10 Must-Read Books for ESL Students (Elementary & Middle School)

Reading is one of the core foundations for learning a language. Reading helps ESL learners develop a wide range of vocabulary, and see grammatically correct sentences in context. It’s also no secret that a high level of literacy usually translates to a higher level of academic success.

According to EC English, “Books and other authentic texts are rich in idiomatic language that so much of the English language is based on”.

Studies have shown that reading has immense benefits for youth, and these benefits may start as early as before children can even read. Reading is one way teens can spend less time looking at screens. Reading also translates into a multitude of benefits, including brain health and empathy

As such, as ESL teachers, we want to introduce the development of reading skills and habits to ESL learners at a young age. Thus, we should make reading as much fun as possible – which finally comes down to the selection of books we recommend or incorporate in our lessons.

On this list, you’ll find 10 must-read book for elementary and middle-school ESL students.

Must-Read Books for ESL Students

How to Choose a Book for Young Learners to Read

When selecting books for young learners, have specific learning goals for improving their overall fluency, and opt for books that use contemporary English. Books that use modern English will help your ESL students far more than books that use antiquated forms of English, even if these books are classics.

One of the challenges choosing books for ESL learners is that proficiency level does not correlate with age. Indeed, many young learners have a stronger command of English than many adults do, so when choosing books for reading, consider the content and context of the book in addition to the level.

Storybooks are great choices because they are stories children can get into, and they contain large amounts of dialog that children can absorb and emulate in their English language learning development.

If your ESL students are young, you want to select texts with themes that resonate with younger audiences, and that challenge them at their level of reading comprehension.

5 Must-Read Books for Young ESL Learners

Oxford Picture Dictionary: Content Areas for Kids

Oxford’s Picture Dictionary teaches vocabulary to young ESL learners across several subjects including math, science and social studies, using illustrations and visuals. The picture dictionary includes vocabulary cards, as well as reading and writing practice. There is also an audio CD for listening and repeating dictionary words using correct pronunciation.

This is an excellent book for ESL teachers to use with young learners in the classroom, or for parents to use at home with their children.

The Cat in the Hat

The story of a tall cat with a red and white striped hat who enters the lives of two young children and causes a great deal of mischief while their mother is away.

This perennial classic from the famed children’s author Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) is great for teaching early ESL students rhyming through simplistic dialog. The Cat in the Hat is an excellent choice because it helps teach students different word families as well as phonics, which is important in the early years of learning a new language.

Because many of the books are often set in fantastical make-believe worlds, books from Dr. Seuss achieve impressive results of transcending cultural barriers that may cause students to have trouble understanding many other English books.

Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak is a classic that has been helping school children learn to read for over 50 years. The book follows the story of a boy named Max who sails to a wild jungle setting inhabited by monstrous creatures known as the wild things.

The book is flush with deeply detailed illustrations and is only 338 words in length, ensuring that young ESL students will not be overwhelmed with words they may have trouble understanding.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle is an elementary picture book which differs from the previous two on our list in that the text doesn’t follow a rhyming scheme.

Instead, this story is about a caterpillar that hatches and begins to consume everything it comes across. After feasting on too much and becoming sick, the caterpillar goes into its cocoon and then hatches into a magnificent looking butterfly.

The book is great for teaching students a wide variety of vocabulary from numbers to food types. For teachers who are responsible for developing their own lesson plans, the book has many lessons and activities that have been developed around it in the nearly 50 years since it was released.

Let’s Go, Let’s Begin: Level 1: Student’s Book

Let’s Go, Let’s Begin: Level 1: Student’s Book is part of the Let’s Go! series, and is designed to give children opportunities to learn English in fun, interactive ways such as through song and dance, colorful activities, work sheets, listening tests, communication games and pair work.

The focus of this book is primarily on phonics, grammar, and learning the alphabet. There is also a student website to extend learning opportunities for young learners.

How to Choose a Book for Middle School ESL Learners

Choose Fiction over Non-fiction

One of the most important decisions to make is deciding what types of books middle school ESL learners should be reading. We recommend fiction books over non-fiction books. Although reading in general enhances connectivity of the brain and heightens empathy, teens who read fiction have potentially more pronounced benefits. New brain research by University of Southern California scientists shows that reading stories is a universal experience that may result in people feeling greater empathy for each other, regardless of cultural origins and differences.

Exposure to narrative storytelling can have a widespread effect on triggering better self-awareness and empathy for others, regardless of the language or origin of the person being exposed to it.

University of Southern California

Choose Books that Match the Language Level and Interests

It is important to choose books that middle school ESL learners will be able to read without having to look up too many words per page. Overly complex reading for ESL learners will likely negate much of the appeal of the book itself, if they must frequently look up words and their meanings. So, we want to select books that appeal to the interest of this ESL age group, and at the same time, are written using simplistic language.

Choose Books that Have a Movie Version

Books with an accompanying movie version can be motivating for middle school ESL students to read. Firstly, they may already be interested in or enjoyed watching the movie, so reading the book will likely pique their interest further.

As well, reading books that have a movie version enable readers to compare the similarities and differences between the book and the movie. This can add an interesting element to the reading experience, as middle school ESL learners anticipate the plot sequence and twists, depending on whether they read the book before or after watching the movie.

Buy Both Book and Audiobook Versions

There are several ways audiobooks can aid students who struggle with reading, and for middle school ESL learners, audiobooks can add to these benefits by giving students opportunities to connect the written word and spoken word. It helps them connect between what they read and how it is spoken, improving both reading and listening skills.

6 Must-Read Books for Middle School ESL Students

Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies by William Golding is a classic novel and has been taught in schools across the globe for decades. The story is about a group of young boys who become stranded on an island after a plane crash. An attempt to govern themselves is made as the boys find themselves slowly being overcome with primal tendencies.

One of the greatest challenges for ESL learners of all ages is being able to explain or describe details when speaking or responding to questions. This book exposes middle school ESL learners to descriptive language and can help them learn how to use descriptive language in their communication.

Get the Lord of the flies audiobook here.

Holes (Holes Series)

Holes by Louis Sachar is about a boy who has been sent to a juvenile correction camp. At the camp, the wards require the inmates to dig holes all day every day for character building purposes. The boys, however, soon realize that there are ulterior reasons the warden of the camp wants them to dig the holes.

This book exposes middle school ESL learners to natural flowing conversations amongst fictional characters who are also teens and pre-teens.

Get the Holes audiobook here.


Wonders by R.J. Palacio is about a boy who was born with a facial difference. He wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid—but his new classmates can’t get past his extraordinary face.

The book begins from the boy’s point of view, but soon switches to include his classmates, his sister, her boyfriend, and others. These perspectives converge in a portrait of one community’s struggle with empathy, compassion, and acceptance.

Wonder is an excellent book that touches upon the concepts of the culture of bullying, empathy, friendship, courage, and hope. All of these concepts are not only important to address with middle school learners, but also help ESL learners in this cohort identify with cultural concepts in the English-speaking world. Middle school ESL learners may indeed relate to the protagonist in this New York Times bestseller.

“Wonder is the best kids’ book of the year,” said Emily Bazelon, senior editor at Slate.com and author of “Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy”. In a world where bullying amongst young people is an epidemic, this is a refreshing new narrative full of heart and hope.

R.J. Palacio has called her debut novel “a meditation on kindness” —indeed, every reader will come away with a greater appreciation for the simple courage of friendship. Auggie is a hero to root for, a diamond in the rough who proves that you can’t blend in when you were born to stand out.

Get the Wonder audiobook here.

The Language of Flowers: A Novel

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh is about a girl who spent her childhood in foster care, and, as a result, is unable to get close to others. Her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings. She realizes her gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them.

However, the story takes a left turn when an unexpected encounter with a mysterious stranger awakens her to what she might be missing in her life. At this point, she must decide if it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.

This book introduces themes such as abandonment, rejection, coping with and overcoming struggles. What makes this book even more interesting to read is that the protagonist is taken in by a woman who teaches her the language of flowers, and what each flower means. It is through these teachings that she can start positively communicating.

Crush (Graphic Novel)

The graphic novel Crush is the third book from Svetlana Chmakova’s award-winning Berrybrook Middle School series.

The main character Jorge is big and tough-looking like a bully – but in fact, he is soft and gentle and a friend you want to have. He has a crush on Jazmine, who is already dating someone else. After she breaks up with her boyfriend, can Jorge grasp the opportunity? Jorge has to face various challenges, from tensions with his best two friends to a hacked social media account

Svetlana Chmakova describes the everyday middle-school drama. She created a captivating story which almost any middle-school kid can relate with – at least, that’s what the fans of this book series say.

Crush (and the other graphic novel from this series) are a great choice to read for teen ESL students. The story is a lot of fun (if you like drama) and the Manga-inspired style is likeable. Most important, readers will learn the everyday language of teens, which will help them strengthen their conversation skills.


Beyond selecting the right books, it is important to foster a culture of reading among this age group. This can be accomplished through creative but simple ways, such as organizing book clubs, book exchanges, and group reading.

Are you looking for textbooks, grammar books and dictionaries? Check our list.

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