Even for ESL Beginners, reading is a great way to increase your understanding of English. It's important to find reading materials that you can understand. You don't want to stop too often to look up words. That interrupts you and makes it hard to follow the story. Success with easy reading will make you want more!
If your English reading level is Beginning or Low Intermediate, start with short, fairly easy readings. Some of the best are on the Internet. For excellent short readings online (many with the advantage of audio, so you can listen as you read) see Online Reading.
If you want books you can carry with you, try children’s stories. Most are very well-written, and interesting to adults as well as children. (They need to be, because adults buy them and often read them with their kids.) They are short enough you can finish them in a reasonable length of time, and illustrations make them easier to understand.
At a library you can borrow books for a few weeks at no cost. (I worked at a library for several years and have used libraries all my life. I can assure you that most librarians will be happy to answer your questions and to help you find what you want.)
A librarian (or bookstore clerk) can recommend some excellent books to match your reading level and interests. In addition to stories, there are children’s non-fiction (factual) books on many subjects.
The easiest books are “I Can Read” books, or easy readers. After that there are short chapter books and picture books that may also be easy enough for you to enjoy.
Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel) wrote some of the first beginning readers, including The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham. There are also many child detective books and many animal stories, like Little Bear by Else Minarik and Frog and Toad are Friends by Arnold Lobel.
For adults, I recommend the Amelia Bedelia books by Peggy Parish.
Amelia Bedelia is a maid who is easily confused by English idioms. She tries her best to follow instructions for cleaning the house, but she makes lots of mistakes. (Her boss asks her to dust the furniture, so she sprinkles powder on it, instead of using a cloth to remove the dust.) Children find these stories very funny. So do adults, especially if you have ever been confused by these expressions.
The Easy Reader Classics series includes a number of short (32 page) easy readers adapted from these favorite children’s stories:
If you want to read these classics in English someday, here is your chance to “taste” them. (It will be easier to read the real story later.) Try your library, or order them online from the publisher, Sterling Children’s Books, or Amazon.com or another bookstore.
Almost as easy is the Encyclopedia Brown detective series. If you enjoy mysteries or finding clues and solving puzzles, try these collections of short stories. Click here for more information and a link to a sample.
When you are ready for a little harder reading, consider children’s picture books, especially the Caldecott Award winners. (Each was voted the best picture book published in the U.S. that year.) In picture books, the illustrations help make the words clear, so you don’t need to look up so many. Any library or bookstore in the U.S. will have many of these, or you can order them online.
My special recommendations for adult ESL Beginners:
When you are ready for some adult reading, you might enjoy short articles from Reader’s Digest or another magazine in a (non-academic) field that interests you. These will be harder to read, but short.
Try to guess the meaning from context so you won’t need to look up so many words. (See Improve Reading Skills.)
The Online Reading page has some useful suggestions for beginners, especially if you want to try reading the news in English.
Later, westerns and romance novels are usually fairly easy, with limited vocabulary and a plot that is easy to follow. See Finding English Reading Materials for some ideas.
Most importantly, find what you enjoy reading, and read a little every day!
That (along with listening and speaking, of course) is one of the best ways to “graduate” from the ESL Beginners class to Intermediates-- and beyond.