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Accent on English: tools for learning

IN THE UNITED STATES today, non-English speakers are everywhere; they may include professionals and laborers, economic and political exiles, foreign college students, trailing spouses, sojourners and settlers, indigenous longtime residents, and the children of all these. What they share is a desire to learn to speak English, if not like a native, then at least well enough to get a job, pass a college entrance exam, obtain citizenship, and participate more fully in American life.

Language learners have long relied on public libraries for study materials, and their dependence is even stronger today as the demand (and the waiting lists) for English classes grow. And more librarians are recognizing that English as a Second Language (ESL) programming serves their institutions’ mission. [While there are variant terms and acronyms–English as a Living Language (ELL), English as Non-Native Language (ENNL), English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), etc.–this article will use ESL. Although not precise, its meaning is widely understood.]

Since LJ last considered this topic (see “English Without Tears: ESL Materials,” LJ 9/1/92, p. 139-142), ESL instruction has moved from the abstract to the practical. Rote memorization and pattern practice have given way to an emphasis on activities that foster real-life language use at every stage of learning. In addition, the Internet and the development of increasingly sophisticated self-study software have enabled learners too timid to approach instructors to develop skills privately in realistic, self-paced, nonthreatening environments.

The ABCs of ESL collections

In building an ESL collection, your most comprehensive selection tools will be catalogs used by instructors. Alta Book Center (14 Adrian Ct., Burlingame, CA 94010; 800-258-2375; www.altaesl.com) and Delta Systems (1400 Miller Pkwy., McHenry, IL 60050; 800-323-8270; www. delta-systems.com) have thick, detailed catalogs filled with print and audiovisual materials and software for ESL learners and teachers.

Multi-Cultural Books & Videos (28880 Southfield Rd., Suite 183, Lathrup Village, MI 48076; 800-567-2220; multiculturalbooksandvideos.com) and Multilingual Books (1205 E. Pike, Seattle, WA 98122; 206-328-7922; www. multilingualbooks.com) include broad selections of ESL materials among their rich multilingual, multimedia offerings.

Anna Silliman and Abigail Tom’s Practical Resources for Adult ESL: A Selection Guide to Materials for Adult ESL and ESL/ESOL Literacy (Alta Book Ctr. 2000. ISBN 1-882483-80-4. pap. $13.95) lists more than 250 items, arranged in 13 easy-to-consult sections according to skill areas and material types. It also includes a list of North American ESL publishers and distributors.

Ideally, local ESL stakeholders will have a say in helping build your collection. Some choices are easy if you know what’s already being used by local teachers and students. And they, along with community groups and employers, can help you identify the key language needs of your clientele.

Beyond curricular program support, try to shape your collection with an eye toward independent study, be it by enrolled students looking for something extra or by autonomous learners unable to take classes owing to time or other constraints. Many standard texts are explicitly for classroom use; recurrent instructions to “pair up with a classmate and discuss” can be distracting, perhaps even depressing, to the solo student.


Criteria for selection

British or American English? It makes a big difference to learners: AV materials are nearly useless if their dialect is wrong for your region. U.S. catalogs normally identify British English items, but ask before ordering if you’re uncertain.

Good catalogs also specify the language level and age range of their products and often mention the item’s skill focus and instructional approach. Your purchase decisions will rest on your knowledge of your users’ characteristics: How old are they and what are their interests? What are their levels of English and native-language literacy? Where are they from? Bilingual ESL items are readily available in some two dozen languages.

What are they doing here? The focus needed by various groups will be different, and there are likely to be texts for each one. If you know which industries in your town employ a lot of recent immigrants, you’ll be able to choose wisely from the many vocational ESL books that target restaurant staff, computer and tech workers, landscapers, caregivers, hotel personnel, and others.

Weed with care

Although languages change slowly, ideas about teaching them have occasionally been prone to fads. Never be dazzled by lavish claims; as with diet books, there really is no magic bullet. Does that mean you must automatically dump your old Audio-Lingual Method-based sets? Not necessarily. Variety being the spice of life for learners, some learners may feel well served by “outmoded” approaches. If you can spare the shelf space, don’t be afraid to keep items that are in good condition, unfashionable though they may be.

Books with fill-in-the-blank exercises create a familiar weeding problem. Few libraries can afford to replace every marked-up book, so it’s the incorrectly marked specimens that should go first. Users who encounter accurately filled blanks may well be annoyed, but at least they won’t be misled. Take action to stave off this problem by preparing friendly care-of-the-book stickers in collaboration with local speakers of languages other than English.

Some citizenship materials have a finite shelf life owing to frequent changes in immigration laws. The citizenship exam’s question pool is fairly stable, but you should beware of books that proffer outdated guidance on INS application procedures, fees, and eligibility requirements. The agency’s N-400 form–the Application for Naturalization–was superseded January 1, 2002, and as of this writing it is not clear that the INS itself won’t be absorbed by a new Homeland Security Agency. Also be careful with locally produced or electronic products that name current elected officials in practice test answers–when those rascals get thrown out, make sure the item itself is thrown out or revised.


The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), an admission requirement for nearly all nonnative English speakers at U.S. colleges and universities, has seen changes in recent years. Mid-1998 brought the introduction of a computer-based version (examinees can choose between this and the paper test), and there is an expository writing component absent in years past.

Don’t forget to promote your collection with vernacular-language flyers and signage. Collaboratively creating signs is a way to involve your community’s linguisic minorities and encourage them to have a stake in their library. And remember to make the experience of using the library as pleasant as possible by easing access and comprehension.

The following list reflects the mixture of materials you should have in your collection. Choices of audio, video, CD-ROMs, periodicals, web sites, and books offer chances to develop a variety of skills in endlessly interesting ways. The absence of some well-known old standbys–the Azar English Grammar series, audio kits from Pimsleur and Living Language–is not meant to slight their value and importance but rather to make room for some titles likely to be missed. Starred [*] items are essential for most collections.


–English, Laura M. & Sarah Lynn. Business Across Cultures: Effective Communication Strategies. Longman: Addison-Wesley. 1996. 182p. illus. ISBN 0201-82532-5. pap. $23.47.

Although oriented toward fostering classroom discussion, this workbook’s provocative consideration (with case studies and exercises) of communication breakdowns attributable to cultural differences can encourage intermediate ESL students, even those studying alone (a self-contained answer key is included), to reflect on some of the frictions and frustrations of culture shock

–Webster’s Business Writing Basics. Federal Street: Merriam-Webster. 2001. 400p. illus, index. ISBN 1-892859-27-0. $9.98.

This thick style manual and reference handbook for intermediate and advanced ESL students covers virtually every form of written business communication, from memos to e-mail to press releases. Fifty different kinds of sample business letters appear, along with guidance on grammar, punctuation, and the finer points of electronic correspondence.


–English on the Job/Ingles en el trabajo. Southwestern. 1992. 110p. illus. ISBN 0-923176-10-1. pap. $7.95.

Though a phrase book can, in the wrong hands, be more of a crutch than a learning tool, the usefulness of this slim pocket-sized volume for beginning English speakers is unquestionable. (There’s also a handy Spanish on the Job for their employers.) Phonetic renderings of common utterances in a bilingual Spanish-English format cover typical circumstances in such employment areas as landscaping, construction, restaurant work, and housekeeping.

–* Robinson, Catherine & Jenise Rowekamp. Speaking Up at Work. Oxford Univ. 1985. 192p. illus. ISBN 0-19-434196-8. pap. $10.95.

More than a few ESL instructional hours have been squandered teaching students how to grovel, apologize, and snap to attention. This book addresses in 33 units less servile uses of occupational English: clarifying work assignments and schedules, broaching the subject of promotion, and, yes, calling in sick. For intermediate students.

–Talalla, Renee. Main Course: Language and Skills for Restaurant Workers. Falcon Pr. (Selangor, Malaysia), dist. by Delta Systems. 2000. 86p. illus. ISBN 983-9672-67-3. pap. $13.50.

Often the difference between waiting tables and busing them is a few hundred English words. Main Course relies on cartoons and training-style exercises to help beginning and intermediate students acquire the specialized lexicon of food service. The presentation is reinforced by a complete glossary, and an optional CD provides listening practice.


–Owensby, Jean & others. English for Technology. Dominie. 1999. 146p. illus. ISBN 0-7685-0008-7. pap. $14.95.

If you’ve ever used a bank machine in a foreign country you might know the peculiar thrill that comes with pressing a button based on hurried guesswork; the language demands are not trivial. This book equips students to use and discuss confidently the electronic devices and interfaces that have become indispensable in everyday North American life, including vending machines, gas pumps, office machinery, and even library OPACs.


–Fisher, Kathleen S. Health Easy to Read: For Ages 10-Adult. Fisher Hill. 1996. 107p. ISBN 1-878253-09-3. pap. $12.95.

Content-based grammar and reading instruction centering on familiar themes of health, illness, and personal care. Diet and exercise, alcohol and drug abuse, poison control and fire safety are among the topics designed to convey the virtues of good living and good English. Vocabulary and activity pages (with an answer key) accompany each reading.

–Outterson, Beth & Kathleen Flannery Silc. ESL for Farm Safety. Assn. of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, 4350 N, Fairfax Dr., Suite 410, Arlington, VA 22203; 703-528-4141; www.afop.org. (Working with English). 1997. 95p. illus, student ed. ISBN 1-886567-06-9. pap. $12. tchr.’s manual. ISBN 1-886567-07-7. pap. $25.

This text presumes a low literacy level, building on illustrations to deal with minimizing exposure to pesticides, recognizing and responding to poisoning, and avoiding injury in agricultural work–perennially one of the three most hazardous occupations in the United States.

–* Ringel, Harvey. Key Vocabulary for a Safe Workplace. New Readers. 2000. 108p. illus. ISBN 1-56420-175-9. pap. $11.50.

The most dangerous jobs in America have traditionally been filled by recent immigrants, particularly those with limited or nonexistent English skills. Sections on ergonomics, tool safety, warning signs and caution labels, and first aid make this text–which is part of a set for which a teacher’s manual and photocopy masters are also available–a potentially lifesaving read. For students at high beginning and low intermediate levels.


–Collins Cobuild New Student’s Dictionary. 2d ed. HarperCollins. titania. cobuild.collins.co.uk/catalogue/newsstud. html. 2002. 1088p. illus. ISBN 0-00712034-6. pap. $24.

Over the past decade, our understanding of languages has been revolutionized by corpus analysis. Computers examine enormous banks of text, tallying words, identifying patterns, and spurring empirical discoveries about how we really talk and write. Applying cutting-edge linguistics work directly to language study, the Cobuild dictionaries are exciting products of this research. This one, suited to intermediate ESL learners, emphasizes commonly used words and employs a two-color format to enhance the clarity of its definitions.

–* Pamwell, E.C. The New Oxford Picture Dictionary (Monolingual). Oxford Univ. 1988. 124p. illus, index. ISBN 0-19-434199-2. pap. $10.95.

Oxford’s beautifully realized picture dictionaries, featuring sensible thematic organization and clean, colorful drawings, have spun off series at various levels and spawned appealing teaching aids from cassettes to flash cards. Series volumes (e.g., for kids) include up to 2400 words and come in nine bilingual versions (e.g., Cambodian and Navajo) in addition to the monolingual dictionary.

–* Random House Webster’s Easy English Dictionary. Random House. 2001. 620p. illus. ISBN 0-375-70484-1. pap. $12.95.

For a language learner, graduating to a monolingual dictionary is a significant step toward integrating the target language rather than translating back and forth. The controlled vocabulary and generous use of illustrations and examples in this volume’s 13,000 definitions make it a realistically useful, highly explicit first dictionary. The intermediate and advanced versions also incorporate levels of explanation that encourage understanding and exploration


–Gulland, Daphne M. & David Hinds-Howell. The Penguin Dictionary of English Idioms. 2d ed. Penguin. 2001. 378p. index. ISBN 0-14-051481-3. pap. $17.

Idioms are hard to learn, easy to misuse, and eternally captivating for learners who strive to speak like the natives. This dictionary, not overwhelmingly British, indulges students’ curiosity and preserves the fascination embedded in figures of speech, thanks to its principled thematic organization and cross-indexing.

–Spears, Richard A. NTC’s American Idioms Dictionary. 3d ed. NTC Contemporary. 2000. 625p. ISBN 0-8442-02738. $18.95; pap. ISBN 0-8442-0274-6. $14.95.

As with any good idiom dictionary, examples of use in context are furnished for the more than 8500 words and expressions found here. (LJ 5/15/00).


Several series of controlled-vocabulary readers available through ESL suppliers offer considerable variety, reasonable pricing, and carefully calibrated difficulty. The Oxford Bookworm (Oxford Univ. $5.95 per book) series begins at a threshold level of 400 words (i.e., each book graded at Level 1 tells its story using a set of 400 words) and progresses through five more steps to a 2000-word vocabulary. Mostly familiar tales (David Copperfield; The 39 Steps) distributed among six genres comprise the nearly 90 titles in the series. Heinemann’s Guided Readers (Heinemann. $3.95-$5.45) start at 300 words and by the sixth level reach 2000, also offering simplified versions of classic literature together with newer titles, about double the number that Oxford offers.


–Freeman, Daniel B. Speaking of Survival. Oxford Univ. 1982. 228p. illus. ISBN 0-19-503110-5. pap. $10.95; with audiocassette. ISBN 0-19-434105-4. $17.50.

Although many immigrants have survived for years without English, tending to rely on intermediaries, often children, for help with essential functions, life gets a lot less frustrating once they learn how to tell off a phone solicitor. Freeman’s text is an old standby that employs illustrations and drills to reinforce the language needed to cope with everyday encounters and misfortunes.

–Molinsky, Steven J. & Bill Briss. Access: Fundamentals of Literacy and Communication. Prentice Hall. 1990. 124p. illus. ISBN 0-13-004235-8. pap. $17.67.

The authors of the ever-popular Side by Side ESL series designed this text to carry preliterate learners through the early steps of shape discernment and left-to-right scanning while developing basic writing, speaking, and listening skills. A matching teacher’s guide is available.

–Mosteller, Lee & others. Survival English: English Through Conversations. Vol. 1.2d ed. Prentice Hall. 1994. 260p. illus. ISBN 0-13-016635-9. pap. $21.55.

The low beginning level of a three-part series walks new English speakers gently through simple dialogs built around everyday situations. Easy-to-follow illustrations and varied exercises consistent with the context of the unit, such as filling out forms, connect this text to the real world.


–Gallagher, Nancy. Delta’s Key to the TOEFL[C] Test. Delta Systems. 1999. 731p. illus. ISBN 1-887744-52-5. pap. $34.95 with CD-ROM.

Of the many TOEFL study aids available, this is one of the most comprehensive and flexible. The book and CD-ROM package accommodates examinees who choose to take either the CBT (Computer-Based Test) or old-fashioned paper version. In addition, a five-cassette battery of listening practice tapes can be purchased separately or in combination. Extensive practice tests and quizzes present more than 2000 questions (with a reasonably navigable answer key), and the CD-ROM is dual platform, compatible with Mac and Windows. Ten full-length exams can be taken in authentic TOEFL format, or restructured to allow the learner to focus on particular sections.

–Weintraub, Lynne. Citizenship: Passing the Test. 2d ed. New Readers. 2001. 192p. illus. ISBN 1-56420-281-X. pap. $14; audio CD. ISBN 1-56420-297-6. $16.

Since the naturalization exam is an oral interview, strategies such as circumlocution take on an importance they don’t have in the TOEFL. Designed for low beginning speakers, the text covers the essential information but also test-taking techniques and confidence-building exercises. An optional teacher’s guide is available.


–* English for Beginners. 4 vols. color. 120 min. with text. California Language Laboratories, PO Box 176, Cupertino, CA 95014; 800-327-1147; www.esltapes.com. 1993. $100 (or $65 for first two parts, $63 for last two).

[VIDEO] These video sets ease beginners bilingually (in 21 languages) into using English. The translation ratio is deliberately kept at about 3.5 to 1 in favor of English–repetition is frequent and the situations are fairly simple. A visit to the library is included in the videos. CLL also produces a bilingual video for citizenship study, with versions in the same 21 flavors.

–Nazar, Jose Luis & others. Ingles Sin Barreras. 12 vols. color. 24 hrs. Lexicon Mktg. Corp., 640 S. San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90048; 888-777-7777; www.inglessinbarreras.com. 2002. $1299.

[VIDEO] Production values are high, and the packaging is lavish: each two-hour video is housed in a sturdy plastic case along with an audiocassette, text, and workbook for the individual lesson, which deals with relevant themes from everyday life. Engaging bilingual instructors and a variety of recurring presenters help viewers feel at home in the course, which is as much a motivational seminar about triumphing in the United States as it is about language. The only barrier is the price tag.

–* Rosetta Stone (American English). (Rosetta Stone Language Library). Fairfield Language Technologies, 135 W. Market St., Harrisonburg, VA 22801; 800-788-0822; www.rosettastone.com. 2000. $199 single user; $299 multiuser license.

[VIDEO] Many learners find Rosetta Stone irresistible; the software is challenging, varied, and entertaining, combining solid applied linguistics with high technology for an experience that moves at users’ own pace and furnishes constant feedback. It even lets students see their accents graphically, comparing it to that of a native speaker as they record and play back their voices. The Los Angeles Public Library is among those that make Rosetta Stone available to cardholders via the library’s web site.


–Easy English News. m. $2.50/m. Eardley Pubns., PO Box 2596, Fair Lawn, NJ 07410; FAX 201-791-1901. ISSN 1091-4951

This 12-page tabloid runs well-written news and features aimed at the interests of adult immigrants, written at a third- or fourth-grade reading level. American holidays are featured in every issue. Photos and illustrations add context, and 150 or so difficult words are boldfaced where they appear in articles and are explained in a separate glossary.


–* Auerbach, Elsa R. & Nina Wallerstein. ESL for Action: Problem Posing at Work. Addison-Wesley. 1987. 192p. ISBN 0-201-00101-2. pap. $16.47.

This influential, prescient text still serves teachers as well as it does learners. It offers the former a view of how action research can powerfully drive student-centered adult education in which genuine experiences and concerns enhance relevance and thus learning. For the latter it fosters a move from object to dignified subject and toward active critical consciousness in the spirit of Paulo Freire.

–Sperling, Dave. Dave Sperling’s Internet Guide. 2d ed. Prentice Hall. 1998. 183p. illus. ISBN 0-13-918053-2. pap. $23.45 with CD-ROM.

Sperling recognized early on the Internet’s potential in English teaching, showing the way with his web site (see below). This book will be a revelation to inexperienced volunteer teachers in search of ideas, and even veteran TESL professionals who embrace Sperling’s ethos are sure to find valuable resources and save themselves from endless reinvention of the wheel.


–* Dave’s ESL Cafe www.eslcafe.com

The opportunities for connection at the ESL Card–with other students and teachers around the world–constitute one of its main attractions, but the site also includes an imaginative array of interesting learning diversions.

–English Exercises www.better-english.com/ exerciselist.html

More than 200 online quizzes, organized by themes and topics, allow learners to get instant feedback and keep a running tally of their scores.

–The Monthly TESL Journal iteslj.org

Primarily a resource for teachers, this monthly journal also offers practice quizzes, crossword puzzles, and other activities.

Bruce Jensen is an MA-TESL who was drawn into librarianship by his adventures teaching English in public libraries. You can read more about these at the “Outreach” portion of his web site, Public Libraries Using Spanish (www.sol-plus.net). He recently earned his MLIS from UCLA and works as a reference librarian for the Metropolitan Cooperative Library System, Los Angeles