This month’s guest post is from Marcos Benevides, who has some suggestions on how to hit the right note with your graded reader.
by Marcos Benevides
There are two fundamental ways to approach the writing of graded readers, which I refer to as systematic and holistic. They are not mutually exclusive, and each has advantages and disadvantages. It is good to consider both as theoretical ends of a continuum upon which any actual writing takes place.
A systematic approach presumes that graded readers are primarily tools for language learning, and therefore should above all be ‘graded’ (i.e. levelled) as objectively as possible. The idea is that an objective levelling system can help teachers and learners to progress most efficiently. This is the implicit promise of the headword count which is featured on most series covers.
As with lexis, this basic principle of objective levelling is also applied to grammar, meaning that some sort of easy-to-difficult and/or frequent-to-less-frequent grammar syllabus is also used to level graded readers. At easier levels, for example, graded readers may avoid perfect tenses and the passive voice, and may restrict sentence length.
The author is aware of these specific restrictions from the start, and must then try to tell a story using only the tools available. It is a sort of Lego® approach to writing, in the sense that one is necessarily constrained by the limited set of available ‘bricks’ (i.e. the list of allowed lexis and grammar). This approach is restrictive, but can still be creative and fulfilling, as anyone who has ever played with Lego will know.
A systematic approach to writing graded readers is also sometimes described as similar to writing within a restrictive format such as haiku or sonnet. I agree, but with caution – just as it is relatively easy to follow the rules and write a passable sonnet, it is supremely difficult to write a good one.
Furthermore, objective readability scores are an illusion. Language is not in fact made up of neat blocks that fit together perfectly, not even at the lexical level. Words, so tantalisingly countable on the surface, are actually far trickier to account for than they appear. As readers, we know that the difficulty of a text depends on many factors beyond merely linguistic ones; plot, genre, setting, number of characters – even reader interest and motivation – all have a role to play.
The approach I prefer starts from the whole rather than from a set of parts, from the story rather than from a word list or a grammar syllabus. It is understood that the ultimate purpose of graded readers is to fit into difficulty levels, of course, but it is also recognised that overall readability will include complex factors arising from content and form, as well as from language.
If a systematic approach is like building a story out of bricks, a holistic approach is more like sculpting it from stone. Rather than build a story up from available pieces, the author first writes a complete narrative and then begins a process of chipping away and polishing down until the imagined shape emerges with the correct proportions (i.e. at the appropriate level).
Following a holistic approach means that the demands of the story will suggest which parts, words, and forms must be kept, and which can be cut away. This will generally follow the shape of a word list or a grammar syllabus (these are, after all, based on frequency) but it will also allow for a greater degree of flexibility in weighing items on their own merits and in their proper contexts. For example, in a story about time travel, can the past perfect be included if it is made clear by the events in the story?
A holistic process makes use of computers and corpus-derived word lists, but it does so toward the end of the process rather than at the beginning. Once a complete draft of the story has been written, tools such as VocabProfile, Concordance, and Range (www.lextutor.ca) – along with a lot of intuitive work by the editor – can be used to measure and reduce lexical load.
This approach can be more labour intensive than a systematic one, and it can sometimes lead to a less precise finished product in terms of objective levelling criteria. However, it can also allow for work which is more consistently impactful, and for stories which can be more engaging and interesting beyond their utility for language learning. Stories which may even, dare we say it, possess some quality of ‘literariness’?
On readability factors
One danger of a systematic approach is that it is almost too easy to list lexical and grammatical items, and comparatively more difficult to list other factors. It means that too often only lexis and grammar are counted. Other factors, however, can still compound to make otherwise easy texts more difficult.
For example, formatting and style. I am sometimes shocked at how haphazardly dialogue is dealt with in some series. This can be quite confusing for the developing reader. In my easier books, I try to be consistent, almost always using the pattern:
‘Hello,’ the girl says. ‘Do you know who I am?’
In other words, the opening of the turn is always quickly followed by the identification of the character and a full stop. This is followed by any additional dialogue, and then a paragraph break for the next speaker’s turn. This consistency can be helpful to low-level readers.
Another example of consistency is when transcribing onomatopoeic sound effects. I always use capital letters and italics: BANG! FWOOSH! CRASH! Doing so clearly sets off these off-list lexical items, and suggests a stylistic rule for the reader; something like: Read all-capital words in italics as sound effects. I like to think that such meta-linguistic ‘hooks’ can help readers to develop confidence, even if they sometimes do break the rules of lexical frequency.
We haven’t touched on readability factors at the story level, but these are important as well, and include things such as genre conventions, number and types of characters, setting, voice, and plot linearity.
Consider the image below.
I like to think that headwords for graded readers are like a volume setting on a music player. We can turn the dial and make a piece ‘better’, but only by one relatively blunt measure. Yet, like pieces of music, stories are complex things. If we want to make them maximally beautiful at each level without ‘distortion’, then we must consider all appropriate factors.
Marcos Benevides is a teacher, author and editor based in Tokyo. His coursebooks and graded readers have received multiple awards over the years, including the Duke of Edinburgh English Book Award, an ELTon, and several Language Learner Literature medals. He is currently the publisher and series editor of Atama-ii Books, a series of multiple-path graded readers.