Penguin Young Readers
Without really having analysed why, Penguin graded readers tend to be to ones I and most of my students turn to first- possibly because they look just like the Penguin novels etc. that native speakers read (in terms of presentation, colour scheme on the covers etc.), possibly because there is such a wide range of titles, and possibly because the vast majority of Penguin EFL titles are readers like these and so the readers jump out of the catalogue at you more than from most EFL catalogues. I wanted to look inside them thoroughly and find out if they lived up to the attention they got.
Although the covers of these Young Readers have colour photos (e.g. of a panda or a sphinx) or drawings on them (e.g. a boy sleeping with his rabbit), they have the same general appearance as Penguin adult books (orange strips and penguin symbol), which makes them instantly recognisable but perhaps a little serious at first glance. Inside, the presentation is pretty much the same, looking more like readers native speaker kids are given at school than the wackier, slightly outrageous books that children tend to pick for themselves nowadays- not necessarily a bad thing as the teacher or parent is more likely to select and buy these books than the child. The back cover gives teachers and parents information on what the level means (in terms of wordlists and how many hours of English studied), what variety of English is used in the book and on the cassette, and whether the book is an "original", "classic" or "contemporary".
The three "Originals" here are factual books: about animals, an English festival and ancient Egypt. The Animals one is a nice big size (almost A4), and so suitable for a younger age group. The wildlife photos in it would appeal to boys up to about 7 years old, but possibly a wider range of girls. Unfortunately, my students at this age group are unlikely to know words such as "catch" and "sharp", and don't have the training in phonics to work out the pronunciation and/ or meaning by themselves. Although storytime in class generally works better with more of a narrative, this book could be used for this and would be perfect for an attentive parent to use along with a child.
The Halloween one moves up from the 4 or 5 words a page of Animals to 2 or 3 sentences, and a child of about Pre-Intermediate level could make sense of it on their own. The use of eye-catching colour and Harry Potter means it could appeal to anyone of between 7 and 11 as long as they have the right level.
The Ancient Egypt book is much more serious, and despite the cartoons is drifting towards school textbook material. This would be of most use for cross-curricula stuff when students are studying the topic in their own language as well.
The "Classics" are the story of a cuddly toy that comes alive and a re-telling of a Greek myth. The "Velveteen Rabbit" story is not one I knew before seeing this EFL adaptation, but is a very cute tale and one I would also be happy to use with native speaker kids. The illustrations are also cute, but in a way that makes them useable with a wide range of ages- luckily, as again my Japanese students would have to be 9 years old or so to be able to cope with the language. Even some of my adult students might have problems with the Odyssey, and again it might best be used as a cross-curricula resource.
All the books have (jazz) chants and exercises at the back, which are nice if you like that kind of thing.
In summary, the books were every bit as professional and well-made as I expected. They also looked and felt quite "serious" and educational, and so are perfect for the student libraries of any kind of school teaching these ages of children. Whilst the presentation might have difficulties in grabbing the attention of children when competing with pop videos and computer games, with a bit of help and encouragement from teachers and parents the children are sure to find these books interesting and stimulating.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 TEFL.net.