Helping ESL students understand written texts

This page lists the features of written language that English learners find difficult, and what teachers can do to facilitate reading comprehension.


Every day in school and at home ESL students have many different texts The word texts is used here to refer to all kinds of reading material that ESL students have to deal with; e.g., textbook passages, worksheet questions, short stories, Internet articles, etc. to read. It is through reading that they acquire much of their knowledge and understanding of the different subject areas. And reading often forms the basis of follow-up work such as class discussions or homework questions.

For these reasons it is essential that ESL students are helped as much as possible and necessary to understand what they read. @ Many ESL students, often with their parents' help, waste a great deal of precious time trying to make sense of texts that are too difficult for them. ~

It is not unusual for a student to pore over a text for a couple of hours with a dictionary and still not understand it very well. Yet with a little assistance their frustrating reading experience can be turned into a more profitable one.

The purpose of this article therefore is to suggest to mainstream teachers how they can help the ESL students in their classes to become more effective readers.

Firstly, I list some of the factors that can make texts difficult to understand. And secondly, I suggest ways that the texts that students are expected to read, e.g. in textbooks, can be made more accessible to them.

What makes texts difficult to understand

Every text that a student reads may have one or more of the following difficulties.

- Illegibility

A first, obvious difficulty relates to the legibility of a text. ESL students may have problems that are caused solely by the fact that what they are trying to understand has been poorly printed or copied, is badly set-out or is in a small cramped type-face.

- Unfamiliar Words

A written message may be difficult to understand because it contains many words that are unknown to the student. In the following short text, for example, the instruction is simple (Draw a small picture which shows how water evaporates), but the language in which it is expressed is not:

Illustrate your response with a thumbnail representation of the evaporation process.

Probably the most unfamiliar vocabulary for ESL students is academic words. Here is more information about academic vocabulary.

- Lack of Background Knowledge

Another difficulty arises in cases where the necessary background knowledge is missing.

Unless the student has a basic understanding of statistics, for example, there is little point him/her looking up the unknown words in the following passage since the definitions are unlikely to further comprehension.

To minimize two unknowns we differentiate with respect to each variable in turn treating the other variable as a constant. The process is called partial differentiation and the notation used is standard.

- Difficult Concepts

The next difficulty can be seen in texts such as the following:

The appeal of the view that a work of art expresses nothing unless what it expresses can be put into words can be reduced by setting beside it another view, no less popular in the theory of art, that a work of art has no value if what it expresses can be put into words.

Wollheim, R. (2015). Art and its Objects. Cambridge University Press.

The words in themselves are not unduly difficult and no special background knowledge is required, but the concept expressed in the passage is complex.

- Complex Syntax

The above text about art is also difficult because of its syntactic complexity. In general, long sentences containing subordinate or embedded clauses tend to be less immediately intelligible than shorter, simpler ones.

For example, the second instruction below is probably more readily understood than the first, which contains an embedded participial clause (in italics).

- Explain clearly using at least three different reasons or drawing three diagrams why McClelland lost the battle.

- Explain clearly why McClelland lost the battle. Give at least three reasons or draw three diagrams

- Nominalization

Nominalization, which is the use of a noun in combination with an "empty" verb, is a feature of academic text that causes problems to ESL students. The following fragments give the same instruction. The second, containing a nominalization, is likely to be the more difficult.

- In your answer you should consider the effect of heat loss...

- Consideration should be given in your answer to the effect of heat loss...

- Polysemy

@@ Polysemous words are words with multiple meanings. These can cause difficulty if the student has learned one meaning of the word, but the word has a different meaning in the context of the sentence the student is reading. ~~

An example is the word solution which can mean either the answer to a problem or a mixture of two substances.

Mathematics is full of words that ESL students are likely to have learned first with their everyday meaning: table, mean, power, even, volume, root, etc.

Jokes and puns are frequently based on the polysemous nature of the words they contain, which is why they are usually so difficult for ESL students.

- Complex noun phrases

Another syntactic feature of academic text is the complex noun phrase. Following is an example of a noun (system ) which is both pre-modified by an adjective and three nouns and post-modified by a phrase that omits the relative pronoun and copula (that is intended... ).

This kind of noun group can be very problematic for language learners.

He invented a rudimentary binary data-transmission system intended to be operable over distances of more than 10 meters.

Another example of the omission of that is:

The meeting the headmaster held with the parent-teacher group to discuss increasing after-school activity opportunities was interrupted by a fire alarm.

The bolded noun phrase is difficult enough without the additional problem of the ellipis between The meeting the headmaster.

- Cohesion

Cohesion refers to the way writers link phrases, clauses and sentences into a coherent whole. However, a mature and pleasing style can often be problematic for English learners.

In the pair of sentences below, the first has one feature of cohesion, namely ellipsis, that will probably make it more difficult to understand than the second.

- John bought a red pencil and Mary a blue one.
- John bought a red pencil and Mary bought a blue pencil.

A second feature of cohesion is substitution. In the following example, the first sentence uses its prey to substitute for the penguin. Students may not immediately realize that the writer is referring to one and the same thing. The second sentence is likely to be more readily understood.

- The killer whale tosses the penguin into the air and generally torments its prey before it eats it.
- The killer whale tosses the penguin into the air and generally torments the penguin before eating it.

Read more information and advice about cohesion. The page suggests how teachers can write cohesively and assist students to do the same. There are onward links to several examples of problematic cohesion.

- Poor Writing

The final source of difficulty is associated with the many different manifestations of poor writing. For example, a text may be difficult because the ideas are not organized logically, or because punctuation is lacking, faulty or ambiguous, or because cohesion is slipshod.

The following extract, taken from a recent Computing Studies exam, has an example of poor cohesion.

A bar code is often found on produce sold in supermarkets and, by means of a bar code reader, a computer can directly identify that item.

The student may fail to realize that that item is a substitute for and refers to produce. Indeed, the student may not comprehend that produce is a noun meaning food in this context.

Final thought on causes of reading difficulty

Any one of the above difficulties alone may interfere with comprehension. But when they occur in combination - such as in texts with complex syntax and unfamiliar vocabulary - the chances of an ESL student readily understanding the text are very much reduced.

How to help students understand what they read

For the texts you write yourself, there is detailed advice elsewhere on this site on how to prepare comprehensible worksheets and tests.

Much of what the students have to read in your subject, however, will come from textbooks or from the internet. Clearly, you have no control over the content of these passages. What you can do however is to decide whether or not to use the text with your ESL students.

If you have no suitable alternative*, you could rewrite the text or parts of it to make it more comprehensible. Another possibility is to highlight or point out those parts of the text that contain the essential information that you wish the students to focus on.

Admittedly, this can be a complex, time-consuming process. But your ESL teacher colleague will no doubt be happy to advise or possibly even do it for you.

*It is useful to be aware of Simple English Wikipedia as a source of information written explicitly for non-native speakers of English. Some of the texts in Simple English Wikipedia may be suitable alternatives for older students.

Reading strategies

Assuming you want to use a difficult passage from a textbook as it is, there are various strategies that students can apply to ensure that they have a better chance of understanding.

Two of the more common ones are SQ3R (Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review) and KWL (What do I know, What do I want to know, What have I learned).

The most important advice from these various reading strategies is summarised below.

  • @@@ Make sure that students understand why they are reading the text and what they will have to do afterwards. ~~~ ESL students often believe they need to understand every word of a text. In many cases, however, they can fulfil the task requirements by scanning or skimming through the passage.

    Having a clear reading purpose helps students to focus more efficiently on the information they need to extract.

  • Ensure that students have the necessary background information before they are asked to read long texts. It is most important that they have a chance to focus on the topic and activate their existing knowledge of it before being confronted with the text.

    This often provides the opportunity to pre-teach essential vocabulary contained in the text.

  • Encourage students to read up about the topic beforehand, or discuss it at home with their parents, in their own language.

  • Have students predict the information they will find out in the text.

  • Ask students to write questions that they would like to have answered by the text.

  • Introduce some key vocabulary from the text.

  • Have students predict the vocabulary they will meet in the text.

  • Remind students of the importance of looking at headings, diagrams, and illustrations and their captions.

  • Tell students to note parts of the text that they could make no sense of. They can later ask you or another student to explain it to them.

Final advice

One more piece of advice: Many textbooks are organised around a unifying principle so that each chapter follows the same pattern. It is helpful to make sure that students know their way around the book, and particularly if it contains a glossary.


Much of the above advice is standard practice because it is good for all students, not just ESL students. However, in mainstream classes, as in ESL classes, the emphasis should be on training students to apply these reading strategies independently where possible.

It does not help in the long run if they expect to be "walked through" every difficult text they encounter.

Further reading

Here is my advice to students on how to become a more effective reader.

Understanding what they read is only one of the difficulties faced by ESL students in school. Another major problem for them is making sense of what they hear. Here is advice on how to help students understand what you say.

An important concept in helping ESL students manage difficult tasks is scaffolding. The linked page has information about the theory underpinning this useful teaching practice.