439. Reading Books to Learn English

Here’s an episode for you to listen to while I’m on holiday. I’m recording this the day before I go to Japan. So by the time you’re listening to this I’ll be on the other side of the world, trying to remember how to speak Japanese.

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This episode is all about reading books in English. I probably won’t upload another episode for a week or two. That little break will give my listeners a chance to catch up on the recent episodes. Also, there are loads of episodes in the archive that you might not have heard yet and you might want to listen to if you are suffering from LEPaholism and you can’t get enough.

Every episode of LEP is available in the archive on my website, even if you can’t see them all on iTunes. They’re all still here. Just go to teacherluke.co.uk and click “Episodes”.

Just before we get started let me just remind you of several things:

  • Please vote for Luke’s English Podcast in the British Podcast Awards. I need every single one of you to vote. If you are next to a computer or you have your phone just go to www.britishpodcastawards.com/vote and vote for LEP.
  • If you’re in Toyko on 13 April, come to Gamuso in Asagaya for my comedy show. I will be performing comedy there with a few other people. It’s free to get in. Doors open at 7. I expect the comedy will start at 8. No idea if it will be busy. You can’t book in advance, so just turn up and get a seat!


This episode is all about books. I’m going to recommend some self-study books for learning English, talk about the value of reading books in English and then go through some of the books which I have in a pile on my desk and talk to you about them – just to inspire you to do some more reading this year, in English of course!

Hi Luke! My name’s Matias, I’m from Uruguay, South America. Also, I’m a British English lover haha. I’ve been studying the language on my own for 7 or 8 years maybe, and English culture as well.
I found your podcasts just a few months ago and you gave me a whole new perspective on the language and I really appreciate that.
I emailed you because I want you to recommend some self-study books. I’m already using English Grammar In Use and doing exercises almost every day. What other books could I use?
Thank you a lot for all of your work. Have a great day!

Some self-study books for pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar

You’ll find the names and authors of all these books on the page for this episode on my website.

Ship or Sheep by Anne Baker (minimal pairs) CUP
English Pronunciation In Use series – CUP
Work on your Accent by Helen Ashton (Collins )
Sound Foundations by Adrian Underhill (Macmillan) – for the teachers

The ‘In Use’ series is good – English Vocabulary in Use
They also have Professional English In Use – different titles.
Practical Everyday English by Steven Collins
Also Advanced Everyday English and High Level Everyday English

Grammar for Business by McCarthy, McCarthy, Clarke & Clarke
Practical English Usage by Michael Swan (reference book)
English Grammar in Use by Raymond Murphy

Email English by Paul Emmerson

The value of reading books

I did an episode all about this a couple of years ago – you should listen to it. It includes a list of recommended books. Check it out here teacherluke.co.uk/2015/02/01/reading-books-in-english/

There’s also a reading list on my website which includes every single book I’ve recommended or mentioned on the podcast. Check it out here teacherluke.co.uk/useful-websites/the-uks-favourite-books/

  • Practice practice practice practice practice practice practice
  • You can go at your own pace
  • It’s seriously relaxing – certainly compared to staring at a screen. Try reading for 15 minutes before sleeping, it’s very good for you. Also you can take a book anywhere.
  • Vocabulary and grammar development
    Perhaps the best way to work on your grammar and vocabulary is to see it being used in context. Reading gives you access to the living language. Simply interacting with it by reading it is a great way to learn it. You can practise being mindful while you read, which is a question of noticing features of the language as you see it. This can be more efficient than reading grammar explanations.
  • Often the most useful parts of grammar study are the examples where they highlight certain bits of usage. Grammar is often unsatisfying because ultimately there aren’t always logical reasons why the language is the way it is.
  • Stop looking for explanations and just accept it. Let the language flow through you and get to know it. Don’t expect it to follow the same rules as your language or to be logical.
  • Grammar books are great for reference and self study. So, if you notice a pattern or a feature of the language you don’t understand – you can check it out in the grammar book, like “Practical English Usage”. The same goes for vocabulary and a dictionary. But by interacting with the written word you will find that the grammar goes in as a consequence.
  • Exposure = developing your instinct for the language. Reading an entire book is very good for your grammar. Imagine all those sentences that pass before your eyes and go through your brain. It’s a great way to study structure without even studying it really.
  • The importance of visualising the written word
    A word exists in many different dimensions – the way it sounds, the way it feels when you say it, all the meaning associations you have with it, the way it looks and the way it feels to write it by hand or on a computer. You should get to know every single side of a word and that means reading a lot in order to fix the visual side in your mind.
  • Educational value
    Learning about the culture of the language you’re learning is vital. It helps you get into the mindset of the language so you can get a sense of the rhythm, but also the humour and how certain things are suggested, hinted at, referred to and so on. Also you just learn some information that will help you. It’s not just a question of learning the words, but learning the whole culture within which those words exist.
  • Books can be a great way into a culture.

How to choose the right book for you

  • Not too old (think of the style of language – although old fashioned English is rather beautiful – watch out, anything written before about 1800 is going to sound pretty outdated and might be difficult to follow.
  • Not too long – obvs, you want to finish it
  • Something you’ve already read in your own language
  • Something that just appeals to you – it’s vital that you like the book, so go with your gut.
  • Something with fairly ‘normal’ English e.g. beware of something like The Martian – it contains loads of technical language – but then again it’s also quite a riveting page turner. But be aware of the type of English you’ll be getting.
  • Go for page turners – remember, your objective is to read as much as possible and to get the satisfaction and motivation of having finished the book. Don’t be afraid to read some trash. It doesn’t have to be the most high-class book.
  • Consider graded readers, like the Penguin Reader series – and choose the advanced level books. They’re shorter, easier versions of brilliant novels in English. There are various versions of readers – but check out readers.english.com/readers for more info.
  • Consider reading graphic novels. They’re easier to read and the visuals help to move the story along. It’s a bit like watching a movie but with all the advantages of a book.

How to learn English from reading books

You read with a notebook and dictionary with you. When you come across a new word you check it and make a note of it. Remember to write more than the translation. Write an example sentence and a mnemonic if possible. You could highlight the word in the book too and come back to it later.

Don’t bother checking words all the time. Just read the book because you’re interested in the story. Focus on getting through the story because you want to know what happens next. You will naturally start picking up new words as you encounter them. But try to be mindful when you read – every now and then you can just slow down a bit and focus on some language. Perhaps read a quick passage again and think about the grammar you can see. Why is it written that way? What kind of grammar is it? What’s the effect of writing it like that? What about these words? Do you know them? Could you use them yourself for something in your own life? Ask yourself these questions and then continue. Feel good when you’ve finished the book. Take time to reflect on it. Think in your head, speak aloud, talk to your language partner or write in a diary your thoughts about the book. Move onto the next one!

Next episode: This pile of books I have on my desk

Your comments: What books in English can you recommend?

  • Mike Linn

    Thank you very much for mentioning Adrian Underhill. He’s a great teacher of pronunciation. Now I started watching his excellent videos on YouTube like this one.

  • Jorge

    Hello Lepsters!
    2 books for you.
    The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion and
    About a Boy by Nick Hornby
    Maybe they are not the best books I´ve ever read but I think they are really good if you are looking for something fun and modern.
    I would say, at least, B2 is needed, but maybe B1 students could try. I didn´t find them difficult to understand.

    Have a lovely trip Luke!

    uploads.disquscdn.com/images/dc15f4e83a9455d3cccafcbe761ab9b968c072947ead5a999f2d07fff597c210.png uploads.disquscdn.com/images/bad97aab75a3ac83677acfa929a5f3956a5312442000e7051c23870f2c9438c7.png

  • Jesus

    Hello everyone,

    I have read a few dozens of books in English (i never thought that would be possible) and enjoyed most of them so far.

    If I had to recommend a book to all of the Lepsters, it would be “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”, from Stephen Chbosky. Anyway, I feel the basically, any young adult’s book will do it, because they usually are easy to read (but no to childish) and tend to use a vast range of new vocabulary.

    For readers, I’d also recommend to sign up in goodread.com to find new books,

    On the other hand, reading on a kindle and using flashcards is my way to go. Having a dictionary inside your book is awesome and timesaving. When I find a word I don’t know I just underline it (with the kindle). After a few chapters, I just go through the underlined words and if I consider I will be using them, they go into flashcards. At least for my, this is the best way of learning new vocabulary.

    Happy reading!

    PS: I’m not a ninja anymore!

  • Ethanwlee

    hi guys. let me share one of my favorite/recommendations – a little history of the world by E. H. Gombrich.

    i’d say it’s for upper-intermediate level and if u like history, u have to read this one!
    this book was originally written in German in 1935 and was being translated into english by the author but he couldn’t finish the job cuz he passed away. later his assistant and granddaughter finished the job and got it published.

    it IS a page turner if u ask even though it’s not like thriller or sth. at least it was for me :)
    here’s the link for more details: g.co/kgs/1eVMu2

    happy reading!

  • Rahul Shagrithaya

    I love reading novels. I’ve read two novels by Jeffrey Archer, and my friends gifted me three more novels by Jeffrey Archer on my last birthday. I also read The William Series by Richmal Crompton just to lighten up the serious plots by Jeffrey Archer. I’ve read the Merchant Of Venice by Shakespeare too when I was in school. I still wonder why they taught us old Shakespearean English. Have you ever read any book by Shakespeare Luke?

  • Jack
    • Cat

      Nice one! :)
      I wonder what this certificate is about… Have they been nominated (or: laminated?) for something? :)

      And is this David Crystal on the left? He looks like the young Albus Dumbledore… And Andy looks like the young Tom Riddle a little bit… :))

    • Anto

      Where have I seen the guy in the middle??? :)

      • Jack

        in a wwe ring ;)

      • Anto

        Yes, indeed! ;)

  • MayumiM

    I have the same idea as Luke about reading books! And let me share some of my faourite books! Sorry, the comment should be very long…
    I used to hate reading and, believe or not, take me for a year to finish one Harry Potter book in MY FIRST LANGUAGE! but recently the more I read, the more I realized that I enjoyed reading. Anyway, here is my recommendation especially for people who…
    ・mostly like romcom and love story
    ・buy the book by its cover (like I do!)

    1. Dream a Little Dream by Giovanna Fletcher
    This is the current hit for me. I got hooked very much and literally couldn’t stop!
    Charming, funny, surprising and giving you some encouragement to be brave. I couldn’t stop giggling while I was reading.
    This is especially for those who love British English like I do because the writer is British.

    2. Mediator series from Meg Cabot
    I’ve read this series since high school so this should be good for teenagers as well. I only have the latest copy now which was published last year I guess.
    This series is an absolute page-turner! It’s a kind of detective and ghost story mixed with cheeky love story. I haven’t felt scared by any of them. (Even though I love watching movies, I never watch any horror films. NEVER. )

    3. Billy and Me from Giovanna Fletcher
    This is just lovely! I guess this is her first smash hit. Again, you can learn British culture from this book. I’ve read most of Giovanna Fletcher’s books so far and I’m currently reading the 2nd one called “Always with Love” from Billy and Me series.

    4. I Am Malala
    Surprising? After recommendation of all fiction novels? I do read non-fiction novels as well! Anyway, this is, of course, a pretty well-known book all over the world. Since I picked this book, it took only one week to finish. There are some Arabic or Islamic terms so I sometimes got confused but most of the time, they shouldn’t be a problem. I wanted to see and know what has been happening in Pakistan through the eyes of Pakistani people and this book totally suited for my purpose.
    I don’t have the picture of it because I gave it to my brother already.

    I hope someone like these books as well. I’ve read an article from somewhere and it said reading favourite books for 6 minutes can be very strong stress reliever. I think it’s utterly true!
    If you seem to like these books I recommended, please let me know your favoutite ones as well! Cheers. uploads.disquscdn.com/images/314438a907946adc6aa8bc8632da24c06784c7e4d1e243caf66a27146b988691.jpg

    • Cat

      What a nice book review! :)
      And the cover pictures – just lovely, so bright and colourful. Very promising and encouraging titles as well. They must be really enjoyable! Have you numbered them, like your top three books? What about the “You’re The One that I want” one — there is a Penguin instead of a number. Is this from this famous Penguin readers series Luke mentioned? It looks like a girl stands inbetween two boys and has difficulty of choosing one… Sounds exciting! :))
      Enjoy your Giovanna Fletcher series. :)

      • MayumiM

        Thank you, Cat!
        They are my current favourite ones but not the top 3 in my life… but it’s recent enough to get hold of them easily for someone is looking for something to read. ① and ② should be straight in there, though!
        You’re the One That I Want is my next book to read and my last book from her. It’s not the graded one. It’s sooo sad to think about the fact:'( I’m telling you…
        Yes! Your guess is correct and even though I’m deeply sad to finish her books, I’m sure I’ll enjoy and love it!
        Actually, I’ve read the graded Penguin series in my uni, which wasn’t really attractive for me. It was reasonably short but I’m always a bit late to get hooked by the story and they were not long enough. Also, it was mostly related to homework so that’s why I didn’t enjoy;)

    • Naomi

      Hi Mayumi!
      Your favourite books are all interesting to me!
      You make me want to read!
      I love hearing people talk about books they love.
      Thank you!

      • MayumiM

        Hi, Naomi. It’s my absolute preasure! I’m so glad you seem you like my favourite ones. If you get them, please let me know what you think about them as well. Cheers:)

  • Amazing episode! Thanks a lot.

    • Cat

      Zdenek, what about your list of top books? :)

      I just adore Zdeněk Miler and the little Krtek the Mole! :)
      It’s a timeless classic! It’s unbelievable how children in all countries love Krtek!

  • Jack

    @Andy Johnson

    Teacher Andy, King is away currently in Japan enjoying his holiday, You have got once in a lifetime oppurtunity – takeover LEP

    • Eri Taguchi

      Yes, it’s the time!!!

      • Nick

        The three of us can help him with that :))

  • Cat

    Oh, I love the Catcher in the Rye!!!
    It reminds me of Hermann Hesse in German — I used to love and read everything by Hermann Hesse. But it was at that time, in my blooming and dreaming period of youth. :))