What ESL books do you recommend?

This simple question has been posed twice in emails this week.

Both ESL students and teachers know that too many textbooks fail to engage readers. Yet rather than focusing on the many sins of the many boring textbooks, let’s focus on those few informative, practical, and interesting ESL books that we like.

Here is a quick, superficial, and by no means comprehensive list of English as a Second Language books that I personally have found successful in teaching English

Academic ESL/intensive English programs
Cambridge Vocabulary in Use series – An excellent supplemental text, especially for the more academically inclined. The self-contained two page format allows students, teachers, and tutors to pick and choose materials.

Cambridge Grammar in Use series – This series is the only grammar series that I’ve ever felt comfortable using in the classroom. Again, the accessible, clear format with self-contained lessons allows both self-study and effective use as a supplemental text.

Adult Education:
Side by Side – This classic series, now in its 3rd edition, particularly appeals to English language learners with limited literacy in their own best language. Given the appalling educational policies in some nearby poor countries, this textbook series has become extraordinarily popular in California and Texas.
Day by Day – Simple, clear communicative textbook for workplace instruction. Low intermediate- intermediate

Word by Word – This visual dictionary focuses on verbs, and shows English language learners how to describe their everyday activities in English. This book taught me the power of process descriptions to build language.
Oxford Picture Dictionary and workbook – excellent for beginning and intermediate English language learners. Some pages, inevitably, are more practical than other pages. Isn’t that always the case?


Writing Academic English, by Alice Oshima and Ann Hogue,  provides practical techniques for students planning to attend community college or university. I think the latest version is the fourth. I’ve used it in several programs with considerable success.

In Focus: Strategies for Academic Writers by Myra Ann Shulman, however, is my current choice for intermediate ESL students.
The clear, detailed exercises allow students to learn academic writing by actually writing short, focused pieces.

Finally, for advanced ESL students and international graduate students, I strongly recommend Academic Writing for Graduate Students, 2d ed.: Essential Tasks and Skills (Michigan Series in English for Academic & Professional Purposes) by John M. Swales and Christine A. Beer Feak. I teach two courses using this textbook at USC, and students make clear, significant progress by completing bite-sized writing exercises and analyzing short journal readings. The teacher’s guide, called Commentary for, also deserves to be on your list.

Any Longman Dictionary – For whatever reason, Longman dictionaries seem much more accessible and practical in their design than other series. I’m particularly impressed with their Business Dictionary for English Language Learners.

Speaking Skills:
Giving Academic Presentations, by Susan Reinhart, stands heads and shoulders above the other ESL textbooks for public presentations. Students learn how to give clear, systematic oral presentations including problem-solution and process descriptions.

Communicating in Business by Simon Sweeney -Yet another outstanding Cambridge title, this Business English textbook includes helpful materials on nnegotiating and socializing as well as presenting.

Speak English Like an American by Amy Gillet. This fine book, which includes a strong CD, introduces over 300 American idioms in context. Engaging and informative, the book is almost perfect for an idioms class.

Last, but not least, I naturally recommend Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics, by Toni Aberson and Eric Roth, as a supplemental text for advanced ESL classes, conversation clubs, and tutors.

Other special interest ESL books of quality.
Film is Content: A Study Guide for the Advanced ESL Classroom by Julia A. Williamson and Jill C. Vincent- This underappreciated University of Michigan textbook deserves a much wider audience. Although slightly dated, students learn critical thinking skills, academic vocabulary, and modern film.

The Creative Classroom: Teaching Language Outside the Box, by Hall Houston, contains dozens of bite-sized exercises to spark authentic language and creative discourse, This slim book, published by Lynx, should especially appeal to ESL students with a background or interest in engineering, science, and the arts.

What are your favorite ESL textbooks? What books have you enjoyed sharing with students? What books do you wish your ESL department, adult school, or language institute adopted? Why?


  1. Reima – Nice website. I especially liked the online learning style quizzes. Very practical and useful.

    By the way, consider me quite impressed that you are giving lectures around the world – South Africa, Singapore, and Saudi Arabia. Sweet!

    Dennis – Thank you for your kind words.

  2. Thanks for the tip, but I think I will take a pass for now.

  3. Hello. Your site displays incorrectly in Firefox, but content excellent! Thanks for your wise words =)

  4. I did not expect this on a Thursday. I actually enjoyed this.. Just subscribed to your feed.

  5. All was pleasant, but could not subscribe on rss, wished to broadcast here http://stroi-t.ru

  6. Good reading,thanks

  7. Nice post, thanks

  8. Happy Thursday! Congrats, on all the exciting news!. Enjoyed “What ESL books do you recommend?” although maybe not everyone did. Sorry I’m late adding this comment. Added you to my RSS feed.

  9. Interesting blog post. What would you say was the most important marketing factor?

  10. The best ESL books are practical, engaging, and intellectually interesting for a sophisticated, international audience. They also meet both the immediate needs and longterm aspirations of English language learners. Ideally, these ESL and EFL books will help students both explore our rapidly changing world – and provide critical thinking skills.

    Yet that’s from an English teacher’s perspective. Many impractical, boring, and grammar-filled tome sells quite well because they conform to both standardized tests and But marketing remains a mystery to me. Size matters here – from advertising budgets to publishing houses.

    Or so it seems to me.

  11. Colin – We completely agree. Word by Word is an excellent picture dictionary, especially for adult learners with limited experience in formal education. Pearson-Longman also has an excellent support site for the book.
    http://www.pearsonlongman.com/ae/wordbyword/ that your students – and you – might appreciate.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. This list, originally written a few years ago, needs to be updated. Any and all suggestions are appreciated. You can also leave recommendations and reviews on http://www.esl-book.com that remains an abandoned web project.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *