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February 2024 - Year 26 - Issue 1

ISSN 1755-9715

Real Books. What do we mean?

A quibble?

I contend that it is not a trivial time-wasting quibble to keep on asking the question about  what we mean by the term, ‘real books’.  Given it is a pretty important concept and influential force it  seems to me irresponsible not to keep on thinking about it.


Some of the meanings associated with the term

The term real books is being used by people involved in the EFL real books movement in very different ways.

At the recent conference on real books in York  I noted the following meanings explicitly or implicitly occurring:

  • Real books are books produced by professional writers.
  • Real books are books published for the trade which have proved themselves in the open marketplace rather than being published for the educational publishing market.
  • Real books are quality books combining text and picture in a fresh, engaging way.
  • Real books were produced for native speaker children and make no concessions to a limited language syllabus which might be followed by children learning English as a foreign language.



1 Is it not the case that some books published for native speaker children are not fresh and engaging and do not offer experience which is of significant positive value to the child?

2 Is it not the case that some books published for the native speaker child take into account a limited ability to read the text or even to understand it when it is read to them?

3 Is it not the case that some enthusiasts of the real book movement assume that they must modify the text of the native speaker book, at least a little?  If this is done then is it no longer a real book?

4 By chance, Peter Usborne who became one of the most successful publishers of books for children under the name of Usborne Books, was someone I was on friendly terms before he became a book publisher.  I wrote to him with the following questions about the creation of his books.  He confirmed that his authors do not simply produce books to interest children but take into account the needs of the children in so far as they can in the way they write.  They write so as wide a range of children can read and use the books as possible.  They employed Betty Root as their adviser in order to maximise the accessibility of the books.

The ‘real books’ movement believe that books specially produced for learners of English are inevitably not ‘real’!  My belief it is the fresh concept behind the Usborne books which makes them SO successful.

It would be better to talk about good books and boring books than about real and not real books!

5 When a child learning English as a foreign language makes a book, writing it in English and illustrating it.  Can we not say that it is a real book?

6 What does ‘real’ mean in the context of, ‘Real men eat quiche?’  Could real books be taken to contain a similar meaning?  Real ale?  If you don’t drink real ale you are not discriminating. 

7 If a book published specifically for foreign language learners is unreal then is it not the case that it is unreal to learn English as a foreign language at two hours a week in a classroom in the child’s own country?  If yes, do we stop work in schools and insist that all children go to a country where English is a native language?


No answers but my feelings

1 The term ‘real books’ is very handy as a banner when leading the troops over the barricades.  A car is handy, but it is potentially dangerous.  I have no alternative banner phrase to offer, and I have a car.

2 What we all agree on is that we want to give our children books which are: engaging, relevant and rich.  Highly talented writers, artists and publishers are better able to produce such books than writers and artists with less talent and for publishers aiming at the lowest common denominator for what they hope will be a piece of the mass market.

3 It seems to me undeniable that we must adjust how we try to communicate to the particular child we are working with.  This, for me, does not mean that we speak ‘down’ to the child.   If it is the case that it is often good to kneel down to be on the same eye level as a child.  Is this not a guide to how we must write for that child?  If the child has only a very limited amount of English then is it not absolutely  natural (dare I say ‘real’) to speak to him or her in language which he or she has a chance of understanding?

4 I love the potential richness of language.  We all know that children love language richness. 

Nevertheless, if my child would like to do some carpentry then I would probably make sure that s/he has a hammer, some nails and a saw rather than a cross thread screwdriver.  OK let the child experience a rich use of English but let’s make sure s/he has some basic tools for dealing with a wide range of likely needs.

We want simple not simplified English.

5 I love the real books movement and I am hugely grateful to the colleagues from Frank Smith onwards who have put so much into driving the idea forward that we should give our children, engaging, relevant and rich books instead of shallow collections of cliché’s manifesting unhelpful values, perceptions and behaviours and presented in language and with pictures and design which have no quality of freshness and originality. 

If a book has high quality does it matter whether it was published for the trade or for the educational market?  Does it matter if the child’s language competence was taken into account?

What Peter Usborne has done is to give offer the world high quality books related to

the needs of people worldwide.  Because people feel a need for them they buy them.  Over the decades since he began Usborne Publishing, a trade publishing house, I have seen his books in shops and on market stalls in the 35 countries I have worked in.

But this does not mean that educational publishers by the nature of their work cannot also give people high quality is a matter of talent, vision and commitment. 

6 I don’t want our enthusiasm for quality to be taken over or even tainted by a snobbish claim for moral high ground based on…’a real book has been published by native speakers for native speakers’!  A purist insistence on native speaker books could lead to dismay and a turning away from the need for quality as our aim.  Over the forty years I have been in language teaching I have seen one good idea after another rubbished because it was taken over by purist dogma which then proved not to be able to offer a golden answer.  Baby out with the bathwater.



Peter Westwood. Adapting Instructional Materials for L2 Learners’, in Cats Autumn 2005.

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