done when they don’t have the article in front of them, or else you will find that they just look at the article the whole time. They will invariably avoid looking up, and perhaps even try to read from the text rather than think of their own answer.

Another good idea is to have a writing task involved. You could include this at the end of the lesson, or give it as homework. If the students have to write something based upon the article, they will quite likely pay more attention to the article and really draw upon the ideas and language within it. In certain classes, you can have them write together to make it more interactive.

Tackle Different Types of Question

ielts reading test
Try to replicate real test questions.

Improving reading comprehension or preparing for the IELTS reading test means not just doing one type of question, but instead looking at different sorts. You have all kinds of questions that you could and should practice, so don’t be afraid to introduce several of them:

  • Multiple choice
  • True/ False/ Not given
  • Gap-fill
  • Short answer
  • Matching headings

These are just some of the different question types that appear in IELTS reading or other reading comprehension tests. You should practice these with your students often. I find that it can be useful for especially hard questions to do it together as a class, thus making the process a bit more inclusive and active. You might want to take the first question and explain it before, or else pick the hardest one and explain it after. This could involve using a projector of some kind to highlight the correct passage and then show where the answer is hidden.

Obviously, you need to let students find the answers themselves, too. This approach should only be done as a demonstrative for special questions or to solve particular problems.

How to Choose an Article for an ESL/IELTS Reading Class

If you have a really good textbook, then you probably don’t need to even think about this question. However, for most teachers you will at some point need to make your own reading lesson, and that will involve finding an article and then writing questions for it. This can be a daunting task, and sometimes you will not want to do it. However, it is beneficial for several reasons:

  1. Bring some topical lesson to the classroom.
  2. Choose something that is interesting/appropriate for your students.
  3. Having control over the material, so it is more useful.
  4. Avoid dull textbook activities.
  5. Find something that is just the right length.

A few years ago, I had a large class who were working from a textbook that included many short IELTS passages. I found that it was not very realistic because each passage was just 100 words or so, and finding the answers was therefore quite easy. I wanted something longer, even though I was not at that point asking my students to do the whole exercise in one go.

I was also able to pick a topic that was appropriate for my students and their interests. It also avoiding the thorny political issues you face when living in China (ie no history, geography, politics, or religion). In other words, the process of choosing an article gave me a great deal of control, and allowed me to find something much better for my students than the textbook.

I did this quite often, but of course it is terribly time-consuming and so I couldn’t do it as often as I would have liked. Nevertheless, these lessons can be reused with other groups of students in the future, so it can be considered a good investment!

Some things to remember when looking for an article to use:

  1. Make sure it is an appropriate length.
  2. Avoid anything with too much jargon.
  3. Consider the target language.
  4. Will it be interesting or relevant to them?
  5. Do you have any related materials/activities to incorporate?

Where to Find Articles to Use in Reading Lessons

In this respect, the internet is your oyster! You can pretty much look around for whatever you need and find it on Google. I personally like BBC News because it’s written in appropriate language and covers a whole range of topics. You could of course use almost any news outlet for articles about current events. It doesn’t have to be news, either. You could check out online journals and magazines, or places like the Smithsonian website. These sorts of places might have videos or pictures tied to the article that you can also use in your class.

How Long Should it be?

This question depends on your students. If you are working with young children or beginners, you should obviously keep the text very short. However, for more advanced students you would want longer articles. The IELTS reading test involves articles of about 1,000 words, so if you really want them prepared for that, you can use articles of that length. However, sometimes it is worth using shorter articles to work on their close reading skills.

Basically, it depends on a lot of factors. There is great value in short passages, and great value in longer passages, too. Figure out what will work for your students, and design a lesson around that. Clearly, having a long passage will challenge your students more, and offer more opportunities for different types of exercise. But it can often prove too taxing, and you might lose their interest.