Why graded readers are crap

Alex Case has just written about graded readers and how to effectively review them, and it brought up something that has been a pet hate of mine for many years. I replied in some detail to his post, but I’ll go over the main problem I have with readers again here (thus plagiarizing myself).

Basically, I never see enough justification of the methods by which the language used in graded readers is actually graded beyond controlling the range of grammatical structures that are included in the text.

I wonder how many of you are aware that, in addition to, for example, only being allowed to use structures x, y and z, it is (fairly) standard practice to issue the writer with a list of vocab they need to include. However, this rarely, if ever, involves looking at different meanings or parts of speech or much else involved in knowing a word.

Here’s an example (presented to me in a conference last year): in 100 instances of the word ‘draw‘ as it appeared in readers from beginner through to advanced, 99 of those were related to drawing a picture. There were no examples of ‘drawing conclusions‘ or ‘drawing the line at‘ or ‘the match ended in a draw‘.

It’s this total lack of regard for lexical development that really irks me when I see the word ‘graded’ as it only ever refers to grammar structures. Come on publishers, it’s the 21st century now and this constitutes a serious neglect for your customers.

Maybe I’ll produce a series of lexically graded readers, could put me in contention for an ELTon.

Related Articles:

Post Footer automatically generated by Add Post Footer Plugin for wordpress.

Blog Widget by LinkWithin
This entry was posted in Lead articles and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Why graded readers are crap

  1. Adam says:

    Good point about the vocab. You’d think there would be some kind of overall plan, the amount of money the major publishers make from the bloody things. Then again…

  2. Paul Maglione says:

    That’s because, almost invariably when materials are “produced” for learners, the brain of the producer shifts into neutral and we focus only on the most simple, obvious and rigidly defined meanings of a word or usage of a structure. We believe we our doing our learners a service by “protecting” them from the big bad ambiguous world like this, but we’re not because the world – and the type of English learned in the real world – simply isn’t like that. The only antidote I can think of is to use authentic materials, which naturally provide a far wider and more realistic array of lexical and structural examples, and to explain these within the context of the piece.

  3. david says:

    Interesting points, gentlemen. I can understand the idea of protecting learners from the big bad language. We’re probably doing as much harm as good, though.

  4. bobs12 says:

    Never used them. Was supposed to once, when I actually had a ‘proper teaching job’, but it was the literary equivalent of Jack and Jill for the mentally challenged and it got neatly forgotten about until I fired myself for taking too many liberties with the school secretaries.

    Actually I don’t really see the point of rigorously limiting a student’s exposure to real language except at beginner level. It entirely defeats the purpose of what we’re supposed to be doing. With Russian we were thrown in the deep end as soon as we had (or were supposed to have) mastered the basics of grammar. It was a shock to the system, but…

    1. We immediately saw with our own boggling eyes just what was going to be expected of us in terms of reading comprehension and we knew more-or-less exactly what we needed to achieve.

    2. We took a paragraph at a time (per lesson) – most often a short summary taken from a news site, and the teacher patiently took us through it word-by-word. Each word was a mini-adventure of nuances, anecdotes and fond memories of sabbaticals in the Motherland. We divided and conquered and came out feeling smarter than if we had been reading the Famous Five with all the simple words replaced with even simpler words.

    3. I don’t believe in giving students an easy time. Global ELT methodology seems to be geared towards a slow and gradual climb to somewhere tantalisingly near to the top, and then a switch to continual ‘practice’ to keep you there in the false belief that this ‘practice’ of what you already know actually makes you smarter, or a switch to some weird conceptual pseudo-learning stuff.

    4. Can I justify applying the standard ELT wisdoms to some poor soul who has been given six months to go from (in our terms) somewhere between false beginner and early elementary up to decent pre-int or face the bread line? I doubt he would have the patience.

    5. By his mid-teens a decent (Russian) student who is inquisitive and digs around in English texts in his own time has cottoned on to the fact that words don’t only have one meaning and is ready to learn that drawing the curtains doesn’t necessarily mean taking out a pencil and paper.

    6. Russian adults who learned Soviet English are often appalled and visibly upset (throbbing veins on foreheads are typical) when they discover that even though a word is familiar, those pesky capitalists have gone and changed the meaning while nobody was looking. A bit like the goblins in Labyrinth moving the walls around.

    7. I’ve done lessons for the analytic adult types based entirely on a plain old list of common words in English. Not so much with a view to learning all the possible meanings of daft words like ‘set’, but more to familiarise with the concept of alternate meanings and to prepare for real-world lexical usage and misusage. Nobody went to sleep, just in case any jaded ESLcafe flies are snooping and want to give me a hard time for not being a proper English teacher :)

    I *think* this helps people to prepare for real-world dialect and slang. I’ve never proven this conclusively but I’ve had good reports. One problem is that if you don’t make it clear to students that alternate meanings are everywhere, then you aren’t preparing them for slang or dialects, or just ordinary alternate meanings or even plain old sloppy use of English.

    Teaching slang and dialects is pointless, especially if you don’t know them yourself and have to make deductions on the spot when you hear it in order to understand. Better to learn how to work out meaning from context. Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, etc.

    If a Russian student has learned that ‘draw’ definitely means to make a picture of something, there is a good chance he come back from his 2-week homestay in Yorkshire and tell all his mates that the British are crazy and don’t know their own language and keep asking him to make pictures of curtains when the sun is shining or when the wind’s blowing in. Which is daft because each time either the light’s wrong or the bloody things keep moving.

    8. I always teach ‘thingmy’ and its friends. Time after time I see students huddle together, furrowing brows over a familiar word that seems to have strayed into a sentence where it doesn’t belong. I almost get the impression that, given David Bowie and a bouncing crystal orb, they would go in there with a 12-gauge and order the trespasser to go back where it belongs and stop confusing them.

    For some people it works – using the draw curtains example, I can explain to students that if someone says, “Masha, can you fgrjgjrgjiu the curtains,” then they can make some simple conclusions about what fgrjgjrgjiu means:

    a) curtains are largely binary, i.e. they are mostly open or closed.

    b) ergo if they are closed, then fgrjgjrgjiu most probably means “open”

    c) ergo if they are open, then fgrjgjrgjiu most probably means “close”

    Of course you can only go so far with simple deduction and it might one day get you in trouble, but if you don’t use it at all you are in for a hard time. For example, fgrjgjrgjiu might mean something like “dismantle” or “set fire to”, although highly unlikely. I should add that most of my students have been programmers and mathematician-types, but this also works fine for bored housewives and accountants.

    The point of this rant?

    Limiting exposure to real language (as happens if you stick to textbooks and rewritten original texts) results in students having a rigid template set for understanding English. Anything that isn’t an exact fit for an already-learned template is either wrong or just something they can’t and won’t understand until they are taught how to.

    It’s a pet hate of mine and I really resent the fact that ELT always seems to confuse practice with learning. You don’t become an Olympic champion high-jumper if you don’t keep raising the bar – you just become a really well-trained low-jumper.

  5. bobs12 says:

    Just one thing to add… honest ;) apart from correcting myself for ‘tresspass’:

    Keep in mind that these ‘graded readers’ (I’ve always thought calling a book a ‘reader’ was total butchery of English, by the way…) are all part of the commercial TEFL wheel that sells not only to students but to us teachers.

    Here’s an experiment – go on ESLcafe and decry ‘readers’, textbooks or any other commercial materials and see the responses you get.

    What makes you a good teacher in mainstream TEFL is not your ability to instil into students the ability to use English fluently, but your obedience of the global commercial giants and their slightly eccentric ideas about learning. Because of course you aren’t a proper teacher if you’re not using the latest edition of Headway, are you?

  6. david says:

    Great rant and thank you to all who have comment thus far.

  7. Pingback: Teaching English in Russia - VisaRus v1.9 — Blog — Learning to speak to Jack and Jill

  8. Darren says:

    Sorry, but it’s not the readers that are crap – it’s the conclusions you have reached about them. Sheesh! Extensive reading is an incredibly powerful tool for consolidating language. It should, of course, be used to support what is going on elsewhere in the learner’s learning. Have a look around here and here if you want evidence of why it is good.



  9. LQ says:

    Wait, what?

    Beginning materials (even advanced readers are really for pretty low-level learners) don’t use advanced idioms and you’re ticked off?

    Okay …

    Look, the point of readers is to provide a safe environment for repetition of basic vocabulary that a lot of students don’t already have down. If your students have mastered that and are ready to take on “drawing conclusions,” knock yourself out! They probably don’t need graded readers and can skip right on to, you know, Harry Potter or Nero Wolfe.

    Good graded readers, like the ones from Cambridge (original stories, not stilted rewrites), still give students more senses of a word than they get just from a textbook, while being less overwhelming than the torrent of incomprehensibility they get from the TV, regular novels, and people on the street.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>