Top 4 ESL study books

ESL study books

I’ve been teaching for 11 years now and I have used quite a lot of different ESL study books. Some of them were amazing, while others were … let’s just say, could have been much better. This top 4 list is in no particular order, I simply point out what I love about the book, and what I feel the book is lacking. Now, if you’re using a book which is not on my list and you really love it – feel free to comment below – who knows, maybe I’ll find a new favourite! Anyhow, let’s jump into our list!

New Cutting Edge – Pearson Longman

So, the 1st book and in fact, the one I have used for the longest is New Cutting Edge by Pearson. I have used the 2nd and the 3rd editions and both of them are solid (not so different anyway)! The units include plenty of various activities with a focus on guided and unguided speaking.
+ LOTS of speaking: The student’s book really engages your class in many conversations of various lengths. Unlike other books, each unit has a creative speaking task at the end as well as provide students with lists of practical expressions to use right away.
+ Vocabulary: New Cutting edge doesn’t focus on bombarding your students with vocabulary. Instead, the words & expressions are carefully chosen for each unit and topic, so your students can learn the new vocabulary much more effectively.
+ Listening: the listening tasks are of good quality and are appropriately selected to match the topic and the level of students. I wouldn’t call it the best (some books do the listening better!), but it’s right among the top.
– Small pronunciation blocks: you will definitely have to drill and practice pronunciation with additional materials, as New Cutting Edge only gives 1-2 exercises per unit, and these are quite short. This is a shame, especially at lower levels.
– Writing tasks are lacking: yes, they are here, but it’s often the same content that is in the speaking exercises (e.g. write a follow-up letter about something we’ve just discussed…). Definitely could use something more creative here! Oh, and there are no model writings in most units too.
Overall, a solid course especially for speaking classes (or lessons focused on it). However, if you’re looking for the one and only ESL study book to use – New Cutting Edge won’t do it, at least in my view. I had to combine the units and spend a couple of hours making extra materials when Cutting Edge was the main study book in one of the schools where I worked…
– Few linking words, even at higher levels. The book doesn’t have much content when it comes to coherence and cohesion, so you’ll have to come up with your own materials here once again

Headway – Oxford

Next on the list is one of the most famous Oxford creation – Headway. I’ll cover Headway, not American Headway, although the books are quite similar. This is my go-to book for Elementary, Pre-Int and Intermediate levels, it’s super good. The modern edition also incorporates an online workbook – additional practice for each unit.
+ Amazing listening. It has a lot of audio materials for each purpose: guided listening, listening for the main/supporting ideas as well as for precise words.
+ Vocabulary. Headway presents plenty of words in various ways – the exercises are all quite different, so students don’t just complete sentences all the time.
– Topics. Most of these haven’t changed since the 2nd publishing and are hit or miss. My students found some of them really exciting, but I’d say around half of them are so unusual or niece that I hardly know how to incorporate them into a curriculum. This is especially true for upper-int and advanced, I only used 2-3 units of the entire book.
– Writing. Just like New Cutting Edge, it’s weak. There is not much writing in general in Headway, and the activities present aren’t engaging for the most part.
– Few grammar exercises (and they aren’t that varied). Now, study books indeed do not have much grammar as a rule. Headway goes beyond though and only gives 1-2 activities per grammar topic, even at higher levels with the tricky ones, like conditionals. Off you go create your own worksheets again! The workbook helps slightly, but again, not enough!
– Lack of accents in listening. The most common British accents are amazingly presented, but there are only 3-4 in the book!
That is not really a minus in my books, but hey!

Solutions – Oxford

This is one of the most popular ESL and EFL books in different schools throughout the world and for good reasons! It’s quite fun, all the colours and pictures do make it interesting indeed.

+ Modern topics: I love the majority of them, and while they are cliché (yes, there is a unit on leisure, for instance), they offer a fresh twist!
+ Grammar + Speaking: as someone who used the communicative approach a lot, I love the fact that grammar is presented and supported with speaking practice right away.

– Teenager focused: while it’s great for young adults too, people age 30+ may find the topics slightly dull and cliche (they probably have already discussed most of them from other courses).
– Teacher’s guide is a must: some aspects are covered rather briefly in this ESL study book, so it’s important to use the teacher’s guide, especially here.

All in all, it’s great if you’re mainly working with teenagers and/or lower levels (~Elementary, Pre-Intermediate). For higher levels, I’d pick something else for more engaging topics.

And finally, my favourite – Oxford Navigate – Oxford (obviously)

Published in 2016, it still remains my go-to book as a rule (maybe I’m just used to it). I can’t praise it enough – grammar, speaking practice, vocabulary exercises and the best writing blocks – it’s all here!

+ Engaging topics: most of the units present unique topics or unique approaches to the standard topics indeed.
+ Grammar: it’s typically introduced through a text or audio here, with plenty of practice thereafter. The workbook also gives many additional materials.
+ Writing: it is solid! Each unit has a Writing block, which focuses on a piece of writing: letter of any kind, messages, emails and even essays. I have used several units for my IELTS students, and it really helped them a lot. In my view, this book does it far better than any other ESL & EFL study book!

– Preparation time: as a teacher, you can hardly just look at the student’s book 5 minutes before a class and have a fantastic lesson. Most units have extra activities to pre-teach certain words or grammar or present more information to the students. While it is fun (I really enjoy working with extra resources), it can be time-consuming.
– Difficult Units: having mentioned great topics, I must say that a few units are simply weird (to my taste) and I simply ignored them. Luckily, the book offers plenty of choices even within the units, however, it also means more preparation work for the teachers.

Oxford Navigate can be a fantastic course if you’re willing to put effort into learning the book and how to teach with it. Teacher’s guide here is super important – don’t ignore it 🙂

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