To learn a language fast, the best place to start is with some good books. Below are eight books I recommend to students who want to build their vocabulary, understand English grammar, or improve their speaking skills.
(I've also included 3 books I suggest to anyone planning to take the IELTS.)
Some of these books are expensive, but they can save you a lot of time, and you will likely use them for many months or years. For this reason, they can be the cheapest way to learn English, if you study them carefully.
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Best Books for Improving English Vocabulary
A bad way to learn a new word is to think of a word in your native language and then search for its English translation (using Google or a dictionary app).
I can identify which students practice this bad habit, because they speak English slowly and incorrectly – even after many years of study.
When you hear about people learning English in 6 months, one reason is that they use good books to learn new words in English quickly and correctly.
English Vocabulary Builder (DK English for Everyone)
The fastest way to learn English (or any language) is by using pictures. After all, a large part of your brain is devoted to processing visual information. This is also how babies learn their first words. They see 🍕 hear the word pizza, and learn that they can say the word pizza when they want to talk about 🍕.
There are many books that you can use with this picture-learning method. One of the best ones for learning English is DK's English for Everyone series.
For adults, I recommend the English Vocabulary Builder, which includes 3,000+ words and phrases related to ordinary objects, actions, and situations. There are also special volumes for learning grammar, idioms, and business phrases.
What makes DK’s books different from other picture books is that each section of the book includes listening and review exercises, and you can practice pronunciation on their website or using a free app.
English Collocations in Use (Cambridge)
Learning a new English word can be difficult. You need to learn what it means, how to pronounce it, how to spell it, and how to use it in a sentence. But there is also the question of how to use the word naturally, like a native speaker.
To speak natural English, you will need to spend some time studying collocations. Cambridge University (also famous for their English experts) has created a series of books that can help you learn these tricky phrases. They have similar books for learning Phrasal Verbs and Idioms, in case you want to expand your vocabulary even further.
Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary (OALD)
Oxford University is famous for creating one of the biggest English dictionaries (with 600,000 entries).
More importantly, their experts have also created the Oxford 3000. This is a list of the most useful, and most-frequently used, words in English-speaking countries. According to these experts, once you learn these 3,000 words, you can understand 80-90% of English conversations, websites, newspapers, etc.
These 3,000 words also allow you to understand every word in Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, a special dictionary for students who wish to attend an English-speaking university. The newest edition includes 60,000 words and 109,000 examples.
The OALD includes a lot of special features that you can't find in other dictionaries — like synonyms and collocations. You can also download an app version on your smartphone that allows you to speak the word you want to look up (in case you don't know how to spell it — which is a common problem with English words).
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Best Books for Learning English Grammar
It’s true that English grammar is not simple. But a lot of books make the topic more difficult and confusing than necessary.
The three books below are great because they make English grammar as simple as possible — and sometimes even fun. The best thing about these books, of course, is that they can help you learn English at home, and fast.
(Note: If your goal is to review English grammar before taking the IELTS test, it’s better to get a specialized text.)
English Grammar in Use (Cambridge)
A great book for studying English at home is Raymond Murphy’s workbook, English Grammar in Use. (Make sure you get the version with answers.)
It’s the most popular grammar book in the world, and for good reason. Each grammar topic is explained in simple terms, with lots of examples and practice exercises.
At the back of the book, there is a test that you can take to identify which grammar topics are the most difficult for you.
In fact, the best way to study this book is to start with the topics that you find most interesting or confusing. Do note, however, that the Intermediate book is written for B1/B2 learners, so if your English level is lower or higher, you should consider getting the Beginner or Advanced books instead.
Practical English Usage (Oxford)
A common problem with grammar books (in any language) is that they give the reader too much information. They are written by linguistics professors who are interested in the history, psychology, or science of language — so they don’t explain common problems for English learners.
In contrast, Practical English Usage is designed specifically for readers who want to learn English. It was first published in 1980 and has been improved several times over the past 40 years.
For intermediate and advanced students, it is a great resource to have. Do note, however, that there are no exercises. It only offers explanations and examples.
English Grammar: Understanding the Basics (Cambridge)
If you feel confused about terms like ‘transitive’ and ‘intransitive’ verbs or ‘demonstrative’ and ‘interrogative’ pronouns, then another book to consider is Cambridge University’s English Grammar: Understanding the Basics.
Unlike the other two books above, this text explains English grammar step by step. It's especially useful if you have to do a lot of writing in English, but also good to read if you want to reach an advanced level fast.
With the other two books, you will how to fix your mistakes and build longer sentences, but this book helps you to understand ‘the big picture’ of English.
In the excerpt below (explaining phrasal verbs), you get a ‘taste’ of how clear and simple the book is.
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Best Books to Improve Your Speaking Skills
Of course, the best way to improve your speaking skills is to practice with a tutor or some English-speaking friends. But you can also learn a lot about speaking from a couple good books, like those below.
English Conversation (Practice Makes Perfect)
If you want to feel comfortable conversing with English-speaking friends, colleagues, or family members, a good book to study is Practice Makes Perfect: English Conversation by the American publisher, McGraw-Hill.
This book teaches you common phrases and idioms through sample conversations, detailed explanations, and practice exercises for common situations like:
- introducing yourself and other people
- expressing opinions, likes, and dislikes
- expressing wants and needs
- narrating a story or retelling a conversation
You can also listen to audio recordings of the conversations on their website or via their free Android and iPhone apps.
The excerpt below offers an example of the difficulty level. It is suitable for B2/C1 students, but may be a little too difficult for A2/B1 students.
Ship or Sheep? An Intermediate Pronunciation Course
Another very good book to have if you are trying to learn English at home is Ship or Sheep? Published by Cambridge, this text can help you learn to pronounce English words and sentences clearly and naturally.
Similar to English Grammar in Use, the book is structured so that you do not need to start at the beginning. Each unit focuses on a specific sound (including English’s 24 consonants and 19 different vowel sounds).
There are also example dialogues, practice exercises, and games that you can play with a study partner, classmate, or tutor. (Make sure you get the audio CDs that accompany the book!)
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Best Books for IELTS Preparation
Finally, if you want to attend an English-speaking university or get a visa to work in an English-speaking country, you will probably need to take the IELTS. The three books below can help you get the best possible score.
The Official Cambridge Guide to IELTS
In addition to creating a lot of good self-study books, Cambridge is one of the co-creators of the IELTS. So it’s unsurprising that they also publish the best book for preparing to take the test.
The Official Cambridge Guide to IELTS is written for English learners with a minimum B1 reading level, and offers guidance for how to prepare for both versions of the IELTS (Academic and General Training). In addition, the book includes lots of tips, explanations, exercises, audio and visual examples – plus 8 complete practice tests.
Do note, however, that this book does not teach you vocabulary or grammar. It focuses on listening, reading, speaking, and writing skills – just like the IELTS itself.
Vocabulary for IELTS Advanced (Cambridge University Press)
Note: this book is designed for learners who plan to take the IELTS Academic test, and want to get a Band 7, 8, or 9 score. If you only plan to take the General Training test, a better book to study is English Collocations in Use (see above).
Grammar for IELTS (Cambridge University Press)
If you find the IELTS Writing Tasks difficult (or if it is important for you to get a high score in that section), then a good book to study is Grammar for IELTS.
This text focuses on the particular formal and academic grammar structures that you should master to get a high score on the test (and to succeed at an English-speaking university).
Photo by Lacie Slezak