Reading Texts for Adult ELLs

When it comes time to find a text for your next adult reading lesson, it can seem that everything you pick up is either Finnegan’s Wake or Charlotte’s Web, with none of the in-between that your students need. We need texts—a lot of them—that are accessible in terms of language but which deal with adult content—well, not adult content, but, you know, something more adult than the bedtime travails of anthropomorphic barnyard animals.

In this post, I’ll share some sources of graded and adapted reading material for adult English learners, and also some suggestions for authentic texts.

Periodicals for ELLs

There are a number of periodicals out there for ELLs. Some free, some cheap, some neither. Here are a few of the options:

Graded Readers

Graded readers are books written or adapted with particular reading levels in mind, limiting the vocabulary and grammatical structures to those appropriate for the target level. A small library of graded readers can be a fantastic resource for your program. More important, they are one of the only sources out there for the extensive reading that your students need.

Every major ESL publisher has a line of these readers. They aren’t cheap, but often your sales representative will give you a discount if you buy in bulk or bundle them with your next purchase of core textbooks. You can also usually get 5–10 examination copies (maybe 15 if you’ve been remembering that sales rep’s birthday!), lowering your cost per book.

Reading Explorer

Full disclosure: National Geographic Learning doesn’t pay me a dime. They ought to, though, because every chance I get, I spread the word about their fantastic Reading Explorer series. There are plenty of reading textbooks out there, but the six-level Reading Explorer is far and away the best I’ve encountered. It features articles adapted from National Geographic Magazine, illustrated with full-color, full-bleed prints of the captivating photographs that the magazine is known for, along with an equally engaging video component. The only drawback is that the lowest level in the series is too challenging for beginning students.

Selecting Authentic Texts

Authenticity is a problematic concept, but our students understandably aspire to read texts written for native speakers. I recommend exercising caution when using authentic texts in class (too often you end up defining every 10th word, in which case what you’re doing is no longer really reading, in any practical sense). But when you are able to find texts that are appropriate for your students, by all means, use them. I do this primarily for when I want to expose students to literary language. I keep my printouts labeled by level with a few brief notes: “B1 – runs long – read a few paragraphs for them.” Shorter short stories (eight pages or fewer) tend to be just about right for an hour-long class. Some writers who my students consistently respond well to are Raymond Carver, Etgar Keret, and Italo Calvino.

Adapting Authentic Texts

Another option is to find an article that you want to use and then simplify it to the level of your students. (I favor this method with upper intermediate students; with lower levels it’s too time-consuming, and there are more appropriate texts out there from the sources above.) It’s best to have a gameplan for this process. Here’s mine:

  1. Copy and paste the article (photos, title, byline, and all) into a word processor;
  2. Use the Highlight or Comment feature to identify any words/phrases/structures that are likely to be problematic (be sure that you’re looking at more than just single words here, considering idiomatic language and polysemy);
  3. Decide which of the highlighted phrases you want the students to learn, and which to remove;
  4. Replace the latter category of words and phrases with clear, direct language that your students will understand.

Often, I’ll also edit out some whole paragraphs in order to shorten a text and narrow its focus. I’ll usually put at the bottom “Adapted from an article in The New York Times” or something to that effect.

Hopefully some of these sources will be helpful to you and your students. Feel free to share some of your favorite reading resources in the comments section below!

About Robert Sheppard

Robert Sheppard
Over the past 10 years, Rob has explored a variety of roles and contexts in the field. These include the cram-school culture of Taiwan and Korea; IEPs in Boston focused on academic English; advanced conversation and TOEFL prep taught via Skype to students in Japan; and nonprofit, community English programs for immigrants to Greater Boston. He currently serves as sr. director of adult programs at Quincy Asian Resources, a member of the community advisory council at First Literacy, and a curriculum consultant at Boston Global Institute. He has a master’s degree in TESOL from The New School, and his areas of interest include adult ed, pronunciation and grammar instruction, curriculum development, and assessment.
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7 Responses to Reading Texts for Adult ELLs

  1. lisa lausier says:

    How do I find your graded readers?

  2. Rosemary Schmid says:

    A group of remarkable EFL teachers in Japan including Tom Robb and Rob Waring, began the Extensive Reading Foundation several years ago. They have done painstaking work to assemble graded lists of books and have also created online activities that are extremely learner-friendly. A veritable treasure trove. They’ve figured out “everything” and once launched, the learners manage themselves and their reading.
    The Extensive Reading Foundation is a not-for-profit, charitable organization whose purpose is to support and promote extensive reading. Their web page is and on it are links to their resources.

    • Robert Sheppard Robert Sheppard says:

      Yes, this is a fantastic set of resources, Rosemary. I’m using much of it right now to develop an extensive reading curriculum at my program. Thank you for sharing!!

  3. Audrey says:

    Another well written, very useful article. Thank you, Rob!

  4. Lenore Cardoza says:

    Thank you for the great periodicals! These are wonderful for multi-level ESOL classes in the computer lab, allowing all to work on the same timely topic while practicing multiple computer skills and learning language. The possibilities with these are endless. And as our program is part of the public school system, the free ones are always appreciated by teachers and students alike.

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