Aim Our aim was to improve the prediction of Zn bioavailability to wheat grown on low-Zn soils. The classical approach that directly relates Zn in a certain soil extract to Zn uptake has been shown to be inadequate in many cases. We tested a stepwise approach where the steps of the uptake process are characterized with, respectively, Zn solid-solution distribution, adsorption of Zn to root surface, Zn uptake into root and Zn translocation to shoot. Methods Two pot experiments were done with wheat grown on nine low-Zn soils varying widely in pH, clay and organic matter content. Soluble Zn concentrations in two soil extracts (DTPA and CaCl2) were measured. Free Zn ion concentrations in CaCl2 soil extracts were determined with the Donnan Membrane Technique. These Zn concentrations were then related to plant Zn uptake following both the direct and the stepwise approach. Results In the direct approach, Zn in the DTPA extract was a better predictor for shoot Zn uptake than Zn in the CaCl2 extract. In the stepwise approach, the relationship between Zn in CaCl2 extracts and the root surface adsorbed Zn was pH-dependent and nonlinear. Root surface adsorbed Zn was linearly related to root Zn uptake, and the latter was linearly related to the shoot Zn uptake. The stepwise approach improved the Zn uptake prediction compared to the direct approach and was also validated for different wheat cultivars. Conclusions The adsorption of Zn on the root surface is pH dependent and nonlinear with respect to the soil Zn concentration, and a useful proxy for bioavailable Zn over a wide range of soils.