9 Already Great Movies for ESL Classes You Can Supplement with the Books

I hope they like it.

If you’re like me, this is what goes through your head when you recommend a book or movie to someone.

As teachers, we have to face this feeling of uncertainty every time we show a movie or assign a book to our students.

By using these materials in our classes, we’re implicitly giving them our stamp of approval.

And hard as it can be to find a good book or movie, it’s even harder to find a good book that has been made into a good movie.

So if you want to use the book/movie combo approach in your ESL class—which offers great opportunities and advantages for learning—the pressure’s really on!

Fortunately, though some film adaptations may not have lived up to their books’ promise, that’s not always the case.

Today we’ll look at nine great movie/book combinations that will work excellently for your ESL classes, and some pointers on how to use them.

For each combo, I’ll also give you at least one “Plan B” that you can use if the first option doesn’t sound quite right—that’s around 20 different combos! This is the cream of the crop, so for each combo, both the movie and the book are equally wonderful.

Of course, you can’t please everyone all the time, but the selections we’ll look at today can be used for a wide variety of levels and can cater to students’ likes and interests, all while still keeping things interesting for you.

I’ve personally read every book and seen every movie on the list, and in many cases I have used either the book or the movie (or both!) in my ESL classes.

So now, I’m recommending this list to you, my fellow teachers, slightly nervously thinking I hope they like it!

But I really think you will.

But Why Read the Book When We Can Just Watch the Movie?

Since most people reading this post are likely educators, I probably don’t need to sell you on the virtues of reading, especially when it comes to using reading to teach ESL. However, I have noticed that it can be a difficult proposition to sell to our students. Many of my students flat-out tell me that they don’t like to read, so that makes our job even more difficult.

Nevertheless, we must remain strong and persistent, confident in the knowledge that reading comprehension is a vital skill (especially when learning a second language, since students will often grapple with written material).

Reading also helps us include our visual learners, as well as any learners who may need more time to process input. And finally, believe it or not, there are still some students who actually enjoy reading, and we can promote that interest by incorporating movies that enhance the experience.

Why Use the Book and the Movie, Then?

It’s definitely worth incorporating both the movie and the book, since doing so can be highly beneficial for your ESL classes.

Depending on your class and your circumstances, reasons to use both can include the following.

It can greatly enhance understanding

Any time that you are able to provide your students with a variety or combination of input styles, there is a greater chance for comprehension. For example, students may read a passage in a book and just have a vague understanding of what’s happening, but when they see that same passage acted out visually, a lot more vocabulary will fall into place. This is even more true when the movie is faithful to the book, and especially if the movie is being shown with subtitles in English.

If you’re looking to keep your students’ learning material varied and well-rounded both at home and in the classroom, FluentU offers a wealth of videos with interactive subtitles that are appropriate for your ESL class, regardless of level.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

It takes different learning styles into account 

As mentioned above, there are some students who just seem to do better when reading, who need to see a passage written out. At the same time, there are students for whom nothing clicks until they hear it spoken. By combining the book and the movie, you’re covering more bases and taking advantage of the positive aspects of multiple learning styles.

It’s handy for starting a discussion or a debate

This is a very clear advantage to using both the movie and the book, since doing so will almost inevitably spark conversations about which aspects of each were better, and why. Was the casting appropriate, and were the characters similar to the way that you imagined them in your head? How was the style or mood different? Which passages were different, excluded or added in one version or the other? There are many ways you can compare and contrast the book and the movie in your classes.

It’s fun and breaks up the routine

Most of us ESL teachers have probably learned a foreign language at some point, or at the very least taken some foreign language classes. If you think back to those classes, which days were the most fun? That’s right: the days when you got to watch a movie! And it was that much sweeter if you had already read the book, since the movie would give you a chance to better understand some parts that you didn’t necessarily catch the first time around.

So Which Comes First, the Book or the Movie?

There are a couple lines of thought regarding whether you should read the book first, then watch the movie, or vice-versa. Let’s look at the advantages of each approach.

Using the book first: A “reward” for your students

I love to read, but like I said before, not all of my students do. We can reduce some of their negative conceptions about reading if we treat reading a book like an accomplishment, and not as just another assignment or a chore to slog through. We can then emphasize that sense of accomplishment by incorporating a movie into the class, which can make it seem like a special occasion.

Using the movie first: Possibly greater understanding of the book 

Are you the type of person who eats the pizza crust first? If so, then you may like to defy the conventional wisdom when it comes to your classes, too. Personally, this approach makes me feel a bit uncomfortable, but I have to admit that when I’ve watched a movie first and then later read the book, I actually tended to understand and enjoy the book a bit more, and it didn’t detract from my opinion of the movie, since I’d already seen it.

However, that’s just my personal experience, and I normally wouldn’t do things in this order in my classes. The main reason is that those aforementioned students who don’t care for reading may have a tendency to just watch the movie, and more or less space out when it comes to reading the book. But depending on the dynamics of your class, this could still be an option to consider.

First Class Fusion: 9 Winning Movies for ESL Students…and the Books They’re Based On

The recommendations below are divided into three different levels: beginners/children, intermediate learners and advanced students. I’ve included three combos for each level. I’ll also provide links to each movie’s IMDb page and each book’s Goodreads page. From there, you can explore these titles some more.

For each one, we’ll first take a quick look at why it’s a great combo to use in your ESL classes. I’ll then include a “Keep in mind” section with information that can be useful for teachers planning their classes (for example, I’ll mention if the book or movie has controversial subject matter).

Finally, each selection pair will have a “Plan B” suggestion; those are alternate suggestions of movie/book combos that have similar reading levels, styles or subject matter as the main recommendations.

In all cases, since we can’t go over every aspect of these books and movies—and because I don’t want to give away the endings!—please be sure to do a bit of additional research on both the book and movie if you’ve not read or seen them, in order to make sure they’re appropriate for your class.

Movie/book combos for children, beginners or the young at heart

1. “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”
(1966 Movie) (2000 Movie) (Book by Dr. Seuss)

Why it’s a great combo for an ESL class: It’s hard to go wrong with Dr. Seuss, especially when working with kids or beginners. The language Seuss used may indeed throw in some invented words, but the great stories more than make up for that. And speaking of the language, the rhymes and rhythm of the story are fun and can help students learn pronunciation.

Keep in mind: There are two versions of the movie. The animated one from 1966 should be familiar to any English-speaking child born between that year and 2000, the year that the live-action version starring Jim Carrey was released. Both movies have their defenders, but you should consider your group before deciding which one would work better for them.

Plan B: “The Cat in the Hat,” also by Dr. Seuss (movie). Depending on where you teach, Christmas may not be an important holiday, so some cultural references in “Grinch” may get lost. If that’s the case, “Cat” uses a similar level of English—actually, it’s probably easier—and has the typical Seuss rhyming.

2. “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”
(1971 Movie) (2005 Movie) (Book by Roald Dahl)

esl movies

Why it’s a great combo for an ESL class: Dahl’s writing is clear and highly accessible to children, and his books remain beloved even decades later. In terms of vocabulary, this is certainly more complicated than Seuss’ books, but frequent illustrations help make it clearer. Also, even though students may have difficulties with certain words, this can be a good introduction to reading for gist and understanding unknown vocabulary from context. You can emphasize that they need not understand every single word, as long as they understand the general idea.

As for the movie, like the “Grinch,” there have been two movie adaptations of this book, although in this case both are live action. The 1971 version starring Gene Wilder was actually titled “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” while the 2005 Tim Burton-directed adaptation starring Johnny Depp kept the name of the original book. Interestingly, the 1971 version seems to stay a bit closer to the story, while the 2005 version used advances in film technology to better embody the aesthetic that the book describes. Either way, students tend to like Johnny Depp, so that may be the one to go with.

Keep in mind: A lot of the 1971 movie is a musical. Some students may really like that, especially if they learn well through songs, but others may find it a bit cheesy and dated.

Plan B: “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White. This book has short, clear sentences and occasional illustrations, but can be read on deeper levels. The movie versions aren’t as well known, though.

Plan C: If you’d like to stick with Dahl, there are many great movie adaptations based on his books, such as “James and the Giant Peach,” (book) “The Witches” (book) or “Matilda” (book). A personal favorite is “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (book), which can also be a great study in contrasts between the two forms, although that type of class discussion may go over many young students’ or beginners’ heads.

3. “Holes”
(Movie) (Book by Louis Sachar)

esl movies

Why it’s a great combo for an ESL class: The book is very engaging and interesting, and the characters are well-developed, at least for a “kids'” book. The book starts off using very short, clear sentences, and gradually picks up the pace by adding longer paragraphs just when students are getting used to the style. Sachar is an excellent author, and the story deals with some difficult issues like race, murder, justice and rehabilitation in an entertaining way, without talking down to readers.

The 2003 movie adaptation has a surprisingly good cast, including Sigourney Weaver, John Voigt and Shia LaBoeuf. As for the English, it’s generally close to the book, and many parts of the plot involve flashbacks; that means that students can listen to a character talk about events (that they already read about in the book) while watching them on the screen. The movie is also very well-made and faithful to the book, even if it didn’t get much attention when it came out.

Keep in mind: There is a racially-motivated murder or two in the story. It’s not gratuitous since it helps set up the plot, but it still may not be appropriate for younger students.

Plan B: “Bridge to Terabithia” by Katherine Paterson (movie). This is a good choice for students who enjoy more serious elements in their stories, but who won’t be put off by a heavier, sadder story line.

Movie/book combos for intermediate ESL students

1. “About A Boy”
(Movie) (TV Show) (Book by Nick Hornby)

esl movies

Why it’s a great combo for an ESL class: The book isn’t necessarily easy reading, but it’s thoroughly entertaining. The plot is funny and the language includes a lot of useful slang (although it’s British English, so keep in mind that some vocabulary may be different if that’s not what you’re teaching).

The book also switches perspectives from Marcus (the boy) to Will (the man-child), but remains in the third person, which means that it plays with point-of-view but doesn’t make things too confusing for ESL readers.

The movie adaptation from 2002 is arguably even better than the book. For class use, you can examine what it means to be a family or a role model, how people redeem themselves and how we can live a fulfilled life.

Keep in mind: A TV series based on this story was also started just last year in the U.S. I’ve not personally seen it, but it has gotten generally good reviews. You could also incorporate the TV show into your curriculum, which could highlight differences between British and American English, as well as lead to deeper discussions about differences between the three versions.

Plan B: “The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green (movie). The book uses very authentic, current language, and it’s been a big hit, despite not depicting a dystopian future.

Plan C: If you really like Nick Hornby like I do, then you could go with “High Fidelity” (movie) or “A Long Way Down,” (movie) two more British books with American adaptations. Or even “Fever Pitch,” which had two adaptations (one British and about soccer, the other American and about baseball).

2. “The Hunger Games”
(Movies) (Books by Suzanne Collins)

esl movies

Why it’s a great combo for an ESL class: Up until now, most of these movies and books have had a decade or two to age. In all the cases I’ve included here, I believe they have aged well. This is the first combo that’s really fresh. That lends it an immediacy that makes the stories and movies current and relevant for your students. The books are hugely popular (so much so that many of your students may have already read them) and the movies have also been incredibly popular with many different age groups.

As for the writing, it’s at a good, intermediate level that shouldn’t be too easy or too challenging for your students. The style is noteworthy, as well, since it’s written in first person present. That means it should actually be somewhat easier for students to understand than most of the other books on the list.

The movies are visually stunning, and they bring the story to life in a way that really builds on the great visuals already described in the books. They can also lead to interesting discussions regarding the future of the world, totalitarian structures, friendship, love and family.

Bonus: For a side conversation about language, you can explore some of the invented words for names (Katniss, Primrose, Peeta), places (Panem) and animals (mockingjay, tracker jacker): How did the author choose these names? Do they have historical or cultural relevance? For example, how are names in the Capital different from those in the Districts? Finally, you can also have students invent their own “evolved” names for places, animals and people in the future.

Keep in mind: Choosing this combo involves three books and four movies. Since they’re all hugely popular, you may also find that many of your students have read the book or seen the movies, but that may actually help increase their interest in incorporating them into class.

Finally, the entire premise of the first two books revolves around competitions in which children are forced to battle each other to the death. You should obviously take that into consideration, even if many of your students have already read the books or seen the movies.

Plan B: “Divergent” series by Veronica Roth. This is also a trilogy about a heroine in the post-apocalyptic remains of the USA, but not all of the movies have been released yet. There are similar story lines here, as well as similar groups of devoted fans. However, the ending of the third book of this series seems to have alienated many readers. That could be a plus or a minus for using it in class.

3. “Rumble Fish”
(Movie) (Book by S.E. Hinton)

Why it’s a great combo for an ESL class: Perhaps S.E. Hinton’s books aren’t as popular as they once were, but her stories still deal with the struggles that teenagers go through in a way that is authentic and caring. Class discussions can deal with gangs, drug and alcohol abuse, familial relationships and authority.

The book was published in 1975, so obviously many aspects of it are a bit dated at times, including the book’s language. A few slang words—including the word “rumble” in the title itself—may have fallen out of fashion and therefore be confusing to students (and maybe even younger teachers).

However, the majority of the language is still authentic, and the characters spend most of the book immersed everyday life, talking about what young people like to talk about and doing what young people like to do. Most of that vocabulary is timeless, and can help students build up their vocabulary to talk about their own lives.

The 1983 movie, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring a cast with about a dozen actors who are still famous today, is also pretty incredible, especially considering that most people probably haven’t even heard of it.

Keep in mind: Although the book barely has any profanity, the movie is rated R, and for fairly good reasons. It has quite a lot of swearing, some sex and nudity and some violence. That’s not to say that it’s not great—it is—but it’s worth noting the stark differences between the two.

Plan B: “The Outsiders,” also by S.E. Hinton, is another book about troubled youth; it’s a great adaptation with an even more amazing cast, although in my opinion neither the book or the movie is as good as “Rumble Fish.”

Plan C: Consider “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen if you want a more recent book and movie. The writing is aimed at a slightly more mature or advanced audience, but the movie seems to lack a bit of the spark that the book has.

Movie/book combos for advanced and mature ESL students

1. “Everything is Illuminated”
(Movie) (Book by Jonathan Safran Foer)

esl movies

Why it’s a great combo for an ESL class: This is perhaps my all-around favorite combo on this list. The book, which is told through various authors and from different perspectives, deals with a young man trying to find more information about his family’s past in Ukraine.

One narrator, Alex, is Ukranian, and as such his English is full of non-standard phrases and words (indeed, the title of the book is possibly just his attempt to convey the idea “all clear”). That might actually be good, though, since you can highlight the importance of communication as balanced against the use of “correct,” standard English. It’s also interesting to see Alex’s English change and evolve throughout the story.

The 2005 movie starring Elijah Wood manages to convey the eccentric spirit of the story in a beautifully visual way. The combo can complement units that talk about World War II or the Holocaust, and could be woven into discussions about ancestry and identity.

Keep in mind: As mentioned, Alex’s English is often non-standard. In the book, it’s easier to understand since readers have time to process it. In the movie, Alex still uses non-standard English, but also adds an accent, since it’s spoken. In both cases, this could be funny or a good conversation starter (e.g., “Can you find and correct his errors?”), but then again, it might just be confusing or frustrating for some students.

Plan B: “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck. This is surely an easier read due to Steinbeck’s clearer style. The movie, starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, is also really good, and follows the book’s plot very closely, making for good comparison possibilities.

2. “Fight Club”
(Movie) (Book by Chuck Palahniuk)

esl movies

Why it’s a great combo for an ESL class: Many people love this book, but it’s not necessarily the most ESL-friendly book out there. In fact, it’s likely to be challenging for many readers. There are frequent asides and tangents that don’t really have much to do with the plot at hand at any given moment.

That can be frustrating, but it can also be a great way to teach ESL students to read for gist.

For example, when the narrator is talking about how a building is about to blow up, he then pauses for a paragraph to explain how to make nitroglycerin. As long as students understand that that paragraph is about making nitroglycerin, they can probably take any unknown words in that paragraph and chalk them up to an “unknown but not that important for now” category.

The movie also has these tangents, but they actually seem to highlight the “gist.” For example, a scene may show a dialogue between two people, when the narrator’s voice-over all of a sudden throws in a tangential sentence or two. If the students understand the tangent, also, then more power to them, but it’s not always crucial to understanding what’s going on in the main plot.

Because of all this, the movie and book both reward people who take deeper looks at them and take the time to interpret what’s going on. Presumably, that’s precisely why you’d be using them in your class. Despite its title, the story is actually more of a critique of consumerism, masculinity and modern society, although there is some fighting. You can explore these topics in class discussions, and can include conversations about mental health, gender relationships and violence in our culture.

Keep in mind: Of all the combos on this list, this one may be the one that works best by showing the movie before reading the book. That’s mainly because of the huge plot twist, which seems to work better visually than it does on paper.

Plan B: “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn. This is another dark yet slightly funny story. The book is definitely more accessible for ESL readers than “Fight Club,” but it’s significantly longer. The movie is actually directed by David Fincher, who also directed “Fight Club,” so many stylistic elements are similar.

3. “To Kill a Mockingbird”
(Movie) (Book by Harper Lee)

esl movies

Why it’s a great combo for an ESL class: The themes explored in this story—good and evil, racism, family, tolerance and growing up—are universal and never get old. Both the book and movie are regarded as classics, and with good reason.

The book has some aspects of a southern dialect, so that can be interesting or different for ESL readers, especially when comparing the speech of people from different social classes. Atticus Finch, both in the book and as embodied by Gregory Peck, also provides an excellent example of clear, “proper” English.

Keep in mind: Due to the subject matter and the varied social classes of the characters, some words may have fallen out of fashion, while others are offensive when not used in an explanatory context. In other words, you’ll likely want to have a conversation with your students about language and vocabulary to describe race and a person’s physical characteristics. Also, you should probably be prepared to explain what “bust up a chiffarobe” means.

Plan B: “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel. On the surface, this probably seems completely different from “Mockingbird.” The movie probably is, at least visually, but both stories deal with good and evil, values, family and human dignity.

There you have it: a highly-varied lineup of excellent books that were adapted into equally amazing movies.

If you use any of the combos on this list, I have a feeling that your students will give your class five stars and two thumbs up!

Ryan Sitzman teaches English and sometimes German in Costa Rica. He is passionate about learning, coffee, traveling, languages, writing, photography, books and movies, but not necessarily in that order. You can learn more or connect with him through his website Sitzman ABC.

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