Cancer cells are characterized by aberrant epigenetic landscapes and often exploit chromatin machinery to activate oncogenic gene expression programs1. Recognition of modified histones by ‘reader’ proteins constitutes a key mechanism underlying these processes; therefore, targeting such pathways holds clinical promise, as exemplified by the development of bromodomain and extra-terminal (BET) inhibitors2,3. We recently identified the YEATS domain as an acetyl-lysine-binding module4, but its functional importance in human cancer remains unknown. Here we show that the YEATS domain-containing protein ENL, but not its paralogue AF9, is required for disease maintenance in acute myeloid leukaemia. CRISPR–Cas9-mediated depletion of ENL led to anti-leukaemic effects, including increased terminal myeloid differentiation and suppression of leukaemia growthin vitroandin vivo. Biochemical and crystal structural studies and chromatin-immunoprecipitation followed by sequencing analyses revealed that ENL binds to acetylated histone H3, and co-localizes with H3K27ac and H3K9ac on the promoters of actively transcribed genes that are essential for leukaemia. Disrupting the interaction between the YEATS domain and histone acetylation via structure-based mutagenesis reduced the recruitment of RNA polymerase II to ENL-target genes, leading to the suppression of oncogenic gene expression programs. Notably, disrupting the functionality of ENL further sensitized leukaemia cells to BET inhibitors. Together, our data identify ENL as a histone acetylation reader that regulates oncogenic transcriptional programs in acute myeloid leukaemia, and suggest that displacement of ENL from chromatin may be a promising epigenetic therapy, alone or in combination with BET inhibitors, for aggressive leukaemia.