Historical Graded Readers

Title: Historical Graded Readers
Author: Hugh Gethin and Judith Brown
Publisher: Georgian Press
Consists of: Graded readers
Reviewed by: Alex Case
Review date: January 2003

First of all, I must admit that the reason I volunteered to review these books was that I wanted to read them myself. This is not the first time I have chosen to read Graded Readers for my own entertainment (it's the only palatable way to tackle the classics like Jane Austen as far as I'm concerned) but these were certainly, for me, the most interesting.

The first book is called Alexander the Great and tells his story from before his birth to the time when the last of his 'heirs' was defeated by the Romans hundreds of years later. The life of Alexander the Great makes a great story, which explains where there are at least three Hollywood film projects based on it being talked about. The author certainly makes the most of the appeal of the story, pacing it well.

The second book is called The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. After a short discussion of how the whole obsession with 'Seven Wonders' came about, the authors go onto to examine some less well-known candidates for being included in the seven, such as the Walls of Babylon. They then spend ten or so pages describing each of the popularly accepted ones - such as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Colossus of Rhodes. With each, they explain why and how it was built, and work hard to make its relevance to us clear (for example, that the world 'mausoleum' comes from one of them).

As I said above, the books will certainly 'interest the general reader' (as the covers claim), especially one like myself who has an interest in history. As the books are 'especially written for students of English', though, how suitable are they for this primary purpose? First of all, how difficult it is to read these books would vary hugely from student to student, depending on things other than general level. Someone who already knew the whole story in detail could probably read and enjoy these stories even if they only had a mid-Intermediate level of English. Someone who was unfamiliar not only with the stories but with the whole Greek and Roman based European culture would need an Advanced level of English to cope with the lack of cultural knowledge. It is perhaps because of this that there is no recommended level for the books. I'd say the two levels I have given above are the sensible upper and lower limits.

Despite what I've said above, the authors have done a very good job in simplifying what are difficult topics to explain. There are detailed maps at the beginning of each book and there is a clear glossary at the back of both. It is not indicated in the text which words are in the glossary, which does save students looking up every word but means they can waste time flicking back and forth. About thirty per cent of the words in the glossary are ones that might also need explaining to an English-speaking child, such as 'ally' and 'stirrups', but most of the time it would be impossible to write about these historical topics without them. The books are well illustrated with black and white photos and sketches - for example of the setting of a battle or sketches of how artists have pictured the Colossus. One way in which they could have made the texts simpler would have been to use the pictures to actually illustrate the difficult vocabulary (for example a picture of 'troops'). Another possibility would have been to write in a more chatty style, something like the 'Horrible Histories' series for British children. Both of these could have made the books appear less 'adult' though, whereas as they are they are suitable both for adult and young adult readers.

I'd recommend these books for anyone who is interested in both history and learning English, especially those who want to go on to eventually read history books written for native speakers.

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.