Top Ten Literary Works for ESL Readers

May 17, 2017 by Lauren McKenzie

Develop Reading Skills and a Love of Reading

You may hear tips for the IELTS reading exam like: don't read the whole passage or learn to speed read, but the best way to improve your reading skills is to improve literacy, specifically in English.  Reading classic stories from the English-speaking world will open your ears to many everyday expressions and references to film and literature that you may not quite understand. 

Have you ever heard someone yell into the sky at the top of their lungs, "Stella! STEEEEEEEELAAAAA!!" If so, they are quoting a famous scene from the novel, A Streetcar Named Desire, by American Tennessee Williams which was made into a film in 1951 starring the most celebrated actors of their time, Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. 

Many students in North America read this play as part of their high school or university English classes and share a common set of references, expressions and understanding of the text.


What Are Your Kids Reading?

Whatever age, your children are reading for school, and hopefully for general enjoyment, so how can you be involved? Read Dr. Seuss with younger kids at night, and pick up a used copy of the plays or books that older kids are reading in school or for leisure. 

Talk about your reading - and try being critical in your conversations, as you must read critically on the IELTS exam.  You can do this by looking at the class material or searching on the internet for lessons plans or discussion questions. Questions like, what is the theme of the text or where is the conflict?

Although the content on the IELTS reading exam is not based on classic literature, it will assist you to think more abstractly and critically. 

What Do You Like to Read?

Reading any topic will improve vocabulary, understanding of grammar and knowledge, but you can start by reading in your interest area - on a familiar topic so you can practice one thing at a time.  If you’ve read Nelson Mandela's biography in your first language, try reading it in English.  Work up to reading Shakespeare, and pick up a used copy with good annotations - notes from the editor.

Positive Benefits of Reading: Effects on Speaking

If you wanted to improve your vocabulary in your first language, how would you go about that? Would you watch movies? Would you listen to the radio? Perhaps those would help, but the most obvious answer would be to read more and a love of reading can be developed later in life. 

The most important thing is first to find a book that is at the right level for you today, not where you hope to be in a year.  Second, choose a book on a topic that you are familiar with and interested in.

Here is a limited list of modern classics that you might enjoy and that are commonly found on reading lists and curriculum throughout the English-speaking world including the great American novel, science fiction, horror and fantasy:

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

1984 or Animal Farm by George Orwell

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemmingway

Interview with a Vampire by Ann Rice

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Experts

The library is the best place to go to surround yourself with the right kind of energy and stimulation. Talk to a librarian and tell them exactly what you’re looking for or ask them if they can make suggestions. Librarians are often passionate readers who genuinely enjoy connecting the right person with the right book.  Most libraries have a dedicated ESL section and staff experienced with helping people of all ages and reading levels.

Lauren has been teaching English for close to fifteen years in universities and language schools in Halifax, NS. To meet the needs of her students, she began her own study of the IELTS exam nearly five years ago and has since taught preparation workshops. Lauren lives in Halifax, NS where she enjoys hiking and live music as well as travelling, studying languages and reading nonfiction.

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