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7 Engaging YA Novels to Read with High School ESL Learners

Are you looking for engaging YA adult books for your ESL learners? Choosing high-interest novels for teens might be challenging, especially when you are new to teaching a specific grade level. If you are already planning for next year, here is a list of my all-time favourite novels that I recommend reading with high school ESL students. 


Please note that I am not part of any affiliate marketing program, thus, I do not earn any commission by listing these novels below.  


This is an updated version of the original blog post I wrote 3 years ago.


1. Ghost by Jason Reynolds


The book is about a tween calling himself Ghost who has a natural talent for speed, but he has to learn that being talented is not enough to be part of a track team. Castle Cranshaw, Ghost, learns that talent has to be harnessed through discipline and teamwork. To earn his place on the track team and to be successful, he needs to manage his anger, face his past, have self-discipline, and be a team-player. It is a beautiful coming-of-age story about coping with one's fears and embracing one's past instead of escaping it.


While reading this book, students may reflect on such themes as personal growth, talent, or facing and overcoming one's fears.


This novel is ideal for Grade 9-11 ESL learners. Although the language of the novel is less challenging for grade 11 students, weaker ESL learners will find it more accessible, and this is what makes this book less intimidating and more enjoyable to read.


A free Ghost Novel Study Reading Journal is available in the free resources library. To gain access, please, subscribe to my mailing list.


2. Schooled by Gordon Korman


The story revolves around Capricorn Anderson, a boy who has been homeschooled by his grandmother, Rain. Cap ends up in a public middle school where he learns about real school life. He is smart, innocent, kind, and weird which make him an easy target at Claverage Middle School (C Average). Zach Powers, a popular boy, gets him elected for class president, a title given to the biggest nerd in the school. When Zach is trying to fool and to turn the naive Cap into the biggest joke of the year, his plan backfires on him as the pure-hearted Capricorn will be loved by the entire school.


Gordon Korman, born in Montreal and raised in Toronto, never fails to maintain the reader's attention with his humorous, engaging voice and style that make this novel a real page turner. The plot twist at the end of the story is also remarkable as it leaves the reader in absolute awe.


Your grade 8-9 ESL learners will enjoy this novel for sure.


3. Restart by Gordon Korman


This is another page-turner by Korman. I absolutely love this novel, and I am sure your students will love it too.


Restart is a compelling story about getting second chances. The novel starts with an accident when the main character, Chase Ambrose, falls off the roof and loses his memory. Without knowing who he really was, our protagonist is wondering why his school mates are afraid of him when he is back to school. Slowly but surely, the reader, along with the main character, puts the pieces of the puzzle together to discover the real Chase Ambrose before the accident.


Chase, the amnesiac, is completely the opposite of Chase, the jock and a middle school bully. The new Chase is kind and joins the school video club where he discovers his talent for shooting movies; he defends the losers, and he does community service even though he does not have to. When the main character remembers who he used to be, he is ashamed of his past actions and is ready to face the consequences.


One of the main lessons of this novel is that we might not be able to hide from our past actions, but we have the power to choose who we want to be from this day forward. Second chances may rarely come around and changing is never hard when we truly want to be a better version of ourselves and when the right people also believe in us.


4. The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis


The Breadwinner is the first book of the Breadwinner trilogy written by Deborah Ellis, Canadian author. It is more ideal for grade 7-8 ESL learners, but it might also be appropriate for grade 9 ESL students.


The novel is about an 11-year-old girl, Parvana, and her family who had to adjust to a new life after the Taliban, among many other restrictions, deprived women from education and forbid them to go out without their husband’s permission. Parvana's parents are educated people, and her father was a history teacher at the school she used to attend in the capital city of Kabul. To make ends meet, Father and Parvana go to the Kabul market every day to sell what they can. However, everything turns upside down in the family's life when the father is taken away by the Taliban. To be able to go out and buy food, Parvana must dress as a boy to be able to freely come and go to the marketplace. She earns money by selling objects, offering her services to read, and even digging up bones and selling them to provide for the family.


While reading the story, students not only learn about the Afghan people’s hardships under the Taliban’s ruling, but they also have a chance to compare their life with that of Parvana and appreciate the privilege they have: being able to go to school, having food on the table, having a comfortable living condition and enjoying being a tween. Some learners might also identify with the main character because they have experienced similar difficulties. Although Parvana does not have a normal childhood, she has a loving and supporting family who are able to stay strong and grow even stronger during desperate times.


Parvana is a positive role model to many teenagers as she is a hard-working, sensitive, resilient, respectful, and obedient child even though she complains about things like any other tween of her age would do. She loves her family and stays strong and courageous despite the hardships she must endure.


The Breadwinner has an open ending that my students found a bit disappointing, but overall, they enjoyed Parvana’s story. Of course, the story continues in the second book, Parvana’s Journey, and the third one, Mud City.


For struggling readers, the graphic novel version could be a more appropriate option to enjoy this powerful story.


5. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keys


Flowers for Algernon is a compelling story about acceptance and inclusion. If you wish to teach empathy, acceptance, and inclusion to your students, this book will melt their hearts for sure. This novel is ideal for grade 9-10 ESL Learners.


The story is about Charlie, an intellectually challenged man, who goes through an experimental surgery that would make him smart. As he becomes smarter over time and starts having flashbacks from his past, he realizes that people used to bully, reject, and outcast him. All the memories that were engraved in his ignorant mind as nice, cherished, and happy moments of his life turn out to be exactly the opposite. As the main character starts making sense to his past as an intelligent man, sudden feelings of abandonment, loneliness, and sadness take over him.


While reading the book, learners may explore such themes as bullying, mental illness, ignorance, intelligence, morality, and loneliness. It is also interesting to analyze the writing that becomes more sophisticated as the main character's intelligence expands. You may also use this book to teach character analysis as Charlie, a tragic hero, goes through a remarkable transformation in the novel.


If you would like to read this novel with your ESL students, I have a reading journal available in my store, which could guide them while reading. You can check it out here: Reading Journal to Accompany Flowers for Algernon (the novel).


6. Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom


This novel about "life's greatest lesson" is ideal for Grade 11-12 ESL learners. This memoir makes the reader contemplate on such issues as:

  • the meaning of life

  • facing death

  • chasing the wrong things in life

  • sacrificing love and family for one's career

  • the value of small things in life

  • longing for spiritual wealth instead of material achievements

  • the importance of nurturing human relationships

  • the importance of family and friendship

  • loving and caring

  • giving back to the community

This book will help learners to reflect on the above issues while shaping their value system that will guide them in making the right decisions as adults.


7. Every Day by David Levithan


This novel will appeal to grade 11-12 ESL learners who enjoy love stories; however, this book is not just about a unique love story. It is about a 16 year-old teenager, A., who wakes up in the body of a different person every day. Through A's eyes while being a different individual every day, the reader has a glimpse at teens' lives as they deal with various issues:

  • being in an unhappy/unhealthy relationship

  • hardship

  • experiencing insecurity

  • dealing with mental illness

  • being average

  • being the child of controlling or loving parents

  • being poor or rich

  • staying in the closet

  • coming out

  • living with the consequences of one's actions

As the narrative progresses, a beautiful love story unfolds between A and Rhiannon. The two teenagers are trying to make their relationship work despite the challenges they have to face throughout A's journey in the body of a different boy or girl without knowing what the future holds the next day.


My high school students and I have enjoyed reading these novels, and I highly recommend them to your ESL learners. Reading not only helps teenagers escape from reality and discover the powerful stories and messages these books have to offer, but it also helps language learners improve their language skills and enrich their vocabulary.


What novels do your students enjoy reading? Please share some titles in the comments section.


Kynga C. 




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