The books that changed my life. Recommendations for English learners for World Book Day. by Steve Nugent - Profesor de inglés

The books that changed my life. Recommendations for English learners for World Book Day.

The three kids meet up in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960):

Here at Oxinity we are very keen on celebrating World Book Day on 23rd April & in championing allied initiatives such as footballer & philanthropist Marcus Rashford launching a book club to help kids get reading. We asked a number of our collaborating language teachers & students a few questions - as shown on the graphic here - including why they think that reading for pleasure in any language is fundamental, & what have been, for them,  the books that changed their lives that are still on their book shelves.


First the language learning bit. Reading, is of course, together with listening, the key receptive skill for acquiring language & it is perhaps the best way of forming the building blocks to expand & link together our vocabulary & to present (the boring old) grammar structures in context.  It I also, of course, something that we encourage to do purely for pleasure.  
At one of our Oxinity Teams meetings this week we brainstormed our ideas on the pros & cons of setting “homework” for our learners. But there lies an inherent negative connotation – reading should be seen as an exercise in enrichment & extension –  both big parts in enjoying & achieving. 


Look out then for some carefully curated & interactive lists of learning resources coming soon on the Oxinity web-pages.  Families in Spain use the term “boca-a-boca” for the English phrase “word-of-mouth” & it goes without saying that in our growing learning community we are all open to recommendations & suggestions.  Many of us get infinitive amounts of pleasure for helping others to get into, or signpost towards, new reading & other cultural highlights. 


Did you know that World Book Day is marked in over 100 countries around the globe? In the UK a charity of the same name is dedicated to changing lives through a love of books & shared reading. Their website states:
“..offering every child & young person the opportunity to have a book of their own. Reading for pleasure is the single biggest indicator of a child’s future success – more than their family circumstances, their parents’ educational background or their income”.

The message is consistent with detailed research done by the London Campaign for Reading around 10 years ago.  Researchers showed that the biggest single correlation with high literacy levels & the more general educational achievement of a child (in any language) was with the total number of books lying around in the child’s house. 

The best advice for families can only then be to buy, borrow, donate, swop & keep (not to throw away) books so that our kids might just stumble across them.  Using the old analogy – “you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make them drink - we are better guiding learners towards their own discoveries than trying to force them to read.  Loading a tablet with a load of books (including talking books) might be good practice but, of course, this generation of digital natives might favour swiping over to Minecraft, Roadblox, TikTock or Instagram instead.   



Why do I like reading? I could reply “Beats me!” At one point I had three copies of Joyce Johnson’s ‘Minor Characters’ – a moving memoir from a young woman who had been in the orbit of the famous ‘Beat’ writers in the late 50s. In my twenties if I wanted to impress a pal or say interest a potential girlfriend in the same literary scene as me I would recommend these sort of finds. Joyce Johnson had been working in publishing when introduced by poet Allen Ginsberg  as a blind date to a needy Jack Kerouac in 1957.  The title, of course, refers to the frequent position of women in male orientated circles. Here written as a corrective to the male-buddy road fiction of ‘On the Road’, alike Carolyn Cassady’s ‘Off the Road’ – women born into that Greatest Generation & the period immediately after get a proper voice here. 


However I was a late developer – with girlfriends & with literature!  I didn’t come from a family of particularly voracious readers.  My dad would plough his way through his copy of the Sunday Times for most of the week – ‘there was something reassuring about it’s bulk’ (copywrite – Bill Bryson).  My mother did get through most of the oeuvre of local Newcastle favourite Catherine Cookson & a fair sprinkling of ‘whodunnits’ such as those by Agatha Christie.  My older brother was never academic but would read boxing magazines & film reviews to an expert level. My dad had tried in vain to get me to read for 20 about minutes a day but I hadn’t been interested. So the books they gave me I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) pick up or I tried so hard to like were some of the recommendations of my (smarter) brother (the satirical novels of Tom Sharpe or Terry Pratchett's Discworld stories but I found them heavy going at first or of the 'wrong’ genre for me). Later he described his taste as a penchant for the absurd - we both agreed that Joseph Heller's 'Catch-22' was top of the tree here.

Nostaligically melancholic comic strips such as Charles Schulz's struck a chord - the potential of comics & graphic novels for reluctant readers shouldn't be underestimated.  Later I thought that Seth's - 'It's a Good Life if You Don't Weaken'  was a classic of this form. As an introverted teenager I realised that part of the frustration of shyness was simply not knowing what to say at any given moment. How does a young person chat to anyone – never mind an interesting connection, if they feel that there is little of interest to say about themselves? Eventually it dawns on most of us that more self-confidence & self-awareness arrives with more knowledge.

University in Manchester intervened but somehow I became a Geographer but surely all the interesting people studied literature, arts or drama!  I devoured popular/indie/alternative music but could not seem to find a way into a reading habit beyond music magazines & biographies.  But the musicians that interested me most were ‘bookish’ &/or cinematic in scope – Bowie, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, David Sylvian, Talk Talk, Talking Heads,The Smiths, Lloyd Cole, The Go-Betweens, 10’000 Maniacs, The Pixies, The Manic Street Preachers, Tindersticks, Lambchop, Goldfrapp.  Here was an intro – I could get into what they were into. 

In the end it was a road trip in 1992 to the Unites States that provided the breakthrough.  A year after graduation I was quickly becoming a lapsed Geographer but was still obsessed by time & place or space.  The lyrics from Natalie Merchant for the 10’000 Maniacs song ‘Hey Jack Kerouac’ had alerted me to something about the Beat writers of the 50s.  I read ‘On the Road’ & ‘Dharma Bums’ whilst on the road & wound up at Christmas at the famous City Lights Bookstore on San Francisco’s North Beach where I feasted on more titles, collections & profiles.  These writers, poets, their muses & their biographers had championed earlier mavericks & rebels such as Spengler, Dostoevsky, Joyce, Proust & Celine – many of them producing such weighty tomes that they are still on my list of books that I couldn’t pick up.

In my 20s & early 30s I ended up working in some libraries – University, public, then a school.  I learnt a lot more about who wrote what, & why some books were so important, & I enjoyed both being an observor & a curator of reading (& musical) material.  I could begin to hold my own in more interesting literary & artful conversations. I might be able  to respond in kind to to the girl in a bar who shared the witty reposte: “I wouldn’t want to go to bed with a book that has been to bed with someone else”. Some writers (& readers) were seen as iconoclasts – cool & hip like rock stars & seemed to live far more interesting lives.   These could inspire us &/or we could live more exciting lives vicariously or emulate them in other ways.  

Now as a middle-aged adult I am really pleased to see my bilingual 12-year-old daughter read to her 5-year-old brother.  They have been getting a lot of pleasure out of bedtime reading with, for example, 'The Mister Men & Little Miss series' – great for exploring personality adjectives; & 'Charlie & Lola' – fantastic for illuminating the tender & complex supportive dynamics between siblings.  Pretty soon my daughter might think that my son is ready for Jacqueline Wilson - stories always from a girl’s perspective, & perhaps they will recognise the empathy towards disability in the story 'The Sleepover' as they also have a brother with special needs.  His name is Joe & he devours Pixar & Disney collections with gusto!


For someone like me with a keen interest in time in the built environment & its peoples, & who enjoys a unique blend between fact & fiction so that you don’t have to suspend belief too much - it is the works collected in 'Up in the Old Hotel' of New Yorker Magazine profiler Joseph Mitchell who win hands down every time.

For some reason I get deeply moved by elegiac writing – like that of Kerouac, writings that nostalgically document & evoke places at a  period of time just as that they seem to be passing into history & romanticised memory.  As a lapsed Geographer it helps that Mitchell describes & gives voice to the changing urban morphology of New York in the 40s & 50s – a time & a place I would like to visit the most - at least in my imagination.  In 2012 Tim Adams has described the appeal of the book very well as profiled here. 

It would be a fantastic coda then if the next generations of learners were much like Dill Harris in Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mockingbird' - from the same era as Joseph Mitchell - & introduced themselves in a similar impressive fashion: "I can read, I can read anything that you've got!"

Joseph Mitchell  cut his teeth as a newspaperman with New York's Herald Tribune from 1929 & as my dad trawls through his copy of the Sunday Times this week he should see recommendations for reading for all ages.  Reading good journalism from around the world, is, of course, now far easier - we can try the comprehensive resource 
The Big Project for local, national & global news content & features in English & many other languages. Below are some examples that old Joe might approve of – old & new.


Oxinity student Olivia Ponsa was asked for suggestions

She’s Spanish & in her mid 20’s & at an advanced level in English. Around 5 years ago she read ‘Wonder' by R.J.Palacio on the recommendation of her then English teacher.  Discussing the book we searched for the most appropriate synonym for facial ‘deformity’. We settled on ‘disfigurement’ but could see in the synopsis that the simple term ‘difference’ is much better.  

Olivia said that this book tells the story of the protagonist  August who “speaks of his first days at school & he has to ‘live with’ [the fact] that people stare at him”.  Olivia explained that the reading level was not too difficult for her at that time. However, this week for a course presentation she is trying to tackle & review a far more challenging book – the well-received, interweaving tales by Bernadine Evaristo in 'Girl, Woman, Other'.  

“Does this singular tale represent the collective black female experience?” asks the Guardian.  Olivia suggested that the writer was something of a prose stylist given to creative use of punctation,  & the vocabulary is clearly difficult to follow without frequent reference to a dictionary. 

For just the right amount of challenge & understanding we talked about how we might ‘grade’ both our reading choices & our writing levels for the audience with tools such as the Flesch Kincaid Readability Index or the useful Cambridge English tool Write & Improve.  

Georgina Malagarriga – Oxinity Partner English teacher

I used to read a lot as a child while growing up in the United States. Undoubtedly, I had (and still have) two favorite authors: Roald Dahl and Shel Silverstein. 'Matilda', 'The BFG', or ‘George's Marvelous Medicine' were amongst my favorites, where I was lost in the depths of my imagination and recreating the magical worlds of giants, repulsive headmasters and miraculous potions. I was never aware of the hours that flew by. As for Shel Silverstein'The Giving Tree' was, and still is, one of my favorite books. I consider adults should read it, too. It tells the story of a tree who loves a boy and is always giving him all he can to make him happy. The tree is abandoned many times by the boy but remains happy. Sort of. The tree endlessly gives itself away, to the point of offering its trunk so that the kid (now a man) can make himself a boat. At the end the boy is but an tired old man and needs a place to rest. And the tree, just as it's always done, offers what is left of him: his stump. 

I keep a copy of the book with colored cover on a shelf in my living room; it reminds me that giving without expecting to receive is the most sublime form of love. 

Radmila Gurkova – co-founder and CPO at Oxinity: 

The book I couldn't put down: 'Atonement' by Ian McEwan  

A book that changed my life: 'The Fountainhead' , by Ayn Rand  

A masterpiece for children: 'Winnie the Pooh'  by A.A. Milne 

Patricia Molina – Oxinity Partner English Teacher

'God's Crooked Lines' by 'Torcuato Luca de Tena'  

Although the author studied law, he wrote this masterpiece that should be a mandatory read for every psychologist, psychiatrist, and doctor.   

'God's Crooke Lines' tells the story of a young woman named Alice Gould.  She’s a detective, who ends up in a psychiatric hospital to investigate a murder, the author of which is among the residents of the hospital.  

This way, the protagonist gets to know the people who live there. She investigates their medical conditions, their disorders… As the book unfolds, the reader starts to question whether Alice is telling the truth. Is she a detective? Or just another resident of the hospital?  

A reading that you should not miss!  

Fiona Traynor – Oxinity Partner English Teacher


The book I couldn't put down was 'Where the Crawdads Sing' by Delia Owens which I read very recently - her descriptions of the marshlands on the east coast of the US were so evocative, it was sheer poetry. I was instantly transported and could see the herons, smell the salt water and hear the waves lapping in the lagoons... exquisite scene setting with a dramatic storyline.  A gripping read! 


Laura Whitaker - Oxinity Partner English Teacher from her blog


For Beginners: 

'Goodnight Moon' 

This sweet bedtime story is about a bunny saying goodnight to everything in its bedroom. Most of the book is short 2 - 3 word sentences, so it’s accessible even to absolute beginners. The same sentence structure is repeated again and again with different vocabulary, which is really helpful for learning a lot of new words. 

'The Very Hungry Caterpillar'

This children’s book tells the story of a caterpillar who eats more and more as the week goes on. It’s a wonderful tool for practising essential English vocabulary like colours, days of the week and numbers. The book’s structure is repetitive, which is great for reinforcing the new vocabulary in your mind. 


'Curious Ge' 

The popular Curious George series is about the adventures of a naughty monkey called George. The book is written in very short, simple sentences and so is very accessible for beginner English learners. 


'If you give a moose a muffin' 

This short but charming book is about a moose who just keeps asking for more and more! It uses the future tense a lot throughout, so it’s a very useful tool for practising this tense and its contractions. 


Olga Okan – Oxinity Partner English Teacher


The book I couldn’t pick up: English Literature students would know very well that that book is 'Ulysses' by James Joyce. It is by far the hardest book I ever had to study or read. No wonder I do not remember much about it.  

Funnily enough, one of the books I couldn’t put down was also by Joyce. I read his short story collection 'Dubliners' many years ago but the melancholy feeling that you experience when you finish reading 'Everline' has never left me. That’s the thing with reading: you have to like what you read. Otherwise, it's like studying for an exam, you will forget everything you read in a few days. 

Paz Blanco - Oxinity Partner English & Spanish Teacher - A proposal to reread

Reading the original version of a book which you have previously read translated allows not only for a second visit to the story but also for a full and deep encounter with the author and their writing. If a book could hook you as a reader at some point through a translation, give yourself the opportunity to immerse in its worlds and grammar in the original language it was naturally produced. One of the books I’ve best enjoyed reading was Americanah by Chimamanda Shel Chimamanda Ngoxa Adichie. I reread it a few months ago for the third time with so much pleasure. Rereading gives you even more than reading.


Mark Venning  – Oxinity Partner Teacher (& Englishman abroad...)

Here's my recommended reading list for understanding the English, that peculiar nationality that still haven't worked out that they are no longer a  global superpower, or even a part of a global superpower, but part of little rainy island with a glorious if somewhat embarrassing past that happens to have created the global lingua franca. 

Bill Bryson - Notes from a Small Island

I am of the firm belief that only outsiders are able to paint a truly unbiased picture of a country, especially those who have spent time discovering the quirks and curiosities of a land and its people. Bryson is an American who like Meghan Markle, went to England not really knowing what to expect. Unlike the Duchess of Sussex, he did manage to stick it outfor several decades before he discovered that he could re-live the culture-shock he experienced in 1973 by returning to the land of his birth and discovering the extent to which he had become anglicised. 

George Mikes - How to be an Alien
Another outsider, this time Hungarian Geoge Mikes, published his personal experiences of life on English soil in 1946 - shorty after the end of the second World War. While Mikes insisted that the book - which was written in the style of a guidebook for immigrants wishing to "blend in" with the "natives" - was a book of "deviance", intended to embarass his hosts, he found that the English themselves took the book to their hearts and saw it as an affectionate portrayal of their national character.  Turning hi eye to the English as a romantic nation, Mikes famously remarked: "Continental people have sex lives: the English have hot water bottles".  Other typically English notions such as politeness, queuing, tea-drinking and talking about the weather are also assessed in the book. 

Kate Fox  - Watching the English 
Social anthropologist Kate Fox (no relation to the frankly repugnant right-wing Brexiteeer Laurence Fox or the frankly repugnant left-wing Brexiteer Claire Fox) casts an amusing eye over the people of England in an attempt to decipher "the hidden rules of English behaviour", one of which being why English people tend to get drunk far more than their European neighbours (other Brits and the Irish notwithstanding). Her conclusion: without alcohol the British would have became extinct centuries ago.

Billy Bragg - The Progressive Patriot
Singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, who once wrote a song called "Take Down the Union Jack", embarks on a quest to see what it means to be English, using history, music culture, and personal anecdotes as a guide.  Why is that pride in one's country is associated with racism and right wing politics in England while Scottish patriots are usually broad-minded left-wingers? Why has the flag of St George become the symbol of a certain political mindset rather than a uniting banner for all English citizens to rally around? Bragg feels proud of his country despite feeling embarrassed about his leaders and aspects of its colonial past, tries to find the answers.  


From a favourite in-company class of mine featuring students from three different places in the world

Soledad recommended a read that could be described alternately as heavy, affecting or emotionally harrowing. She read Viktor Frankl's 'Man in Search of Meaning', she thinks, on the recommendation of a University teacher.  Written immediately after WW2 about life at Auschwitz, she told us that it wasn’t an easy read but gave her a great lesson on how a person – in this case a trained psychologist - might use psychotherapeutic methods to survive in the worst possible circumstances.  

Sanaa also drew on powerful historical fiction, but in the context of a love story, called 'Palm Trees in the Snow' - written in Spanish by Luz Gabás (with an excellent English translation said to be available by Irishman Noel Hughes). This tells a tale of generational contrasts faced by a Spanish family following emigration to an island off Equatorial Guinea, set to the backdrop of colonial exploitation & slavery.  

Elena on the other hand loves the superior epic fantasy series 'Mist Born'  by American author Brandon Sanderson. She prefers to disappear into escapism but also likes to be challenged by the language when reading in English even if this means having a dictionary at hand. 

Finally Marta – threw a curve ball in recommending an unusual book for analysing management & leadership skills.  She suggested 'Mob Rules: What the Mafia Can Teach the Legitimate Businessman' by apparent former mob member 'Louis Ferrante'. Her colleagues could do well now not to cross her unless they would care for a horse’s head in their bed! The author summarises some methods here.   

Journalist Tim Adams in the Guardian on Joseph Mitchell: 

“ On and off over the 20-odd years that I have been trying to write journalism, I have carried around in my bag Joseph Mitchell's book, 'Up in the Old Hotel. Mitchell grew up in rural North Carolina at the beginning of the last century, came to New York as a young man to work as a crime correspondent in Harlem, and subsequently became known at the new Yorker magazine as the pioneer of a particular kind of reporting that owed something to Mark Twain: extended portraits of people and places at the margins of the city, told with all the patience of a novelist, and the precision of a newspaperman. Up in the Old Hotel collects all of the stories Mitchell wrote in this manner, for The New Yorker, from between 1943 and 1964.  


Until the publication of a Vintage edition, next week, admirers of Mitchell's writing have had to rely on an American import. The book, which runs to 707 pages, is not an insignificant piece of luggage, but it has anyway accompanied me on assignments to Islamabad and Dar es Salaam, as well as to Devon and Northumberland. 


Quite often on these trips I have returned to memorable passages for inspiration or entertainment, or just for the sense of a friendly voice in a strange place. Once or twice, usually having reread favourite pieces, "Mr Hunter's Grave" or "Old Mr Flood", I've left a copy of the book in the bedside drawer of the more desperate hotel rooms, in the belief that later occupants might find far more early-hours solace and pleasure in it than the Gideons' Bible…”   

Recommended newspaper pieces & other copy that old Joe might approve of:
1ª Clase Gratis