Favourite Books


We asked a number of English for young learner specialists, Jean Conteh, Audrey McIlvain, Sandie Mourao, Simon Smith and Nicole Taylor, to come up with a list of some of their favourite books for use in the classroom. They are thus all different and very interesting in style, content and the books chosen. It is very interesting to see that a few books have been chosen by different specialists!


To start us off, here are my three favourite titles and the reasons for using them with young English learners:


Annie Hughes' top three titles for use in teaching English to young learners:


The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle (Puffin Books) is a stalwart in classrooms all over the world. It can be used in many ways in the language classroom, to introduce and teach the names for fruit and healthy food and 'fast' and unhealthy food.

It can be a wonderful starting point for a topic on food, metapmorhosis or numbers and colours as its content is highly flexible to accommodate different focus areas. I have used it with young learners to create a puppet show. The whole class made the most fabulous 3-D puppets to mirror the illustrations in the book and put them on tall sticks so that they could be seen in the 'puppet theatre' we made consisting of desks and chairs and highly coloured sheets! There was a narrator and then individual students came along at the right time with their puppet (be it the caterpillar, leaves, eggs, butterfly or items of food) and it was a great show. I have to admit to still keeping some of the oranges on my office wall at the moment…..I was so fond of the end product from this super book. As a family with two young daughters I remember going through quite a few copies of the book, too, as they pushed their little fingers through the hole the very hungry caterpillar had eaten!


Mrs Wobble the Waitress by Janet and Allan Ahlberg (Puffin Books)

This series of twelve books, called the 'Happy Family' series by Janet and Allan Ahlberg are just brilliant for the older primary and younger secondary English learner who I find it difficult to find good titles for that are at the right language level. All the titles in this series can be recommended and they are full of fun, a play with language and perfect for contextualising new or revised language. Mrs Wobble the Waitress is about a waitress who wobbles and so is sacked from her job, that she loves, and how her family come to her rescue. There are really wonderful illustrations in this and the menus can all be made by the class. This book is also a very good as role-play starter and there are four clear roles for groups of learners.

The whole series uses a fair amount of colloquial English in the stories but as this language is well contextualised and the illustrations support it well it becomes a plus point for the book rather than a problem.


Finally, I'd like to recommend We all Went on Safari by Laurie Krebs (Barefoot Books) is the most delightful book to use in the classroom as it uses rhythm as the vehicle for the story. Rhythm and song is a great way to help our learners remember language and new vocabulary and this book really. It is delightfully set in Tanzania and introduces the reader to Swahili names and, in the back, to counting in Swahili. It is just fantastically illustrated by Julia Cairns and is a delight to read and say out loud. This would make a great title to use as a topic-starter on different countries, animals, rhythm and rhyme and different languages.


Annie Hughes: Annie is a lecturer, trainer trainer, teacher trainer, materials writer  and teacher of English to young learners. She has been teaching in mainstream, special and EFL classes since the beginning of the 70's though has spent most of the last 25-30 years working specifically in the field of English as a foreign language. She is the creator and programme leader of the well-respected distance learning Masters programme 'Teaching English to Young Learners' which was the first distance learning MA on EYL in a British university. She is also the Assistant Director of the EFL Unit, University of York where she also runs tailor-made teacher development courses for teachers of English as Foreign language.

She is frequently invited to carry out consultancies for The British Council, Ministries of Education and give talks and workshops at conferences worldwide.



Jean Conteh: my favourite books

Annie asked me to identify my favourite 'real' books, and here they are, in no particular order:



Rosie's Walk: Pat Hutchins (Puffin Books, 1968)


My copy of this book cost 80p., so it must have been bought in the late 1970s, when my son (now 27) was born. I bought it because someone had told me how good it was, and they were right. It became a favourite bedtime 'read-aloud' – I will never forget the eager anticipation of my son or daughter to turn the page to see what happens next. Then, when they saw what it was, their sense of delight and satisfaction that it was still the same was wonderful to behold, followed by their careful scrutiny of the pictures to see what the goat thought about the drama played out between Rosie and the foolish fox. There are 32 well-chosen words in the story, and they embody powerful, universal themes; high drama, the conquest of the weak over the strong, the defeat of evil. I have used his book with new learners of English aged from 5 to 11, and every child I have read it with – boys and girls alike – has found it totally engaging and satisfying.



Mr. Gumpy's Outing: John Burningham (Puffin Books, 1978)


I first heard of this book when I was doing an MA in Reading in 1982. I remember the gentle, repetitive start to the story, and then the burst of pleasure I felt when I turned the page and saw the illustration of the boat sinking under its load of animal passengers, a surprised-looking Mr Gumpy losing his hat in the water and the immortal words, '…and into the water they fell.' Besides the illustrations, I thoroughly enjoyed the elegant, witty language of the story, which gently leads young readers to a sophisticated understanding of the way that choosing exactly the right word brings a story to life, and makes writing powerful and memorable. I devised a cloze activity with the words in this story to use with PGCE (Primary) students as part of their Language Education sessions, and it made many valid points about text prediction and meaning, as well as being fun to do. This is certainly a book which works on many levels, appealing to adults and also providing an enriching learning experience for young readers.



The Clothes Horse and other stories: Janet and Allan Ahlberg (Viking Kestrel, 1987)


This book is perhaps not so well known as my first two, but it has been a firm favourite with me since I found it in a children's bookshop in the early 1990s. Of course, anything by the Ahlbergs is bound to be good, and The Clothes Horse does not disappoint. In each of the six short stories contained in the book, the Ahlbergs have taken a simple everyday expression, and then interpreted it literally, with happy and – sometimes – thought-provoking results. My favourite, Life Savings, tells of an old lady who saved days in her life and, when she got to be seventy, enjoyed spending them. The image of her, rosy-cheeked and with shining eyes after a day in the park aged eight, is memorable, and only one of many to be found in the book. I have used this book with young bilingual learners who have begun to gain confidence as readers and need something to hold their interest and satisfy their need to play with words. As many bilinguals do, they often have strong awareness of words and word meanings, so the ambiguous meanings in the text appeal to them strongly, and they can often add examples of their own.


Jean Conteh: Since May 2003, I have worked in the Dept. of Educational Studies at York as a Lecturer in Primary Education. I teach BA and MA students, supervise students doing PhDs, and pursue my research interests into bilingualism, interaction in primary classrooms, and the professional rôles of bilingual teachers. My whole (lengthy, by now) professional career has been in primary education, first as a teacher and later as a teacher-trainer, in Africa and the UK, with visits to many different countries along the way.



Audrey McIlvain's Top Four books:


Since I specialise in teaching the 4-7 age group, I have selected books which can be accessed by our youngest learners. In any selection, it is important to consider how the young child will engage with the story and how we can maintain their attention, bearing in mind the brief concentration span of the young child.


My all-time favourite is The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle (Picture Puffins). I love this story, and I adapt the activities I plan around it to match the levels and needs of my children. I also love the way it links to the cycle of nature and the wonder of life itself.

Stories like these lend themselves beautifully to role play (e.g. in a fruit shop), sequencing and predicting, surveys (e.g. favourite fruit), matching games (e.g. bingo) and puppet making.

Don't forget the possibilities to link to emerging literacy. Think of the fantastic opportunities to demonstrate to the young learner that we 'Need to Read'. You can have lots of fun making signs for your fruit shop, maps of how to get there, shopping lists, recipes, price lists – the possibilities are endless. Through these types of activities, children are recycling key vocabulary and reactivating their knowledge through multisensory learning.

The key is to see the experience through the eyes of the child, and realise that if they are having fun this greatly increases the chances of them learning.


This brings me to choice two which is The Enormous Turnip (various editions of this traditional tale are available).The first time I used this story was with a class of 80 (yes, 80!) children in a farm school in rural Natal in South Africa.

Their eyes nearly popped out of their heads when I chose some of them to act out the story, pulling and pulling the turnip. How they laughed!

And, of course, it is well documented in recent research in the field of neuroscience that when we are relaxed, but focused, as these children were, we are in an ideal state to learn.

However, I realised that the story did not quite match to the context in which I was working, and so I changed it to: The Enormous Pumpkin. This transformed the experience for them, since they saw pumpkins every

day of their lives. This is the key to using stories in the E.Y.L. context: attune to the learner's frame and then lead them to new input.


My third choice is another book about food, and we can see how important it will be when we plan topics to include a selection of stories which we can draw on to provide rich opportunities for new input.

In Don't Forget the Bacon by Pat Hutchins (Picture Puffins), we have a really funny story of a boy who goes shopping for Mum, but he forgets what he has to buy and gets in a dreadful muddle.

If you are doing a topic on 'Food', this makes an ideal choice to revisit some key vocabulary and sentence patterns. The novel context helps us to avoid rote learning and boredom.

We can also use this story to help children to reflect on memory strategies by asking them, "How would you remember what to buy?" I think the earlier we start to help children to become aware of metacognitive strategies (i.e. how we learn effectively) the better. From this starting point, contextualised by the story, we can then lead on in future lessons to sharing strategies to learn vocabulary effectively. I like to make a big poster of the strategies the children suggest so that we can refer to it in our lessons.

In addition, I love to cook with my classes. When we cook (even if it just a simple fruit salad), everyone has a role, everyone is involved, and, because the talk is linked to physical activity, this greatly enhances the possibility that they will learn more efficiently.


My last choice is the magical story, The Snowman by Raymond Briggs (Picture Puffin).

When we work with young learners we are sowing the seeds of attitudes towards learning English. These early exposures to the language tend to colour our motivation (or lack of it) for life, so let's ensure that we include some magic too.

I like to introduce children to this story by showing them the pictures and letting them tell it in their very limited English. I expand and extend, modelling the structures they lack and helping them to grapple with what they want to say. Because the story captivates them so well, they lose their self consciousness in their desire to enter into the beauty of the pictures and the funny bits and …the ending.

I like to set the scene for such an experience by dimming lights, illuminating the book and cuddling up on cushions to create a warm, loving atmosphere- something they may remember all their lives. In this way, we are using stories to address the emotional aspects of learning.

It is wonderful to share this story around Christmas time. The children I worked with in Mexico City were fascinated by the snow as most of them had never seen it. When we watched the video of the story you could have heard a pin drop!

This is the wonder of story books: through them we are transported to another world.

Keep the magic. Don't fall into the trap of killing the story by making endless work sheets or introducing artificial links.


Audrey McIvain: I have been teaching for 30 years, specialising in Early Years education both in the U.K. and overseas. I have taught in Spain, Mexico, South Africa and Chile, dividing my time between teaching children and training teachers. I now work as a freelance lecturer, consultant and writer, and my specialisms include dyslexia, music and learning how to learn effectively. I also teach courses for parents on supporting early literacy, helping children who have literacy difficulties and managing behaviour. I am based in Scarborough, a coastal town on the North East coast of England. 



Sandie Mourău : My top three books


Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?  Bill Martin Jr & Eric Carle (Puffin Books) ISBN 0140502963 Does any one not know this book? I use it with most of my pre-school groups. The illustrations are big and bright and just perfect for this age group. If the children already know their colours it's a great way to add animal words, and they quickly pick up the repetitive question ' What do you see?' Children of this age need to focus on their sequencing skills and this picture book is perfect for that.  I make a set of coloured animals, and together we go through the sequence, remembering the story.  To finish, the pre-school teacher makes a little book with each child: they colour, cut and stick little animals in the correct sequence into the book, and then take it home to tell the story to families.


I use it again and again and it never fails to delight every single child.


Peekaboo friends!  Lucy Su (Frances Lincoln Ltd) ISBN 0711218064 This little book has become part of my teaching routine ever since Opal Dunn introduced me to it three years ago.  It's very suitable for this age group, with illustrations of a little boy looking for his favourite toys and the children lift up flaps to see which one he finds first.  It has a wonderful repetitive question 'Robbie is looking for his friends' As we read the story, Robbie and his toys look together, the cumulative element is perfect and the children are quickly reciting the story with me.  I've been lucky to have several copies of this picture book, so children can take it home to share with their families.  It's perfect - it needs no preparation all you have to do is tell it.


Where's my Mummy?  Colin & Jacqui Hawkins (Walker books) ISBN 0744530415 I bought this little book for my daughter in 1994, when I was away for a whole summer doing the residential part of my MA.  She was two and we missed each other terribly.  I sent her this book, and she looked at it every day with my husband, and when I returned she knew it by heart.  It did not take me long to start using it in my pre-school classes, with my daughterąs permission of course!  This picture book is about a little duck that hatches from her egg and looks for her mummy.  She asks the cat, the dog, the chicken and the rabbit, and finally finds her mummy and two sisters!  It's perfect for reading after the children have learned farmyard animals. Children love making puppets and masks, and this picture books lends itself nicely to a set of farm animal puppets / masks, which can be used in a little dramatization of the story.  'Hello Mummy!',  'No, I'm not your Mummy'.


Sandie Mourău: Sandie is a freelance teacher, trainer and materials writer and is based in Portugal. Her latest publication is Realbooks in the Primary Classroom (2003) and is published by Mary Glasgow Magazines


Simon Smith: Three of my favourite family realbooks

As I got out The Shopping Basket, Spot's First Christmas, and Funnybones in order to write this review, my youngest daughter, now aged 11, was overcome with nostalgia. She immediately began to recount aspects of each story, describe memorable illustrations, remind me how and when the stories were read and so on.  Her response illustrates the power of stories for children, I feel, though I fully confess that my statistical sample is rather specific.


It is not my intention to suggest ways of introducing and familiarising children with each story.  Instead, I will summarise the storyline of each book, say which age the book might suit, mention reasons why the book may be suitable for the young learner classroom, and then outline possible products which might result from each story. I should make it clear that I have not used these stories myself with classes of children.  The usual health warnings to such suggestions therefore apply.


The Shopping Basket by John Burningham (Picture Lions 1983)

What happens

Steven's mum asks him to go to the corner shop to buy six eggs, five bananas, four apples, three oranges, two doughnuts and a packet of crisps. He does this, but meets with a number of adventures on his way back home. A bear, a monkey, a kangaroo, a goat , a pig and an elephant each try to steal his food. Steven manages to outwit each would-be thief with a series of cunning tricks.


What age children might this book be suitable for?

The concepts will be understood by children aged 6-7.  The language is more complex than the plot, though,  and would suit children aged 9-10 who are in their second or third year of language learning.


Why could it be suitable for the YL class?

Plenty of repeated language, a number of lexical sets, and outstanding visual support. The classic storyline is likely to sustain the interest of most children. Steven is extremely inventive in the ruses he uses to trick the various animals who try to steal his food. The book could therefore serve as a starting point for thinking skills work on the theme of 'What can you do if….?'.


What kind of language outcome might you get?

There is scope for children to do a roleplay, make posters or clay models of the story. Given a suitably simplified story frame, children could also tell or write a parallel story. If teachers take up the thinking skills thread, children could illustrate their responses to What can you do if…and make a class or school display.


Spot's First Christmas by Eric Hill (William Heinemann Ltd 1983)

What happens?

Spot and his mother get ready for Christmas. They wrap presents and greet carol singers on Christmas Eve. An excited Spot opens his presents on Christmas morning.


What age children might this book be suitable for?

Young children from the age of 5-6 or so in their first year of language learning.


Why could it be suitable for the YL class ?

This is a lift-the-flap book, and so there is plenty of opportunity for children to predict language and for the teacher to provide support for children when they guess. The storyline is simple, and could lead to extra work or revision of colour vocabulary. The book could act as a stimulus for intercultural project work on Christmas which goes beyond the concept of Christmas as present–giving.


What kind of language outcome might you get?

Children might like to draw and write a similar Spot story. They  might also enjoy drawing and labelling presents they think Spot would like for Christmas. Drama or roleplay are clearly other possibilities.


Funnybones by Janet and Allan Ahlberg (William Heinemann Ltd 1980)


What happens?

The big skeleton, the little skeleton and the dog skeleton emerge from their dark, dark cellar into the dark, dark town in the hope of  frightening people. They go to different parts of the town, but find nobody to frighten.  In the end, they play games to frighten each other and return to their dark, dark, cellar.


What age children might this book be suitable for?

Children aged 9-10 who have been learning English for 2 or 3 years or so.


Why could it be suitable for the YL class?

There is a beautiful symmetry to the plot, and a lot of repeated language. The authors clearly had fun writing this book, and  children are likely to pick up on the exuberance, inventiveness and humour in the book. The story has a strong narrative thrust, and is rich in lexical sets. One of the jokes in the book is that the skeletons themselves are not frightening, and in fact treat each other with great kindness. The teacher could exploit this aspect of the story for citizenship work on friendship.


What kind of language outcome might you get?

The wit, pace and swagger of this story provide wonderful opportunities for reading out loud in groups or as a class. There is also a song (Dem bones, dem bones) which children are likely to enjoy singing and acting out. The story provides possible links to art and craft: children could make skeletons to use as they tell the story.


Simon Smith : Simon works as a supervisor and teaching fellow on the University of York's distance MA in TEYL, and is an associate trainer at Norwich Institute for Language Education. He continues to read realbooks . His own favourites are the out-of-print Zeralda's Ogre and The Hat, both by Tomi Ungerer, andHow Tom beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen by Russell Hoban. 


Nicole Taylor's Three top Titles:


Title:  Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you See?   

Authors: Bill Martin and Eric Carle.

Age-group for EFL learner up to 6 years.

This book has several features that make it ideal for the EFL classroom:

1. The illustrations are large and visible from a fair distance.

2. The language is simple and repetitive.

3. The vocabulary , colours and animals, matches what is often covered at this level in the EFL classroom.

4. On one page there is a question 'Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?' and the answer comes on the next page ' I see a yellow duck, looking at me.'    This provides an element of prediction so that the students really engage with the book.


This book can be used for presenting or consolidating the vocabulary of colours and animals.  It can also be used to inspire children to make their own version.  Each student draws an animal and colours it. The pages are collated and stapled.  These pictures can be used in the same way as the picture book, with the teacher turning over the pages as the students ask the questions and predict the answers.


Title:  Ketchup on your Cornflakes.

Author: Nick Sharratt

Age-group for EFL up to 7 years.

This book is a kind of flap book. Each page is divided into two so that the top and bottom halves of different pages can be read in different combinations.

The top half shows one food, e.g. ketchup and the bottom shows another, e.g. cornflakes.  The question is 'Do you like ketchup on your cornflakes?'

The illustrations are large and colourful. The book is visually interesting as well as tactile.

The language goes beyond what would normally be found in a coursebook for this age-group but is all familiar and learnable.


The book can be used in relation to the topic of food and to practise expressing likes and dislikes.  Again it can be used to inspire children to make their own version.

Each student divides a piece of paper in half and draws one food at the top and one at the bottom.   Collate and staple the pages together and cut them almost as far as the staples, leaving a margin of paper to hold the pages together.   The pages can be turned to make different combinations of foods and to ask about likes and dislikes.



Title: The Enormous Turnip

Author: Traditional Story

Age-group for EFL up to 7 years

This traditional story has plenty to recommend it for the EFL classroom.   It is the story of a farmer who grows an enormous turnip but can't pull it up. First his wife come to help, then various animals, on-by-one, until there is a whole row on animals helping to pull.    The language is simple and repetitive. The vocabulary is cumulative.

As well as being a good story for presenting or recyling the lexical set of animals, it is an ideal story for adapting to be acted out in the classroom.   One child acts as the turnip and sits on the floor.   Other students take the roles of the farmer, his wife, and the various animals.  Everybody joins in with the chorus or refrain, 'They pulled and they pulled but they couldn't pull up the enormous turnip.'


Nicole Taylor :  Is a supervisor and Teaching Fellow on the University of York's  MA in TEYL. She is also a freelance materials writer and teacher trainer and is based in Spain.


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