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Graded Readers

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What are Graded readers?

Graded readers (also called ‘readers’) are books especially written for language learners. These readers help learners to read systematically by introducing them to easy language before they move up to more difficult language. Graded readers are a bridge to the eventual reading of authentic reading materials.

First let's get a misconception out of the way. Graded reading does not refer to school grades (as in grade 1 , grade 4 etc.). They are 'graded' because they are written at different difficulty levels (grades or steps). They are typically written from learners of foreign languages or second languages. Graded readers are graded through tight control of the plot, vocabulary, and grammar. Visual support is provided through carefully chosen pictures.  Books for beginning learners are written with the easiest, most frequent and most useful words. For example, Level 1 of the Foundations Reading Library Series uses only 75 headwords and controlled grammar structures. Level 2 uses an additional 25 words (making a total of 100 headwords) and a new grammar structure. Level 3 adds more words (and grammar structures) and so on until learners reach the highest level in the series. In this way, learners progress through the different levels until at an advanced level they are eventually able to read authentic materials.

Graded readers are story books which can be fiction or non-fiction. Here are some examples.

Fiction Graded readers Non-Fiction graded readers




Why use graded readers?

students should read graded readers so they can read material at their fluent reading ability level. If a student reads something too hard, the reading can be frustrational and they won't be able to read fast. Remember ER is about building reading speed and reading a lot. This can't be done if the text is too hard. Therefore students need to know how to select their reading well.

How are they graded?

Students start by reading books with a very small set of easy words and very simple grammar and move on to books with more words and more complex grammar.  They move up the levels when they can read a level fluently and easily.

Beginner level

This example page comes from a graded reader that has only 75 different words.  There's only the simplest grammar (no past tenses and difficult constructions)

Elementary level

This example is from a higher level. This book has only 150 different words repeated time and time again. It also contains grammar and vocabulary from the previous levels and adds some grammar and vocabulary which are a little harder. 

As with the above example there is an illustration which helps learners to get the context.



Lower Intermediate level

At this level there are more words and slightly harder vocabulary

After these levels the language gets more and more 'difficult'. Once the student can read a given level smoothly and comfortably, s/he moves up to the next level.

When do they move to the next level?

When they are ready. This means that the students should be able to read the books at say intermediate level smoothly and fluently with very high levels of comprehension. They should then read a book at a higher level to see if they can cope with it.

Note that not all students have the same attitude to 'comfort' reading. Some students want to try something harder quickly, while others prefer the 'safe' ground of the level they are at. That's fine. As out long-term aim to to build a class of life-long readers it's best not to push them to go through the levels too quickly, or they may be put off reading. This also means that if they want to read something below (easier than) their current fluent reading level, let them - it will help build reading speed as they can read it very quickly. But they shouldn't read too much at this level.

Why not use ‘authentic’ books?

Many teachers and students believe that as the ultimate aim of learning a second language is to read native materials, that therefore it's best to read only them. The rationale is that the books have authentic language and are not simplified or 'watered-down' and therefore present the language in a more natural way. While the language may be natural, it doesn't mean that it is the best for instruction. Let's look at an analogy.  Would you ask someone who just started driving, to go onto the highway? Would you ask someone who just started playing the piano to play Rachmaninov's Third piano concerto? Would you give Harry Potter to a 4 year old? The answers are of course no.  While the ultimate aim may be to drive on the highway or read Harry Potter, that is not where we should start.

First language reading

We also have to remember that reading in a second language is vastly different from learning to read in one's mother tongue. When you stared reading in your first language at age about 5 or 6, you already knew thousands of words and most of the important grammar. Therefore, beginning level books were not that difficult after you mastered the alphabet and the phonetic code (how sounds match words) because you already knew the words when they were spoken and were only adding how they were spelt.

Second / Foreign language reading

Most schools teach reading as a second language (EFL or ESL) very early in the instruction process - often starting with the alphabet and writing simple words. But these learners (whether child or adults starting a foreign language) do not have the thousands of words and the grammar knowledge that beginner first language readers do. Therefore, the reading task is vastly different. beginner foreign language readers have  to not only have to read the words (in possibly a new script) but they also have to learn the words and grammar at the same time.

’Authentic’ reading materials (for native speakers of English) are usually NOT the best books to teach foreign language learners to read. These are usually written for English-speaking children who already know thousands of words and most of the grammar of English before they start to read. English language learners don’t have this knowledge and usually find authentic books very difficult. Certainly until quite advanced English language learners should use Graded readers.

At the very earliest levels of reading (This is my cat or John likes Jill) child first language books are very similar in level to beginner second language books but very very quickly the first language books become very difficult. A native child would be able to read a complex book very quickly, but a non-native child learning English 2-3 hours a week of the same age would not. Natives spend all their lives immersed in English but foreign language learners only have a few hours a week at best. They therefore need very different reading input and instruction.

Which books / series are best?

There is no one answer to this question. The answer depends on what kind of reading the student wants to do. Some students like romance, others thrillers and so on.  Some don't like fiction and prefer non-fiction. Also some students may like a particular title, while others don't like it.

One way to find the 'best books' is by looking for graded readers which have won (or been finalists) for the Language Learner Literature Awards. A list of the currently published series is here.

How can they know their comfortable reading level?

There are many way to find their comfortable reading level. Here are some ideas.

Do they have to read only graded readers?

No, if they want to build reading speed they can read anything that is comfortable for them. Here are some links to some online reading materials that are written )mostly) for language learners.

Should they read non-fiction too?

Definitely. Most standard tests (TOEIC / TOEFL etc.) have reading passages which are always non-fiction. As 90% of what we read is non-fiction anyway, that is likely the type of reading they will do mostly anyway in English, therefore they should practice this.

But if they read something easy, they won't learn anything new, right?

Not correct. They may not learn many new words or new grammar because if they are reading for fluency at the right level the book must be easy, therefore necessarily they will choose reading books at an easy level (without many new words and new grammar) to achieve this aim.

Many teachers misunderstand this and feel that no learning is going on. Actually they are doing a lot of learning - they are building reading speed, meeting thousands of words and grammar structures time and time again to deepen and consolidate their knowledge of them, meeting real English discourse and reading in a realistic way. Apart from this they are also likely to see English as something that is enjoyable and not only as something to be studied like math or science. By far the most important finding in ER research is that almost always researchers report that students doing ER say there is an increase not only in general reading ability, but also an increase in general motivation for English as a whole.

Teachers also have to understand the difference between learning and studying. Studying generally has a dark image where students sit ad sweat over a text book that is usually quite hard. It often involves studying grammar and vocabulary as single items to master. Learning, by contrast, is an enjoyable experience that doesn't have the dark image of 'studying' and is more holistic.