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Pre-Reading Activities to Boost Comprehension

January 18, 2022

Reading is an essential skill in second-language acquisition. As learners develop their reading skills, they not only build their vocabulary, but they also become familiar with common grammatical structures and phrasing in the target language. Learners can transfer this knowledge to the other three basic skills—listening, speaking, and writing—and see their overall fluency improve.

By providing pre-reading activities, teachers can help learners become successful readers. Pre-reading activities increase comprehension by activating students' prior knowledge and generating interest in the topic. In our Reading & Discovery category, most lessons begin with a set of Warm-Up Questions and a Vocabulary Preview task.

I. Warm-Up Questions

Warm-Up Questions allow students to connect their own life experiences to the reading before they even see the text. Students who stare at you blankly when you announce the day's lesson topic will soon realize that they do, in fact, know something about the subject matter and, more than likely, have opinions about it as well.

For example, if you tell a group of students who did not grow up in North America that you'll be reading about Fred Rogers, they may wonder what he has to do with their lives. However, once you begin asking the Warm-Up Questions, students will begin focusing on the broader topic—children's television—as they develop a schemata with which to approach the reading.

But what are the best ways to present Warm-Up Questions? We all know that students respond well to variety and that every student learns differently.

Presenting the questions in the same way each class won't work for every group of students. They'll get bored with the predictability of the process when we really want to pique their curiosity.

Here are some suggestions for using Warm-Up Questions with your students.

Have a Whole-Class Discussion

The easiest way to present Warm-Up Questions is to have a whole-class discussion. This works best when the students are at the same level.

  • Ask the whole class the first question and elicit responses before moving on to the second question.
  • As students call out their answers, it's always a good idea to write notes on the board because it promotes further responses from other students and shows you're listening and engaged.

Have Group Discussions

For variety—or If you have shyer students who are hesitant to speak in front of the entire class—divide the class into groups of three or four.

  • Have more advanced students take notes for the group.
  • Circulate among the groups and make sure all students are participating.
  • To extend the activity, come together as a whole class and have the groups share their ideas.

Have Pair Discussions

Any time is a good time for pairwork, especially if you add a little fun. This activity, called Speed Chatting, will get your students talking!

  • Have students pair up and ask each other the Warm-Up Questions.
  • Give them only 60 seconds to ask and answer the questions.
  • When the time is up, have them work with a new partner.
  • Repeat the process for three or four rotations. 

Assign Questions the Day Before

Introduce the Warm-Up Questions at the end of the class on the day before you do the reading. Ask students to answer the questions for homework.

Use Illustrations

If you're using the PDF version of a lesson, draw students' attention to the illustration that goes with the lesson. In pairs, have them come up with their own set of Warm-Up Questions based on this illustration.

II. Vocabulary Preview

Reading & Discovery lessons all include a Vocabulary Preview task. Usually, this is in the form of a matching activity.The purpose of this task is to introduce students to unfamiliar words before they encounter them in context.

Give the following ideas a try the next time you want to use the Vocabulary Preview task before assigning the reading.

Model the Pronunciation

It's always a good idea to model the pronunciation of new vocabulary words. You can do this as a separate activity in which you say the words and have the class repeat, or you can do this as part of another activity as you introduce each word.

Try a Matching Exercise

To get a sense of whether or not the vocabulary is familiar to students, have them try matching the words to the correct definitions on their own and then check answers as a whole class. This can help you determine how much time you need to spend on this task. Remember to have students try to match the words and definitions again after you've done additional work.

Explore the Vocabulary Further

If other activities are needed to reinforce unfamaliar words, extend the activity by doing the following:

  • Give students a sentence that contains each word.
  • Have students classify the words according to their part of speech.
  • Point out any prefixes or suffixes.

Create a Word Wall

Encourage students to be active vocabulary learners. You can do this by creating a word wall in the classroom. Have students vote on the three words from the task they would most like to remember and add them to the word wall. You can also have students keep an individual vocabulary journal.

Work in Pairs

Put students in pairs and assign one or two words to each pair. (You can allow them to use a dictionary for this activity.)

  • Have them come up with a definition (in their own words).
  • Next, have them write an example sentence that contains each word.
  • Then have them teach their word(s) to the class.

Ask Concept Questions

Concept questions are questions that contain a target word. They are also usually Yes/No questions. Asking them allows students to hear the word in context and process the meaning. For example, rodent is a target word in our Groundhog Day lesson. You can pose the following question: "Is a rat a rodent?"

III. Other Pre-Reading Activities

In addition to the Warm-Up Questions and Vocabulary Preview tasks, there many other activities that work well to prepare students to tackle a reading. Here are a few:

Make a KWL Chart

Instruct students to create a three-column KWL chart.

  • They should label the first column "K" and list all the things they already know about the topic.
  • The second column, labeled W, should include things that students want to know about the topic.
  • The third column, labeled L, will be filled out by students as a post-reading activity to jot down what they learned from the reading.

Guess the Topic

Choose four or five familiar words that are related to the topic and see if students can guess what the reading is going to be about. For example, if you'll be doing a lesson on Coffee, you can use the words drink, beans, brown, and caffeine


As a class, brainstorm all the vocabulary that comes to mind about the topic. 

Use Audiovisual Tools

Expose students to audiovisual supplements. This is a good way to introduce harder or lesser-known topics when Warm-Up Questions may themselves need a warm-up.

For example, in the Fred Rogers lesson, you might show a clip from his children's show that you find on YouTube. Or, for the lesson J-Pop Vs. K-Pop, you could bring in audio samples of both types of music.

Share Your Thoughts

What kind of pre-reading activities do you use with your learners? Do you have any tips to share with the teaching community?

If you teach 1:1, is there an activity that works particularly well with individuals? Please share your ideas in the Comments section below.

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Comments (10)

Uchenna A. E.(Teacher)

Thanks so much. You have just reminded me of many ideas that I have not applied since after my training course. Very useful tips.

Reply to Comment

Ann Dickson(Author)

Hi Uchenna!
I'm so happy to hear that! I'll be blogging about post-reading activities very soon. Hopefully, you will find that post useful too. Happy teaching!

Irene M.(Teacher)

Great ideas! Will definitely use in my ESL class.
Thank you!! :)

Reply to Comment

Ann Dickson(Author)

Hi Irene,

Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. I'm so glad you found the suggestions worthwhile. :-)

Anna Collins(Guest)

My daughter has always loved it whenever I read her bedtime stories at night, so I was thinking it would be good to develop her reading readiness. It's good that you mentioned how a word wall can help children explore more vocabulary and encourage them to learn more. I'll be sure to keep this in mind while I look for activities that can help build my daughter's pre-reading skills. https://hollydibellamccarthy.com/pre-reading-skills

Reply to Comment

Ann Dickson(Author)

Hi Anna,
I think it's great that you're going to try a word wall with your daughter. Let us know how it goes!

Amy Saunders(Guest)

I'm so glad you mentioned that introducing new words to our kids could be an effective way to enhance their reading skill as they would have to look those words up on their own sometimes. Since my niece's son is entering kindergarten next year, I thought there could be something I can do to help him learn faster. I'll ask his parents to find the right expert so the matter can be resolved quickly. https://hollydibellamccarthy.com/pre-reading-skills

Reply to Comment

Ann Dickson(Author)

Hi Amy,
I hope your niece's son does well in kindergarten and discovers the joy of reading. Thanks for sharing!

shammy peterson(Guest)

You made a good point when you said that students could be asked to match the words to the correct definitions to understand the extension of their vocabulary. This sounds like a helpful tip for my sister because she wants her 6-year-old daughter to have a better way of reading and comprehending. She mentioned the other day that she is looking for helpful activities for her child, so I will ask her to consider enrolling her in an online reading program.

Reply to Comment

Ann Dickson(Author)

Hi Shammy,
Thanks for stopping by. I hope things go well with your niece's reading journey!

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