Using Early Reader Books with Adult ESL Students

By Ashley Lipps, LETC Program Director

We’ve added to our bookshelves a collection of early reader books. They’re on the bottom-left shelf next to the picture dictionaries in the volunteer lounge. These books are written for young students learning how to read, so they’re simple and full of bright pictures. But the topics can also interest adults. The titles include:

      • Animal Bodies
      • Animal Habitats
      • Baby Birds
      • Big Red Tomatoes
      • Life Cycles of Animals
      • Machines Help Us Do Work
      • Our Place in Space
      • Plant Life
      • Plants
      • Sun Power
      • What Animals Need

Cathy has written about the benefits of using children’s picture books with adult ESL learners. Nonfiction books for early readers are useful too, because the simple text and pictures help students grasp meaning and give them something to talk about. Students can describe the pictures using simple vocabulary that they know, including numbers, colors, body parts, and names of plants and animals. They will learn even more vocabulary, and perhaps some new concepts, from the text.

Take a look at our collection. Some of the books are good for levels Basic, 1, and 2, while others are more appropriate for the higher levels. There are five or six copies of each title, so if your class is larger, have students read and discuss the pictures in pairs or small groups. Below are a few suggestions for lessons using the books.

The early reader about plants can get students talking about how people use different parts of plants, like fruits, flowers, leaves, roots, and bark.


This book is good for beginning levels (Basic and 1). Form pairs or small groups of students, and give each group one or two copies of the book.

Have students open the books to pages 4–5. Ask them what they see, and list their responses on the board.

Assign each group or pair one of the following topics: leaves (pages 6–7), flowers (pages 8–9), fruit (pages 10–11), or growth (pages 11–12). Students should examine the pictures and text on their pages, talk about them, and jot down the main ideas.

Next, ask each group or pair to describe their pages to the rest of the class. If needed, prompt students by asking them about the size and color of the plants, what different parts of the plants can be used for, and where and when they think the photos might have been taken (on a farm, in summer, etc.). Ask students to describe useful plants that grow in their home countries, as well as ones they’re familiar with in the United States.

"Our Place in Space" is good for intermediate and advanced learners. Students may have different opinions about the value of space exploration.

“Our Place in Space”

This book is good for intermediate levels (2B and above). Form pairs or small groups of students, and give each group one or two copies of the book.

Have students open the books to pages 4–5. Ask what they know about space and space exploration. Write their responses on the board.

Students can then read the book in pairs or small groups. When they finish, ask them which words they didn’t understand. Make a list on the board and go over the meanings. There should be a lot of words! There is a glossary on pages 22–23 that may be helpful.

Finally, ask students their opinions: Is it important to study outer space? Is it useful to send astronauts there? Should society spend money on space exploration? Why or why not?

Or use a variety of books…

This lesson works with any level and is well suited to large classes, since you can mix and match titles from our collection to get the number of books you need. Form pairs or small groups of students with similar abilities in English. Assign each group a different book, giving the more challenging books to the more proficient speakers. Or let students choose books according to their interest.

Each group or pair of students should then read their book together and pick out words or phrases that are new to them. They can look up the words or ask a teacher, and jot down the meanings.

Each group then presents their book to the rest of the class. They should show the pictures to the class, communicate the main ideas in the book, and teach the rest of the class the new words they learned. They can look up the words in their own language, but they should only use English and pictures to teach the new words to the class.

Early readers build students' vocabulary.

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