Factors most affecting ESL Students’ Reading Comprehension

Shiyu Tu

University of California, Davis


From the data collected by the organization, OECD iLibrary (2009), there were almost 3.7 million students choosing to study aboard in 2009, which were increased 6% from the year before. This data shows that there are increasing amounts of students deciding to study aboard. Some students’ target is to enrich themselves, and some students want to experience another country’s culture. No matter what their goal is, when they have made the decision study in another country, they have to face many challenges. Some challenges are given by the difference of living habits, some are given by homesickness which make students want to give up studying in foreign countries. Although there are countless barriers in front of international students, the most difficult challenge was given by the language barrier.

There is a large group of students named ESL students, English as second language students. They are originally from many different countries or even different continents, going to studying in countries which official language are all English. These students have a common feature which is that English is not their first language. They may have some troubles in their studying careers in foreign countries because they are struggling with understanding others, no matter by conversation, writing or reading. Academic readings are different from popular fictions because academic readings may have more professional vocabularies, and more strict logic structural frames, and more complex sentence structures which would disturb ESL students’ reading comprehension. Although there are many factors that having negative effects on ESL students’ comprehension of reading, my research shows that not having enough vocabulary knowledge negatively affects ESL students’ understanding of reading most in particularly by looking at Chinese students.


In China, many children starting learning English from a very young age, maybe from kindergarten. An increasing number of middle classes in China starts to think about the idea that letting their children go abroad for further study. The data provided by the institute of international education (2014), in 2013 and 2014, “there were 66,408 more international students enrolled in U.S higher education compared to the previous year.” 73 percent of this data are contributed by Chinese students. Even though those Chinese students have learned English for a long time, they still have a long distance to become proficient in English.

Professor Li (2009), teaching in the Sanjiang University in China, and Professor Phakiti, a professor from the University of Sydney, found that most ESL international students’ academic difficulty areas are reading and writing. According to her research, she only found two common issues that are affecting students having academic reading difficulty. One is their capability to “extract and synthesize information” from different kind of reading; the other one is not familiar with the usage of these “academic vocabularies”. I would not let the rest of my paper focus on why “extract and synthesize information” is one of the reasons of ESL students have reading comprehensive because vocabulary knowledge is the basis of knowing “extract and synthesize information”. So I am doing research on does not familiar with the usage of academic vocabularies is one of the reason that most affecting ESL students’ reading comprehension. Four professors teaching in Hong Kong Pyrotechnic University, Chau, Chen Wu and Lughmani (2014), also found the same conclusion. The evidence they found showed that lack of the knowledge of vocabulary perturb ESL students’ brain to get into the appropriate meaning. This conclusion was also proved by Rashidi and Khosravi, from Shiraz University, they found that vocabulary knowledge is just like a “foremost predictor” which would tell how difficult a reading is. The size of the knowledge of vocabulary is having a strong relation to readers’ ability to understand a text, and knowing the depth of vocabulary leads readers have a better performance on understanding text than those readers who only have a shallow understanding of a word.


I want to be more objective in my research, so I tried to find the answer from two sides, from ESL teachers’ side and from ESL students’ side. First, I interviewed two ESL students at UC Davis about their opinions on what affects most when they having  reading difficulties on academic readings, and what they think is the biggest barrier for them to understand a piece of academic reading. Second, I interviewed one ESL teacher, Professor Stark, at UC Davis University Writing Program (UWP). Finally, I analyzed the main points and the key information from my interviews on the topic of factors barrier ESL students’ academic readings understanding.

To let students talk about their own experiences about reading academic readings, I created a list of questions for two college students in UC Davis, all of them are my friends, and all are from my ESL class. Although I know this is a really small sample, and  it cannot represent most ESL students in the whole world, their responses are reliable and trustful since this must be their true feeling, and they can represent some groups of ESL students’ ideas. Also, these students are not in the same grade, and their English level are different which make them facing different difficulties. Their different English level may help me have a more widely sides of thoughts and opinions on this topic. However, since this sample is still really small, I can not make any promise that this can represent all ESL’s thinking, but it gives an idea about how some ESL students think about this problem.

I asked my peers about how often they read, and what kind of reading do they usually do. I also care about if they think they would read differently when reading popular fictions that they like and academic reading, and what the differences are. I mainly focus my attention on their answer on the question whether they think they have difficulties in doing academic readings, and what affect them most or what bother them most when they doing academic readings.

I also wanted to know what ESL teachers thought about this. I asked how ESL teachers think is the biggest problem that ESL students have when reading their assignments. If they think different educational background, sentence structures and vocabularies would affect students’ academic reading comprehension.

Discussion of Findings

My research shows that there are many facts have negative affects on ESL students’ comprehension ability in academic reading; however, vocabulary knowledge affects most. Two students I had interviewed all believe jargon is a big problem for ESL students to understand. The jargon is only being familiar with a certain group of people in a certain discourse community. This was proven to be true from my interview with my UWP professor and my ESL classmates. And many professional papers also point out that vocabulary has a very high level affection on the degree of ESL students’ academic reading comprehension. According to Li and Kirby (2013), ESL students’ academic reading comprehension difficulties are mainly caused by lack of vocabulary knowledge. Although sentence structures and thinking in ESL their first language may also decrease ESL students’ degree of understanding academic reading contents, the ability to understand vocabulary expressions has the biggest negative affect on ESL students’ comprehension ability in reading academically.

Agnes Stark, a professor from University Writing Program (UWP) in University of California, Davis, said that there are many reasons why ESL students having trouble on comprehensive academic readings; still thinking in their first language, not familiar with western academic writing are some reasons why. However, vocabulary may be one of the biggest barriers. There may have many specific vocabularies, or jargon, or terminology for the particular discourse community in the academic reading. She believed vocabulary explanations and idiomatic expressions, which some ESL students want to transfer from their first language to English, would mislead ESL students’ comprehension because the expression may have opposite meaning. And she gave an example of her high level ESL student once asked her a question which confused him for a long time because the content had an opposite meaning than it literally meaning.

Professor Stark also mentioned that many ESL students have some bad habits, which negatively affects on students’ academic reading comprehension. They always use translators, and want to find out every unfamiliar word’s meaning. She thinks ESL students should keep reading even if they read words that they do not know, and they should underline words that they think they have to know, and keep reading try to get general ideas from contents and from other words. Then get the words they think they really need. Do not read every word; instead, find key ideas by searching places. At the end of the interview, professor Stark believes that no matter what people read, just keeps reading, it does not matter whether it is popular fictions or academic readings, because the more people read, the more vocabulary they could learn automatically through exposure to it.

The two Chinese students I interviewed, however, had totally different answers. My first interviewee was Jiaqi Xu, a sophomore whose major is Civil Engineering. She is a high level English learner. She started learning English from six years old. She thought the biggest barrier for her were listening and reading difficulty. In her opinion, she thought though complex sentence structure was one of the biggest problem for her to understand one academic reading, lack of specific vocabulary was a bigger barriers for her to understand the contents. She did not think thinking in Chinese way would affect her ability of reading academically because she thought when she reading English, she would think in English. She thought popular fiction was easier for her to understand than academic readings because conversations and the description of the environment made her comprehend reading easier. In order to understand academic readings, she always underline key points and wrote down notes when doing academic reading.

The second interviewee was Haoting Pan, a freshman from the major of Civil Engineering. Since she spent less time in American, her English level is lower than Jiaqi. She started learning English from kindergarten. She believed one of the biggest difficulty on academic reading was do not understanding vocabularies. She also believed listening was her biggest challenge when communicate with others. She did not like doing academic readings because she was afraid that if she would read the words which she does not know. She liked reading popular fiction because it was easier; it had easier words and sentence structures. She would choose to keep reading on reading she liked, however, in order to avoid reading more unfamiliar words, when doing academic readings, she would use some reading strategies which taught by writing teachers, doing annotation and search for key points.


According to my research, both ESL teachers and ESL students agree that they think one of the biggest barriers for ESL students’ academic reading comprehension is the lack of knowledge of vocabularies. Having trouble understanding sentence structures is also a big problem for most ESL students. Both of the interviewee all like reading popular fiction when they are not busy and they all agree that reading popular fictions is easier than reading academically because they do not have to test for them and conversations and the type of vocabulary used in the fiction is easier for them to understand. One of my peers believes she has less influence on her first language when she read academic readings because she does not have to translate sentences in her mind; however, my other peer interviewee has an opposite opinion that she believes her first language affect her academic reading comprehension since she still has to translate the meaning into Chinese when reading. This opposite opinion may caused by their different English level. The higher level one have, the less they would be influenced by their first language since they may already thinking in English. In order to get the main points of an academic reading, they all reading with strategies, they choose to underline key points, and find key points by searching places.

From the teacher’s side, they also agree that ESL students have reading difficulties most is caused by lacking vocabulary knowledge. She thinks some bad habits of ESL students may also push them to the wrong way. Do not look at every word they do not know, and stop using translators would make ESL students have a better comprehension on both academic reading and general reading.

From my research, increasing ESL students’ vocabulary knowledge is one of the quickest way for ESL students to understand an academic reading. Doing more reading can also enlarge their vocabulary understanding. In order to solve the ESL students’ problem of lack of knowledge of vocabulary, professor Stark gave some advises. ESL students should keep reading, no matter what kind of reading it is. Learning vocabularies from the reading that they do not know, and notice the sentence structures in the readings is a good way to enlarge ESL students’ vocabulary knowledge. Do not rely on translator; instead searching unfamiliar words in the English dictionary is also a good habit for ESL students to know more vocabularies.



Char Juliana, Wu. Winnie, Chen. Julia and Lughmani. Shari. (2011). ESL readers’ comprehension performance: the Chinese secondary context

Clayton, Elaine & Witherell. IIE. Sharon. (2014). Open Doors 2014: International Students in the United States and Study Abroad by American Students are at All-Time High


Li. Miao, Kirby. R. John. (2013). Unexpected Poor Comprehenders Among Adolescent ESL Students

OECD-ILIBRARY. (2011). How many students study abroad?


Phakiti, Aek and Li, Lulu. (2011). General Academic Difficulties and Reading and Writing Difficulties among Students in TESOL at an Australian University


Rashidi. Nasser and Khoravi. Negar. (2014). Assessing the Role of Depth and Breadth of Vocabulary Knowledge in Reading Comprehension of Iranian EFL Learners