L2 Reading Comprehension

How to help second language learners improve their reading skills
This site is a collaborative venture, prepared intitially by Claudia Escartín, Brian Gill, Maija MacLeod, Murray Peglar, and Miko Summerell, in Brian Gill's French 611 (L2 Reading comprehension and Technology) class.  The site is being developed during the Winter 2003 term.

Ideas for Classroom Instruction
What do we do when we read?

We read in different ways, depending on our goals.  We may

  • scan through a text for a specific piece of information (When is the movie on?). 
  • skim a text to get a general idea of its content (as with many newspaper articles).
  • practice rapid, extensive reading (as when we read a novel).
  • practice slow, careful, intensive reading (as when we study a poem or a short passage).
Note that intensive reading is not common outside of school, except when we are reading instructions.  It is in some ways unnatural...

Except when we scan, the aim of reading is not to understand individual words or even sentences but to construct a global meaning for a text.  In doing this, we use not only the words in the text, but our previous knowledge of the subject (bees, or winter, or war...) and of the way the type of text (recipe, novel, editorial, joke...) is put together.  As we read, we construct hypotheses about the meaning, modifying them as we proceed.  We use strategies to cope with unknown words or concepts, build up our representation of the meaning of the text and monitor our understanding.

How can reading be taught?

The suggestions for activities which follow are arranged in four columns, corresponding to four different moments of instruction.

(1) Preparatory work is done without reference to a specific text.  It can include general work on vocabulary and syntax, the teaching of reading strategies, and exercises to increase reading speed or word-recognition.

(2) Pre-reading activities activate previous knowledge so the information in the text can be understood more easily, generate hypotheses about the text which the reader seeks to confirm, and motivate the reader by giving a reason to read.

(3) While-reading activities take place as the learner is going through the text.

(4) Post-reading activities confirm understandings, and consolidate knowledge gained during reading (vocabulary, syntax) by reusing it, perhaps in writing or speaking situations.

The following activities are presented according to where they are most likley used in the reading .Please note that some will  fall into more than one category, such as "Predicting", which may begin before text is read, continue during reading and have a final component after reading is finished. 
While Reading
Post Reading:
Semantic Mapping


Questioning - Enquiry Strategy

Predicting - Asking Questions

Predicting - Understanding Sequence



Increasing Reading Rate

Jigsaw  Reading

Inferring from Context

Focussing on Main and Supporting Points

Becoming Aware of Cohesive Devices - Reference Pronouns

Becoming Aware of Discourse Markers

Coping with Vocabulary


Writing Summaries

Three-Level Guides - Integrating Comprehension





The reading comprehension process

Semantic Mapping

(Prepared by Maija MacLeod, Adapted from Campbell, K.(1991) Hands-on English, in ERIC Doccument  374 686 )


In this activity, before reading,  students will generate and organize vocabulary they know about a topic, into meaningful categories,  taking the form of a "map" or web. 


This activity will activate students' prior knowledge about a topic and its vocabulary, helping  them to categorize the ideas  into a context they will be able to use when they read . Grouping the words into categories makes them easier to remember and understand . The map itself  will help to  explain new concepts  encountered during the reading  by showing them in relationship with old ones.


 1. Before introducing the reading passage identify, in one or several words, the main idea. 

2. Divide the class into small groups, giving each one a large piece of paper,  telling groups to appoint one student as secretary to record their ideas. 

3. On a large piece of paper, write the topic you have identified, in the center with a circle around it. Tell students they will have 10 minutes to list as many words as they can about this  topic.

4. When students are finished their lists, ask them  to tape them  onto  the wall. 

5. Pointing to the lists, ask students. "What groups do we see here?"  When they find a category, write  it on the large paper,  joining it to the center with a line.  Add the specific words in that category  as extensions of that group. The "map" will take the shape of a web. If students have difficulty at first you can suggest a category and ask which words fit into it.  As students use the words from their lists, cross them off the lists.

6. When complete, the map is a diagram of the students' combined knowledge of the subject. They will be encouraged by how much information they already have and that with so many words grouped into categories,  the material in their reading  may be less overwhelming. 

7. The students are then ready to read the passage. As they read, encourage them to add any new words they encounter to the map on the large paper. Try using a different color for the new information. Another option would be to have each student copy the class "map" and add to it on their own. 


(Prepared by Maija MacLeod,  Adapted from Mikulecky, B. (1984) Reading Instruction in ESL, ERIC document 274 185)


In this activity students work  with the teacher and then on their own, to find out what a reading passage may be about by looking only at the title, pictures and diagrams, sub-headings, first and last paragraphs and the first line of each paragraph. 


This activity  will develop reading comprehension by making the reader familiar with the  basic content and organization of the text and activating prior knowledge . 
By previewing a text, students begin to guess at the content and begin to match up what they see in the preview with what they already know about the content. They begin to make assumptions about what they will find and are motivated to read to seek answers to their questions. 


1. Tell students that in this activity they will be "planning " the reading they will be doing. By having an idea of what is to come, they will be able to make more accurate guesses about what they read  and find it easier to understand what they have read. 

2. Using  a chapter or shorter passage to read,  go through the following steps with the students:
a) Read the title.
b) Look at any pictures or diagrams.
c) Read any sub-headings.
d) Read the first paragraph, or first sentence in a shorter passage.
e) Read the first line of each paragraph.
f) Read the last paragraph, or last sentence in a shorter passage.

3. Ask students,  "What do you think this pasage is going to be about?
Copy some of the ideas on the board.

4) Give the students a short summary. Often students will have been quite accurate, which will give them a good deal of confidence. 

5) Distribute a second passage of about 400 words. Give students two minutes to preview the text as was done in the demonstration.  After the time has elapsed, have them put the reading away.

6) Hand out about ten questions, asking  about the general meaning of the passage,  for students to answer, without looking back at it.

7) Discuss the answers with the students, impressing on them how it was not necessary for them to have read  all of the text to be able to understand its meaning .

Questioning - Enquiry Strategy

(Prepared by Maija MacLeod , Adapted  from Williams, E. (1984)  Reading in the language classroom, p. 119-120)


In this activity, in response to a picture or keyword prompt about a  text to be read,  students generate facts and  questions about its topic.  Once motivated to find confirmations to their statements and anwers to their questions, students read the text . 


This activity will involve students in determining themselves what information they need about a text they are about to read. This makes more motivating reading  than if the teacher generates the questions they are to find answers to.


1. Using a visual or key word, introduce the topic of the reading, one that should be of interest to the students. 

2. As a whole-class activity, ask students to give several  facts  about what  they know about the topic. You may want to record these in one column of a chart labeled "KNOW".  This is a the first step in a common technique called KWL (Know - Want to Know - Learned) .

3. Often when the facts are being generated there may be some disagreement by students as to the validity of all of the facts. This  leads nicely into the next step of asking the students to work in groups to generate two lists. One will be of facts about the topic that  they are sure  about  and the other,  facts they are not sure of or do not know and would like to know.  Have students form these facts into questions.

4.  Once students have generated the two lists, have representatives from each group report back to the whole class what ideas they came up with. Facts that the class may not be sure of or want to know  can be recorded  on the chart  in the column labelled "Want to know".

5. Have students read the passage, checking for the accuracy of the statements made in the "Know"  list and for the answers to the questions in the "Want to Know: column. 

 Predicting - Asking Questions

(Prepared by Maija Macleod, Adapted from Manzo, A.V. (1969) The ReQuest procedure, Journal of Reading 20, p.126-136) 


In this activity, small chunks of text are revealed a piece at a time. Students predict what a text will be about, from viewing the title. They  read  piece by piece, asking the teacher and responding to,  higher-level questions about the portion just read until the main idea is formed. Students continue to read on their own to the end and revise their initial predictions. 


This activity involves students in predicting what may happen next in a story,  by asking themselves high-level questions.  High-level questions are unlike low-level ones which require only recall and recognition of facts. High-level questions  require interpreting, extrapolating, applying, inferring, analysing, synthesizing and evaluating information in the text.  Once students see how a text is being organized, they can make a reasoned guess at what might happen next. Students may be motivated to read further in the text to confirm their guesses. This activity helps them to see the larger picture.


1. Choose a short reading passage.  Using one that has a "suprise ending" may have an even greater impact as students  will be even more pleased if they have guessed what will happen correctly. You may want to recopy the passage so that each sentence you want to focus on is on a separate line and can be obscurred with a paper until ready to go to the next.

2. If using the overhead,  it is easy to control what portions will be seen by students. If you wish students to have copies of the passage, or if a projector is not available, instruct students to use a cover sheet so as to reveal only one line or paragraph at a time.

3. To begin with, reveal only the title. Ask students what they think the text will be about.

4. Record students predictions on the board.

5. Explain to students that in this activity they will read one line at a time, silently, and then have the opportunity to ask you any questions they have about the text. 

6. After giving students the chance to ask questions,  ask them some, modeling good questioning  techniques.  The following acronym may be useful: FIVE.
   Factual questions - requires finding answer directly in the passage
   Inference questions -  requires a guess
  Vocabulary questions - reveals  knowledge of words in the text, or lack of it 
  Experience questions - calls on students to draw on their background knowledge

7. Give appropriate feedback to students' questions, modelling the process of the thinking that may happen with an inference question. 

8. Continue having the students read the text, line by line or paragraph by paragraph until the main idea of the text is revealed. Ask  students to finish reading silently on their own.

9. Once students have finished reading , revise the predictions that were recorded at the beginning. If a surprise ending has been provided it often  makes students realize that not all predictions are "bad".

Predicting - Understanding Sequence

(Prepared by Maija Macleod, Adapted from "Mystery Clue Game", Richardson & Morgan (1994)  Reading to Learn in the Content Areas, p. 172-173)


In this activity students work together to approximate the sequence of events in a passage  before reading it.  Reading clue cards, they attempt to sequence events that happen, to solve a problem or perform some task. They then read with the purpose of checking their predictions.


This activity will allow students practice in identifying the sequence of events within a text. Having identified the organizational pattern in this prereading activity, students will find it easier to read the passage.


1. Choosing a passage with a sequence of events,  identify each of the events