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The Best English Learning Books For ESL Readers

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Nikki DeMarco


The inimitable Nikki DeMarco is as well-traveled as she is well-read. Being an enneagram 3, Aries, high school librarian, makes her love for efficiency is unmatched. She lives in Richmond, Virginia, and is passionate about helping teens connect to books. Nikki has an MFA in creative writing, is a TBR bibliologist, and writes for Harlequin, Audible, Kobo, and MacMillan. Since that leaves her so much time, she’s currently working on writing a romance novel, too. Find her on all socials @iamnikkidemarco (Instagram, Twitter, Threads)

I teach high school English and am fortunate enough to collaborate with an ESL (English as a second language) teacher in a class with multilingual students specifically. This has given me some unique insight into the kind of books that can help people who are learning English. While this list of English learning books is geared more towards adult learners, seeing what has worked in the classroom, many of them will work for readers from 8 to 85.

English Learning Books: Graphic Novels

Graphic novels are an excellent place to start for English learners of all levels. Since they are written in all genres, for audiences from elementary school to adults, it’s a comprehensive place to start. These books range from memoir to fantasy, from history to contemporary. Finding a book that is interesting to the reader is just as important as finding one with accessible language. Graphic novels don’t make adult learners feel like they are reading children’s books. The illustrations give the reader context for the words, helping them intuit meaning.

Almost American Girl: An Illustrated Memoir by Robin Ha

A powerful graphic novel memoir about immigration, belonging, and how arts can save a life, Almost American Girl tells the story of Robin moving to the United States as a teen with her mother from Seoul, South Korea. The author was an English language learner herself and depicts some of the struggles of being immersed in a new culture surrounded by a language you don’t understand.

This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki

For the reader who loves contemporary stories, This One Summer is an award winning graphic novel. Every summer, Rose goes with her mom and dad to a lake house in Awago Beach. It’s their getaway, their refuge. Rosie’s friend Windy is always there, too, like the little sister she never had. But this summer is different. Rose’s mom and dad won’t stop fighting, and when Rose and Windy seek a distraction from the drama, they find themselves with a whole new set of problems. One of the local teens — just a couple of years older than Rose and Windy — is caught up in something bad…something life threatening.

It’s a summer of secrets, and sorrow, and growing up, and readers will get swept up in this enthralling coming of age story.

March: Book One by John Lewis

History lovers are sure to enjoy March, a nonfiction graphic book about the Civil Rights movement in America. Congressman John Lewis (GA-5) is an American icon, one of the key figures of the civil rights movement. His commitment to justice and nonviolence has taken him from an Alabama sharecropper’s farm to the halls of Congress, from a segregated schoolroom to the 1963 March on Washington, and from receiving beatings from state troopers to receiving the Medal of Freedom from the first African American president.

March is a vivid first-hand account of John Lewis’s lifelong struggle for civil and human rights, meditating in the modern age on the distance traveled since the days of Jim Crow and segregation. Rooted in Lewis’s personal story, it also reflects on the highs and lows of the broader civil rights movement.

They Called Us Enemy by George Takei

This graphic memoir tells the story of George Takei’s imprisonment as a child in American concentration camps during World War II. Takei’s firsthand account of those years behind barbed wire, the joys and terrors of growing up under legalized racism, his mother’s hard choices, his father’s faith in democracy, and the way those experiences planted the seeds for his astonishing future.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (Pantheon Graphic Library) by Marjane Satrapi

In powerful black-and-white comic strip images, Satrapi tells the story of her life in Tehran from ages 6 to 14, years that saw the overthrow of the Shah’s regime, the triumph of the Islamic Revolution, and the devastating effects of war with Iraq. The intelligent and outspoken only child of committed Marxists and the great-granddaughter of one of Iran’s last emperors, Marjane bears witness to a childhood uniquely entwined with the history of her country.

Instructional English Learning Books

Instructional books are often necessary when an English language student wants to move from conversational proficiency to becoming completely fluent. They help explain the rules of the language in greater detail, helping students of English perfect their abilities.

Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics – An Engaging ESL Textbook for Advanced Students by Eric H. Roth

This is another instructional book to help with fluency. The book includes chapters organized by themes, over 1400 questions, 500 vocabulary words, 250 proverbs and American idioms, and 500 quotations. Designed for both adult education and intensive English language students, the conversations set up in this book deepen critical thinking skills and speaking skills essential to success.

The Black Book of Speaking Fluent English: The Quickest Way to Improve Your Spoken English by Christopher Hill

Written by an international English professor, The Black Book of Speaking Fluent English is an excellent handbook for intermediate to advanced learners. This book has tips on how to increase fluency and what techniques you may have been taught in school that are ultimately ineffective. This book is ideal for international business people who want to improve their English.

The Great Book of American Idioms: A Dictionary of American Idioms, Sayings, Expressions & Phrases by Lingo Mastery

Sure, you can learn English with a language course or a textbook just fine, and climb up the ranks in terms of your grasp of the language…but are you sure you can talk like a native?

For starters, many expressions used by fluent speakers of American English can’t exactly be learned in a book, and it can be frustrating to realize that your formal learning hasn’t been enough to teach you the way people talk in real life. English language learners living in America need help understanding out slang and this book is a great basis of that knowledge.

English for Everyone: English Vocabulary Builder

Spilling over with thousands of entries for useful words and phrases, this is the perfect study aid for any adult learning English as a foreign language.

With 3,000 words across hundreds of pages, English Vocabulary Builder brings you an easy resource to search by category. From activities, family, holidays, science, and work to animals, feelings, health, sports, and weather, just about every subject in the English language is covered in eye-catching, illustrative detail. All the vocabulary is shown with both UK and U.S. spellings, and every word can be heard with its own audio recording in the accompanying app available for download. Additional interactive exercises ensure language learning is an easy, entertaining, and educational experience.

The Best Grammar Workbook Ever: Grammar, Punctuation, and Word Usage for Ages 10 Through 110 by Arlene Miller

The workbook covers grammar basics, common grammar problems, punctuation, capitalization, and word usage. In addition to a Pretest and Final Test, there are more than 100 practice exercises and tests at the end of each chapter. A complete list of answers is included in one of the appendixes. Other appendixes include commonly misspelled words, commonly mispronounced words, Greek and Latin word roots, and writing tips. The book is written in a friendly and easy-to-use tone. There are helpful hints throughout and a complete index. 

ESL Intermediate & Advanced Grammar (English as a Second Language Series) by Mary Ellen Muñoz Page

This book was written by a bilingual author who uniquely understands the needs of English language learners. Designed for intermediate and advanced high school– and college-level non-native speakers of English who need to improve their ESL grammar skills. ESL Intermediate & Advanced Grammar provides students with simple explanations of grammar, skill-building exercises, detailed answer keys, and test-taking techniques. It’s the perfect companion for classroom use or self-guided studies in ESL.

English Learning Novels

Novels are a resource that English language learners should take advantage of because they can help increase vocabulary from context clues and are high interest to keep the reader engaged when they might get frustrated otherwise and want to give up on a story. Knowing where to get started here can be a challenge, however. The following are a few places to start.

atheist characters

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Christopher John Francis Boone has to investigate the suspicious death of a neighborhood dog. This book is told in the first person point of view of a boy who has autism. The first person is helpful for English language learners because they can see what the narrator is both saying and thinking. This novel in particular is a great place to start because the narrator clearly explains everything he’s thinking and doing quite literally. Plus, the story is engaging and easy for the reader to follow while the sentences are often short and plainly explained.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. Link:

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Told in a series of vignettes — sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes deeply joyous — it is the story of a young Latina girl, Esperanza Cordero, growing up in Chicago, inventing for herself who and what she will become. This novel is mostly simple sentences that are easy to understand, making it ideal for English learners. Again the first person point of view is easy to follow and the story of Esperanza’s desire to belong is relatable from people of all cultures.

The Girl With All the Gifts cover

The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

Melanie is a very special girl. Dr. Caldwell calls her “our little genius.” This thriller is hard for anyone to put down. It is told in present tense, which isn’t common for many novels and makes it uniquely accessible to people studying English. It is also told from the point of view of a little girl, making the vocabulary easy to understand and many of the sentences short. The combination of thrilling plot with child narrator is perfect for someone who wants to read this novel in English.

Nonfiction for English Learning

Nonfiction books are an excellent resource for English language learners who want to study a specific category of vocabulary. From business to auto body repair, these books give an in-depth look at verbiage particular to a topic.

cover image of The Body by Bill Bryson

The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson once again proves himself to be an incomparable companion as he guides us through the human body — how it functions, its remarkable ability to heal itself, and (unfortunately) the ways it can fail. Full of extraordinary facts (your body made a million red blood cells since you started reading this) and entertaining anecdotes, The Body is a great resource for learning anatomy language. Bryson’s conversational tone and simple, not overly medical explanations are perfect for people learning English who might also one day want to go to the doctor and understand what they are saying.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell

The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire. Just as a single sick person can start an epidemic of the flu, so too can a small but precisely targeted push cause a fashion trend, the popularity of a new product, or a drop in the crime rate. Malcolm Gladwell explores and brilliantly illuminates the tipping point phenomenon, is already changing the way people throughout the world think about selling products and disseminating ideas. This book helps students of English with abstract thinking vocabulary. He has a conversational tone as well that’s much easier to understand than many other big idea books.

My Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places by Mary Roach

My Planet is a series of articles Mary Roach published in Reader’s Digest. The short articles make each topic more approachable and easier to understand. The reader can jump around to topics that interest them. Roach discusses everything from cleanliness to the internet to fashion. Most readers will be able to find a portion of this book that interests them and also can find vocabulary specific to different situations all in one book.

I hope these books help give you a place to get started. Of course we have other resources for you if starting here isn’t really your thing. There are audiobook apps for language learning and bilingual books for English language learners. Are you an English speaker who’s trying to learn another language? Check out how to read in another language. Or maybe you’re just looking for that one word you don’t know, and should take a look at the best dictionary apps available.