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Iatefl 2018: Telling fairytales

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I have been in language teaching for over forty years, working as a freelance ELT author for the last thirty. I have written support materials for graded readers but never actually written any readers myself. I never thought there was a need for any more.

In 2017 I joined Innova Press. Almost the first request from a potential client was to source graded readers for young EFL learners. They were to be used in class as part of a programme to improve reading skills.

I began my search confidently. However, I rapidly identified several underlying myths that seemed to militate against the sourcing of good graded readers for young EFL learners for a class programme.

Myth 1: Readers for native speaker children are fine for non-native children

The vast majority of readers in the global market – principally from US publishers – were originally for native-speaker children, but according to vocabulary expert Paul Nation, ‘A seven-year-old native speaker … knows at least 5,000 words.’

Our target population was seven years old, but our children knew almost no English words.

Myth 2: Readers can guess unknown words from context

This myth has powered sloppy vocabulary control for some time, but research suggests that learners need to know around 98 per cent of the words in a text in order to guess the remainder (Schmitt et al, 2011).

For an L2 child, the number of known words in a reader written for native speakers will be more like 2 per cent.

Myth 3: You only need to control for vocabulary level to make a reading text comprehensible

Graded ESL/EFL readers from UK publishers are certainly strictly, almost pathologically, controlled for vocabulary.

But English is a syntactic language, so unless there is equally strict control of syntactic patterns, the chances of comprehension are reduced, even of known words in a particular sentence. We can certainly grade syntactic structures and must do so in graded readers.

Myth 4: Graded readers should only be part of an extensive reading programme

Our client wanted to use the graded readers in class once a week – an excellent idea. But graded readers are not, apparently, designed for this but for ‘extensive reading’. But is there a qualitative difference between reading a short text in a course book and reading a short story in a reader?

Reading is extracting the communicative value from a text. That’s true when you read a course text and find information to enter into a table (intensive reading, supposedly). And it’s true when you have to read the story in order to understand who did what and why (extensive reading, so they say). The same basic processes of decoding are involved.

Perhaps the elephant in the room is the fact that course-book texts often don’t have any communicative value at all. They exist only as a vehicle for a particular grammatical structure or, more rarely, a vocabulary set. Readers are perhaps ‘purer’ and therefore get a classification all their own.

As I see it, all reading texts should be graded in a way which will assist the reader to make subconscious patterns of structure, and to present, then reinforce, new vocabulary.

Myth 5: Reading for pleasure just involves providing interesting texts

This is fine as far as it goes, but what makes a text intrinsically interesting? We can try to ensure that topics are interesting but we all ‘read on’ to the next page of a text because we want to know the answer to a question or to find out what happens next.

There is no intrinsic pleasure in simply turning the pages of a reader. The pleasure comes from making predictions about what comes next and then having them confirmed or confounded. So graded readers need ‘hooks’ at the end of every page to get the reader – especially, perhaps, the young learner – to turn over and check predictions.

So what was the result of my research for our potential client? I found that all the myths above were alive and well and made the graded readers I was potentially able to source completely unsuitable for the use required by the client.

And so, reader, I wrote them myself.

Terry NEW

Terry Phillips is business development director for Innova Press Limited … amongst other things.