Six kinds of books on a language teacher’s bookshelf

After a slight hiatus while I was in Harrogate for IATEFL and Russia for Macmillan conferences, business resumes here at Six Things. This week I am joined by Paola Lizares, a teacher based in Australia and a great story that could only happen in the ELT blogosphere. Paola was reorganizing her bookshelf and she discovered that she could neatly divide her books into six categories. She then did what any sane, self-respecting teacher and reader of this blog would do. She sent me a message asking to do a post about it! 🙂 Only too happy to oblige, I present you with the results of the experiment. And an invitation to share your reading lists at the end!

I was getting irritated by how messy and disorganized my bookshelf was looking, so I decided to sort out all of the books. Lo and behold, they can be classified into six different categories! Below is a description of the types of books I own, as well as some recommendations.

1. Language

Being a language teacher, I own quite a few books on the topic of language. I won’t focus on the Macmillans, Cambridges, Oxfords, Longmans, or Heinles; I’m sure you already know them. Instead, let me recommend a gem of a book entitled An Introduction to Language. It’s by Fromkin, Rodman and Hyams. I had to read this in first-year college, and it has provided me with more-than-basic knowledge in the different fields of linguistics, from phonetics to sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics or neurolinguistics. It is easy to understand and is illustrated with real comic strips (“For Better or for Worse,” “Family Circus,” “Dennis the Menace” to name but a few.) This book is a must for anyone with even a mild interest in the languages of the world.

2. Fiction

Are there any language teachers who don’t read fiction? Where I work, most teachers are extremely well read. I’m not going to recommend any novels because it would be pretty difficult to choose only one, but I can recommend a masterpiece which, again, is a must-have for anyone interested in culture: D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. Published in 1962 by Ingrid and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire, it is an illustrated children’s book containing so much detailed information that it is an excellent way for adults to act blasé when they hear names such as Asclepius, Sisyphus or Jocasta.

This book has allowed me to explain to my students the etymology of words like ‘panic,’ ‘syringe,’ or the Bosphorus. I have also dictated passages to my students and used them as a basis to share myths and legends in a multicultural classroom setting. This video can be used in conjunction with the texts as listening practice.

3. Humor

When fiction gets too dense, it’s a good idea to liven up the classroom with some humorous texts. One funny writer is Christian Lander, who published Stuff White People Like. I have a signed copy of his book, which consists of a selection of his blog entries. Of course, you can find them on the Internet (

I’ve had my students go to the computer room to simply read as many of his blog entries as they can in twenty minutes, then I’ve had them choose their favorite three and talk to their partners about them. Then, we’ve had group feedback and we’ve discussed what exactly Lander means with the term ‘white people.’ Last of all, I’ve had my students write their own blog entry in a similar style, focusing on stuff people from their own country like. Interesting results!

4. Traveling

Most language teachers are well-traveled. This is evident in the high turnover in many language schools. I myself have lived in and traveled to quite a few countries; consequently, I have a nice collection of travel guides, my favorite ones being the Lonely Planet series.

I currently live in Brisbane, Australia, so let’s focus on The Lonely Planet Guide to Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef. I might show my students the information concerning the tourist attractions closest to Brisbane. I might get them to skim through the information and make the best travel itineraries for a group of senior citizens, a group of 20 eighteen-year-olds, a couple on their honeymoon, and a family with three kids. This activity is by no means original; still, it’s highly practical and potentially fun.

5. Cooking

Of course, all teachers must eat to survive. That’s, in fact, the main reason why we teach, right?

One of my favorite cookbooks is called 4 Ingredients, by Kim McKosker and Rachel Bermingham. It was written for beginner cooks, so it has brought me up to the pre-intermediate level of cooking. Yoohoo!

It’s a compilation of recipes involving no more than four ingredients. Published in Australia, it has some interesting recipes like Vegemite Twists. I could force my students to eat that the next time they get uncontrollable. They hate Vegemite!

6. Self-help

Yup, every once and a while a language teacher has to deal with rowdy, rude, picky, gloomy, uncooperative students. Many a situation has made me feel utterly depressed. I manage to push through by keeping a mood diary, visiting Lindsay’s website, and reading self-help books.

A book that’s been published here in Australia but that you can surely order online is the excellent Change your Thinking by Sarah Edelman. It focuses on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which, from what I understand, is a psychological school of thought which helps people overcome depression, stress, fear, or anger by challenging their core beliefs. For example, if a student gives negative feedback, an oversensitive person might believe that that means that he’s a bad teacher, ergo, a bad and stupid person. In fact, that’s nothing but irrational thinking. The book has really helped me a lot, so do add it to your library!

That’s my list. What about you? Could your books be organized in the same way? Or is there a category that you would include and that isn’t on my list?

Published in: on April 21, 2010 at 8:23 am  Comments (37)  
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  1. Hi Paola

    I’m looking at my shelf at work and even that can be categorised – textbooks, resource books (OUP Resource Books for Teachers), methodology (Thornbury), reference (Swan, fiction (Ladybird – useful for very low levels), exam handbooks (FCE, CAE). Will let you know about my shelves at home later.


    • Hi Mike,

      Thanks for being the first to post a comment. I am quite surprised so many people have replied!

      Yes, my language books can be classified into various groups, too. Even the beginner, elementary, pre-int, int, upper-int, advanced classification has six categories.

      What’s more, being a Spanish teacher as well, I have everything duplicate in the other language.

      Looking forward to hearing how your books at home could be classified!


  2. Hi Paola

    That’s quite incredible – simply because my book collection probably falls into six almost identical categories! Plenty of language/ linguistic books (more since going slightly crazy at Multilingual Matters at IATEFL!), lots of fiction (varying from the very literary-Kafka, Dostoevsky, etc. to the chick lit classics), humour in the form of husband’s graphic novels and my Wendy Cope poem collection, Lonely Planet is also my favourite guide book (got about 15 to date) along with lots of travelogues, a range of cook books of course (cooking is very therapeutic, I think – take your pent up aggression out on a wok!). I’ve even got some of the self-help section, although this will probably grow…!

    Thanks so much for the recommendations – I’ll be looking them up. Anything to allow me to bluff knowledge of the Greek myths…!

    • Hi Clare,

      You know, my colleague Rosie also said that her books almost fall into the same categories, too, with the exception of self-help; instead, she has history books. It makes me feel illiterate in comparison!

      Yeah, I got everything from Victorian novels to chick lit, too! Have you read ‘Anybody Out There?’ by Marian Keyes? And thanks for recommending Wendy Cope! I didn’t know who she was.


  3. Even though I’m a bit of a nomad and therefore tend not to keep books, I have about 8 books in my flat currently and they fit neatly into five of your categories, self-help books have never really appealed, I’m afraid.

    Thanks for the recommendations, but I see that ‘An Introduction to Language’ is 80-odd dollars on Amazon!

    • Hi Richard,

      Thanks for your comment. You’re lucky you don’t need self-help. It probably means that, unlike me, you have a healthy level of self-esteem. Mine tends to hit rock bottom every once and a while!

      It’s the eighth edition of ‘An Introduction to Language’ that’s so expensive. When I was at college, I read the second edition. Now I own a copy of the seventh. As far as I’m concerned, the differences mainly have to do with cultural references and some updated academic research. The different editions are essentially the same book, so if you can buy a second-hand copy of the third edition from a broke linguistics graduate, do so!


      • Thanks for replying. I did notice after a more detailed look – more than a glance, basically! – that there are a few older, used copied on Amazon, it looks quite interesting I might just have to part with a few pennies for that one!


  4. kids books take up a lot of space on my shelves too – (and growing as the kids are) – they’re also slowly creeping more and more into my teaching life -I recently used a Welsh language picture book with a class of 3 year olds to teach English – they didn’t care about the words – the pix were all we need for a storytelling stadnby lesson
    I’ve also used an old, old second hand 1950s book (about growing a carrot) with a class of adults – great springboard for memories of story-telling and some simple creative writing

    • Hi Ceri,

      I’d love to see that Welsh language picture book. I love languages where consonants abound!

      Your idea makes me think of the story ‘This is the house that Jack built.’ What a great way to teach relative clauses!


  5. Nice categories, I guess one difference I have is a growing collection of business-related books: reference, biographies, etc.

    Some of my favourites from the categories:

    Language: Azar’s Grammar books. (Love the timelines used for explaining tenses)

    Fiction: Animal Farm by George Orwell.

    Humour: No books that I can see, but is a good site for laughs

    Travel: Lonely Planet Guide for Korea (published awhile ago, and really out-of-date, but a sentimental favourite that came over with me to Korea from Canada back in 2003)

    Cooking: Some Indian recipes and cookbooks that I’ve got saved on PDF. (OK, not really books in the paper sense, but still good)

    Self-help: 7 Habits by Stephen Covey. (Great book

    Business books: Anything by Peter Drucker. The Daily Drucker is a good conversation warm-up for intermediate-level ELLs, especially managers and executives.

    • Hi Neil,

      Your comment is a great mini-version of my post. Ah, I wish I had more knowledge of business. I promise that I’ll look into Peter Drucker. Thanks for recommending him. Perhaps you could post something on Business English in this blog? (Maybe you already have; if so, please forget what I said.)

      My colleague Kyle likes Azar, too, so I’ll have to borrow his copy. As for ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,’ it happens to be the book I am reading right now! What a coincidence! I am in Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind. What a different way of seeing things!


      • yeah, it’s always good to visualise yourself having actually got successfully to the end of whatever daunting project lies ahead – whether it’s a tricky class of teenagers or a looming editorial deadline – athletes do it – they visualise themselves up on the podium kissing their medal – I visualise myself having a cool beer above the beach 😉

  6. Nice topic Paola,

    I’m running out of shelves – in my home office I have. Teaching methodology type books, Language reference type books (Dictionary of Applied Linguistics) Course books, activity books and exam practice books.

    I also have a a big library of books on Tibetan and Zen Buddhism (Tibetan Book of Living and Dying – my favourite) as well as religious poetry (Rumi and Rykon)

    I have some fiction (Iris Murdoch, Herman Hesse etc)

    A German/English dictionary

    I have (in my cellar) Lonely Planets Australia, South East Asia, Africa, India. (from my backpacking around the world days!)

    • Hi Steph,

      You sound like a very spiritual person, what with the Buddhism and the religious poetry and Herman Hesse.

      The most spiritual book I own is the Bible. I didn’t want to recommend it in my text because it’s a book everyone knows, but I guess that I really should mention it now. It’s good to just open it on whichever page to spend a minute or two reflecting.

      As a language teacher, I have two favorite Bible quotes:

      -“Ask and you shall receive.” Students shouldn’t be afraid to ask you questions. Pro-active students are the most successful ones, and so are pro-active teachers.

      -“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” Though ‘the word’ could refer to something infinitely and spiritually superior to what I could imagine, a rather literal interpretation still points out that language is so important in our world. This quote, in fact, gives me goosebumps!


  7. Hi, Paola!
    I am glad that you are in the field of teaching planting gems of good thoughts, knowledge, and wisdom. In a decade or so, you’ll be harvesting sweet fruits of your plantation, not only for yourself, but for your family and others, as well. Good luck to you always.
    All my love and prayers.
    Lola Vicky

  8. Hi Paola,

    Long time no see!!!
    I am not going to give you a list but just a name: La sombra del viento by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It has been one the books I’ve enjoyed the most lately.
    Best regards from the other side of the Earth

    Juan Carlos Alcazar

    • Hi Juan Carlos,

      Great to hear from you again on the Internet, just like in the good ol’ days!

      ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ is a bestseller here. I’ve even seen it in K-mart! I must admit that I haven’t read it, but when I visit my parents in Madrid in September, I’ll steal it from my parents’ bookshelf.


  9. Hi Paola,

    If anything will get langauge teachers talking it’s an invitation to analyze their libraries. Great post.

    Under fiction, I picked up more Victorian novels while teaching in Moscow than I had ever thought I would want to read. The prices were so low, that I could afford to read all the time. Who knew Dickens had a sense of humor?

    Under books on language, I have to put in a plug for Lindsay’s co-author David Crystal. Every teacher should save up and get a hardbound copy of The Stories of English. Even if you already know about Old and Middle English, this book will challenge what you thought you knew. (a publishing employee probably shouldn’t reccomend books he doesn’t publish, but this one is amazing).

    I never owned many travel books, but I always kept lots of travel magazines on hand. The pictures were perfect for cutting out and pasting on cards for various lessons, and some of the English-language articles were accessible to students.



    • Hi John,

      Thanks for your comment! Does your surname mean that you have Russian blood?

      I love David Crystal. He’s one of the gurus we studied back at university. And I love Victorian novels, too. The last Victorian novel I’ve bought is actually a vintage black-and-white photonovel of ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ It has heavily made-up actors who look more 1960s than 1860s. The best thing is the cover: it says that the author is Emily Bronte!!!


  10. Hi, Paola, nice post. Very readable and fun. I too have organized my books into categories–I find that it helps me find them when I go looking!

    One question: I have always thought the expression was “once in a while” instead of “once and a while.” Maybe the Australians have corrupted your English? [They do use a funny brand of English and always end their phrasings with a question mark?]


    • Oh no! Peter, you’ve got such an eye for detail! Your eyesight must be in great shape!

      And so the self-confident and almost arrogant language teacher learned a lesson from a sage film expert. Ah, humility!

  11. Hi, Paola! It´s quite strange to write you in English. I think our bookshelves talk about how we are. Most of my books are History and Archaeology ones. I´ve got them organized by Classics (Plinio, Herodoto, Homero…), global, Spanish History, Archaeology, Art (do you remember the one you give me for my birthday? I still have it) and Novels (for free time)

    What I´m thinking now is to clasify the as in libraries do. Sometimes it takes a lot of time to find the book you want. But that has to wait until I pass my Curator exam…This is a new category in my shelf: papers, articles and books to pass the exam!!!

    I really enjoy your post.



    • Hi Bea,

      It’s great to hear from you again! No, I can’t remember giving you an art book, but I do remember the mask of Tutankhamon that you made at my birthday party. Even back then you were an archaelogist!

      I sometimes wonder if the whole stuff on the Internet will last millions of years, and if future civilizations will discover this blog and sit in awe, trying to understand how we lived.

      Will email you later,


  12. I wonder how different life would be if you’d called this blog ‘5 things’.

    Do you think you could have organised your books into five categories?

    Do you ever wonder if this blog is starting to take over your life? 🙂

    • Hi Adam,

      Nice to receive a response from a regular on the blog!

      If this were, I’d probably put Traveling and Cooking together in category called Practical Books.

      I guess this blog is taking over Lindsay’s life more than mine, but, yes, especially these days I’ve been thinking about it a bit too much. For example, some hours ago it occurred to me that Trivial Pursuit has six categories, too. They’re Geography, Entertainment, History, Arts and Literature, Science and Nature, and Sports and Leisure. Would this be a good topic for the future?


    • LOL. Yes, I do sometimes wonder about that, especially when there are so many comments! I am letting Paola deal with most of these ones as it is her post though.

      I wouldn’t do this though if if weren’t so much fun. was taken when I originally checked btw!

      • You’d be surprised how often my posts could have become ‘six things’… I think it must have some karmic importance.

        Great post, by the way.

  13. Just realized that it’s the International Day of the Book! Lindsay, had you strategically planned to post my text this week, to coincide with the UNESCO event?

    • All part of my grand master plan Paola (well, I wish I could say that…)

  14. Hello. I am Paola’s mother. My six categories are a bit different and have to include a section for the books my children leave behind when they leave.

    • But if you were to classify them into six different categories, what would they be?

      With Mother’s Day approaching, let me announce to all the readers of this blog that the person who made sure that I was always reading a book, understanding it, enjoying it, and learning from it, was my mother.

      Thanks, mother!

      • Would that your brother were as obedient.

        1. LITERATURE
        mostly prose, mostly novels
        2. ART
        mostly exhibition catalogs
        mostly magazines, including the one I work for
        4. NONFICTION
        essays, biographies, memoirs, histories…
        dictionaries of many kinds, language-learning books, travel guides…

        [cookbooks not included because they go in the kitchen]

  15. I’ve just realised my course books are subdivided into a (very) few that are rightfully mine and a rather larger number that are probably classifiable as stolen by now. That is, the ones I’ve been given to use in all the different places I’ve worked and probably should have returned upon leaving. Also applies to a few from the other categories picked up from hotel libraries and the like.

  16. Hi Anonymous,

    I like getting books from hotel libraries, too, though I always make sure I exchange one of my books for one of theirs. I remember going to a nice cafe in Kakadu National Park. It had a great exchange library and a big sign that said, “No cheap romances, please!”


  17. Hi, Paola!

    I am an admirer of the life and writings of my (elder) cousin: your mother. After reading your piece, it’s good to know that sometimes the river could flow higher than its source.

    I share your categories, but instead of travel and self-help, I’ll have art and anthologies. We also used An Introduction to Language in college and I thoroughly enjoyed it (yes, because of the comic strips).

    Thank you for this timely article. My wall bookshelf has been empty since the Great Flood here in the Philippines in September ’09. I wasn’t at home when it struck, but fortunately a male cousin was there and he threw all the books up at the mezzanine landing where the water couldn’t reach. As I rearrange my books, I’ll have more imagination now in doing it. Before, I “catalogued” my books by thickness.

    • It’s great to hear that you read An Introduction to Language at school, too! My favorite comic strip in that book was one where the opposite of ‘uncouth’ was ‘couth,’ illustrating how English speakers love to invent and re-invent words.

      Thanks for your comment, Uncle Aris!

  18. Lindsay has uploaded a brand new post, so mine is already a thing of the past. I’d like to close this forum by thanking you all for reading me and for giving such interesting and positive feedback.

    I’d like to thank you, too, for all spelling my name (Paola) correctly. Most English speakers get it wrong. Kudos to all of you for being observant readers and careful spellers.

    My thanks to Lindsay, too, for giving me the chance to share a moment of inspiration with you. In six months, I might send him another text. So beware! I’ll be threatening you with a sequel.

    And finally, as a token of appreciation, here’s another way to organize books: by color. The six main colors (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple) can cause a stunning visual effect in your libraries when you arrange them following the order of the rainbow. This isn’t my idea, but my colleague Tom’s, and here’s the link he sent me:

    Bye for now!


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