For the penultimate post in our series covering the sessions at the MaWSIG-LitSIG joint Pre-Conference Event in Liverpool on 1 April 2019, Christien van Gool has summarised the last talk of the day: Helen Holwill and Nicola Prentis spilling the beans on writing graded readers.


Both Helen and Nicola write graded readers so they were perfectly positioned to give us inside information on how to get started. There are two kinds of graded readers: adaptations and original titles. Helen mainly does adaptations and Nicola original titles.

The challenge of adaptations is that you have to edit quite a bit in order to make a new story that has the same feeling (with a limited vocabulary, easier grammatical structures, etc.). For original titles, you need to be able to think up a plot that works, and then get the story across using language of an appropriate level. ‘What if …?’ is often a good starting point.

The first thing that is important for original stories is the ‘eight-point story arc’ (from Nigel Watts’ Writing a Novel and Getting Published): The eight points that Watts lists are: stasis, trigger, the quest, surprise, critical choice, climax, reversal, resolution. If you want to find out more on this go to

The challenge for adaptations is the language: you have a limited number of words that you can use. The way to go about this is to make a list of difficult words that are used a lot (in a story about Dracula you have words like vampire, blood, coffin, etc.) and put these in a glossary. Artwork can also be used to support difficult words. With grammar, you find that you often need more words to simplify sentences. This was illustrated with the construction ‘I wish I had …’.

The road to being published is a long one, according to Nicola: you need a proposal (some sample chapters) and you need to accept being ignored and being rejected.

Helen has some tips on writing adaptations: find out what a publisher is already doing (which titles are missing) and find out which authors are coming out of the 70-year copyright restriction. The alternative is self-publishing, which can be a rocky path, especially when it comes to sales.

Some useful resources:
Stephen King, On Writing (Simon and Schuster)
Elmore Leonard, 10 Rules of Writing (HarperCollins)
Sue Leather, How to write graded readers (ELTTeacher2Writer)
The Extensive Reading Foundation



Helen Holwill is a freelance editor and author with over two decades of experience in ELT publishing. After teaching English in Spain for six years, she returned to the UK and began her career as an editor, working first for Macmillan Education and then for Oxford University Press. Helen has worked on a wide range of ELT materials and in recent years has focused on graded readers, which she finds enjoyable and absorbing. One of her specialisms is editing and authoring adapted classics and modern fiction titles.

Nicola Prentis is a freelance writer with experience in ELT and other publishing sectors. Having taught English in over seven countries, she is now based in Spain for as long as Brexit allows. Nicola slowly made her way from teaching to full-time writing after creating quizzes for BBC Learning English and then getting her first graded reader book deal. Since then she has written four more readers and co-written a fifth, two of which have won Language Learner Literature Awards. She has also written for a range of publications, including Cosmo US, WSJ, Quartz and Mental Floss, about the English language, parenting, travel, food, chest hair and anything else she thinks she can get paid for.

Christien van Gool has been an English teacher since 1980 and has mainly worked in secondary education. She has been active in the Teachers’ Association in her home country (the Netherlands), organising seminars and conferences since 1986 and acting as main editor for Levende Talen Magazine. Her other roles over the years include writing materials, writing columns, and translating. She has been involved in the IATEFL Literature Special Interest Group as Social Media Co-ordinator since 2014.