Prefer to listen instead of read? Click here for the podcast episode on choosing the best books for English learners.
Here are two questions:
How many books have you started reading in English?
And how many books have you finished reading in English?
I’m guessing that these numbers are not the same.
I remember reading an English second-hand book I bought from a shop in Istanbul. There were Turkish notes in the book — clearly, someone had been using the book to study English with.
But after two or three chapters, the notes stopped. The person who bought the book had given up reading it.
This is an incredibly common problem. I’ve seen it so many times.
You buy a book thinking, “I’m going to read this book, and when I’ve finished I’ll know so much more English.”
And you start reading, making notes on new words and phrases. It’s exciting — you’re learning English and reading a proper English book!
Then after a week, you start losing your love for reading it. It’s hard work. It’s boring. It feels unnatural.
So you quit reading and sell it to a second-hand book seller.
Maybe he looks like this:
Or maybe not.
Maybe a few months later you buy another book and try again … only to give up again after a few chapters. So you sell that one, too.
The bookseller’s happy, but you’re not because it seems that you just can’t read a single English book.
But why does this keep happening?
There are usually four main reasons for this:
- You’ve chosen a book that’s too difficult.
- You’ve chosen a book that’s not very interesting to you.
- You’re a strong visual learner and you don’t like reading very much — even in your first language.
- You either don’t have enough time to “get into” the book or you have a short concentration span.
So how do we solve these different problems?
The best way is by choosing the right book.
Below, I’m going to recommend two books that will help you overcome (get past) each of these problems.
You’ve chosen a book that’s too difficult
The “comfortably simple” books
This is probably the most common reason why we give up on reading books, and the solution’s easy — find an easier book.
For a lot of learners, the natural choice here would be a graded reader.
What’s a graded reader? It’s one of those English books that are designed for English learners. The language is simpler, it’s shorter and it’s much easier to read. These books often contain vocabulary explanations and sometimes some exercises to help you understand the story.
But I don’t strongly recommend them.
Don’t get me wrong: I think that reading anything at all is always good practice, especially if your level’s on the low side.
But here’s some good news — if you’re reading my posts, your level is not on the low side, and I think you can happily manage a regular book.
1. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
by Mark Haddon
This is a very popular choice for English learners. Not only is the language in this book easy to read, but the story is very interesting and thought-provoking (it makes you think about things).
This means you are much less likely to give up.
The story is told from the point of view of a teenage boy with Asperger’s syndrome (a condition that means you see the world in a very different way). The language is very simple and direct, and it’s fascinating to “get inside the mind” of the main character.
2. Animal Farm
… or anything by George Orwell
Again, this is a popular choice for language learners, and many teachers recommend it.
I’ve chosen Animal Farm out of all of Orwell’s books simply because all the characters are different animals, and this makes it especially easy to follow and to “see” the story happening in your head.
But really, any George Orwell will be a good choice.
That’s because Orwell (along with Ernest Hemingway) is the king of simple writing.
To give you an idea about how much he valued simplicity, here are some of his famous rules for writing:
- Never use a long word where a short one will do (will be enough).
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous (uncivilized).
You’ve chosen a book that’s not very interesting to you
There are some strange people out there.
I’ve met quite a lot of people who seem to believe that you have to suffer to learn. They really think that if it isn’t difficult, it isn’t working.
Absolute nonsense. In fact, I’d say the opposite:
If you’re enjoying yourself, you’re going to learn quicker.
That’s why I never understand it when I see English learners picking up a Charles Dickens book as their first English book.
Seriously? Dickens? The first book you’re reading in English?
Again, don’t get me wrong. I love Dickens. But it’s challenging at times — even for me. The main reason isn’t so much the language (although his English definitely isn’t simple).
It’s because he’s writing about people who existed over 100 years ago. People without smartphones or laptops. People who only travelled about 50 miles for their big holiday, or people who never even had holidays. People who didn’t read blog posts or go to cafés. People whose hairstyles and clothes probably meant that they spent at least five hours a day getting ready to leave the house.
In short — people very different from us.
When you’re reading about people completely different from you, you have to make a little extra effort.
And why do that when you’re trying to learn?
You want to read stuff that takes little effort, right? Books that make you want to keep turning the page and never stop reading.
That’s why I’m recommending these page-turners.
3. The Da Vinci Code
… or any Dan Brown book
I have a strange relationship with Dan Brown books. The intellectual inside me looks down on them. They’re “trash” and unintellectual.
But then I start reading one.
Within a few pages, I can’t stop reading. I can’t put the book down. I just have to find out what happens next.
That’s why Dan Brown has sold over 200 million copies of his books and has made $178 million. That’s almost the GDP of the Marshall Islands!
It’s because he writes books that are so exciting, interesting and real that you just can’t put them down.
Even though they’re trashy.
4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or any Harry Potter)
by J. K. Rowling
Now I’m actually not a fan of the Harry Potter series. (I much prefer The Lord of the Rings.)
But the first book I read in a foreign language without using a dictionary was the first Harry Potter book in Turkish.
I didn’t understand everything. In fact, in some places I could only understand about 40%. But I kept on going, and I realised that you don’t need to understand much to be able to enjoy the story.
And despite the fact I didn’t really like Harry Potter stuff, I really enjoyed reading it. Perhaps I only enjoy Harry Potter in Turkish. Who knows?
You’re a strong visual learner and you don’t like reading very much — even in your first language
The “comics for big people”
I’ve written about this before, and this was probably the most effective solution for me when I was learning Turkish.
I think I made the most progress with my vocabulary and grammar through a Belgian journalist called Tintin and a prehistoric French chap called Asterix.
I’ve always enjoyed reading the Tintin books in my first language (which is English, in case you were wondering!)
These books are great for three main reasons:
- They are visual! This is so valuable when you’re reading in your second language. You can see what’s going on and as a result, you can focus on the language more, instead of trying to “create a picture.”
- They are conversational. (Almost) everything is based around conversations, so you can really get access to natural language.
- They are designed for adults as well as children. This means that a lot of the jokes and themes will actually be interesting for you!
So let’s meet these great guys if you haven’t already met them in your first language:
5. Red Rackham’s Treasure (or any Tintin)
Some Tintin books are full of action (like this one) and some are actually more like a normal book with lots of long paragraphs (like The Secret of the Unicorn and Flight 714 — don’t read these ones first!).
There have been some worrying moments in the Tintin series. The first book, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, was clearly just pro-Soviet propaganda, and the second book, Tintin in the Congo, was unacceptably racist.
But as time went on, it seems that the writer, Hergé, changed and began accepting a more diverse view of the world.
Politics aside, these books are highly enjoyable with exciting stories and beautiful pictures.
Just don’t read the racist one. You’ll be sick!
6. Asterix at the Olympic Games (or any Asterix)
by René Goscinny
It’s very easy to relate to the different characters in the book, and the stories are always highly creative.
In the story, Asterix and Obelix compete in the Olympic Games, and although it takes place over 2,000 years ago, there are a lot of modern themes. The most obvious one is the theme of performance-enhancing drugs (like steroids) in sports.
Even with serious themes like that, the story is light and fun.
The best thing? You’ll want to understand it all, and you’ll want to finish it all.
You either don’t have enough time to “get into” the book, or you have a short concentration span
The “bathroom books”
Why “bathroom book”?
Well, this is actually a common thing. (Go ahead and Google it!)
“Bathroom books” are books that some people (like me) like to put in the bathroom so that when people are taking a bath or using the toilet, they can have a quick read at the same time.
These books are usually full of short bits of information because no one takes a bath long enough to read a full book. So you can pick them up, read from any part of the book for a few minutes, then just put it down again.
And they’re perfect for people who only have a few minutes at a time to read and for people with short concentration spans.
7. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾
by Sue Townsend
As you can probably guess from the title, this is the (fictional) diary of a teenager growing up in a working-class household in the middle of England — an ordinary boy with an ordinary life.
Although it’s a teenage diary, this book is not aimed at teenagers and is both funny and enjoyable for adults.
The book is the first in a long series and starts in the 1980s. If you’d like something a bit more up to date, you can read Adrian’s diaries as an adult in Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years (he’s around 30 years old and working as a chef in London) and Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years. (I think the title says it all!)
It’s very easy to read because it’s in diary form. Most days are only a couple of paragraphs long, meaning that you can read a whole day in a couple of minutes. If you have problems with one, it doesn’t matter — you can just move on to the next. Remember: you should be reading for enjoyment!
8. The Book of General Ignorance
by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson
What if I told you that the tallest mountain in the world wasn’t Mount Everest?
And that the sky in ancient Greece wasn’t blue?
And that we had more than five senses?
This book is probably the most interesting one in today’s post. You read it and learn how much you’ve got wrong about the world.
Each fact only takes up (consists of) a few paragraphs.
This means that it’s very easy to read, and you don’t have to concentrate for a long time. It’s also incredibly interesting and as a bonus, you’ll be able to impress your friends with the fascinating facts you learn.
So which of these books interests you the most? Don’t wait! Get a copy and start seeing your English improve while you learn and enjoy yourself!
Because this post is all about other people’s books, I haven’t had much opportunity to create many of my strange pictures.
I know a lot of readers enjoy my weird visual style, so here’s that bookseller again.
Remember, don’t sell him your book until you’ve finished it!
Did you like this post? Then be awesome and share by clicking the blue button below.