My top picks: The best books for an ESL teacher

Keynote books are centered around TedTalk videos and facilitate conversation well

These are my top 3 choices if I had to choose the best books for an ESL teacher. These are for a general adult ESL classroom. These textbooks can be used for either online tutoring or in-person classrooms.

At the end of this post, I also share some of my favorite materials for specific, niche ESL classes, such as business English tutoring or writing tutoring. I have used all these materials myself, which are my tried and true.

My top 3 textbook picks

Here are my top picks for the best, solid textbooks for teaching English as a foreign language.

For a general adult English tutoring curriculum or class, I suggest three books:

a photo of me holding up a Keynote Advanced Student's Book while wearing headphones
  1. Keynote Advanced Student’s Book,
  2. Understanding and Using English Grammar Fifth Edition by Betty S. Azar and Stacy A. Hagen
  3. A conversation book suited for your particular student audience.

#1 Keynote Books

The Keynote books are a set of books put out by National Geographic and centered around TedTalks to get your students to speak English fast. Keynote offers its textbooks for various levels, with a “Keynote Advanced” book being a good fit for an intermediate English language learner.

Why are these good textbooks for tutoring English? They are a very good general textbook for your students to buy and use for your course because they are centered around TedTalk videos and are a bit of a jack-of-all-trades. They have conversation questions, grammar topics, listening activities, etc. They allow for a lot of flexibility. You can go through the book and use it to provide grammar introductions and then add on extra grammar as needed.

The disadvantage of these Keynote books (besides their painfully light ink) is that they don’t include the most tightly presented grammar. This brings us to the second book I suggest you buy…

#2 Azar Grammar Book

The Betty Azar Grammar book is fantastic and a mandatory addition to my choices of the best books for an ESL teacher. It is such a standard at many schools that it’s simply called the “Azar book.”

For A1, A2 students, you can use the red Basic Azar book. For B2 and above, I suggest the Blue Understanding and Using English Grammar book.

The Azar book series have become beloved grammar textbook resources due to their clarity. They have clear diagrams that visually show grammar constructions, old-school grammar workbook exercises to practice grammar and varied and effective partner activities and listening activities that really round out your students’ grammar learning.

me holding the blue betty azar english grammar book

The Azar book is excellent for students who really want to understand every grammar rule. Some students are used to learning grammar in their native countries and think a good English class should have a lot of rote grammar practice. This book is a God send for these students and those that ask lots of tricky questions to overcompensate for their nerves in class. It details every possible exception to every grammar rule.

You can direct them to the asterisk at the bottom instead of getting derailed by answering their grammar question that you know won’t ever come up in their actual life. There are also handy addendums in the back of the book.

#3 Conversation Starter Book

A conversation starter book is very helpful as an addition to your class. Whether teaching one-on-one lessons or a class, you will want some warm-up or closer activities. If you are following a PPP format, you might want to pre-teach some vocabulary for the conversation as a ___, then model some grammar and create sentence models for ____and then have a conversation activity as a fun closer activity. There are many books geared towards prompting conversation for English language learners, but my favorite is _________.

But don’t have your students buy the Azar book. If anything, it is likely far too in-depth for your students and will be grammar overload if you try to go through the whole thing. Instead, I suggest you buy the book and photocopy or scan pages to share with your students as needed.

icons on my phone

*If you don’t have a scanner, you can use the Notes App on your phone to scan pages for your class. Just go to the yellow and white notepad icon labeled “Notes” (if you have an iPhone) and click on it. Start a new note.

Then, in this new note, click on the camera icon. Then choose “scan” from the pop-up menu. Place the camera over the book page as if you were taking a photo of it. Instead of a photo, it will scan the page. Ensure you click “save,” or the scan won’t be saved to notes! The Keynotes book doesn’t scan very well because the text is so light, but the Azar grammar workbook scans beautifully.

Notes screenshot

Then, these extra scans will be the structured grammar add-on to your course. They can serve as extra grammar practice for students who need more handholding and sentence modeling or those who simply feel more in control of their studies by completing explicit, traditional grammar exercises.

Materials for Business English Tutoring

Materials for Writing Classes

In addition to writing books and TDA packets, you can always use printouts of writing prompts to get your students to write.

If you have other strong contenders and want to suggest your candidate for my list of best books for an ESL teacher, feel free to email me and make your case. I am always on the hunt for the best books.

Or, Ditch the Textbook

Personally, I enjoy the structure of following a book, but some teachers find it a stale approach to teaching English. If you want to spread your wings and try more innovative approaches to teaching textbook-free, I really suggest joining the Ditch That Textbook Digital Summit (aka “Ditch Summit”).

a photo of ESL professionals from Ditch That Textbook Digital Summit

The summit is a place for top educators to come together and present and share their ideas for teaching outside the textbook. Last summit, the topics covered included blended learning, creativity, teacher wellness, equity, playful learning, and all of it without any required textbook.

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Ingrid Maria Pimsner, MA, BA, TEFL
Ingrid Maria Pimsner, MA, BA, TEFL

Ingrid Maria Pimsner has been teaching for over a decade in various universities, nonprofits, and private academies. She has taught English as a Second Language for Lutheran Children & Family Service, Nationalities Service Center, Lernstudio Barbarossa Berlin-Tegel, and more. In addition to her Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) Certification, she holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and a MA from Maryland Institute College of Art.