I have something for any age or atage of learner on the list below.
This carefully curated list is based on my personal experience and success with using fiction stories to teach English to non-native English students aged 6 months to 70 years old, in seven countries on on four continents, over the past 15+ years.
I have organized this into age categories, and then by level of learner:
Young Kids age 4 to 7
Tweens age 8 to 12
Teens age 13-18
Adults age 18 years old and older, including University Level Reads .
HOW WERE THE ESL FICTION STORIES CHOSEN?
Here is my criteria checklist for selecting a book to use to teach English:
- The story is age appropriate (e.g. suitable for adults, teens, tweens or kids learning English as a second language) with appealing and relevant illustrations for the age of learner
- The story has to be well written, with literary merit, including dialogue but not much culturally specific slang, idioms or antiquated language.
- The story needs to be universally likeable, not rooted too deeply in just one culture, and suitable to the age range for which I listed it
- The story is versatile, with a context and illustrations that are easily adaptable to a wide range of language learning activities.
ESL FICTION LIST
A1 Level (Lexile Range: 0 to 180L)
A1 BEGINNER KIDS (age 4 to 7)(Lexile Range: 0 to 180L)
10 Minutes to Bedtime by Peggy Rathman (Published by Picture Puffin) (no Lexile rating because there are no words)–a wordless story with detailed illustrations that can be used to teach a wide range of household items and daily routine vocabulary. It’s easy to construct a story-in fact, many stories- as you trace the actions of a particular mouse (they are numbered) from page to page. I found this book lent itself naturally to creating simple sentences and there are almost endless options for creating sentences to demonstrate how to use the verb tenses used by beginners ( present simple, past simple, present continuous/ progressive and even present perfect) as students follow the activities of many mice who visit a boy who is getting ready for bedtime. This book is worth buying, in my opinion, because it is so versatile and the illustrations are so detailed, with so many storylines happening simultaneously, that it’s can be read many times over without getting boring.
Space Monsters by Cristina Ivaldi (A1 Graded Reader, Early Reads series, A1 level published by Blackcat-Cideb) (Lexile 100) ISBN: 9788431650650 ( book + CD) (34 pages)– a heartwarming, simply told story of a friendly, lost alien child and how a human helps her reunite with her parents. The Graded Reader format includes reading comprehension, writing, and vocabulary building activities and some activity cutout out pages at the end of each chapter. I like all the books in this ‘Early Reads’ series.
The Complete Brambly Hedge Treasury A1 ( no Lexile because I suggest only using the illustrations which have no words) (Hard cover) by Jill Barklem, published by County Books; First Edition ISBN 978-0261672079- While the text is antiquated and complex, you can simply use the detailed illustrations to construct simple stories of the mice and their daily routines and the village life in the forest, and how their life changes with the passing of the seasons. Useful for teaching household and daily life vocabulary and verbs in the present simple and present continuous, as well as the past simple and present perfect when comparing changes through the seasons. I find the text too antiquated and complicated for beginning learners, but the illustrations can be easily used independently from the text.
A1 BEGINNER TWEENS (Age 8-12) (Lexile Range: 0 to 180L)
“Found” by Jeff Newman & Larry Day, published by Simon & Schuster for Young Readers, Illustrated. (48 pages) ISBN 978-1534410060 – a wordless book – the story of a girl who finds and adopts a dog , but then sees a missing poster showing he belongs to someone else. The girl protagonist looks to be about 10 years old.I like this for young tweens because the illustrations and actions are not babyish, and the story povides an excellent segway for discussions about pets, acting responsibly, and making difficult choices.
See inside Ancient Egypt by Rob Lloyd Jones, published by Usborne Publishing Ltd. (16 pages) ISBN 978-14749– a durable board book with flaps that lift up to show the exterior and interior of buildings and scenes, with very detailed scenes of everyday ancient Egyptian life. Useful for teaching many verbs in the the past simple, and present continuous, and adjectives for a wide variety of building descriptions. It’s easy to use this for creative writing activities to imagine life in ancient times.
See inside Ancient Rome by Katie Daynes , illustrated by David Hancock, published by Usborne Publishing Ltd (a durable board book flapbook with detailed illustrations) (16 pages) ISBN 978-0746070031 – perfect for enthusiasts of ancient Rome, the readers see a day in the life of a wealthy merchant, and all the places he visits during the day.
Journey– a Wordless story (Book 1 of a trilogy) Illustrated by Aaron Becker (40 pages) Caldecott award winner 2014. ISBN 978-0763660536 This fantastical world captivates the imagination with illustrations of a character in a small boat floating in waterways into and up through a magnificent castle. This book works well to teach adjectives, directions, and adverbs of place and location.
A1 BEGINNER TEENS (Age 13-18) (Lexile Range: 0 to 180L)
Romeo and Juliet Graded Reader – although the Starter and A1 level graded reader versions of the Shakespearean classic Romeo and Juliet simplify the plot, which misses out on the drama and intensity of the original play, this tragic love story interests most teens. The Graphic novel style illustrations help create context for the words and story, and provide an engaging visual context for learning English that is more memorable then using endless grammar worksheets or themed course books that focus on nonfiction subjects. I like the
Macbeth Graded Reader – many different publishers have adapted Macbeth into attractive graded readers, often in graphic novel formats, for different levels of learners. I like the Graded Reader Macbeth (Pearson Publishers) and Penguin Reader Starter versions for teens. They are not written in Shakespearean English, but in contemporary English, simplified.
A1 BEGINNER ADULTS (Age 18+) (Lexile Range: 0 to 180L)
OPD Oxford Picture Dictionary, by Jayme Adelson-Goldstein,3rd Canadian Edition – attractive and detailed images depicting adults from a wide range of cultural backgrounds in everyday situations makes this very suitable for adults learning English. It is easy to construct your own short sentence stories to describe the actions and items depicted in the full page illustrations, and there are short stories to go with the full page illustrations, which is why I am including this book as an option in this fiction list. The modern, stylish cover does not look babyish, unlike most picture dictionaries. n fact, the layout is set up perfectly for someone learning English to go through with a tutor, and there are exercises and spaces for the student to write answers, making this book as much of a picture dictionary as a workbook, offering a ‘full course in a book’ experience.
Vivian Maier, The Colour Work – a collection of amazing photographs each one which encapsulates a moment in a person’s life, an emotion or a situation in a way that lends itself very easily to telling a visual story. They offer a vivid glimpse into the past. Useful for teaching city vocabulary and daily life routines and lifestyle language, as well as the present simple (there is, there are, words to describe feelings) and the present continuous (describing people in the middle of something),
Anno’s Journey by Mitsumaso Anno – a wordless story in a historic countryside and town setting, with detailed illustrations. A good way to teach basic vocabulary and construct simple sentences to describe what the main character sees as he journeys from a farm into the town.
Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad by Henry Cole- a wordless story, historic fiction, illustrated in pencil sketched drawings of a girl who decides to give food to some runaway slaves. Although the protagonist is a young girl, the theme is not babyish.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (A1) (480 L) Penguin Reader, LadyBird series (64 pages) 9780241375303 – a murder mystery with simple sentences and beginning level grammar.
A2 HIGH BEGINNER (Lexile Range: 180-600)
A2 HIGH BEGINNER KIDS (Lexile Range: 180-600)
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. By Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury (280L) – A good story that the kids like to read aloud many times, and a sing-song narrative that is easy for kids to memorize and do actions to and read along with you. It’s particularly good for teaching a range of feelings, and prepositions of place and location (in, over, on, through).
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carlyle (460L)(26 pages) – good for very young learners (4 years old) for teaching colours, numbers, common food, and nature vocabulary and simple sentences about the life cycle of a caterpillar.
The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister (410L) – this book is a favourite of kids everywhere I have lived. there are some especially beautifully illustrated versions with glittering silver on some of the pages that the kids adore. This is one they keep wanting to read again and again, and it has a decent level of English in the sentences. It is helpful to help kids learn the correct pronunciation of words to have a book like this that they know by heart.
The Little Island (500-599L) (48 pages) (interest K to Grade 3). This charming story is longer than most kids books, and the detailed illustrations can be used to teach a lot of vocabulary related to the four seasons and the outdoors (animals, plants).
The Magic Tree House – a series of 52 books that start at 240L and go up to 590L. The books are long, but easy reads, with an average of 80 pages each. These stories are rather formulaic, but they introduce young readers to a wide range of places at different times in history as readers follow the adventures of a brother and sister duo who time travel in their magic treehouse.
A2 HIGH BEGINNER TWEENS (Lexile Range: 180-600)
Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein (HarperCollins Publishers). Lexile NP (192 Pages) ISBN: 9780061965258 -the simple vocabulary used in the poems and unpredictable outcomes, combined with the line illustrations, work well to teach rhyming schemes, and listening skills for different letter and vowel sounds and homophones and homonyms.
Sherlock Holmes and the Red Circle (Green Apple Series Published by BlackCat Cideb ) (A2) ISBN: 9788853009500 (Book and Audio CD). This book features adults characters, so it is suitable for teens and adults too.
Anne of Green Gables Penguin Reader Level 2 – A (64 pages) 540L Canadian Classic. The story begins when 11 year old orphan Anne Shirley arrives in Avonlea, to the dismay of Marilla and Cuthbertwho were expected a boy to arrive from the orphanage, not a girl. There are many different graded reader versions of Anneof Green Gables by various publishers, but I like the layout, vocabulary and images, and exercises at the end of each chapter better than other publisher’s versions. The illustrations are hand drawn cartoon style, and would appeal to grade 5 or 6.
A2 HIGH BEGINNER TEENS (Lexile Range: 180-600)
Vivan Maier Street Photographer, Edited by John Maloof (Powerhouse Books) There are many stunning, full page black and white photos from the 40s, 50’s and 60’s in this book, showing all ages of people and everyday life in a US city. It’s easy to construct basic sentences to describe the scenes to teach a wide range of everyday vocabulary and the present simple (there is/ there are) and present progressive verb tense, as well as use the photos as a springboard for conversations and creative writing.
Macbeth – Penguin Readers ( Ladybrid Books) ISBN 978 024149 3069 (listed as an A1, but I think it is an A2 level book, at 440L (550 Headwords) 1000 words on 64 pages. It has a very attractive layout and excellent teacher support materials (audio files, worksheets).
Romeo and Juliette – Penguin Reader -Starter. The classic tragic love story by Shakespeare, retold in simplified English.
A2 HIGH BEGINNER ADULTS (Lexile Range: 180-600)
Sherlock Holmes Stories (96 pages) (Book and Audio) ISBN 9788431609511- there are many graded readers and ELT readers of the ‘Hounds of the Baskervilles’ and ‘ A Study in Scarlet’. I like the Blackcat Cideb version of The Sherlock Holmes stories the best for their dramatic illustrations that appeal to teens and adults which provide interesting language learning activity opportunities. I also like their non-fiction articles interspersed throughout the book, which add historical context and a lively range of topics for writing and speaking activities.
Botchan ELT Reader at the A2 level by Eli publishing (113 pages)- -protagonist is a young male Japanese man at the start of his adult working life as a teacher in Japan in 1906. Male adult students with low levels of English enjoy reading a fiction story told from the first person male protagonist point of view. It’s an ethical drama more than a romance.
Far from the Madding Crowd (Penguin Reader A2) – a classic English romance novel, simplified. All the characters are adults and it is a long love story with many twists and turns, told in the 3rd person omniscient.
A2/B1 High Beginner to Low intermediate (600L to 850L)
A2/B1 KIDS (HIGH BEGINNER TO LOW INTERMEDIATE) (600L to 850L)
Whittington by Alan Armstrong 740 Lexile – This Caldecott award winning book is more complex than Charlotte’s Web, with three stories intertwined into a satisfying rendition of the tale of Dick Wittington and his Cat, told by a cat who believes he one of the descendents of Dick Whittington’s cat. Talking barn animals, and orphaned brother and sister, Ben and Abby, who visit and talk to the barn animals every day, and a cat’s retelling of the historical tale of Dick Whittington and his cat make for a heartwarming and satisfying novel all around.
Time Cat: The Remarkable Journey of Gareth and Jason by Lloyd Alexander (660 L) (Published by Square)(240 pages) – an oldie but a goodie. Historic Fiction with vignettes from nine different countries around the world and a wide range of time periods (e,g, Egypt, Medieval Europe, Ireland) described by young tween aged Jason, as he time travels and has adventures with his cat, Gareth
A2/B1 TWEENS (600L to 850L) .
The Wreck of the Zanzibar – (680L)( this historical fiction story, set in 1907, starts with an adult character going home to the Scilly Islands (off the British Coast) for the funeral of his aunt, as a way to introduce the story in the journal she bequeathed him, of a time in her life when she was young and family went through a tough time. Gorgeous sketch illustrations and simple but excellent writing make this a short by satisfying read.
Legends of the British Isles (A2 Graded Reader,Green Apple Series) published by BlackCat Cideb ISBN: 9788853006189 – this book has a collection of different folk tales from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, as well as non-fiction articles about the history of the UK interspersed between the stories. Highly educational. The folktales contain a good variety or themes so there is something to appeal to both girls and boys in this book and enough to compare and contrast between and among the folktales.
The Wild Robot (740L) by Peter Brown published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers ISBN:9780316382021 – this 195 page long book is an easy read with 80 very short chapters (between one and 5 pages long each), with a number of simple but appealing illustrations, with at least one per chapter. The short chapters are perfect for ESL students and the story contains many short sentences, usually with verbs in the past tense. There are many long passages with dialogue between the robot and a wide range of wild animals, and a surprisingly large range of vocabulary plot twists appear on its pages.
Whittington By Alan Armstrong (760 L) (Penguin Random House) (208 pages) ISBN 9780375828652 – This story has three stories in one, with the story of Whittington, a cat who comes to live in a barn with many other talking animals, interlaced with a detailed re-telling of the legend of Dick Whittington and also the story of two kids who come to the barn to hang out with the animals and how they overcome all their struggles. The tie in with the legend of Dick Whittington adds the opportunity to learn about the England’s history (c. 1354 – March 1423), geography and the trade routes at the time, which is rich material for additional research, writing and discussion language learning opportunities.
The Wanderer by Sharon Creech (830L) HarperCollins (304 pages) ISBN: 9780061972522- 13 year old Sophie is the youngest of the crew of her uncles and cousins on a sailing boat that they are going to take cross the ocean from the east coast of the US to England, to visit an ageing grandparent. Told from the perspective of Sophie and her cousin Cody, it’s a rolicking tale on a turbulent ocean and explosive relationships
A2/B1 TEENS (600L to 850L)
Romeo and Juliette Oxford Bookworms Series (A2/B1, 6636+ words) ISBN 9780194620833 the modern cover and slightly more sophisticated English of the clasic Shakespeare play retold by Alastair McCallum appeals more to teens than other graded reader versions of this tragic tale.
Ender’s Game (780L) Published by Doherty Associates 9781429963930 This unique story appeals to kids who like to play video games, and the dark edge to the storyline of a war with aliens is captivating. The lean writing challenges the reader to imagine the action and piece together the importance of what was said on their own, in this story told in the 3rd person limited (close) omniscient. There is a lot to talk about in this story, in order to fully uncover and make sense of what is described on the pages. It is not an easy read, but a very interesting one, and an excellent context for teaching all kinds of adverbs (of place, location, and time).
A Boy Called Twister 700L – a boy goes to a new high school to escape his past ( deals with themes of High school, neighborhoods, family, loyalty, friendship, urban teen fiction, gangs, drive-by shooting, mystery, suspense, alcohol abuse).
A Wrinkle in Time series ( 5 books) by Madeleine d’Engle ( 740 L) by Scholastic. This fantasy adventure by Meg Murray and her gifted little brother, Charles Wallace, is transporting in its adventures with tesseracts and other dimensions.
A2/B1 ADULTS (600L to 850L)
The Black Cat and Other Stories by Edgar Allen Poe – Penguin reader (38 pages) ISBN 978-0582417748. This classic horror story features The Black Cat story, in which the narrator who becomes an abusive alcoholic and descends into madness, is subject matter more suitable to adults than teens. It’s engaging despite the short and easy to read sentences.
The Hound of the Baskerville and other Sherlock Holmes Stories ( Graded Readers) I like the series in the Reading and Training Graded Reader series by Black Cat Cideb book.
B1- LOW INTERMEDIATE KIDS (850L to 1000L)
The Red Wall Series ( Books 1-6: Redwall , Mossflower, Mattimeo, Mariel of Redwall, Salamandastron, Martin the Warrior) by Brian Jacques ( sometimes listed as 770L to 1010L and sometimes as 800L) (391 pages). This is a good series for young advanced readers since the characters are talking animals living in a satisfyingly complex society in a fantasy world that has geographic elements that resemble the English countryside and culture (e.g. some of the characters live in an Abbey and others live in a fortress).
The Secret Garden ( 970 L) by Frances Hodgson Burnett ( 320 Pages) Scholastic ISBN 9780439099394. A Classic tale of a surly girl who makes friends with a local boy and the disabled son of her uncle, as they discover and recover a secret garden on the grounds of her uncle’s estate, and in doing so, discover how to bloom personally and become better human beings.
B1 LOW INTERMEDIATE TWEENS (850L to 1000L)
Wonder by R.J Palaccio (790L) – A very touching and heartwarming story about a boy with severe facial deformity and some physical disabilities dealing with friendships and life in middle school
Bridge to Terrebithia by Katerhine Patterson (810L) (144 pages) realistic fiction, Newberry Award Winner – this classic story appeals to older tweens. The unexpected death of one of the main characters is shocking, but provides a cathartic learning experience for young readers. The descriptions of playing in the woods and using their imaginations to create an alternate world was mindblowing to some of my Asian ESL students who had never been allowed such free play time and freedom to wander.
The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe (830L) I loved this book, and all the books in this well written series, as a young girl and was delighted to see that tweens around the world that I have taught have also loved it. The fact that there are both male and female main characters of a range of ages (two brothers and two sisters) widens its appeal.
Momo by Michael Ende (880 L) (236 pages) – this enchanting story is about an orphan girl who moved into a poor Italian neighbourhood and how she changes the lives of the residents there with her extraordinary listening skills, and the adventures she has to defeat the Grey Men who steal time.
B1 LOW INTERMEDIATE TEENS (850L to 1000L)
The Circuit:Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child by Francisco Jimenez (880L) (144 pages)- a touching, well written story of growing up in a family of Mexican migrant workers, an autobiographical story by the author about the time he was a boy. While often categorized as autobiographical, and so, non-fiction, I would argue that all descriptively written autobiographies written for popular consumption are fictionalized to some degree to make them more interesting to read, and add drama and tension. I consider them the same as historic fiction.
Forest Gump by Winston Groom (Pearson English Readers, Level 3) This simplified re-telling of the movie Forest Gump moves quickly through the life and adventures of Forest Gump from teen to adults. The twists and turns in his life are very entertaining for teens and adults alike. This is a useful book for teaching simple conversations and everyday English in context.
Watership Down by Richard Adams(880L) Simon& Schuster (496 pages) ISBN 9780743277709. Even though it is a novel about rabbits, this captivating story addresses dark topics like suicide, prejudice, and genocide and has many violent fighting scenes and is an allegorical tale about a quest to create a better society.
The Circuit Book 1 (880L) (144 pages) Scholastic ISBN 9780439188968- This is the story of growing up in a poor Mexican family who immigrated to the US. It’s a touching autobiographical tale told simply and honestly by Fancisco Jimenez, depicting the discrimination, poverty, and difficulties obtaining an education. This is book one in the trilogy, highlighting life as a migrant worker as a young boy ( good for tweens).The next book in the series is about his high school years (Breaking Through: Book 2 of The Circuit) (good for teens) and book three is about his years in college and how he went on to get higher level degrees (good for adults)
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K.Rowling, (published by Scholastic in North America, and Bloomsbury in the UK) (880L) (Fantasy) (223 pages). The protagonist, Harry is 11 when the story starts, once you start reading this series, kids tend to want to continue and read all the books in the series, but be warned that each book gets darker and more disturbing. This series has proven very popular with reluctant readers, especially boys, because they become quickly enthralled with the story and fast pace of exciting events. the rich imagination of J.K. Rowling surprises and delights young readers in every chapter. It is easy to add creative thinking and writing activities based on the events and elements in the story to provide students with additional opportunities to practice their English.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
B1 LOW INTERMEDIATE ADULTS
The Gift of the Magi ( Short Story) by O.Henry (870L) (18 pages) CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (December 17, 2017) ISBN 978-1617201509 – “The Gift of the Magi” is a short story, about a young married couple with very little money, and how they deal with the challenge of buying secret Christmas gifts for each other.
The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho (910 L) – called a modern classic, this is a magical fable about learning to listen to your heart, read the omens strewn along life’s path and, above all, follow your dreams. It is about a boy named Santiago who embarks on a journey seeking treasure in the Egyptian pyramids after having a recurring dream about it, and on the way meets mentors, falls in love, and most importantly, learns the true importance of who he is and how to improve himself.
Reaching Out (book 3 of the Circuit) by Francisco Jimenez (910 L) ( ISBN 97805429530 (142 pages) It is classified as non-fiction but I consider all descriptively written autobiographies written for popular consumption to be works of fiction.
Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (930L) Penguin Publishing Group (288 pages)- A very popular read for book clubs around the world, the Joy Luck club has 12 short stories that inter-connect. Although it is about Chinese immigrant families, the themes of immigration and mother daughter relationships are universal.
B1 MID- INTERMEDIATE KIDS (1000L to 1250L)
St George and the Dragon (1070L) (32 pages) (Picture book with text, sophisticated illustrations) – The Caldecott Award Winning version has detailed and stunning illustrations and is not ‘babyish’, especially when reading the text, which includes quite sophisticated language.Retells a segment from Spenser’s The Faieri King by Margaret Hodges and Trina Schart Hyman · Text Complexity is offset by the gorgeous and detailed illustrations which provide ample information for a tutor and student to reconstruct the story using simplified English and offer a wealth of visual details.·
B1 MID-INTERMEDIATE TWEENS (1000L to 1250L)
D’Aulaires book of Greek Myths by Ingri D’Aulaire and Edgar Parrin D’Aulaire (1070L) Delacourte Press (208 pages) ISBN 978-0440406945 – This book has been very popular with both native English and non-native English tweens. It is a wonderful book to read aloud, since each short story leads smoothly into the next. The short stories lend themselves very well to teaching. The language is richly descriptive. As an added bonus, there are many interesting full page illustrations that tweens seem to find very appealing and they help explain the stories well.
B1 MID- INTERMEDIATE TEENS (1000L to 1250L)
The Hobbit (1000L) a charming story set in a fantasy world called middle earth, with endearing characters and grim danger, and graphic fighting scenes. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (September 18, 2012). The Hobbit is clearly written for young teens, but be warned that the rest of the Lord of the Rings Series is written at a higher level, and is very dark and violent, lending itself to a much older reading audience than the Hobbit.
B1 MID- INTERMEDIATE ADULTS (1000L to 1250L)
B1 High INTERMEDIATE ADULTS (1250L to 1450L)
Classic Detective Stories – Graded Readers Published by BlackCat Cideb – a collection of four old, famous detective stories by different authors . Each story has a very different narrative style and adult characters (three stories with male protagonists and one story with a female protagonist).