Finding the right books for your ESL students can be a daunting task. To help make the decision easier, I’ve compiled a list of some of the best books across four different categories and listed the benefits of each.
Why is reading important for ESL students?
Reading may be one of the most important activities outside of speaking to help students further their English education. This is because reading allows students to visually see the words they use every day as well as helping them to visualize the conversational flow. EC English points out in an article that “Books and other authentic texts are rich in idiomatic language that so much of the English language is based on”. In essence, reading provides a valuable way for students to immerse themselves in language that is culturally relevant and not just the drill and kill techniques that are often used in the classroom. I have personally seen students who read on a regular basis consistently outperform their peers not only in writing but also in oral tests and be able to speak in a more natural manner. Helping students in your own class to find quality and purposeful reading materials can go a long way in improving their speech patterns and understanding of conversational speaking styles.
“reading provides an invaluable way for students to immerse themselves in language that is culturally relevant”
What constitutes good books for ESL students?
The important thing to remember when you are selecting books for your students is that they have the very specific goal of learning to speak English or improving the foundation that has already been laid. This means that the books you provide or assign for them should be contemporary in language. While Shakespeare is certainly a cornerstone of English literature, your students aren’t going to learn much from the antiquated speaking styles of the characters in his books. Instead, finding books that adopt a more modern lexicon and fluid style are going to go further in helping them to understand natural speaking. Also, making sure to select books that have large quantities of dialogue will help them over books that may be more descriptive. English, as with any other language, is a tool for communication. Therefore, having them read books which allow them to visualize this communication and to examine conversational structure will go a long way in helping them to become better communicators.
How do I use books in my classroom?
Many ESL classrooms around the world are burdened with the drill and kill mentality that comes from rote memorization. However, this leaves very little opportunity for students to converse and practice speaking in a way that is both natural and beneficial. One of the activities that I have done at English camps in the past is taking a book appropriate to the students speaking level and having two students read a few paragraphs of dialogue and act it out. For more advanced students, I like to have them stop in the middle of the conversation and put down the books, and then improvise the rest of the conversation as they think it should go. Simple exercises like this are a great way to include reading in the classroom as well as providing an opportunity for students to actually implement what they are learning in a natural way.
If you are a private tutor then acquiring a few copies of books and having your students read them during their extracurricular time can help them to stay engaged in learning English even when they aren’t in the classroom or doing English homework. Reading has the added benefit of being more exciting than repetitive exercises and worksheets that students are normally assigned as homework so there is a good chance that your students will be thankful for the break from the usual. You can even go a step further and create lessons around assigned chapters that will force your student to be more focused when reading and therefore ensure that they are getting the maximum benefit.
How do I select the right book for my students?
Aside from the books that I have selected below, if you are looking to diversify your class with a bit of literature it is important to be cognizant of your students level of both English-speaking and general knowledge. For example, an advanced course of mid-level English speakers are most likely going to have had more exposure through other classes to different concepts than a regular class of speakers at the same level and therefore be able to understand slightly more complex books. The same goes for classes with adults. If a person is well-traveled they are going to have a greater grasp of more concepts and ideas than someone who isn’t.
“it is important to be cognizant of your students level of both English-speaking and general knowledge.”
After you have established the proper level of your students, try looking for books that fit the correct demographic and will hold their interest better. The idea is to provide a fun tool for students to learn from so this process will be much easier if students are excited to read the books themselves instead of looking at it as just one extra thing they must do for school. Making sure that the books you are selecting are reflective of your students’ lives will go a long way in accomplishing this. Young adult books for teenagers, storybooks with pictures and color for younger students, and more complex texts for adult students if you have them.
For a better idea of this, let’s’ examine some great books for students of different levels as well as some textbooks that can help you when planning lessons.
ESL Books for Beginners
The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss – the story of a tall cat with a red and white striped hat who enters the lives of two young children and causes a great deal of mischief while their mother is away. This perennial classic from renowned children’s author Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) is great for teaching early ESL students rhyming through simplistic dialogue. Books like these are great because they help to teach students different word families as well as phonics which is especially important in the early years of learning a new language. Because many of the books are often set in fantastical make-believe worlds, books from Dr. Seuss do a great job of transcending cultural barriers that may cause students to have trouble understanding many other English books.
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak – continuing with the trend of books with simple rhyme schemes set in fantasy worlds, Where the Wild Things Are is a classic that has been helping school children learn to read for over 50 years. The book follows the story of a boy named Max who sails to a wild jungle setting inhabited by monstrous creatures known as the wild things. The book is flush with deeply detailed illustrations and is only 338 words in length ensuring that young ESL students will not be overloaded with words that they may have trouble understanding.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle – this is a very simple picture book which differs from the previous two on our list in that the text doesn’t follow a rhyming scheme. Instead, this story is about a caterpillar that hatches and begins to consume everything it comes across. After feasting on too much and becoming sick, the caterpillar goes into its cocoon and then hatches into a magnificent looking butterfly. The book is great for teaching students a wide variety of vocabulary from numbers to food types. For teachers who are responsible for developing their own lesson plans, the book has many lessons and activities that have been developed around it in the nearly 50 years since it was released.
ESL Books for Middle School Students
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling – the sophomore entry in the series about a young wizard and his adventures with friends. This teen thriller from Rowling has become extremely popular around the world and continues to be so over twenty years after being first published. The book can be good for getting mid-level ESL students interested in reading more and can also be great for introducing students to books that are more dialogue heavy. Rowling does a great job of creating a detailed and descriptive world while still keeping the reading level simple and easy to follow.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding – one of the problems I come across when teaching ESL students is the trouble that many of them have answering questions in detail. Even some advanced students struggle to give answers beyond those that they have drilled over and over again in classrooms. One of the things that can greatly help with this issue is having students expand their lexicon and their frame of reference for how to use these words. Books like the Lord of the Flies are great for exposing students to descriptive language and can help them to understand how to use this descriptive language to expand upon the language they already know how to use. Lord of the Flies is a modern-day classic taught in schools around the world. The story centers on a group of young boys who become stranded on an island after a plane crash. An attempt to govern themselves is made as the boys find themselves slowly being overcome with primal tendencies.
Holes by Louis Sachar – as mentioned above it is important that students are exposed to books which are rich in contemporary dialogue. This will allow them to better visualize what a conversation looks like and how it should flow. Holes does a great job of not only presenting contemporary dialogue but, does so from the perspective of teen and preteen aged characters. This makes it a great book for exposing your middle school level students to reading material that can help them develop a natural flow when speaking. The story centers on a boy who has been sent to a juvenile correction camp. At the camp, the wards are required to dig holes all day every day for character building purposes. The boys, however, soon realize that there are ulterior reasons the warden of the camp wants them to dig the holes.
ESL Books for Adults
1984 by George Orwell – the modern classic of a dystopian future run by a totalitarian regime has become required reading in classrooms across the United States. But, this book isn’t just good for native English speakers but advanced ESL students as well. The book is very dialogue heavy and uses sometimes complex language to vividly describe the world in which the story takes place. This book is best for higher level ESL speakers as the language structure is quite complex and can be hard to follow along with if students aren’t at the right level.
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby – encapsulating over 300 pages of smooth and well-paced dialogue, High Fidelity is great for advanced level and adult ESL students who are looking for something fast paced. The novel revolves around Rob Fleming who is a London record store owner fresh out of a relationship and unable to move on. The book deals with universal themes of human emotion and relationships which makes it easier to digest for students coming from diverse cultural backgrounds.
The Beach by Alex Garland – as with Lord of the Flies, this novel does a great job of setting up detailed scenes using very descriptive prose that immerses readers in the world. The Beach tells the story of a young British man who has traveled to Thailand in pursuit of adventure and finds it on a beach inhabited by other castaways who have created a home there. The book takes some dark turns and explores heavy subject matter making it more suitable for adults and advanced ESL students who are more mature.
Best ESL Textbooks
Oxford Picture Dictionary Book by Norma Shapiro – over 130 listening, speaking, reading, and writing activities have been compiled in this resource which is invaluable for both teachers and students. The Oxford Picture Dictionary is primarily intended for beginner students so teachers should be aware of this when introducing this book into their classrooms or private lessons. A strong emphasis is placed on learning vocabulary in the book. Over 4,000 vocabulary words are introduced throughout the pages with detailed pictures and illustrations helping to convey the meaning of each. Each copy also comes with audio CD’s which will help to add an auditory element to lessons for added instruction.
English the American Way: A Fun ESL Guide to Language & Culture in the U.S. by Sheila Murtha and Jane O’Connor – this book will help your ESL students to learn English as spoken in the United States. This is important as many schools around the world are actively recruiting native English speakers from the United States in order to train their students. With a strong emphasis on not just ESL but also U.S. culture, this is an invaluable resource for students who are training to actively work in the United States or who will be working in areas that put them in contact with U.S. English speakers.
Compelling Conversations by Eric H. Roth – the primary focus of this textbook is conversational English and teaching critical thinking using the English language. The main audience here is adults and advanced English language learners looking to not only learn to speak but also think and converse in English. Each chapter in the book focuses on a different theme allowing students the opportunity to expand their conversational skills as it pertains to a wide variety of subjects.
Things to Consider
It’s important to remember that age level doesn’t necessarily determine a students skill level. Just because a book may be for adults or older students doesn’t mean the student will be at the right level to read it. Books and textbooks are best used as supplemental material during a class or as further reading after the classes are finished. No matter which books are used, keep in mind that it is the teacher that matters.