A Selection of Graded Readers

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Consists of: Graded readers
Summary: "well worth investing in"
Reviewed by: Alex Case
Review date: July 2002

A lot of recent EFL theory concentrates on the importance of 'comprehensible input' for language development, meaning something students can understand and enjoy rather than consciously sweat through. One well known way of providing this is by persuading students to read 'graded readers' (or 'easy readers', as they are sometimes known). This is easier said than done, because the books must try to reach the standards of story-telling and presentation students are used to in their own language whilst remaining an 'easy read'. This 'easiness' involves not only making sure the vocabulary is of the right level, but also that the grammatical structures and information load (e.g. subplots) are not too demanding for the students. Given all this, students' reluctance to pick up the dusty copies of easy readers with cartoon-style 1970s pictures that most schools have tucked away on some shelf is understandable. As I am in charge of our school's Self Access Centre (student library), I was very keen to see how a few of the latest titles from a big publisher would fare against my students' exacting standards.

I received 5 readers from Cambridge University Press. The first was 'John Doe' by Antoinette Moses, a murder mystery for level 1 (more or less Elementary), 'a man who doesn't know who he is in a hospital'. (NB: all plot summaries given are those written by my students). The second was 'The Beast' by Carolyn Walker, a horror story for Level 3 (Intermediate). The third was another murder mystery, 'A Puzzle for Logan' where 'a young inspector has to figure out the connection between 2 murders 8 years apart', for Level 3. For Level 5 (FCE kind of level), there was 'Windows of the Mind' by Frank Brennan, 5 stories connected the 5 senses. Finally, there was 'Frozen Pizza' by Antoinette Moses, 8 stories of 'real life and problems in England' for Level 6.

All the titles have cover pictures which are colourful but fairly ambiguous about even what kind of genre book they contain, possibly to avoid putting people off. The books make up for this by stating the genre on the back (e.g. 'human interest'). The level is clearly marked by number and colour, although nowhere does it explain exactly what they mean, simply explaining that the six levels go 'from elementary to advanced'. This is probably sensible, as students' reading levels rarely correspond to their class level, and giving the vocabulary range as a number of words (as some books do) seems only to confuse.

Opening the books, most of them contain maps of where the action is set (mainly in the UK). Although all my students claimed they didn't use the maps to understand the stories, putting the story in context would, I imagine, help. I would say the same about the pictures in the stories, which are much more prevalent in the lower level books. The lower level books also include a list of characters (e.g. 'Chris: takes photographs and writes for and English newspaper').

The way I decided to test these books was in a way a little unnatural, even slightly unfair! Rather than letting students choose books they were interested in, I allocated them to students at random. None of the students chosen had read graded readers before. Feedback was then obtained through a questionnaire and informal chats. Considering the harshness of the test, the stories came out quite well. Although some of the students didn't like the stories, all but one said that they didn't generally like the genre they were given either. Two students even said that they liked it although they generally disliked that genre. All of them thought the stories were the right length. Most positive of all, though, was the fact that all students thought they had learnt something from the books and that they would be happy to read a graded reader again. I was surprised by the fact that students generally rated the books more as a way of learning grammar than of learning vocabulary, although I think this was often because their reading level was above that of the book, which I chose for them by the level of their class. In fact, several said they would pick a more difficult one next time. I think this is a positive sign for how well they are written, because we have had to put several of the older graded readers in our SAC in as a higher level than they are supposed to be.

The greatest number of complaints about the books was that some of them were somewhat childish. I imagine there would have been even more similar complaints if the students had been over 25. I suppose this is partly due to the necessary simplification of the stories (as this complaint occurred more at the lower levels), but is also due to the fact that Cambridge, unlike some other publishers, fails to make a distinction between those books aimed at teenagers/young adults, and those suitable for adults. This was made most obvious by the fact that the book with a warning 'adult content' sign on the back ('the Beast') was one of the ones that was described as childish. Another relevant factor is that with expansions in secondary school teaching of English due to factors such as the fall of the Berlin wall, it is often the older learners who are at a lower level.

In conclusion, the world of graded readers really seems to have moved on since it's last heyday during the seventies. If your school haven't invested in some newer readers recently, there is a great generation of books out there which could make all the difference to your students' motivation and language learning. And it seems, from the experience of writing this, that telling students you are reviewing the books when you receive them is a great way to make sure they get used!

TEFL.net ESL Reviews & ArticlesAlex Case has worked as an EFL Teacher, Teacher Trainer, Director of Studies and EFL Editor in Turkey, Thailand, Spain, Greece, the UK and Japan. Alex Case is Reviews Editor of TEFL.net.