The Story behind Graded Readers
by Zainab Al Bulushy
The paper discusses graded readers from various aspects. It defines graded readers through diverse views, and then provides information on the various types of graded readers available, their levels and publishers. Reasons for using graded readers are highlighted along with other views regarding their use. It also discusses the different strategies used for engaging students and encouraging them to read and comprehend. Various assessment strategies used to test students understanding are also addressed. Finally the paper shows research results of students' views on the current graded readers they read, their preferred types and assessment techniques.
It is very well known that the most excellent approach to advance your capability in a foreign language is to take the effort and go to live in the community of its speakers. The other paramount way is to increase your reading comprehensively in it by more reading. Nuttall, (1996). English language teaching deals with the four skills (reading, writing, listening and speaking) equally. In the reading component of each course or program certain strategies could be adapted to ease the learning process. One of these is using graded readers. They come in so many different genre and teachers are responsible of choosing the readers that would fit their students age, interest and level of English. Graded readers have been used in the teaching of English for quite some time now and they gained a lot of praise over their beneficial use and effects on students of all levels through the development of their reading skills in general.
What are Graded Readers?
Graded readers are a shape of language learner prose. They are special books particularly written for second or foreign language learners. Hill and Thomas (1988) provide a definition for graded readers as books "written to a grading scheme," they could take the shape of simplifications or original books. They are typically unmitigated fiction texts, in which language is simple in terms of structure and vocabulary. They are easy versions of classics, modern novels, and fairy tales. The British council provides a definition for Graded readers as "books that have had the language level simplified to help second language learners read them. The language is graded for vocabulary, complexity of grammar structures and also by the number of words. They are made to cater for all levels from beginners through to advance".
Types of graded readers:
There are three specified types of graded readers as provided by Simensen (1987):
(a) Authentic readers,
These include the ones not written for academic use;
(b) Pedagogic readers,
These are designed particularly for learners of English as a second or foreign language.
(c) Adapted readers,
These have been derived and simplified from original versions.
The ERF Graded Reader Scale
The Extensive Reading Foundation (ERF) has established a scale as to determine the different levels of graded readers depending on language difficulty and the vocabulary items they include. This scale was mainly developed for the following reasons:
• It allows teachers to group their collection of graded readers using an understandable scale.
• You can Check if this scale is equivalent with the levels the ERF provides for the Language Learner Literature Awards
• To Produce a standardized Scale to judge the difficulty levels of various series from different publishers
• To Provide a kind of unity among institutions
• It Provides a framework for publishers to consider the levels they may decide to publish
Analysis of a good number of graded readers took place before deciding on the various levels and therefore the scale has some specified features such as:
• It goes from the easy Alphabet level (50 headwords) to the most Advanced (4500 headwords) and it covers 99% of the books available on the market
• It is divided into 5 levels each contains three sub-levels to make it easy to classify
• It is based only on headword counts
Students' reading level
In this case students should be asked to choose books at various difficulty levels provided that they have been instructed on the exact levels of the scale. They are given time to read a little of each book for a few minutes. The following questions should be kept in students' minds:
• Can I read it without using a dictionary?
• Can I read it quickly?
• Is it easy to understand almost everything?
If students answer yes to each of the previous questions, then in that case the book is their specified level. They could even try a higher level book to check their ability to move to the next level and so on. If the answer is no to even one of the questions, then in this case they need to try the lower levels until they become comfortable with their level of understanding.
Value of Graded Readers:
Graded readers are very useful language learning means that have a lot of positives on behalf of students' learning development. However, there seems to be some negative points raised up by linguists in this field which include:
• Many graded readers show incidents of wrongly written texts and in some cases content is irrelevant, Davison (1986); Wallace (1988).
• Simplifying the graded readers to fit students' level could result in more difficult or complicated language.
• Sometimes they are compared to authentic literature and therefore are considered less in quality and effectiveness.
• The content and presentation of the readers could be under judged sometimes especially if it is not appropriate to a certain culture.
• In some cases, people do not value the importance of graded readers just because they ignore their effectiveness in the learning process.
• In some cases readers lack cohesion, coherence, and appropriate discourse structures (Anderson & Armbruster, 1986)
• They sometimes contain too complicated styles and terminology which might discourage students' comprehension.
Sections of evaluation
To evaluate the quality of the graded reader to be used effectively and serve the teaching and learning process, the following criteria should be taken in consideration: ('Assessing Graded Readers' by Peter Viney):
• The level of the story
The level of the graded readers should be suitable for the students' level and should identify clearly the kinds of students this level will best fit. Sometimes even the stated level on the cover of the reader should address and clarify the correspondent level of students depending on every institute's case. For some students a level 5 would fit into the exact level 5 of some institution, whereas for others it might be higher and a level 4 would fit better.
• Language difficulty
Language difficulty should also be considered seriously. It should correspond to the language level students are provided with in their learning environment; otherwise it would be difficult for them to follow and comprehend and hence benefit from the graded reader itself.
• Writing quality
Accuracy is a very important factor. A graded reader ought to be a trustworthy source of language that should be presented in a correct manner. The writing efficiency will help students improve their writing and learn the correct writing styles.
• The presentation of the reader
This is very important to encourage students to overcome the difficulty of some texts sometimes. It also provides them with meaningful illustrations which should be exact and dependable.
• General design
General design plays a significant role in accepting to read the graded reader. It provides students with an overview of the reader. It should be suitable to the content and kind of information. Quality of typing is also important. It should be attractively clear and readable. Editing should meet the standards and should be accurate.
• The summary of reader
This is a helpful device for students to get an overall idea about the whole content before they start the reading which will give them an opportunity to decide the pace and manner of their reading. It will also help them decide whether to read the story or change it.
Why use graded readers?
There are a lot of reasons that make graded readers a good teaching aid. Teachers can make good use of them provided that they are given to the right level of students and used properly to fit the purpose of their inclusion in the curriculum. Following are some reasons for their usage, Shizuoka, (2000):
• It increases the amount of information
• It provides unauthentic literature
• It incorporates all students levels
• Students are responsible of their own learning
• Students enhance their reading skills
• Students can read out of class
• It focuses on various skills and fields like politics and social issues
• It increases students knowledge and enjoyment
Using graded readers:
Teachers can apply the following strategies with their students to guarantee better results and good use of the graded reader. Shizuoka, (2000)
1. The students themselves choose a reader:
Teachers could decide on a collection of readers for a certain level and ask students to self select based on their interests:
• Helps decide on input of course
• Helps students to enhance their reading
• Makes students independent in their learning
• Gives students freedom
• Less time to decide on a reader
• Each student can write their own report
2. The teacher decides on the reader for the whole class:
In this case, the teacher decides on one set of a class reader for all the students and assigns them some time to read it outside class. Activities could be generated later for class use besides other kinds of assessment strategies.
• Helps decide on input of the course
• Can create group discussions
• Students have a collective view about the story
• Students better understand the topic of the story
• Students can study vocabulary together
3. A mixture of students' selection and teacher's decision:
This could play a significant role in enhancing students' confidence and contentment as well as having the opportunity for discussions and quality reading.
• Helps increase the amount of reading done
• Helps students with the quality of their reading
Encouraging techniques for students
Students might sometimes be reluctant to consider reading extra texts as Graded Readers especially that they will be tested on at a later stage. There are some techniques that might encourage students to have a positive attitude towards readers. This could be done by making reading fun on some occasions and assessing their comprehension formally later. (Dragana, Filipovic, Longman, Serbia). Some of those techniques include:
• Class shared reviews
Students could be assigned a graded reader to read and then they produce a review for it. They could do that in a group to share their reviews and discuss their opinions on what they got from the story. A written summary of the review could be encouraged here as well.
• Blind dates
In this technique, each two students are given the same reader. They read it on their own and then they find out their partner among the other students. They discuss the reader together each giving their opinion and may answer some questions about the events in the reader. Thus, they share ideas and help each other understand concepts.
A teacher in this technique could use a section from a story to use as a reading or a listening exercise, a spelling check, or a gap fill activity etc. It should encourage the students to predict and try to guess the events of the story. The students then exchange the books to read and check, and they can discuss if their books had good endings and if the endings were what they expected or not. It gives them a sense of achievement and pride.
• Chain reading
Students read different pages of the same graded reader in turns and then report to the class telling what happened in that section of the book in their own language. The other students will be very eager to hear what happened, and will be interested in reading the same book later.
• Use them as prizes:
After completing a certain reader, students run a competition based on the information they got from the story or the vocabulary they learnt. Prizes will be in the form of other readers that will catch students' attention and push them to read and comprehend so that they can share the information later with partners in the class.
• All students get the same graded reader
This could be a tool for quick reading as competition between students and later helps to form questions to check their understanding. Students will feel equally responsible for reading and wanting to show their abilities.
• Students get different readers
Let students choose their readers from a collection you provide. Each student will be responsible for their choice and will be interested in seeing the content of the story they got attracted to and later provide recommendation to the other students in the class.
• Choosing a reader together:
Assign students to propose a reader and agree on it. The teacher could offer suggestions, let students scan them and then decide on one together. This will give students confidence and will make them motivated to read it.
• Readers for pleasure:
As a whole class students could take turns reading aloud. Comprehension questions could be answered in groups and a kind of group competition could be also applied for fun purposes
• Students combats
In this technique, students demonstrate the effectiveness of their chosen book. This activity can happen after reading the whole book or scanning parts of it very quickly.
• Students write their own readers
Students try to write the ending of the reader they have and then continue reading to check their ideas and discuss with their partners the similarities and differences and even preferences of the original one or the one they produced. This is a high level strategy that could be used with high levels of students as a challenge or reward in some occasions.
• Use the cover to guess the title
In this activity, the teacher shows the students the cover of the story and asks them to think of as much vocabulary as they can. Students should use the list of vocabulary to try and guess the story. They can do this in a shape of written paragraphs of their imagined events.
• cluttered chapter titles
The teacher here provides students with the chapter titles only and assigns students in groups to put them in the right order. They also try to guess the ending of the story. At the end a comparison could be generated between the students groups as to who were the closest in their guessing.
• Search for the author
Probably in a computer class, the teacher could assign students the task to gather information about the author after eliciting the questions they would like to get answers for about the author.
• Use the images
You can use the images of the characters as to show them to students and ask them to imagine their names and personalities and different roles in the story. Let students then read the introduction or the summary to check whether their guesses were correct.
• Writing comedian strips
To create a fun atmosphere in the classroom, the teacher could choose a suitable chapter and break it into parts where students can try to fill the bubbles with what they think each character says. Then show them some examples of language that can be used in such cases. They find it very funny and creative.
• Producing radio plays
Students are given the chance to decide on a section of the story to act in a radio activity that would be recorded and then replayed. They choose which character to play and should be encouraged to act it well.
• Writing news editorials
Students take the role of journalists and reflect on their preferred sections of the story. They decide on the part they want to write about and imagine that they are writing an editorial for a newspaper or a magazine.
• Using videos
If the story is accompanied by a film edition, you can use it to find the differences in the scheme between the book and the film. It is better however to let students begin with the reading of the book to give them an opportunity to imagine the events and relate to them.
• Using horoscopes
Students can be given the opportunity to guess the future of the character before reaching the end of the story. Then they can compare their predictions to the real events as they continue reading
• Being the character
Students love to role-play and they have fun doing it. Let them act an interview with the hero of the story for example and ask them to write questions for the actors. The assigned characters should answer the rest of the students' questions as if they were the real people in the story.
• Writing book reviews
Show the students some examples of book reviews and then ask them to do the same for their stories rating them and deciding on how effective they are. This will give them a sense of achievement and a high self esteem.
A competition between students' groups could take part as to check which group has more information about the events of the story. The students can help preparing the questions and designing the competition.
How to assess students' comprehension?
• Comprehension questions:
These could be multiple choice questions on the events of the reader, the characters, places, and so on.
• Report sheets:
This is given to students to fill in immediately after they are done with the reading. It requires brief information about the setting and the events.
• Vocabulary work sheets:
This will test their understanding of the main vocabulary items that exist in the reader and their learnt meaning and usage.
• Oral presentations in class:
These could be group presentations or individual ones depending on the nature of the technique used to distribute the readers.
• Oral presentations in teacher office:
These are individual presentations about the overall summary of the events in the reader. Teacher could ask further questions to check understanding.
• Writing a summary:
A paragraph explaining the main events and the lessons learnt from the story could be required from students and then marked by the teacher.
• Role plays:
Students like this assessment especially those who are into acting. They should demonstrate their comprehension of the events through showing the correct nature of the characters.
The research I conducted investigates the issue of Graded Readers from its different aspects. I distributed a questionnaire among 100 students in the intensive program to gather their various views on the Graded Readers assigned to them. I also gave open questions to students I teach getting their opinions on the usefulness of the Graded Readers. I then analyzed the responses and came to some conclusions regarding the types of Graded readers, their usefulness and different assessment techniques that could be applied.
Students' open questions:
1. How useful are Graded Readers?
Students provided the following reasons to support the idea that graded readers are useful tools in the learning process:
• They are a great source of information.
• They enhance reading skills.
• They increase vocabulary learnt.
• They contain information about other cultures.
• They suggest ways to resolve problems.
• They show different ways to deal with people.
• They teach various ways of writing stories.
• They contain important facts.
• They give exposure to different writing styles.
• They use imagination.
• We learn about different adventures.
• We learn good lessons from life.
• They encourage speed reading.
• We spend an exciting time.
• They encourage students to read other books in English.
• They improve speaking and writing skills.
2. Why not useful?
Students provided the following reasons for finding graded readers not useful:
• They are educational more than funny.
• They include many places and many names.
• They include English traditions that don't agree with our culture.
• They contain too much information.
• They waste a long time.
• Students are not used to reading.
• They discuss issues related to western society.
• There is no choice for students.
• Students prefer watching the video than reading the story.
• Lack of pictures.
• We read it for the test not for the entertainment.
• There are many Separated events in the story.
• Not interesting colors of cover; grey or black.
• They contain no imagination.
• We read them only to get marks.
• We focus on events more than on language.
• They contain difficult words
• They are of foreign writers, why no Arabs?
• Bad paper type.
1) Do you like the stories given to you by the teacher?
a) I like them:
The students who like the graded readers given to them gave the following reasons to support their opinion:
• They are very easy
• They have useful words
• They are interesting
• I learn to read fast
• It demands thinking
• I learn about characters and places
• I learn new information
• They are easy to read
• I learn new ways of reading
• They have attractive events
• They agree with my skills
• I develop my language
• We learn new expressions
b) I don't like them
Those who do not like the readers gave the following reasons:
• They are very long, can't finish reading on time.
• They contain difficult words
• They don't have pictures
• They waste my time
• They are very boring
• They contain lots of names and places
• Not clear information
• No enough time to read
• Difficult words
• Some don't have good ideas
• They are not useful for me
• Not exciting events
• The stories are old
2) Students' preferred Graded Readers types:
• Real stories
• Culture related
• Children stories
• Islamic stories
• Stories of films
• Puzzle stories
• Stories of films
• Puzzle stories
• Social stories
• Happy ending
• Girls stories
When asked about their preferred assessment strategies for Graded readers, students indicated certain preferences over the following options:
• Quiz 36%
36 students out of the 100 checked quizzes as an assessment tool. Although this is the most commonly used tool in our programs, students showed that they are not enjoying it.
• Written report 43%
A written report gets a higher rate than the quiz since it is guided by some specified points by the teacher.
• Presentation in class 40%
Students seem to like giving a presentation on the reader they are assigned to read. This could be responsible for the ease they feel with the presentation and the less threat it could hold.
• Presentation in teacher office 62%
This gets the highest rate that it only requires a one to one presentation which makes students more comfortable.
• Written summary 60%
A written summary is also of high preference among students. It is more relaxing once they are able to produce good written paragraph of the events in the reader.
4) Other suggestions by students:
• Role play
• Write our opinion
• Teacher asks oral questions
• Group presentations
• Group discussions
• Tell the story to partner and h/she writes it
• Teacher asks each student a question
• Draw a picture about the story
Grader Readers are in common use in foreign language teaching. They are a great source of language for students in their learning process. If used properly, they could help develop reading, writing, vocabulary and comprehension. Students' level, background and preference should be considered when assigning graded readers and Modern readers should be introduced to students as well. The variety should indicate students' choice and comfort while assigned to read a certain reader in order to get good results. A variety of assessment techniques should be used to determine students' understanding to come at the end to the desired outcome of improvement in the students' language skills. In other words, "activities to develop foster, and practice these skills should take place in the classroom, and be supplemented by a carefully chosen, readily available class library for after lesson hours", (Greenwood, 1988:9).
Anderson, T.N., & Armbruster, B.B. (1986). Readable textbooks, or selecting a textbook is not like buying a pair of shoes. In J. Orasanu (Ed.), Reading comprehension: From research to practice (pp. 151-162). Hillsdale NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
Davison, A (1986). Readability--The situation today. (Reading Education Report No. 70.) Champaign, IL: Center for the Study of Reading, University of Illinois.
Dragana, Filipovic, How to Use Graded Readers: A Lesson Plan, Longman, Serbia
Greenwood, J. (1988). Class readers. A useful collection of pre/while/post reading activities.
Hill, D.R., & Thomas, H.R. (1988). Graded readers (Survey review). ELT Journal, 42, 44-52, 124-136.
Nuttall, C. (1996). Teaching reading skills in a foreign language. Oxford: Heinemann English Language Teaching.
Shizuoka, G, JALT 2000, how are graded readers best used? Japan
Simensen, A.M. (1987). Adapted readers: How are they adapted? Reading in a Foreign Language, 4, 41-57.
Viney, P, May, 2009, Assessing Graded Readers, The Extensive Reading Foundation
Wallace, C. (1988). Learning to read in a multicultural society: The social context of second language literacy. New York: Prentice Hall.
|Zainab Al Bulushy is a Senior Language Instructor at the Language Centre, Sultan Qaboos University, Oman. She has been teaching English since 1998. She holds a Master degree in English for Specific Purposes from University of Warwick, UK. She is interested in the areas of linguistics, students' needs and motivation
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