I love using stories and books in my classes with young learners, and conjuring up that special Story Time magic. However, when it comes to second language teaching, not any old picture book will do!
Here, I list my top picks of the books I use in my classes and which I think work really well for teaching English to young children. I’ve included the target language for each book as well as some ideas for how to use them. I will be adding to this list, so check back from time to time for updates. Also please feel free to share your favourites in the comments section – there are so many wonderful picture books out there and I love discovering new ones!
I’ve divided my recommended books list into two sections – the first is my favourite books for 3-5 year olds, and the second is a list of books that I’ve found work really well with a wider age range, from 3 to 8 years old. However, this is just my experience and you may find that some books work better than others with your own students.
Cat's Colours by Jane Cabrera
I love the simple, bold illustrations in this book, which are ideal for younger children. As you read, your kids can try and guess which colour is Cat’s favourite, and at the end say why!
Pete the Cat: I love My White Shoes by James Dean
Pete the Cat is a popular preschool character, and there are some great books in the series. This one is perfect for eliciting colours words from kids, and having them join in Pete’s “I love my……shoes!” song on every page!
Mouse Shapes by Ellen Stoll Walsh
This book works well for reviewing shapes and exploring all the different things you can make when you put them together. There is quite a lot of text, so I really simplify this one for my little students, but the basic story is easy for them to understand. After reading, you can give the children some plastic or card shapes and have them build different things too!
Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell
This is a great lift-the-flap book to get kids guessing what animal is in each different crate or cage. It’s also a good opportunity to compare wild animals and pets and teach adjectives to describe different animals.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carl
This preschool classic works really well in the ESL classroom, as it covers a wide range of vocabulary areas. As it’s such a popular book, you’ll find lots of resources and ideas for follow-up activities too!
Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? by Eric Carle
This is a good book for getting kids participating! Children try to guess which animal is on the next page – make the noise yourself, and try to elicit the animal name and the noise from the children. You can also encourage them to do the chant for each animal before you make the noise (for example “Polar bear, polar bear, what do you hear?”). You can also use the book to revise the colours of all the different animals.
From Head to Toe by Eric Carle
Another great Eric Carle book with very simple language and clear illustrations. It basically invites children to copy the actions for each animal which really helps them to associate the words and their meanings in a kinaesthetic way. Fun and engaging for preschoolers!
Pete the Cat and his Four Groovy Buttons by James Dean
As Pete’s buttons pop off one by one, kids can count back from 4 to zero and learn that things come and things go! Lots of rhyme and repetition in this fun book.
Go Away, Big Green Monster! By Ed Emberley
Excellent for reviewing parts of the face and colours, as well as encouraging participation as kids shout “Go Away!” for the last half of the book.
Where’s Spot? By Eric Hill
This is a very cute, classic lift-the-flap book. Young kids love guessing what might be hiding in each room in the search for Spot. Fun follow-up activities include doing your own Where’s Spot? hunt, by hiding different toy animals in different places in your classroom and going round with the children to see what’s hiding. Leave the puppy until last!
Ouch! I Need a Plaster! By Nick Sharratt
I love Nick Sharratt's books, and this one covers a topic that little kids can really relate to! Kids can count the plasters on each page as one by one they are used up – so it’s good for reviewing numbers (you can even get some addition and subtraction practice with the 5 year olds!). At the end of the book the nurse has one plaster left. I like to have a real one on hand to put on a teddy or a doll as a “patient”! If you have a small group, you can also recreate the story afterwards and have a box of eight plasters that you put on each of the kids – they LOVE this! One thing to be aware of is that this book is British English (in the U.S. a plaster is a band-aid).
Does a Cow Say Boo? by Judy Hindley
This is a nice little story that’s great for getting kids participating by making the animal sounds and asking the question throughout “Who says Boo?”. There are lots of different animals included in the book, and a fun twist at the end!
Maisy at the Farm by Lucy Cousins
I love all the Maisy books, although I have to say they are more appropriate for 3-4 year olds than 5 year olds. “Maisy at the Farm” is delightful – lots of flaps to open and tabs to pull, things to find and count. My only criticism is that there is no cow in the book!
Maisy’s Wonderful Weather Book by Lucy Cousins
Another very cute book with lots of moving parts. Great for talking about things you wear in different weather, and the rainbow at the end gives you the opportunity to review colours vocabulary with your kids. Again, I would recommend this more for 3-4 year olds.
Pete the Cat: Pete’s Big Lunch by James Dean
Young kids will love seeing Pete’s sandwich get bigger and bigger as he adds all sorts of different ingredients. If you have some play food, let them have a go at making a huge sandwich too, and see how big they can make it. Alternatively, take flashcards of different foods and have the kids try to stack them, by placing the cards on inverted plastic cups and balancing them one on top of the other!
Goldilocks and the Three Bears – Ladybird First Favourite Tales
This book has great illustrations and fairly simple text with plenty of opportunity for acting out the voices of the different characters! As I like to use the book to teach opposites, I say that Mother Bear’s porridge is cold (not lumpy, as the book says). Good follow-up activities are role play with stick puppets, or comparing different items (or flashcards with pictures) to explore hard and soft, big and small, hot and cold.
Little Red Riding Hood – Ladybird First Favourite Tales
This version stays fairly true to the original story in that the woodcutter kills the wolf at the end, but the wolf doesn’t eat the grandmother so it isn’t quite so gruesome! The “My Fairytale Time: Little Red Riding Hood” by Miles Kelly Publishing is completely violence free (the woodcutter chases the wolf away), but it’s hard to get hold of a copy unfortunately.
Sam’s Sandwich by David Pelham
Early primary kids will get a real kick out of this story, in which naughty Sam makes a sandwich for his sister and adds some creepy crawly surprises with each ingredient! It’s basically a “lift-the-flap” book for older kids, and so there’s lots of opportunity for them to guess which insect is hiding on each page.
Tap the Magic Tree by Christie Matheson
This is a lovely interactive book which encourages kids to actively participate with actions and gestures as the tree goes through all the seasons.
Under the Sea by Anna Milbourne
This is a factual book with beautiful illustrations, that takes the reader on a journey through the sea from the surface to the depths and back up again. Plenty of opportunity to practise ocean animal vocabulary! You can ask the children to count the different animals on each page, or ask the colours of different creatures.
What’s in the Witch’s Kitchen by Nick Sharratt
This is an ingenious lift the flap book that has kids guessing what nice and nasty things are hidden in different parts of the Witch’s kitchen. It’s aimed at younger kids, but older ones will still enjoy it. It does include a bit of potty humour, so if you’re uncomfortable that this book isn’t for you!
Ketchup on Your Cornflakes by Nick Sharratt
This is another ingenious book by Nick Sharratt. The pages are divided into two halves, so you can mix and match them to make all sorts of silly combinations with the question “Do you like…?” Again, it’s really aimed at younger kids, but 7-8 year olds will also really enjoy making the most disgusting or the funniest combinations possible!
The Way I Feel by Janan Cain
This is another book that’s really aimed at younger native children but the illustration style isn’t babyish, so you can also use it with older ESL kids. I also found it useful to talk about the use of colours to express emotions with my 6-8 year olds, and to ask them how they feel in different situations.
Baby Animals – Dolphin Reader Starter
A short book (8 pages) of ultra-cute baby animals! For younger kids, focus on key vocabulary, counting the animals and describing their colours. For older kids, have them read a sentence from the book, or look for the animal words in the text.
How’s the Weather? - Dolphin Reader Level 1
This is a very short and simple book (8 pages), but it covers a lot of vocabulary areas. As follow-up, I like to put a pile of clothes in the centre and say to one child, for example “It’s cold!” and the child must dress up accordingly. They love this activity!
Winnie and Wilbur: Winnie the Witch by Valerie Thomas
This is the first book in the series and is a fun story for reviewing colours. You can get kids joining in with saying “Abracadabra!” when Winnie does her spells and guessing what colours Winnie might turn Wilbur.
Winnie and Wilbur in Winter by Valerie Thomas
In this story, Winnie is fed up with winter and decides to bring summer into her garden – but soon regrets it! Kids will love looking at all the crazy characters that turn up in her garden. You can follow up the story with a “dressing for the weather” activity (see “How’s the Weather” above), or a charades game where the kids act out different things you do in different weather (for example eating an ice cream, sunbathing, building a snowman etc.) and the others guess the activity and what season it is.
Winnie and Wilbur: The Amazing Pumpkin by Valerie Thomas
This is a good book to do around Halloween or harvest time. By accident, Winnie makes everything in her garden grow huge and ends up with an enormous pumpkin – but what can she do with it? Before showing kids the last page have them think what she might use the empty pumpkin for. You can follow up with some pumpkin activities – comparing sizes of different pumpkins, and even doing some pumpkin carving if you have time (although make sure you do the cutting and they just do the scooping!)
The Enormous Turnip – Ladybird First Favourite Tales
This is a simple story with repetitive action that young kids love! As you read, have the kids count how many characters are lined up trying to pull up the enormous turnip, and have them guess who or what might come along next to help. I’ve found that early primary kids enjoy this story as much as preschoolers.
If you want to learn more about how best to use picture books in your ESL classroom, do check out my article, "How to Use Picture Books in your ESL preschool and early primary classes", where I cover the challenges of using picture books in class, tips for effective story-telling, Story Time set-up and follow-up, and what kinds of books to look for when choosing a story.