Where do you buy your ESL books?

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and there’s a well-known ESL bookstore here, Alta Books. I’m always looking for more places to buy books, because Alta is pretty far away. They also don’t stock some of the things I especially want to buy in person rather than online, such as the Cambridge readers. Actually, I can’t find anywhere to look at the Cambridge readers in person besides at conferences, so let me know if you’ve seen them on shelves in the US. I understand that in Japan, they can be bought at Junk-Do, Kinokuniya, etc. I have a sneaking suspicion that those of you in EFL settings have it better than those of us in English-dominant countries, but I don’t know about, say, New York City, let alone London or Melbourne.

My city has three main bookstores: Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Half-Price Books. Borders’ ESL books are weirdly scattered over three areas, I think (ESL, writing, and reference?), but you can almost always count on them to have Azar books in stock. With the 20% off coupon perennially available at visitborders.com, it’s a place I often point new clients towards. Our Barnes & Noble seems to have a few more ESL textbooks in stock, though. I’m always kind of amazed that these big chain bookstores in towns with large immigrant populations don’t promote and enhance their ESL sections more. A spinner rack with Cambridge readers could bring in a lot of sales! How about your local chain stores? Are they clued into ESL or not?

By the way, both Borders and B&N offer free corporate discount programs to schools, school departments, libraries, and individual business owners. Since I’m about to become an official sole proprietor, I plan to join. Every little bit helps! Just ask at your store’s information desk to find out how to sign up.

The third bookstore here is a smaller chain and more responsive to the local population in general, but actually even less useful in terms of ESL books. I really love Half-Price Books for inexpensive science fiction paperbacks and other items for myself. I send students from Asia there to buy cheap translated manga, and I send advanced students to their $1-3 bargain shelves in the back to load up on interesting novels and nonfiction. Their ESL section, though, has only a tiny handful of books, which are inexplicably combined with the ASL section (that’s American Sign Language–good to have, since we have a major school for the deaf here, but still an odd combination).

Of course, there’s always Amazon, but ESL publishers seem to be a bit slow on sending material to Amazon for “Look Inside This Book” and other features. (The responsibility for that kind of thing is the publishers’, not Amazon’s.) This makes Amazon less useful for me, since I really need to be able to take a good look at a book in order to tell if it’s what I need. Sometimes I can go to the publisher’s site and find a sample chapter, but that’s not always sufficient. And, of course, Amazon’s discounts are hit and miss.

Yesterday I visited downtown Mountain View and spotted a secondhand bookstore called Book Buyers. That was a real find! Their ESL section isn’t huge, but it’s the biggest I’ve seen in a used book store. I picked up the current edition teacher’s guide for the intermediate Azar book at $8.95, which was a terrific bargain. I also got a book on Japanese linguistics (they have good sections for foreign language learning and for books written in other languages). They had a fair number of ESL and EFL textbooks, many with teachers’ guides and workbooks. They had a few TESOL books, too, though most weren’t recent. If you visit, you can sign up for the mailing list and write down ESL and TESOL as two areas in which you want to buy books! I highly recommend stopping by Book Buyers if you’re in the South Bay sometime soon.

Where do you buy your textbooks and TESOL books? Here’s a poll, but feel free to leave a comment, too.

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EDIT: By the way, Alta has since closed to the public, making life a lot harder.





7 responses to “Where do you buy your ESL books?”

  1. Clay Burell Avatar

    You’ll love/hate me for this hot tip:

    If you’re ever in Shanghai (I lived there from ’01-’06), go to the Foreign Language Bookstore downtown. Since it’s China, English is a foreign language there 😉

    You’ll find INCREDIBLE savings – 10% of list price – on EFL pedagogy and research books from Cambridge, Oxford, etc. AND you’ll find all the Penguin/Longman Readers and their competitors.

    Question: Why do you prefer the Cambridge Readers (implicitly) over the Longman series?

  2. admin Avatar

    Hmm, the last time I was in Shanghai was 1999, and I had no plans to teach English then! I’ll have to go there if I’m ever there again.

    The big difference between the recent Cambridge readers and the Penguin/Longman readers that I looked at is that the Cambridge books are original fiction written with ELL readers in mind. The language is fairly lively given the restraints, and the stories are engaging. The Penguin/Longman ones that I’ve seen were mostly retellings of classics or contemporary bestsellers, and had all life sucked out of them. I mean, with Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde, etc., a lot of the interest for a reader comes from the wonderful use of language. Just stripping that out and relating the plot in words of two syllables or less doesn’t leave much for a reader to enjoy. The IEP I worked at had a cabinet full of these, and the students hated them. They had trouble relating to the historic settings for the classics, too.

    So far all of the clients I’ve lent Cambridge readers to have enjoyed them. I actually found the first one I tried, which I was given at TESOL last year, to be interesting enough that I read the whole thing myself. Yes, it was simple, but the stories were fairly involving (they were Twilight Zone/O. Henry-like). With the Penguin readers, I gave up in boredom after about three pages.

    I know some people really like Penguin/Longman, and maybe I need to give them another try. We should have a Graded Readers Cage Match once I get enough readers and commenters!

  3. Clay Burell Avatar

    Apropos of nothing in particular, it occurs to me that you might enjoy a weird debate on a monster comment thread on this post: Muhammad Ali: D- Student? or F- School?.

    Really no self-promo intended here. Just an invitation to some pretty interesting viewpoints (and a cool talk with a Norwegian guy about ELL and technology toward the end).


  4. Clay Burell Avatar

    Thanks for the feedback, “admin.” (You can change that in your profile somewhere if you want, that admin name 😛 )

    I’m being lazy, but the question may add value to this thread for later readers. It’s this: Do the Cambridge Readers use anything like Nation’s 2.000 Most Frequent Words in English – I’ve forgotten the exact name of this, but you know what I mean – or any other method of introducing the essential high-frequency vocab in a graduated manner?

    That’s what I like about the Longman/Penguin approach: the linguistic analysis of contemporary word frequency informs its framework.

    Yuck, I hate my own language in this comment, but it’s Friday, I’m at school and zapped. Forgive it.

    Simply put: what’s the pedagogical / SLA underpinning of the Cambridge series?

    Sheesh, Clay, take a nap.

  5. Clarissa Avatar

    D’oh! I changed it–thanks for the tip!

    Well, I really do want to write a whole post about this series, but yes, the vocabulary is chosen deliberately. According to the teacher’s guide, there is “contextualisation and recycling of new words” and “the vocabulary at each level is established by reference to recent corpus-based lexical research, analysis of commonly-occurring words in course materials and readers, and the Council of Europe’s Waystage and Threshold levels.” And of course Cambridge owns one of the major English-language corpora.

    The books also use grammatical grading to gradually work through various grammatical structures. Specific structures are listed in the free teacher’s guide PDF on the website ( http://www.cambridge.org/elt/readers/teachers_guide.htm ). It’s too bad (for my students) that they have fairly few American English books on offer right now, but they’re increasing those.

    However, I think the most important pedagogical underpinning is that interesting reading is more useful than boring reading! Ahem. (Seriously, though. Having sequenced vocabulary is useless if the students quit halfway through the first book.)

    I know, it’s been a long week here too! Hang in there. 🙂

  6. Eric Roth Avatar

    Great question!

    While I usually buy books at CATESOL or TESOL conferences, I often use Amazon since they have a very large collection of both new and used books. Because I sometimes also post reviews on Amazon and teach at a major university, I often get new titles sent to me as exam copies – and that is always nice. I’ve seldom had luck with the major chain bookstores which surprises me given the number of English language learners in Los Angeles, and have only once found a quality ESL book at a second hand store.

    The situation, however, was the exact opposite when I taught in Vietnam last year. There I could only buy books directly from a handful of publishers with slimmed-down (censored) selections and at the one major ELT conference. Ironically, the chain bookstore there (Fahasa) had rows and rows of EFL books. It took me a few visits to recognize amidst the huge diversity of options, however, that almost the entire collection was composed of grammar, vocabulary, and test-prep books. (Novels, short stories, and readers were all in very short supply – along with writing and speaking materials). In that still closed society where mail often doesn’t arrive, I also discovered the advantages of ebooks.

    Bottomline: I’ve had to adopt very different hunting strategies for quality ESL and EFL books.

    1. Clarissa Avatar

      Yeah, it’s pretty rare to find decent ESL books at secondhand stores. It still really irks me that Half-Price Books conflates ASL and ESL, but I’m glad that Book Buyers carries ESL books. It’s pretty nice. Major bookstore chains in Japan and Korea, as far as I understand, carry ESL books, including graded readers, which makes me jealous. I would LOVE to be able to tell my students to go to even a single spinner rack full of graded readers and buy them, and I think they would. I thought US bookstore chains had some regional variation in what they carried, so you’d think they could manage to do that for their major metro areas. But maybe not. :/ I sometimes toy with the idea of opening a bookstore that both teachers and learners could use, but with the overhead involved, it just wouldn’t be a good idea. Teachers here were so sad when Alta closed to the public; it can be really hard to tell if a book is worth buying from an Amazon review or catalog description. (I once wound up with an international business English book that had only white male businessperson characters; all the administrative assistants were female, and nobody was ever depicted speaking English in it who was not white. It was totally bizarre, like something from the 1950s)

      Anyway, yeah, it really depends on your situation! And hurray for you for reviewing things on Amazon–there are not enough people doing so.

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