A Selection of Graded Readers
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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.
Alex 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
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.
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!