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Top grades for graded readers!

Some are turning their nose up at graded readers, but teachers Willy Renandya and George Jacobs argue that the books are a valuable tool to improve the reading skill.

As language educators, we constantly seek effective ways to support and enhance our students’ language learning experiences. One powerful yet often neglected strategy is the use of graded readers.

Graded readers are widely acknowledged to be highly beneficial for many areas of language proficiency. They are specially written or revised reading materials tailored for various proficiency levels and designed to meet the varied interests of our students. Students can experience the joy of reading a fiction or non-fiction graded reader on practically any topics that pique their interest at any proficiency level. Graded readers provide beginning students with an excellent bridge to gradually move to reading non-graded, unabridged texts.

Here are some of the key language learning benefits of graded readers:

1. Immersive language learning

In the classroom setting, teachers typically use short and linguistically difficult passages to introduce new language items and to teach comprehension skills. This is a good thing, but there are two problems here: firstly, the reading passages are often hard to comprehend and the quantity is hardly sufficient to activate students’ internal language learning mechanism; secondly, the contents of the reading materials may not always be of interest to the students, thus doing little in boosting their motivation to read more in the target language.

Research shows that to learn a new language well, students need to read a lot and often. Graded readers can serve as an excellent means for beginning students to be joyfully immersed in interesting and meaningful language.

2. Building confidence and a love for reading

Students often find classroom reading materials too challenging and uninspiring. While a small minority of the students may manage to handle demanding texts, others might disengage and develop negative feelings about reading. The fear of reading is particularly prevalent among beginning readers, potentially depriving them of the opportunity to experience the benefits of the cycle of growth in reading.

The cycle of growth begins when they pick up a graded reader, find it to be comprehensible and enjoyable; they then pick up another reader and read it with greater confidence and enthusiasm. The cycle of growth can be contrasted with the cycle of stagnation that beginning readers often experience: they pick up a book, find it hard to read, so they read slowly and laboriously with little understanding. As a result, their reading ability becomes stagnant or may even decline.

3. Contextualized learning of vocabulary and grammar

The classroom is an excellent place to introduce important language features to beginning learners of English. Indeed, vocabulary and grammar can be systematically taught and practiced, providing beginning students with a good foundation of the workings of the target language. But the classroom may not be the best place for students to experience the full range of contexts in which new words and grammar points are used. For example, to fully understand the full range of meanings of a simple word such as ‘good’, students need to see how it is used in a variety of contexts, such as the below examples from the Cambridge Learners’ Dictionary:

  • Have you read any good novels lately? (Interesting, enjoyable)
  • She speaks good French. (Of a high quality or level)
  • When would be a good time to call you. (Suitable)
  • A holiday will do you good. (To be useful or helpful)
  • Good heavens! It’s already 11 p.m. (Used to express surprise)
  • When he was 20, he left home for good. (Forever)

Graded readers provide meaningful and rich contexts where students can experience words and grammatical structures in captivating stories rather than discreet vocabulary lists and grammar rules. This contextualized learning not only improves comprehension but also helps students appreciate the varied meanings and usages of vocabulary and grammar. Multiple exposure to language features in meaningful contexts is believed to propel language acquisition, allowing students to apply their knowledge to authentic language use outside the classroom.

4. But graded readers are boring and inauthentic!

One of the misconceptions in ELT has to do with the notion of authenticity. Authentic materials are those written by and intended for native speakers and other high proficiency users of the language. The thinking goes like this: since the goal of language learning is to enable the use of English in authentic situations in the real world, students should be exposed to this kind of language as early as possible. Graded readers are not authentic as they are written in simple language and the intended audience are language learners, not native speakers. Therefore, readers should not be used as they would derail students’ language learning process.

On the surface, this makes a lot of sense. However, research and experience tell us that authentic language may not be suitable for beginning language learners; the language is often far too challenging and the contents not very relatable. ELT scholars believe that when the input materials are not comprehensible language learning may not proceed smoothly.

Graded readers have faced considerable criticisms, especially for their earlier versions which contained simplistic and bland language. Many of these titles were adapted 19th or 20th century classics such as ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. However, modern graded readers today are written in a simple and interesting style, covering a wider range of titles, including movie tie-ins, non-fiction and fiction.

Useful resources on graded readers and extensive reading
1. Free graded readers:
erfoundation.org/wordpress/graded-readers/;
letsreadasia.org/
2. Academic resources on extensive reading:
erfoundation.org/wordpress/bibliography/
3. Academic paper on the theory and practice of extensive reading:
willyrenandya.com/the-primacy-of-extensive-reading-and-listening/

There are, of course, highly interesting and readable authentic materials that teachers can and should continue to use. But the majority may not be suitable for our novice students. We should therefore consider incorporating graded readers in our teaching, using materials that are freely available on the internet, such as the Extensive Reading Foundation or British Council Story Zone. There are also those that require subscription, such as XReading, a virtual library with nearly two thousand graded readers, including audio narrations and comprehension quizzes. XReading is supported by an easy-to-use learner management system that can be seamlessly integrated into our existing reading programmes, allowing teachers to assign titles, monitor student reading progress and check comprehension.

It’s clear graded readers are powerful resources for language educators, particularly when working with beginning level students. These books help address the unique challenges of novice learners, thereby contributing to their vocabulary growth, reading confidence, and overall language proficiency. As practicing teachers, it is our duty to recognize the huge language learning benefits of graded readers and incorporate them into our teaching methodologies. In doing so, we not only enhance the language learning experience of our students but also lay the foundation for a lifelong love of reading.

Image courtesy of Library
Willy Renandya and George Jacobs
Willy Renandya and George Jacobs
Dr Willy Renandya is a language teacher and educator with extensive teaching experience in Asia. He currently teaches language education courses at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University. He manages a large professional development forum on Facebook called Teacher Voices; Dr George Jacobs teaches English and Education in Singapore and beyond. George enjoys co-operating with Willy and other fellow educators on topics including student-centred learning and the Sustainable Development Goals.
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