We know that reading is essential for language students. First and foremost, reading helps students become better readers. As Frank Smith has said, “We learn to read by reading.” Reading also helps students increase their vocabulary, acquire grammar implicitly, and learn how to write. Plus, it’s enjoyable! Time and time again, research evidence has demonstrated the importance of reading. As Stephen Krashen wrote in The Power of Reading: “People acquiring a second language have the best chance for success through reading.”
Therefore, one of our main jobs as language teachers is to give our students access to books. In selecting books, there are basically only two criteria that need to be met:
- The books should be at an appropriate level for students. If the books are too difficult, students won’t learn much, and the reading process will feel painful and exhausting for them.
- The books should be interesting and enjoyable for the students to read. The more compelling, the better.
This idea is fairly simple, but putting it into practice can sometimes be difficult. For me, one of the main challenges is finding books. It can be hard to find books that meet both of those criteria. There are a lot of compelling books in existence—but most of them are way too difficult for my ESL students.
Luckily, us English teachers have it a little easier than teachers of other languages. English is such a popular language to learn worldwide that there are many books written for English language learners. These books are often called “graded readers” or sometimes “language-learner literature.” They are written in simplified language so they are easy for students to read. Most graded reader series have books written at various different levels, from the beginning to the advanced level.
The main ways I use graded readers in my classroom are:
- Whole-class novel reading—We choose a book and read it together as a class. All the students have a copy of the book, and I read it out loud while the students follow along in their own books. After reading a chapter, we usually discuss it together as a class.
- Read-Alouds—I read a book aloud to the students while they listen. Again, we might discuss the book for a few minutes after each chapter.
- FVR (Free Voluntary Reading)—I have graded readers as a part of my FVR library, so students can browse through the books and choose ones that they want to read silently.
In this post, I will review the different series of graded readers that I’ve used in my classroom. These recommendations are based on my experience in teaching adult ESL. Therefore, most of these books are intended for adults. Although I have yet to encounter any overly explicit adult content in any of these books, some of them do have some mature content. Make sure to preview any books before using with your students, especially if you teach younger learners.
Since I teach in the U.S., I always prefer using books written in American English over books written in British or other varieties of English. This can actually be quite difficult to do, as it seems that the vast majority of graded readers are written in British English. Although American and British English are similar, there are enough differences that it’s a little bit frustrating for me to use British English books in class. Especially with lower-level students, who already have such a limited vocabulary, it seems like it’s kind of a waste of time to have to teach students two different forms of a word. And some of my students like to listen to the audio versions of books, but the British English accent is more difficult for them to understand and is not really ideal if they’re living in the U.S. and trying to learn American English. Of course, I do still occasionally use British English books since they are so prevalent. For books that I put in my FVR library, I sometimes go through the book and write in the American equivalent above the non-American English words in the text (e.g., writing the word “pants” above the word “trousers”). And for read-alouds, it’s quite easy to simply replace words I need to without the students even knowing. In my reviews below, all of the book titles that I specifically mention are written in American English, unless otherwise noted.
These are the graded reader series that I’ve used, with links to the publishers’ websites (many can also be purchased on Amazon):
This is probably my favorite series overall. They have a mix of some American English and some British English books (though unfortunately, they do not label the type of English used in their books on their website, so it can be hard to know which are which.) Most of the stories are quite interesting and well-written. I also like that there are illustrations in the books, even the higher-level ones.
Some of my students’ favorite books in this series:
- It’s Just a Cat (Level 2)
- A Kitchen Love Story (Level 3)
- The Man in the Sky (Level 8)
- The Long Road to Lucca (Level 9; in British English)
- Joe Faust (Level 9)
- Reunited (Level 10)
- Mercy Killer (Level 11)
- The Art of Fear (Level 11; in British English)
If the Level 1 books are too difficult for your students, National Geographic Learning also has a series of graded readers for even lower-level students, called the Foundations Reading Library. The only book I’ve read in the series is Rain! Rain! Rain!, which is a cute, simple story with lots of illustrations.
This is another one of my favorite series. Most of the books are written in British English, though there are a handful in American English. The stories are well-written and engaging to my students.
My students have enjoyed:
- Big Hair Day (Starter Level; in British English)
- Hotel Casanova (Level 1; in British English)
- No Place to Hide (Level 3)
- High Life, Low Life (Level 4)
- Berlin Express (Level 4; in British English)
- Emergency Murder (Level 5)
- Murder by Art (Level 5)
- Dragons’ Eggs (Level 5; in British English)
This series was formerly called “Penguin Readers” but is now published by Pearson and has been renamed as “Pearson English Readers.” They have a mix of original works and adaptations of classics. Most of their books are written in British English, but some are in American English.
I’ve successfully used the book Marley and Me (Level 2; see my detailed post about it here).
In this series, each book tells the story of a different family of immigrants that settle in the United States. These books are not leveled, and their website says that the books are for “beginning readers,” but my guess is that they are referring to ABE or other native English-speaking students who have low literacy levels. For ESL students, I would say that these books are best for students at the intermediate level and above. Though the books are pretty short, the vocabulary is a little bit advanced. Their website has a sample chapter from each book that you can use to preview it. A lot of my students enjoy the stories, especially since they can connect to the immigrant experience.
The only graded reader that Fluency Matters has available in English is Felipe Alou, which I highly recommend. The book intentionally uses a lot of Spanish-English cognates, so for students who are native Spanish speakers, I think it could be used with high-beginning students or higher. For non-Spanish speakers, I would say it’s best for high-intermediate or advanced-level students. I wrote a more detailed blog post about this book here.
Fluency Fast has an English adaptation of Don Quixote. I’ve offered it to my students an option during FVR time, and several of them have enjoyed reading it. I’d say it works well for ESL students who are at a high-beginning level or above.
I haven’t used any of these books yet, but I did purchase the adaptation of A Christmas Carol (Level 3), and I’m planning to use it around Christmas time. Compass has a few different series: Compass Readers (a mix of original fiction and non-fiction books), Compass Classic Readers (adaptations of classic books), and Young Learners Classic Readers (classic stories for children—though many of them look like they would be perfectly fine to use with adults, too). Unfortunately, my experience with this company so far has been somewhat frustrating, as several of the books that I’ve attempted to order are out of stock (over a period of several months). Many of their books sound quite interesting, but I haven’t been able to get ahold of them yet.
These are all of the graded reader series that I’ve used, but there are many other series available. The Oxford Bookworms Library, MacMillan Readers, and Black Cat Cideb are other popular series; however, I do not have much experience in using them.
One thing to keep in mind when evaluating books from different series is that each publishing company seems to have their own system for ranking the difficulty level of books. For example, a Level 4 book from Cambridge English Readers is roughly equivalent to a Level 7 book from Cengage Learning’s Page Turners Reading Library series. Fortunately, the Extensive Reading Foundation has a chart comparing the different levels of graded readers.
These book recommendations are based on my own experiences, and, of course, I can only tell you what has worked well for me in my classroom. Your students and your teaching context might be quite different from mine. But I hope that these reviews have at least helped to give you an idea of what kind of books are available for ESL students.