Although there are many ways to learn English, the best place to begin is with a few high-quality textbooks.
In my own experience as an autodidact, no other method offers so much information for so little money. Not apps, not podcasts, not YouTube.
(Even free learning materials cost something: your time. The more time you spend on a poorly designed learning program, the less time you have for other goals and interests.)
I also find that my students who are the fastest English learners are also partial autodidacts: they do extra self-study at home, and they spend their study time on books.
With that in mind, here are 11 books that I typically recommend to students who want to do extra self-study. I’ve organized the list into three categories:
- Best Vocabulary Books
- Best Grammar Books
- Best Books for Speaking & Pronunciation
- Best Books for IELTS Preparation
If you’re planning to take the IELTS, I’ve also include 3 useful books designed for IELTS preparation.
Some of these books are a bit pricey – but when you consider that you will study them and refer back to them for many weeks, months, or years, they may be the cheapest investment you make in your education.
- Best Books for Improving English Vocabulary
- Best Books for Learning English Grammar
- Best Books to Improve Your Speaking Skills
- Best Books for IELTS Preparation
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.
(Note: If your goal is to improve your vocabulary before taking the IELTS, it’s better to get a specialized text.)
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.
A good knowledge of collocations (typical word combinations) is essential for fluent and natural-sounding English. Using collocations will improve your style of written and spoken English, and knowledge of collocations is often tested in examinations such as Cambridge FCE, CAE, CPE and IELTS. Learning correct word combinations will also help you avoid common learner errors. English Collocations in Use presents and practises hundreds of collocations in typical contexts. It is ideal for students at good intermediate level and above.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Practice Makes Perfect – English Conversation
Offering a winning formula for getting a handle on speaking English right away, Practice Makes Perfect: English
- Engaging dialogues illustrate practical conversational situations
- Example phrases or sentences clarify each point
- A variety of exercises for practice, with an answer key that provides instant feedback and reference
- Practical and high-frequency vocabulary used throughout
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.
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!)
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.
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.
The book covers all the vocabulary needed by students aiming for band 6.5 and above in the IELTS tests and provides students with practice of exam tasks from each paper. Cambridge Vocabulary for IELTS Advanced focuses on moving students to 6.5 and beyond by working on vocabulary-building strategies necessary for success at advanced levels. It includes useful tips on how to approach IELTS exam tasks and covers especially tricky areas such as paraphrase and collocation. It is informed by the Cambridge English Corpus to ensure that the vocabulary is presented in genuine contexts and includes real learner errors. The Audio CD contains the listening and pronunciation exercises from each unit. The material is suitable for self-study or homework tasks, and may also be used in class with the teacher.
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
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).
Listening activities introduce the grammar points, so listening skills develop while you study. A wide range of tasks from the Academic and General Training Reading and Writing papers, plus the Listening paper, provide plenty of test practice. Work through the units or focus on areas that need more practice. The answer key includes tape scripts and model writing answers. The book comes with a CD containing all the listening material.