How To Write Graded Readers (Training Course For ELT Writers Book 8)

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She has worked in assessment and test construction and has authored many courses, including Gold and Gold Experience. I got into materials writing by approaching publishers directly. That meant starting small and a lot of early starts, writing before the teaching day began. I was able to write things like grammar lessons from teaching experience, but there are rules for putting together interesting and effective Listening or Reading tasks.

I had to learn that slowly! I think the biggest barrier for teachers who want to get into materials writing is that they like the idea, but not the reality. Margaret has been teaching business English in companies and to university students for more years than she cares to admit. New writers can expect to get offered smaller assignments at first — e.

If you do a good job, more work will generally come over the years and there can be long periods without any writing work at all. David is a world-renowned education expert. These days there are far more aspiring writers who want to become coursebook writers than there are opportunities to do so. One way not to get in is to approach a publisher with a nifty proposal that you firmly believe will change the field. Publishers have their own publishing plan laid out for at least a few years.

The best way to draw yourself to the attention of a publisher is to offer to review draft materials that are in development. Sadly, materials writing is no longer as lucrative, either for publishers or writers, as it once was. As a consequence, publishers these days very rarely offer royalties. You are more likely to be offered a fee. However, if you enjoy the writing process as I do , have an instinct for it, and the patience to learn the craft, who knows where it might lead?

I started writing by designing my own classroom materials. My first piece of advice is to start writing. Begin with comprehension and discussion questions for topical videos and news articles. This could be a personal anecdote using phrasal verbs, or a short dialogue practising small talk that you see yourself using again next year. This is the same principle that we adopt for children learning their first language and graded readers are just mirroring this for second language learners.

There are several kinds of graded reader. Some are adaptations the story is changed and simplified for a different audience or abridgements keeping the main story but changing difficult grammar and vocabulary of classic literature such as Dracula , The Pearl , Little Women , Pride and Prejudice and so on. Others are called originals which are mostly fictional stories. Another kind of graded reader has a basis in fact and are in effect reports.


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These may include biographies, environmental reports, festivals, reports on countries or companies, historical events and so on like those in the Oxford University Press Factfiles Series. In North America the term basal readers is often used to refer to reading materials which are simplified, but these are not the same as graded readers. Basal readers are written at various school grade levels for children learning to read their first language, while graded readers are specifically written for second language learners. The basic principles of language control underlying the construction of both types, and both are also controlled for maturational development, complexity of plot and interest and authors of both tend to use lists of words which learners are expected to know at that ability level.

So when they learn to read they only have to match the written form with an already known meaning and pronunciation. Moreover, their knowledge of such a large number of words often cited as several thousand by the age of 8 enables them to guess unknown words from context more successfully. By contrast, second language children do not have such a store of vocabulary and grammatical knowledge to call upon.

Thus their reading is characterized more often by learning both form and meaning. Moreover, the rate of introduction of new words and language in L1 materials is higher than EFL children can cope with making reading slow and laborious at times for the L2 children reading L1 materials.

They also frequently misunderstand because they lack the relevant cultural background. Graded readers can be used in several different ways and understanding these ways is important for the authors of graded readers so that they can be written with particular approaches in mind. The first approach to using graded readers is to use them to practise the skill of fast fluent reading.

This approach is often called Extensive Reading or graded reading. Graded readers are mostly used for the practice of fluent reading with the linguistic aims of practising the skill of reading, building word recognition automaticity, and focusing the learners on the message rather than the language as well as a whole host of other factors See Day and Bamford, pp. In Extensive Reading, the learners generally select their own texts at their own ability level and read at their own pace. The second approach by contrast, is to use graded readers in a language and focus on form approach to reading activities.

This is often called Intensive Reading. It is one which often involves many pre- and post-reading activities such as the completion of comprehension questions, vocabulary activities, and so on. The aim is to dig into the text to pull out grammar, vocabulary, discourse features and son on and expand and explain the plot. In both the Intensive Reading and Class Reader approaches all the learners use the same text and work on it together. The difference is that in the Class Reader approach the focus is often on the story or plot, characterization and tends to see the work as a piece of literature than as a tool for practising language.

The aim of the Class Reader approach is for the learners to read the same text and complete many language-focused and comprehension check activities together often over several lessons. In a Class Reader approach, the class will finish the book, but in an Intensive Reading approach they may not. In addition to these three approaches, the Reading Skills approach focuses on the building of discrete reading skills such as learning to scan and skim, and learning how to deal with unknown words and so on. Graded Readers can be used as source texts for all of these approaches to reading.

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Learners read graded readers for different purposes. They can read easy material to improve their reading speed and fluency, or they can read at a level where a few words are unknown which allows for the picking up of some of these words. Alternatively, they can read a more difficult graded reader with more unknown vocabulary, patterns and grammar and read it to learn language rather than to enjoy the story and build fluency as in the Class Reader approach.

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We can thus see that the same graded reader can be read by 3 different learners of different abilities but for very different purposes. Clearly a learner who finds a text too difficult will not be able to read it smoothly and develop fluency with it while another learner who finds the text very easy will not meet many new words to learn. From the above, we can see that authors of graded readers should write their book to be used for many purposes by learners with different abilities.

The most typical way to do this is to include intensive reading activities that accompany the books either inside the book or in separate often downloadable worksheets.

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Authors should also be aware of the difficulty level of the activities that supplement the reading compared to the fluent reading level. A graded reader written for intermediate learners means it can be read fluently by learners at that level. But the same book will be suitable for Intensive language work by lower ability learners who cannot read it fluently.

If however, the Intensive reading activities in the Intermediate level book are advanced, the Elementary learners may not be able to do the activities. Thus a useful rule of thumb is to have intensive reading activities that are one level of difficulty above the fluent reading level of that reader, and to ensure that the difficulty of intensive reading activities is approximately the same across a level within a series.

There are two ways that these activities are spaced in the books. Some series e. This allows teachers to go through the text as a Class Reader by dealing with one chapter at a time over several classes because each chapter can easily fit one period of a reading class. However, this style of book has the disadvantage that fluent continuous reading is disturbed by constant interruptions and thus they are not suited to an Extensive Reading approach.

Creating a reading environment | Using readers in the classroom with adults

Moreover, this type of Reader is does not lend itself to developing a class library because once the activities have been completed in the book, it cannot be used by another learner in the same way. Other series have these activities at the back of the book or elsewhere so they do not disturb the reading for those learners who wish to treat the book as a novel and read it extensively. Unfortunately, many teachers do not seem to be aware of the varied uses to which graded readers can be put and tend to classify them in simplistic terms seeing them as having only one main purpose.

In fact considerable misunderstanding about the nature of EFL reading abounds. The vast majority of language teachers would say that the best way to learn to read is by reading a lot, just as they would say for speaking, listening and writing. However, in practice most teachers do not often recommend their learners to read a lot.

Moreover, the main form of reading practice in EFL classrooms involves comprehension questions and language analysis in the form of intensive reading activities. It is therefore helpful for us to examine some of the reasons why this curious situation has developed. Worse still, in many language institutions around the world there is a complete absence of graded reading materials despite an understanding of their usefulness.

It is not entirely obvious to me why teachers and curriculum planners tend to see fluent input practice as a supplementary activity. One of the most often cited reasons teachers do not require their learners to read graded readers is that the learners already have enough to do, such as study for exams, or they only want to speak, not read. However, this ignores the obvious point that we learn to read by reading and absence of practice will not build the skill. Performing only piano drills will not allow you to play a piece of music smoothly, neither will constant practice of tennis stokes make you win a match.

Honeyfield, Supporters of this notion suggest that learners should read authentic literature because then they can appreciate the beauty of the language and more directly access the ideas the writer is trying to convey. There is no question that a simplified Jane Eyre is not the same as the original, but it was never intended to be.

The call for authenticity argument misses several important points. Widdowson has shown that authenticity is a result of the relationship between the reader and the text, not of the text itself. He therefore advocates that authentic text has no place in the language classroom as it will never be authentic. Rather he suggests that appropriate texts be selected for learners, not simply authentic ones. We should not consider Literature as something that is to be kept pure and untouchable to be accessed only in the original, but as one whose lessons and insights can be faithfully re-presented and re-packaged for a different audience.

Moreover, coursebooks, exercise practice books and even teacher language are graded to different ability levels and it seems unfair to single out graded readers for criticism. We can take this argument further by suggesting that it is not necessary that language teaching or in a wider sense graded readers be a mirror of the unsimplified language, in fact it can never be.

By trying to faithfully reflect unsimplified language, graded reader authors are trying to create something that cannot be re- created. We can only ever approximate and as Widdowson said because we are removing it from its natural environment this naturally de-authenticizes it. It is important to keep in mind the notion that EFL means English as a foreign language or English for foreign language learners. This is not the same as teaching English to foreign learners.

This implies two things for foreign language learning and the writing of graded readers. We can however use common elements of English usage and vocabulary and the recurring patterns that occur within the various Englishes of the world. For example, English as a foreign language for Spanish learners of English is different from English as a foreign language for Malays because they are looking at the same object — English — from different bases. The grammar, cultural assumptions, discourse styles, pragmatics, pronunciations and so on of the two first languages are vastly different, not to mention their vocabularies.

We can thus see that there is no one single unified English as a foreign language either. There is English as a foreign language for Malays , English as a foreign language for speakers of Hangeul and English as foreign language for French speakers and so forth. Therefore, when writing graded readers we can only ever make the forms of English available to foreigners within their own contexts of use as their version of English as a foreign language. Moreover the language we present should be to provide them with the tools to create their own version of English as Foreign language.

Another objection to graded readers especially those adapted from previously published works , refers to the notion that the simplification of a text strips away authorial clues, the style of the original author as well as cultural and other clues in the original version clues. The argument suggests that the original work is watered down so that it only resembles the original work in plot and characterization, not in prose and authorial identity.

These objections are valid, but graded reader adaptations are never written to faithfully represent authorial clues, but to give the reader the insight into the plot and some of the message from the story.

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And as we have discussed, only learners of a certain ability level would be able to comprehend and understand the fine points of a classic work of literature anyway. It is only when a critical reading ability threshold is reached that one can see clearly the beauty of the prose, the elegance of the discourse, hidden intentions, subtle inferences, authorial style, allusions, allegory, rhythm and so on. This threshold level is probably extremely advanced.

For learners not at this level, these things can only be experienced second-hand, by reading another book which explains why it is a classical work. It would be a curious theory of reading that insisted that learners not at this level read works in the original so they can understand the literature when they do not have the tools to appreciate it.

A similar parallel would be to give a high quality and rare wine to someone whose palate cannot appreciate it. Surely it is easier and less troublesome to give them an abridged or adapted version first, and later as their ability improves, let them read it in the original. This is not to say that graded reader adaptations and abridgements are of an inferior quality. There are numerous adaptations of classical literature that are extremely good and are very readable in their own right regardless of whether they are graded readers or not.

See for example many of the adaptations at levels 5 and 6 in the Oxford Bookworms Library Series. One of the most common objections to graded readers refers to the quality of the adaptation or simplification process. Some researchers e. Honeyfield, ; Yano, Long and Ross, ; Young, suggest that certain types of simplification can hinder rather than enhance comprehension. They suggest that learners read unsimplified level material so they will get massive exposure to new words and new language and thus pick them up incidentally.

Furthermore, that say that graded readers which have relatively few unknown words reduces the opportunities learners have for practicing guessing from context. It is fairly obvious that learners whose L1 and L2 share many similarities such as Italian and Spanish may be able to pick up a large vocabulary quite quickly, but this is not the case for languages which are quite different, such as English and Japanese. Research in this area seems to suggest that until a certain threshold has been attained learners simply will not be able to pick up much from their reading, let alone understand it.


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  8. A high degree of understanding is a prerequisite for successful guessing of unknown words and thus represents the most important threshold that learners must cross before they can cope with the next level. Another of these thresholds is vocabulary coverage. Hu and Nation point out that where there is more than one unknown word in 50 the chance that the learners will be able to guess the unknown word is, at best, minimal. Native level materials are full of known words for intermediate and lower learners. Thus unsimplified texts can appear to be nothing but a demotivating noise to be slogged through.

    A third threshold is the size of vocabulary needed to read non-technical unsimplified texts with relative ease. Yano, Long and Ross suggest that graded readers cause problems for learners because they inhibit comprehension thus providing poor conditions for learning. Their concern is that the sentences in graded readers are short and rely too much on cohesives for progression within the stories which make them difficult to comprehend.

    Certainly in the past some graded readers were poorly written, especially those that over-emphasized structural elements over storyline and interest, but this is no longer true for hundreds of graded readers currently available to learners. Although it is not a direct objection against graded readers, some teachers seem quite happy to ignore graded readers completely. They do not consider the fluency practice of listening and reading as important at all and do not advise their learners of its importance.

    Learners simply cannot deal with unsimplified input competently and confidently in a native-like manner until they are way passed advanced level. No one would expect a child to read and understand an adult novel so there is no reason to suspect that all language learners regardless of ability can read and understand unsimplified text and enjoy it. It is far more likely that the experience will be painful and one to be avoided in the future. So where have these misunderstandings come from?

    Some of the reason may lie in the types of texts many teachers use. The 4 skills coursebooks tend to have short intensive style reading activities which may lead both teachers and learners to believe that this type of reading is the only one that is important when learning to read. Moreover, on teacher training courses and in teacher training books there is far more emphasis put on how to deal with and exploit reading texts from an intensive perspective and little is mentioned about the need to practice the skill of fast fluent and enjoyable reading.

    And several teacher training course books neglect to even mention Extensive Reading or graded readers at all, but these thankfully are becoming a rarity! Both these things can lead to distorted perspectives and misunderstandings. In this section we shall discuss many of the most important points to consider when actually writing a graded reader.

    Graded readers are not published like novels. Publishers do not commission graded readers as one-off titles as they do novels, they publish them in a series.

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    This is necessarily so because of their function. Graded readers have to work together as a team to build EFL reading skills and have to fit a pre-determined plan decided by a publisher or a series editor. Therefore, it is important for authors to be familiar with the types of graded readers currently being published by the publishing houses and to request from them guidelines for what they are looking for. Several reviews of various series are regularly published and make for an excellent overview E.

    Authors should also be aware of the degree to which certain topics and themes are permitted by various publishers because their policy may affect whether an author would wish to write or not. Some publishers do not wish to alienate readers from certain backgrounds and request their authors to refrain from certain topics such as drugs, sex and violence or even discussions of alcohol, bars and smoking.

    Other publishers do not have a firm policy on this. The treatment of delicate areas including politics and religion must be sensitive, but this does not prevent authors from bringing up controversial issues. The publisher will undoubtedly have guidelines as to what is acceptable and unacceptable content. These guidelines will also frown on couching opinion as fact, and where explicit criticism of any practice could cause problems for teachers. Once a series and publisher and topic have been decided it is essential when constructing an overall plan that the structure of a graded reader be similar to books in the same series in genre, linguistic and other ways.

    This is essential for the publisher as they have to ensure that each title at a certain level is roughly equivalent to others. There are three things that are important when writing a graded reader — a the story, b the story, and c the story. The characterization, plot or information content , its development and treatment are paramount. If it is not, then the learner will put the book down half-finished and will be reticent to pick up another one.

    A positive reading experience is particularly relevant for both teachers and learners who are reading a graded reader for the first time because their first experience is should be achievable and motivating. There are two ways to approach the writing of graded readers.

    The first is to write a good story without being too concerned about grading for a particular level in the belief that the grading can come later. The other is to find experienced people who understand what can be comprehended at various ability levels and ask them to write to that audience using their EFL grading knowledge. While a good EFL adaptor does not always make for a good storyteller, a good story can be ruined by poor editing. The main theme of the story should emerge from the plot and characterization, rather than by creating scenes to fit the plot because this can result in heavy-handed writing.

    It also adds to coherence. All this will help build characterization, tensions, settings or even the world being created and in turn help the selection of words to write. The reader should feel the story not have it told to them. The plot of course should not be predictable and it does not necessarily have to be told in a linear fashion, but must include a series of dramatic moments each hinting at several plausible directions the story may lead.

    Keeping the reader guessing and unforeseen endings are always preferable. The story should also have a logical progression that becomes apparent at some stage, and it should lead to a satisfying conclusion but this does not imply that every loose end needs to be tied up. On occasions leaving things unresolved may suggest that the characters will live on after the story ends, suggesting a certain realism as well as leaving things open for sequels.

    Emotional resolution is often more difficult to achieve than plot resolution and considerable care should be taken over this. Authors should also be careful about making the storyline too complex for beginning readers who may soon get lost in a maze of plots and subplots and a bewildering array of characters. The plots need not be complex but can be simple and plain provided they have passion and richness in their development and the importance of what is at stake for the characters should show through.

    It is therefore important to think through the logic of the positioning of parallel plots, sub-plots and flashbacks in relation to the main story as it is all too easy to go off topic. Similar considerations should be made for pacing with careful attention being paid to the ratio of new to old ideas and language so as to not overload the reader. Reading the work of other authors within the same genre is therefore essential in getting a feel for the genre. When doing this it is useful to ask oneself how the scenes are constructed, how they link together and what affect these have on the writing style and the development of the story.

    Crucial in this is good linkage between exchanges, scenes, chapters and so forth. An essential part therefore of the writing process is extensive revision and may at times involve fearless pruning of scenes, a whole character, a chapter or even a whole ending. One should also not be afraid of cutting out some excellent carefully honed but ill-fitting paragraphs simply because they are excellent.

    It will not be time wasted because the end product would not have been made if it were not for the original writing. The characters should be believable but not wooden and predictable. Neither should they be larger than life. The best remembered characters are usually flawed in some way and need their own personality, pasts, motivations and so on and should appear human — likeable, scary or vulnerable, for example.