Which Books should you buy?

So, having decided to come to the UK to study, you’ll probably want to give yourself a head-start by investing in a few self-study publications. This is, in principle, a good idea. However, there are pitfalls to be avoided.

The first and most important thing to remember is that a book is NOT a teacher. When you buy a book, it’s important not to become dependent upon it. By this I mean: don’t use a bi-lingual reference book or dictionary as a walking stick to prop you when you don’t understand something. This is especially pertinent if you haven’t had experience of "TEFL" teaching by a native speaker.

As an English teacher here in the UK, I find myself constantly reminding students that I can explain in the meanings of words in a number of ways, whilst a bi-lingual dictionary is often rigid in definition and sometimes incorrect. This situation can occur because you are used to a teacher who speaks your native tongue (e.g. at school) and in the absence of this you turn to your dictionary as the next best thing. Beware!

Moving on to more positive matters; which book/s should you get? I have assumed that you will come to the UK to study general English in the first place, so I have concentrated on publications written for this purpose.

Firstly: a good English-English dictionary is a must. There is a large choice of course and it depends on your level. I’ll give you a comprehensive list in the bibliography. I feel that the Oxford series of student dictionaries offers something for students across the levels. If I had to recommend one, I would go for the Oxford Wordpower Dictionary *, which is aimed at intermediate students, but would allow a lower level student to "grow" into it.

Its best feature is its contextualisation: each entry has several example sentences to help you understand the usage of a word. It also contains an interesting self-study section, which gives you tips on how to maximise your dictionary’s potential as a study aid. Plenty of illustrations and a focus on phonetics also make this a sound investment. Remember, you don’t know a word until you know the meaning AND the pronunciation! * also available on CD-ROM.

Possibly the most frightening English word for a student is "Grammar". This needn’t be the case. A good grammar book should, in my opinion, contain a balance between explanation and practice. Raymond Murphy has written two good titles: Essential Grammar in Use (elementary level) and English Grammar in Use, (intermediate).

Both books have similar formats with clear explanatory notes, illustrations and examples on the left-hand page and progressive exercises on the right. These titles are user-friendly and comprehensive; they contain easily identifiable units, which allow you to focus on your weaknesses and answer keys so that you can check your progress. There is also a supplementary exercise book for English Grammar in Use. It’s cross-referenced and employs realistic exercises for extra practice.

Vocabulary is of course a vital part of learning a language. It’s also something which can be studied very successfully on your own. As your English improves, so does your vocabulary and vice-versa. For this reason many of the vocabulary titles are available in series formats. My recommendation is the Build Your Vocabulary (elementary) up to Build Your Vocabulary 3 (upper intermediate).

This series is particularly effective because besides providing interesting and fun exercises, it helps you organise your vocabulary in ways other than easily forgettable lists of translated words. The series is also strong on word partnerships, which is integral to using vocabulary; for instance: we BOIL an EGG, but we don’t BOIL BREAD! Answer keys are included .

Another good buy would be English Vocabulary in Use (pre-intermediate/intermediate) which has a hundred units, including everyday topics such as work, travel, money etc., phrase building e.g. get dressed, make a sandwich etc. and a phonetic index of words used in each unit. It’s very well presented and probably the most comprehensive vocabulary title I’ve seen. Most importantly, the students in this school like it.

 Finally, I’d like to look at two particular problem areas; phrasal verbs and prepositions. Most students have real difficulty with both. The vocabulary books I’ve mentioned all have exercises on prepositions, but if you’re an intermediate student you might want to purchase Test Your Prepositions, which approaches learning prepositions as a constant process of recycling - I think this method is imperative. The book uses a wide variety of exercises enabling you to identify the apparently non-existent patterns of English prepositions.

Why do students hate phrasal verbs? Usually because they see them as a never-ending list of words with multiple meanings. The way to this is to see phrasal verbs in REAL situations and both the books I would suggest to you focus on this technique. Although they are aimed at First Certificate level they can be used by lower level students to familiarise themselves with the concept of phrasal verbs.

This is particularly true of Making Sense of Phrasal Verbs, which is full of amusing cartoons that clearly illustrate the sequence of action in each phrasal verb. It has graded exercises with each unit and a useful reference section. Phrasal Verbs in Context uses a similar method, but it is set out in a cartoon story format. All the phrasal verbs are continually recycled in exercises and you can listen to the story on an accompanying cassette. Neither book is exhaustive, but many of the commonly used phrasal verbs are covered.


Title - Authors - Published by - ISBN

Oxford Wordpower Dictionary - - - OUP - 0-19-431138

Essential Grammar in Use - Raymond Murphy - CUP - 0-521 55928-6

English Grammar in Use - Raymond Murphy - CUP - 0-521-43680-X

Start Building Your Vocabulary - John Flower - LTP - 1-899396-05-5

Build Your Vocabulary 3 - Flower/Berman - LTP - 0-906717-78-0

English Vocabulary in Use - Stuart Redman - CUP - 0-521-55737-2

Test Your Preposition - Watcyn-Jones/Allsop - Penguin - 0-14-080989-9

Making Sense of Phrasal Verbs - Martin Shovel - Cassell - 0-304-31848-5

Phrasal Verbs in Context - Peter Dainty - MacMillan - 0-333-56422-7

The Author: Matt Forrest, EFL Tutor, Linguacentre in London, U.K

This article first appeared in Educational Courses in Britain

comments powered by Disqus