Monday, 25 July 2016

What do you recommend?

At various points throughout my teaching life, I've been asked by students for recommendations. As I'm a Dubliner working in Dublin, many of the things I am asked about relate to the practicalities of living in a relatively expensive city. For instance, if a student asks me where to go for a bit of food, I'll direct them towards Govindas (cheap, veggie lunches) or the student canteen in Trinity. If they're looking for nice coffee, I recommend Marks and Spencers on Grafton Street - it's not very hipster but it's got roof-space in the centre of the city with nice views and the coffee's grand. For a pint, I'd usually say The Library Bar just off George's Street and being a prematurely old fart, I'd tell them to avoid Temple Bar like the plague. And given the removal/privatisation of public facilities in our city, I always recommend the top floor of the largest department store on Grafton street for a far more serene ablution than the alternative of forking out for the privilege or sneaking into a fast food jacks.

I do occasionally get asked for recommendations of a more academic hue. Sometimes, these are very general - "How can I improve my English?"; sometimes, more specific - "Which is the best newspaper for phrasal verbs?". In each case, the student wants to do something more outside of the classroom to learn English and very kindly values my opinion on the matter. Although I'm more than happy to proffer unsolicited recommendations on TV shows, movies, music and podcasts, it is generally books that I find myself being asked to recommend.

Image taken from

I find this a bit tricky. For a start, many of the students who've asked me for a book recommendation tell me they don't have strong reading habits (that sounds a bit vague - what I mean is that they say they don't really read books for pleasure in their own language although I'm sure they do tons of online reading). Also, many of them are around the B2 level and I'm conscious that an overly challenging book might put them off reading in English. The more significant challenge is that during the academic year, I tend to read crime thrillers and very little else so I don't have a very wide range of books to choose from.

All that being said, here are some of the books that I have recommended and a short description as to why the recommendation was successful (I judge success by whether or not the student read it). In each case, the recommendation was made in the modest hope that the book would be enjoyable and lead to further book reading down the line.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
I'll start with this one as I've recommended it the most and it's had the best response. The story is engaging, the narrator uses relatively simple language, the chapters are short and mix between narrative and interesting diversions, and it is heart-warming. I recommended it (and loaned a copy, in fact) to one student - she enthused about it and the book made its way around the class. So far, nobody who has started it has given up on it (to my knowledge).

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne
This one was written by an Irish author so I'm guilty of a bit of nationalism there. I'm also guilty of never having actually read it. But a good few students have read it and multiple copies have moved around the class. Again, it is relatively simple, being told from a child's perspective but there is a bit of substance to it. And there's a film for follow up (or pre-reading).

Any Autobiography by Any Sportsperson
These tend to be good as the reader knows a lot about the person before they start reading which should make it a bit easier to read. Preferable to biographies which are often a bit denser and more demanding. I've seen the Pele book bouncing around a few times; Nadal and Pirlo both made appearances; Agassi's book is good for those of a certain age with an interest in tennis/overbearing parents.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
When brimming with the enthusiasm to read in English, I've seen a lot of students go for the classics. Far be it from me to discourage someone from reading James Joyce whilst living in Dublin, but I've seen a lot of students' attempts at reading in English dashed against the rocks of a €1 second hand copy of Dubliners. Hemingway's stripped down style of writing (particularly in this novel) makes it an easier read for those at the B2/C1 level, it's obviously a gorgeous story and a lot of people have already read it in their own language.

Panic by Jeff Abbot
About six years ago, I had a notion to try a book club with a class I had that were studying for the IELTS exam. The idea was that we'd all read the same book, at the same pace and there would be spin off speaking/writing activities in class. I'm not sure exactly how we landed on this book - I think it was because it was very dialogue heavy, fairly simple and had short chapters (it was also going cheap as well at the time). Anyway, the majority of students liked it, they all finished it (some read ahead) and several got the follow up - Fear (unfortunately, the author doesn't seem to have stuck to the negative noun formula and has started messing around with verbs!).

If asked, what books do you (would you) recommend to your students?


  1. Students of mine have liked A Streetcat Named Bob. I usually recommend Xiaolu Guo's Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth. Short story collections are grand, too, are they not? Banana Yoshimoto's Lizard, for example.

  2. Thanks for those Marc. I've not read any of them I'm afraid (although I have a copy of Guo's other book - the Dictionary one - which I bought thinking it would be good for students and still haven't got round to reading).

    I'm a bit torn on short stories - they can be good but I often give up on short story collections - I think because I get invested in a character and then very quickly, have to do it all over again - without the central narrative I can give up a bit too easily (this may just be me though).

    The streetcat book looks good - will check it out. Backstory of author ( ) is fascinating and sad/uplifting.

  3. I've read several of the books you recommend and I think they're all good starting points for students. I also like to recommend things that are generally written for young adults, for the reasons you name above.
    But since I think reading for pleasure is closely linked to a students' general reading (and other) interests, I've also started to recommend the 'goodreads' app. Here, students can enter books that they've read and liked, and will recieve recommendations based on their individual preferences. They can also write reviews, and set themselves a reading goal (e.g. 4 books over the summer break), which can also be motivating. Maybe your students would like to try that, too?

    Clare (@Clare2ELT)

  4. Hi Clare,

    Many thanks for taking the time to comment. I'd not heard of that goodreads app but it sounds excellent. You're right, the follow up is crucial - keeping it going can be tough if there is no obvious next book to go to. Does it work like Amazon's, if you like this, you might like feature? I'm going to try out your suggestion in the new academic year. Thanks!