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?

  • Vladimir Yermolenko

    Hi Luke:) I really enjoyed this episode and agree that books in English are vital to develop our skills. I’ve read 2 books in English (“If tomorrow comes”, “The naked face”) and now am reading the third one. They are written by Sidney Sheldon. The first book was a bit difficult despite I understood about 90 percent of words. The thing was I got used to grammar learning, and I expected books to be written roughly the same way. And I often got stuck to understand those unfamiliar and strange constructions. But now I’m reading the 3rd book much quicker and more automatically and it’s feeling like I’m reading it in my own language. And my vocabulary rose over that time before.
    It seems to me if you understand about 95 percent (for example about 5 unfamiliar words on a page), it’s completely okay, and you will enjoy reading.You just should check out some new words (not all of them) in a dictionary.
    Thank you for the useful episode!

    • Timur

      )) I’ve read the same book ))

      • Cat

        Is it popular in Russia?

    • Cat

      Well done, Vladimir!
      Yes, reading a lot will make us great along the process. Page after page, that’s the recipe for a language mastery. ;)

      • Vladimir Yermolenko

        Thank you:) Yes, I agree with you. The third one turned out to be exciting too. it’s really awesome, when you start enjoying reading instead of only getting stuck.
        I suppose, this author is popular around the world. He seems to write easier to understand than many others

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  • dookolaglobu.pl

    Hi Luke, first of all GREAT JOB with your podcast! It’s so interesting to
    listen to you ;) Regarding the books to play and learn with, I recommend Harry
    Potter series. Firstly cuz those are great great books ;) Not only for
    children, I have read them in my thirties for a first time and they blew my
    mind. Seccondly they are very easy to understand (kind of listening to you).
    Language is easy to understand but still it is a piece of good literature and
    author’s style is very pleasant. The level of the language is evolving during
    the series. And with that your skills as
    well. “New words” are repeating multiple times in different contects
    so you can guess what they mean after some time. What was turbo fun, that I
    have been reading the book and listening the audiobook in the same time and I
    must say that was an experiance one of a kind ;) Stephen Fry is briliant
    narrator. Cheers!

  • Natalya

    Hi there! Thanks to Luke for mentioning the book Work on your Accent by Helen Ashton (Collins )! I’ve got it and it’s really awesome! I was looking for a teacher who coold help me with pronunciation (especially vowel sounds), but I’m working on my own with this book and have great results! There’s all you need – videos of the technik how to make a sound, explanations, exercises with audio… I’m so happy! :) Wish you the same!

  • Marta KL

    My first book I´ve read in English was “It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet” by James Herriot. It is my favorite book from my childhood and I knew the stories well what made it much easier :)
    Now we read some stories with my daughter – like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the BFG, we both love it :)
    I can recommend this one – I´ve found it easy to read in English – The fault in our stars by John Green (it´s a movie too). Mainly for ladies I guess :)

  • Anto

    I like very much books by Raymond Murphy, Essential Grammar in Use and English Grammar in Use. I finished with the red “Essential” and now I’ve been learning the blue “English”.
    Here is the interview with Raymond Murphy:

  • Eri Taguchi

    I just got “Practical Everyday English” to build my poor vocablary…
    And then, I still am thinking I would get Kindle or not….(read e-books on my iPhone)
    How do everyone thinks???
    Please let me know if you have some suggestions or opinions.
    Thank you!!

  • Ilyas Sadykov

    Hi there!
    Might be someone’s already asked, but I dare to ask once more.
    Which book do you recommend getting to know brits? Not only to understand their language, but understand their sense of humor, when they’re feeling sad, what irritates them, which sports teams they like, what they like to do on the weekends, their favorite movies or books or television programs…. etc.

    • Nina

      Hello Ilyas,
      I remember Luke once mentioned Watching The English by Kate Fox in one of his episodes. I though it was interesting and worth reading so I added it to my growing list but haven’t read it yet :D
      However, I hope it meets your description and you find it helpful. Here’s the link to it with other suggestions too.
      Good luck!