Comprehension Activities for ESL Beginners

Written by tasos vossos
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Comprehension Activities for ESL Beginners
Boost your students' core skills with easy reading and listening comprehension activities. (Jupiterimages/Goodshoot/Getty Images)

People who are just starting to learn English as a second language are understandably weak in understanding the language, whether it is written or spoken. For this reason, teachers have to incorporate a number of reading and listening comprehension activities into their lessons. The activities must be simple enough for novices to understand, yet give students the opportunity to improve their skills. Teachers must choose the contents of the activities based on their students' ages.

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Simple Questions

Give students a simple text consisting of short sentences, with no more than 10 words each. It can be an imaginative story with princesses and dragons for kids or just an everyday experience for adults. Allow students to read the text and answer simple questions, such as "Where does ___ (the character) go?" or "How is the weather?" Explicitly mention the answers in the text so that it is easy for the students to spot them.

Right or Wrong

Pick a topic popular among students, such as sports, games or vacations. The text must be concise and contain only words previously taught. Provide students with declarative sentences, and then make a statement about the text. Ask them if your statement is right or wrong. The answer must be easily identifiable in the text and it has to be clear whether it confirms or refutes your statement. You cannot expect ESL beginners to interpret the text to figure out the answer to ambiguous questions.


If your class consists of young children, songs are a pleasant way to help them practice their early listening comprehension skills. Kindergarten songs, such as "Old McDonald" or "Bingo" are suitable for ESL beginners. Encourage children to sing along on the first repeat. After listening to and singing the song, ask children questions relating to the song, such as what type of animals are on Old MacDonald's farm or what type of noises do they make.

Short Videos

Adult ESL beginners aren't so keen on singing kindergarten songs, but they can enjoy watching short clips of popular TV shows and trying to answer simple questions about the shows. Record a program and replay a small part in class or use the short clips on the website. Have the students answer simple questions about what they hear, not what they see (e.g., do not ask what kind of hat an actor is wearing).

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