Faced with the hundreds of ELT-related books there are out there, an oft-repeated question, when teachers want to learn more about their profession and develop themselves as educators, is “What should I read first?”. Here is a list of books that I believe you can’t go wrong with. I have made the list deliberately wide-ranging in terms of what is covered (i.e. it’s not a list of ten vocabulary-related books!), again slightly stretching the concept of “top ten” with a little bit of grouping!
If you disagree and feel that there’s another book that definitely ought to be on this list instead of one of the ones listed, please comment and say so! 🙂 Hopefully in the end, this post will be a list of books that everyone believes are a good starting point for teachers who are also motivated learners… And do comment in relation to the title question too! 😉
NB, I am not on commission! Also, I do not condone downloading any of these for free from any online sources. Some of them are available as e-books but you still have to pay! I do recommend checking if your school has them available to borrow. If your school is a CELTA (or equivalent) or a Delta (or equivalent) centre, then it is very likely to do so, and even if it isn’t, it may have acquired a few books that it makes available for teachers to borrow. University libraries (if the university does any ELT/TESOL/Applied linguistics type degrees) are good place to try too, if you can get access.
In no particular order, then…
Learning Teaching by Jim Scrivener
Initial teacher training courses tend to have a core text that trainees are required to buy and from which various portions are set as compulsory reading. For me, that was Learning Teaching (though this was pre-inclusion of free DVD). The usual alternative is The Practice of English Language Teaching by Jeremy Harmer. Either of these two general methodology books are a great starting point for a novice teacher – or an experienced teacher looking to refresh their memory. I’ve read both from cover to cover. I also dipped into Learning Teaching extensively in my first post-qualification year of teaching. They give you a good overview of the many different elements that come together to make up language teaching. I’ve chosen Learning Teaching over The Practice of English Language Teaching to list here on a purely subjective basis: I found it more readable. I’m sure there are people who will read this post who would staunchly argue the reverse. My advice would be, take your pick – you can’t go wrong with either!
About Language by Scott Thornbury
How is your language awareness? By this I don’t just mean are you a grammar genius. What about discourse? lexis? Phonology? I didn’t use this book until I was preparing for my Delta but I firmly believe that all language teachers should make their way through it at some point. The great thing about it is that it doesn’t just describe things, it makes you do hundreds of tasks (for which the answer keys are at the back of the book) so you can test your understanding of what is being discussed. Why not do ten or fifteen minutes on a regular basis as part of your continued professional development?
Teaching and learning second language listening: metacognition in action by Larry Vandergrift and Christine Goh
This gem of a book was in close competition with John Field’s Listening in the language classroom but won its place on the list by combining its extensive treatment of teaching listening with discussion of metacognition and how to integrate development of metacognitive awareness into listening pedagogy. It has a strong theoretical thread running all the way through, but manages to be very readable as well as containing plenty of very practical ideas for implementing the theories discussed. I’ve read both Vandergrift&Goh and Field from cover to cover, as well as dipping into them repeatedly since, both are well worth investing in and reading.
How languages are learned by Patsy Lightbown and Nina Spada
How languages are learned is an accessible introduction to the theories behind first and second language acquisition. As teachers of language, it is helpful for us to have an understanding of theories surrounding learning and acquisition, as these have informed the approaches, methodologies and teaching techniques that evolved over the course of time. This book is good because as well as discussing a wide range of FLA and SLA theories, it encourages reflection on the topics discussed through the reflective questions that punctuate it at the end of every chapter. There are also activities that you can do to explore topics further. I read this book in preparation for Delta but I think there’s no need to wait until you are doing such a qualification before you open it.
Beyond the sentence by Scott Thornbury
Another Scott Thornbury gem – his name features rather heavily in this list, I’m afraid! – Beyond the sentence is a great introduction to discourse analysis. Each chapter has a corresponding task, for which there is an answer key, to focus you on the main points of what has been discussed and get your brain zooming out from individual grammar and lexical items to think in discourse terms. The activities are readily adaptable for use with students. A lot of of the lexical and grammatical choices we make are down to the influence of language we use not existing in a vacuum but as discourse, so it is worth learning about how discourse works. It makes more useful pre-Delta reading, and whether or not you plan on doing the qualification, is worth spending time on.
Implementing the lexical approach
Some will argue that I should put The Lexical Approach in instead of Implementing the lexical approach but what I like about the latter is that as well as presenting all the theory around the lexical approach, it also offers lots of ideas for using the approach in the classroom. The best thing to do, of course, would be to read both! And then follow that up with Teaching Collocation. All three of these were published by Thomson and Heinle, but Teaching Collocation is edited by Michael Lewis with contributions from Peter Hargreaves, Jimmie Hill and Michael Hoey. All three contain valuable information about how lexis works and why we should change our focus from grammar which we slot bits of lexis into to looking at the grammar of lexis and the company words keep. I didn’t read these until I was doing my Delta – I didn’t know about them before then. So here we go, the secret is out! 😉
“The How to…” series – especially How to teach vocabulary and How to teach speaking, both by Scott Thornbury
How to teach speaking doesn’t actually look like that anymore – now it’s a green version of How to teach vocabulary! Both are really great in terms of being very readable and combining theory with practice, in terms of giving you lots of ideas to try out, as well as the rationale behind them. I read them both cover to cover before starting Delta and found they gave me a really good grounding, which I was able to build on with more in-depth theoretical stuff when it came to essay-writing. Both highly recommended whether or not you intend to go on and do a further qualification.
Conversation: From description to pedagogy by Scott Thornbury (!) and Diana Slade
This book is fascinating. It analyses conversation, taking it apart and explaining how it works, why and how we do what we do when we speak, as well as looking at the implications of this for language teaching. Not a whizz-bang of activities to deploy following a five minute flick through, but well worth making the effort of sitting down and reading it, to expand your understanding of how conversation works. This is another book I didn’t discover until I was doing my Delta – the library had multiple copies so I had one out while preparing my LSA4 on speaking, but again merits not being consigned only to being read by Delta/equivalent trainees!
This was one of the first books I read (apart from Learning Teaching) post-CELTA. I happened upon it in the teachers’ library at my second school. It absolutely revolutionised my understanding and teaching of pronunciation. That was also when I learnt about phonemic symbols and used to practice writing with them. Then it turned out that it was very useful to have already read the book and processed it, as well as having learnt the symbols, prior to starting Delta, as I had a good knowledge base to take in with me. However, it is definitely recommended regardless of your further qualification plans, in order to extend your pronunciation teaching skills. It contains theory written in easily understandable language, as well as lots of discovery tasks to help you understand how sounds work and lots of activities you can take into the classroom with you too.
Teaching and learning in the language classroom by Tricia Hedge
This is another more general book, and its strong points are that it goes into reasonable depth on a range of things, including course design and assessment, learner autonomy and so on, as well as the treatment of the more obvious elements like teaching the skills (reading/writing/speaking/listening), grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. It is a good, solid all-rounder to have at your finger tips. It also sports “further reading” lists at the end of each section, which are a great place to start if you are looking to explore something further and increase your depth of knowledge and understanding with regards to that topic.
A good grammar reference
As well as this list of books, every self-respecting language teacher should have (access to) a good grammar book. This will probably have been written by someone with a surname that is also an animal. E.g. Martin Parrott (Grammar for English Language Teachers), Michael Swan (Practical English Usage)…! Which you choose will be a matter of taste. Ideally, try and have a go at using a few different ones and find one that best suits the way you think. For me, it’s Parrott, but that’s largely because it’s the one I bought and used during my CELTA, and I became rather attached to it!
Reference Lists/further reading
And don’t forget: if you have read all of the books on this list, they all have bibliographies/reference lists, in which you can find the details of a whole load more books and articles that could be worth your attention! You can never run out of things to read! And that is a Good Thing. 🙂
Happy reading! And don’t forget to suggest books that YOU think should be on this list!!