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Best Books to Improve Your English

A Step-By-Step Guide to Picking the Perfect Book

April 27, 2017 0 comments

Books.

Gross, I know.

But you know you have to read books to improve your English.

Reading will help expand your vocabulary and improve your overall fluency.

Many English language learners want to know which book is the best one to read.

Well, it depends on you, the student. Every English language learner has a different ability level and taste. So, before you pick a book, you have to answer some questions.

Today, I’m going to go step-by-step through the process every English language learner should take before buying a book.

And, after that, I’m, going to recommend seven books almost every English language learner should, especially if you’re  interested in American culture.

Why do you have to answer a couple questions before you read a book? 

What if you pick the wrong book?

According to Ben Parr at Mashable, there are nearly 130 million books for you to choose. You might get stuck reading a book you find boring or just too difficult to enjoy.

But don’t worry…

I’m going to take you step-by-step through the decision process.

I’m going to show you what you should do before you choose a book, where to find more information about the book and how to to use this same process in the future.

Also, if you stick around till the end, I’m going to share with you seven books I believe you should read to improve your English.

Download this PDF here and follow along as we go through each step together. and follow along as we go through each step together.

The first step is actually a question you must ask yourself before you start:

Step One – “Why do you want to read a book?”

You must identify your motivation for reading a book before you buy one.

Now, at this point, some of you might say,

“I don’t want to read a book. My teacher is making me read it.”

If you don’t want to read a book, don’t read one.

It’s that simple.

I’ve been teaching English language learners for nearly a decade. The students who reach the highest levels of fluency are the ones who find enjoyment in learning and growing in English.

And motivated students are the only ones I’m interested in teaching.

If you lack motivation and, instead, do it because someone “forces” you to do it, you will never succeed.

This advice goes beyond reading a book.

If you are doing something because:

“My parents told me I have to do it.”
“My teacher told me I have to do it.”
“My boss told me I have to do it.”

I guarantee both failure and misery, regardless of the endeavor.

But let me get back to books.

A book is a commitment. It could take weeks, even months to finish. I don’t want you to waste your time on a book, which is why I developed this process.

Books are magic.

There’s no greater joy than getting lost in a good story, especially when it’s in another language.

I’m currently studying Japanese and it can get frustrating. When having conversations with Japanese people there are so many new words and phrases that I don’t understand. The language of everyday life happens so quickly that it’s easy for me to lose heart and feel depressed. Sometimes, I think learning another language is too difficult.

When I feel like giving up, I open up a book in Japanese.

Here’s the deal.

I’m in control of a book. I dictate the speed of what I learn and how I learn it. I usually have a book that comes with an audio version so I can read and listen to the pronunciation. When I have a book with the audio, I don’t have to worry about someone speaking too fast or using difficult vocabulary because it’s all written out on the page. I determine what I learn and when I learn it.

Oh, and the joy of finishing a book!

Victoria at FluentU puts it beautifully when she writes,

“Being able to read a novel in another language and understand it is a huge achievement. You’ll feel accomplished the moment you read that final page, close the book, and reflect on the experience.”

I hope that motivates you to read.

And just to give you a bit more motivation, here’s a quote from Seth Godin,

Again, step one…

Identify the reasons why you want to read a book.

A book can take a long time to read, so before you open one up, ask yourself a couple of questions:

  • How much vocabulary do I want to learn per page?
  • How much time can I spend reading each day?
  • How can I make sure that I remember the vocabulary I learn while I’m reading?
  • Will reading a book help me achieve my goals in English fluency?
  • Will this book teach me anything else besides vocabulary?

The more specific you are with your goals, the more you will get out of studying with a book.

You can answer these questions and more in the Ten Questions to Ask Before You Buy a Book Cheatsheet.

After you have identified your motivation, it’s time to move on to the next step.

Step Two – Pick Your Genre

That’s right, I don’t want you to pick a book yet, but instead, a genre.

Some famous genres include mystery, science fiction, crime, biography and historical fiction. There are many other genres, but this is just to give you a couple of ideas. Again, a book can take a long time to read, which is why it’s important to pick something that you enjoy reading.

Let me show you how you can do this on Amazon:

First,  you go to the Amazon Home Page.

You can choose the subsection Books.

After that, you can search by category. Whatever category you choose will list the current best sellers in that specific genre.

 

However, I find that I’m usually not interested in what’s popular. Instead, I like to look at books I’ve read in the past and find recommendations connected to that title. One book I often recommend to students is Charlotte’s Web.

Once you find the book on the Amazon page, scroll down to the recommendations section.

The recommendations will probably be at a similar level and belong to a similar genre.

Once you find a book that seems interesting, click on it and move on to step three.

This is the most important step in the entire process.

Step Three – Judge the Level

Students almost always pick books that are too difficult than their current ability level.

If you want reading to be an enjoyable experience, you have to pick a book that suits your level. 

Many students tend to pick books that native speakers read at the same age.It’s unreasonable for you to believe that your language proficiency level is the same as a native speaker. As Suzanne Irujo at Reading Rockets points out,

“Asking ELLs to read the same texts and do the same activities as everybody else will only result in frustration for teachers and failure for students.”

If you are studying independently, it’s important for you to be honest with your limitations and capabilities.

I can’t emphasize this enough.

Don’t be too proud to pick up a book aimed for teenagers, even children.

I read children’s books in Japanese.

I wasn’t born and raised in Japan. I haven’t sat in a Japanese class for years, listening to thousands of hours of Japanese instruction and interacting with peers who speak Japanese. I’m not ashamed to start reading where my three-year-old daughter starts, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Or, as it’s called in Japanese, はらぺこあおむし

How do you know if a book is too difficult?

You want to read something in which you understand approximately 70% of what is written.

If you know every word on the page, then it’s too easy. If you understand less than half of what you read, then it’s too difficult. 70% is a good average. It means there’s still room for improvement without getting too frustrated in the process.

Again, go back to Amazon. I picked the book James and the Giant Peach, which was in the list of recommendations when I looked for Charlotte’s Web.


Once I’m there, I click on the look inside button and preview the book.

I read one or two pages and judge how much I know.


Again, your goal is to pick a book in which you understand about 70% of the material. When you start to read, I recommend reading every page twice. You should read a couple of pages once to enjoy and get a general idea of the story. After that, go back and read the passage again, this time looking for words or phrases you don’t completely comprehend.

Bonus tip…

If you’re worried about the length of a book, check out the page count on the bottom. Try not to pick a book with more than 200 pages, at least to start out. If you read a couple books and enjoy the process, then you can move on to longer and slightly more challenging works.

You’re still here?

Great! That means you’re motivated to learn and grow.

You will need that kind of attitude if you want to succeed in your goal of English fluency.

Step Four – Look for Audio Versions and Graded Readers

When you’re studying English, it’s crucial that you copy the habits of native speakers. When you are reading a book, however, you are reading to yourself. You are the only person who judges how the language will sound. This type of reading could eventually lead to the solidification of bad speaking habits. Instead, I recommend having both a copy of the book and an audio version so you can hear how a native speaker pronounces it. This will also help you get used to the rhythm of the language.

LingQ is an online language program developed to cater to this method of studying. Developed by Steve Kaufman, a polyglot who can speak over a dozen languages, believes that immersing yourself in reading and listening materials is one of the best ways to acquire language.

However, you decide to do it, make sure you read and listen at the same time.

Remember, words on a page are not the same as how they’re used in life. Native speakers tend to group words together and vary intonation.

Reading and listening is a powerful combination because it stimulates two senses at the same time. You can synthesize this information and use it to your advantage to improve your spoken pronunciation.

And you can take this methodical approach to reading one step further with…

Graded Readers

Graded readers are books designed specifically for English language learners. According to one article at Multilingua:

“These books (graded readers) have complex and interesting stories, but are written in a way that’s comfortable for English language learners at every stage.”

A graded reader is a simplified version of an original book. If you’re looking for a book to improve your English I highly recommend graded readers. Many come with an audio version of the book. Some readers have highlighted vocabulary words, discussion questions, and exercises that will help measure your comprehension of the story.

I use Japanese graded readers in my own studies.

And I have to be honest…

At first, it made me feel like I was a child. I started to lose my motivation to learn.

But remember…

English isn’t your native language.

Don’t be too hard on yourself.

Your capabilities are different than a native speaker. Focus on improvement instead of comparing yourself to natives, and you will go further in your English abilities and enjoy the journey along the way.

You can find graded readers on Amazon, but there’s more selection if you check out the following book publishers and look under their graded reader section.

Cambridge Graded Readers

Collins Graded Readers 

Macmillan Graded Readers

So those are the four steps to take to pick the perfect book!

Just a quick recap:

  • Step 1 – Ask yourself, “Why do I want to read a book?” (and have a good answer)
  • Step 2 – Pick Your Genre
  • Step 3 – Judge Your Level
  • Step 4 – Find Audio Versions and Graded Readers

Don’t forget, download The Ten Questions to Ask Before You Buy a Book cheatsheet and learn some more bonus tips to improve your reading experience.

Still not sure what to choose?

Check out my 7 book recommendations right now…

Bonus – My Seven Recommendations

Why these titles?

Many of these books are part of the national curriculum. It’s a requirement for teachers to incorporate these books into their lesson plans.

If you want to know more about a culture, learn more about the national curriculum, particularly the books students read.

Out of millions of books, these select few are superb examples of well-written prose. Most contain common literary devices and capture some essence of the American spirit. If you’re interested in both reading and learning a bit more about American culture, these books are ideal.

If you prefer to read something for pure enjoyment, you can go to Amazon and browse titles related to your interest.

For each recommendation, I include a short summary, describe why the book is culturally important, and copy an excerpt from the book so you can judge if you like the writing style and if you understand approximately 70% of the vocabulary.

This is one of the most famous books in the American canon:

1. “Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Brief Summary: The Old Man and the Sea tells the story of Santiago, an 84-year-old fisherman who hasn’t caught a fish in over two months. After a string of bad luck, Santiago decides to set out, alone, deep in the Gulf Coast in pursuit of fish. He hooks a marlin, fights with it for two days, and, eventually, after an intense struggle, harpoons the fish and begins the journey back home. However, Santiago’s true test will come on his journey back.

Cultural Implications: This book could be read in many different ways, but Hemingway is the quintessential American writer. His sentences are short, clear and powerful. He’s a direct writer. He hardly ever uses adverbs or commas. He stays straight to the point and is strict about writing the truth. Also, like many celebrated American writers, he employs Christian imagery and metaphor to evoke deeper undertones in the plot.

Excerpt: (Do you understand approximately 70% of the passage?)

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week. It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.

(Excerpt courtesy of Simon and Schuster)

2. “The Giver by Lois Lowry

Brief Summary: The Giver takes place in a society where everyone and everything is considered equal. Since everything is the same, the society in which the characters live has no color, climate or memory of what the world was like before sameness. Most people in contemporary society would agree that equality is a good thing. However, in The Giver, Lowry takes the idea of extreme equality and shows a society that is even more frightening than the one in which we live.

Cultural Implications:  America gained its independence through rebellion. Resistance to authority to preserve the rights of the individual is a hallmark of American intellectual thought. The Giver explores the idea of individuality and sacrifice in a setting where harmony is valued more than desire.

Excerpt: (Do you understand approximately 70% of the passage?)

It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened. No. Wrong word, Jonas thought. Frightened meant that deep, sickening feeling of something terrible about to happen. Frightened was the way he had felt a year ago when an unidentified aircraft had overflown the community twice. He had seen it both times. Squinting toward the sky, he had seen the sleek jet, almost a blur at its high speed, go past, and a second later heard the blast of sound that followed. Then one more time, a moment later, from the opposite direction, the same plane.
At first, he had been only fascinated. He had never seen aircraft so close, for it was against the rules for Pilots to fly over the community. Occasionally, when supplies were delivered by cargo planes to the landing field across the river, the children rode their bicycles to the river bank and watched, intrigued, the unloading and then the takeoff directed to the west, always away from the community.
But the aircraft a year ago had been different. It was not a squat, fat-bellied cargo plane but a needle-nosed single-pilot jet. Jonas, looking around anxiously, had seen others — adults as well as children — stop what they were doing and wait, confused, for an explanation of the frightening event.

(Excerpt courtesy of Book Browse)

3. “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury

Brief Summary: Fahrenheit 451 is set in a dystopian future where firemen are tasked to set fire to books. The protagonist, Montag, is a firefighter who never thought much about books, or his job to burn them. One day, a woman refuses to live without her books and opts to burn to death with her collection. Montag turns curious. He meets a young woman with unusual ideas and eventually joins a group of outcasts who are destined to create a new society where books aren’t burned, but celebrated.

Cultural Implications: Of course an English teacher would love a book about how terrible it is to burn books, but this is a classic. For many in today;s society, suppression and censorship of thought in an era where government control is produced mostly through television still rings true. For me, the most disturbing aspect of Fahrenheit 451 is not that the government burns books, but that most of the population doesn’t care about reading books anymore. Everyone would rather watch television (or look at a Smartphone wink wink).

Excerpt: (Do you understand approximately 70% of the passage?)

IT WAS A PLEASURE TO BURN
IT was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame.
With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning. Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame.

(Excerpt courtesy of Amazon)

4. “Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger

Brief Summary: This is probably the most difficult book listed. It’s considered by some to be the most important book written in the 20th century. The main character, Holden Caulfield, is a 16-year-old boy who attends a private prep school in Pennsylvania. Holden feels alienated from the world. He has trouble forming an identity. He believes adults are “phonies” and children are too innocent. Feeling isolated, Holden sets out for New York City in search of… something.

Cultural Implications: Catcher in the Rye is required reading for high schoolers because it speaks to the experience many young men go through during their adolescence. Holden is lonely, depressed and confused by the world and the people in it. He feels out of place, everywhere, much like other young American teenagers. Catcher in the Rye is a work of fiction intended to help adolescents feel less alone in their own thoughts.

This book is also significant because two separate gunmen, the man who killed John Lennon and the man who shot Ronald Regan, were both carrying a copy of Catcher in the Rye when they attacked their targets.

Excerpt: (Do you understand approximately 70% of the passage?)

IF YOU REALLY WANT TO HEAR about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They’re nice and all, I’m not saying that-but they’re also touchy as hell. Besides, I’m not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything. I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy.

(Excerpt courtesy of Teen Reads)

5. “Charlottes Web” by EB White

Brief Summary: This book is the only one on the list aimed for children. Wilbur the pig is scheduled to be slaughtered. Worried, his friend Charlotte, a spider who lives in the same barn, fights to save her friend the only way she knows how, by spinning messages into her web. She spins into her web the words, “Some pig.” Neighbors are amazed. Wilbur’s life is spared. Still, Wilbur and his friends must prove their worth in the county fair. Will Charlotte be able to save Wilbur one more time?

Cultural Implications: The book is the all-time best-selling children’s book. Almost every American has read it at some point. The story itself celebrates the power of friendship. E.B. White, the book’s author, is also famous for writing The Elements of Style, a classic that any aspiring writer must read. Charlotte’s Web has remained successful over the years for many reasons, but much of its success is due to EB White’s superb prose.

Excerpt: (Do you understand approximately 70% of the passage?)

The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell­ as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world. It smelled of grain and of harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and of new rope. And whenever the cat was given a fish head to eat, the barn would smell of fish. But mostly it smelled of hay, for there was always hay in the great loft up overhead. And there was always hay being pitched down to the cows and the horses and the sheep.

(Excerpt courtesy of Amazon)

6. “The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon

Brief Summary: The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Nighttime is about a boy, Christopher, who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism. The book opens with Christopher discovering that his neighbor’s dog has been murdered. This sets off a chain of events that will lead our teenage protagonist from his small hometown of Swindon, all the way to London in search of his mother and back again. While the mystery of who murdered the dog drives the story, the book is told from Christopher’s perspective. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime provides the reader with a lens into the mind of an individual who suffers from autism.

Cultural Implications: This one is a little different in that not every student in America is required to read it, but every American teacher is required to read this book. Teachers in America are educated to always be considerate of diversity in the classroom. Every person has a unique perspective that should be respected. Much of the literature that Americans read is about outcasts, individuals who might not fit in with everyone else. Since America is a multicultural society, a lot of our national curriculum is geared toward awareness of difference and empathy toward that difference.

The author, Mark Haddon, eventually mentioned in his blog that it is not a book about Aspergers Syndrome, but about seeing the world in a different way. When we look at the world through the lens of another, it reveals a lot of hidden qualities we live with everyday, but hardly ever notice.

Excerpt: (Do you understand approximately 70% of the passage?)

It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs Shears’ house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog. The points of the fork must have gone all the way through the dog and into the ground because the fork had not fallen over. I decided that the dog was probably killed with the fork because I could not see any other wounds in the dog and I do not think you would stick a garden fork into a dog after it had died for some other reason, like cancer for example, or a road accident. But I could not be certain about this.
I went through Mrs Shears’ gate, closing it behind me. I walked onto her lawn and knelt beside the dog. I put my hand on the muzzle of the dog. It was still warm.
The dog was called Wellington. It belonged to Mrs Shears who was our friend. She lived on the opposite side of the road, two houses to the left.
Wellington was a poodle. Not one of the small poodles that have hairstyles but a big poodle. It had curly black fur, but when you got close you could see that the skin underneath the fur was a very pale yellow, like chicken.
I stroked Wellington and wondered who had killed him, and why.

(Excerpt courtesy of Book Browse)

7. “The Harry Potter Series” by JK Rowling

Brief Summary: Most of you are familiar with the Harry Potter series. This collection of books follows the adventures of a young wizard, Harry Potter, and his friends, as they go to Hogwarts School of Wizardry. During their time they are forced to cast spells, fight monsters, vanquish enemies and defeat the evil Lord Voldemort.

Cultural Implications: While the Harry Potter series isn’t usually taught in school, I continue to recommend it to students because it’s fun to read and, most importantly, many students have already read the novels in their native language. When you read what you already have an experience with, you can gain more from the story. Even if you’ve only seen the movie, I still suggest reading something you already know about. Almost everyone knows about Harry Potter.

Excerpt: (Do you understand approximately 70% of the passage?)

Nearly ten years had passed since the Dursleys had woken up to find their nephew on the front step, but Privet Drive had hardly changed at all. The sun rose on the same tidy front gardens and lit up the brass number four on the Dursleys’ front door; it crept into their living room, which was almost exactly the same as it had been on the night when Mr. Dursley had seen that fateful news report about the owls. Only the photographs on the mantelpiece really showed how much time had passed. Ten years ago, there had been lots of pictures of what looked like a large pink beach ball wearing different-colored bonnets – but Dudley Dursley was no longer a baby, and now the photographs showed a large blond boy riding his first bicycle, on a carousel at the fair, playing a computer game with his father, being hugged and kissed by his mother. The room held no sign at all that another boy lived in the house, too.
Yet Harry Potter was still there, asleep at the moment, but not for long. His Aunt Petunia was awake and it was her shrill voice that made the first noise of the day.
“Up! Get up! Now!”

(Excerpt courtesy of Book Browse)

That’s it.

Remember, there are millions of books out there. I’m sure you disagree with some of my recommendations.

Do you have any other book recommendations?

I love to hear from students and fellow teachers. Please leave some comments below.

Hope to chat with you guys soon.

-Josh

 

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