New Penguin Readers (2008)

Dave Allen and students look atthree graded readers: “Pirates of the Caribbean”, “North and South” and “Doctor Faustus”.
Reviewed for Teflnet by Dave Allen

Here I will review three Graded Readers from the ever-popular Penguin Series. All published last year, these new additions to the collection span a range of levels from pre-intermediate to advanced. For the first two, I shall review them with additional comments by students from my reading classes; and for the third one, one of my students has contributed a review.

I’ll begin with Pirates of the Caribbean, the Walt Disney movie blockbuster, which comes to us now in 48-pages of pre-intermediate level text. Accompanied by photos from the motion picture, short chapters and breaks, the text appears approachable for readers of this level. An introduction gives a helpful overview of the plot and mention of the movie (just in case you haven’t seen it) – these are surely useful additions featured in all of the readers to help learners orient to the stories. A vocabulary-list of words featured in the story which fall outside the range of the level (in this case 1200 headwords) and pre-, during and post- reading tasks are provided.

Not wanting to flog a dead horse, I won’t go on about the fact that entertaining movies that are reduced to graded readers may not be as enjoyable as the originals (see my Scholastic Readers review also on TEFL.net). However, it is again a point made by students who read this book. Certainly, if a learner has seen the movie then it will be easier to comprehend the gist of the book, and the two activities may complement each other by reinforcing vocabulary learning etc, but it may also be a bit of a chore having to read a watered-down version of a beautifully styled, action-packed movie where vivid description of the costume and setting seems essential. This does sound like an underhanded remark leveled at graded readers by their critics, that they are inferior versions of the originals. But the difference in this case is that it is the learners, that is, the target audience, who are being critical.

Other than this, if students are keen to read the story then they will no doubt find this book accessible, well-written and entertaining.

Next is North and South, which comes to us as an advanced level text accompanied by four audio CDs so learners can listen, read or do both simultaneously. Because of the level of the text (3000 Headwords), the font-size is a little smaller, there are no pictures in the main body of the book and at 100 pages the text is substantially longer. The book begins with a superb introduction to the novel, detailing some of the personal history of Elizabeth Gaskell (the author) and how her life and views are reflected in the story.

My student who read this book seemed to thoroughly enjoy the story and yet was challenged by the level of the text. The advanced level texts are clearly no easy-ride even for fluent speakers who can jump through the IELTS hoops necessary to get to UK universities. The difference between the original texts and the rewritten texts (note that these are not ‘adapted’ or ‘simplified’ texts, but ‘rewritten’, reflecting the idea that the author recreates the story in his/her own words, not just reducing the grammar and vocabulary by swapping difficult forms for simpler ones), is one largely of vocabulary and text-length, primarily the latter. The aim is to reduce the story down to a manageable size which will not scare off the learner. Once this aim is achieved, at advanced level the grammar and vocabulary need relatively little attention. Therefore, the final product may turn out to be relatively dense with information, in order to maintain the plot but reduce the text length.

Actually, the book is a pleasure to read in itself. Even if one has read the original, this rewrite is not unentertaining. The CDs are an excellent addition, though it was noted that as they feature only one story-teller, they can be difficult to follow. In many respects though, this presents another challenge for learners, which can be assisted by reading and listening together – a useful exercise also for noticing the stress-timing, intonation and pitch changes of the English language. Overall, this is a recommended read for high-level learners.

Finally, Doctor Faustus, an intermediate level text (1700 headwords) text which takes the form of a play, has been kindly reviewed by one of my students (another, optional, task I set for my reading classes!)

A story of a pitiful, intelligent man

Doctor Faustus is a German scholar clever enough and already famous when, desiring to acquire more power, he decides to make an agreement with the Devil to give his soul to hell in twenty-four years. Although he spends years with the grateful Devil’s magic, he is never gratified and cannot be free from the fear of God.

This story was written in Britain in the year 1592 as a drama which tells of the universal human greed through the religious perfidy. At that time, when religious belief was ruling the society far more than today, it is difficult to imagine how people feared the story of a man who made an agreement with the Devil and was taken away to Hell. The author Christopher Marlowe, who was born in the same year as William Shakespeare, had a mysterious life and was murdered at the young age of thirty-nine, which was only a year after this work was published. It is said that had he lived longer, he might have become a greater writer than Shakespeare.

What is interesting about this story, other than the folly of human or the interaction with the devils, is the religious devotion of the infidel Faustus. Even though he is characterized as greed personified in the story, he is incited to attempt to repent from time to time. This would imply how afraid people were of committing sin in that century. If this story was written today, Faustus might get flustered only around the days before the agreement and at the end of his life.

The book is more enjoyable for readers who have knowledge of religion and of the cultural background of the drama, but maybe also those who do not have will nevertheless be deeply intrigued. It is a great advantage to have the opportunity to read such a classic masterpiece in simplified texts not only for children but also for grown-up English-learners. Such learners may well be motivated to read the original piece in the future.

Reviewed by Dave Allen for Teflnet August 2009

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