French Reading Challenge (A1): Challenge Introduction
(To learn more about why I believe readers are the best way to learn a foreign language, click here. To learn about how to choose a suitable text, click here)
Welcome to the A1 French reading challenge! During the next few weeks and with a little bit of work, we should all be at a new level- French A2! Upon successful completion, we’ll be able to start our A2 challenge and get to B1. Nice.
The basic breakdown of the challenge is this (EFR = Easy French Reader):
Week One: Introduction
Week Three: The Black Tulip / EFR 2
Week Four: Fables / EFR 3
Week Five: Beauty and the Beast / EFR 4
Week Six: Lancelot / EFR Revision
Week Seven: A1 DELF Exam papers (for weird fun)
I admit it; my French is terrible. I started learning French so that I could have access to more ‘exotic’ language materials such as ancient Greek and Latin (see my article on Triangulation). However, I soon came to realise that French is absolutely beautiful and that I really should learn it for its own sake. I hadn't been learning very long (about nine months) and thought that I’d have a look at A1 French.
This was what happened when I bumped into A1 French:
Me: Easy. Level one. Right at the bottom of the pile in the easy peasy lemon squeezy section.
A1 French: Ha! You smirk at me, but did you know that you must know AT LEAST 500 words, as well as knowledge of hundreds of aspects of grammar, including simple verb tenses, negation, prepositions . . .
A1 French: Yes, and often more difficult words will crop up, like whipped cream and eye-patch . . .
Me: Yeah, but . . .
A1 French: Do you know any fables in French?
Me: No . . .
A1 French: Have you heard of Alexandre Dumas? Can you talk about prisoners and the Rat King in French?
Me: Errrr . . .
A1 French: Would you like to take my challenge? You will learn so much!
Me: Yes! Yes! Yes! Where do I sign?
A1 French: Here! On this very page! You can take the A1 French reading Challenge next week!
Me: Oh, Ok. Not now?
A1 French: You need to prepare. Prepare my friend. Do not rush these things!
And that’s exactly what happened.
But seriously, I’m looking forward to this probably more than everyone as reading is one of my favourite ways to learn a language; an extensive reading programme is essential to second language acquisition.
The challenge will last 7 weeks and we will read 5 books at A1 level. There are three options for the challenge, all set at different levels of intensity depending on how well you want your French to be after the challenge (I will opt for 3-intense*):
Here, I’ll go into each level in a little more detail:
Dabbler: I created this option when I realised that not everyone can afford, or choose, to spend so much money/time on foreign languages. Buying 5 books can be a little daunting. I’ve read most of Easy French Reader and think it is a wonderful book with lots and lots of French (which is what we need). Also, the difficulty is manageable for A1, although it does get harder at the end. At dabbler, we won't be able to get to A2, but it's a great place to start.
Serious: This is an expensive option, but I think it’s a necessary evil. Each book I’ve selected has about 80 pages on average and contains reams of beautifully adapted French. While getting through the Dabbler stage will make you more confident, the Serious stage is where the real learning happens. Unfortunately, in French as in life itself, you get what you pay for.
Intense: This is a combination of 1 (Dabbler) and 2 (Serious). The thought being that if you’ve got 5 books, you might as well go that extra mile (or kilometre, depending where you live) and get one more. This is what I tell myself and my wife when I have to convince her why I have bought yet another set of shiny new French books . . .
The challenge can be done with any set of books, but I will comment on the chosen books in a weekly update (summaries, new words, etc).
I think I’ve mentioned before (hundreds of times, actually), that learning a language is about simple numbers. The more sentences of comprehensible input (intelligible language) that a learner is exposed to, the better that learner will be in the language. The basic milestones are:
10 thousand sentences: Basic level
100 thousand sentences: Intermediate level
200 thousand sentences: Advanced level
1 million sentences: Wow level
At the time of writing, I have clocked up, more or less, 39168 sentences of French**. This puts me well on my way to intermediate French.
What’s quite unsettling is that I’ve counted how many sentences there are in every book that I’m going to use for the challenge. I love working towards goals (which is why I created the weird table thingy above- tutorial coming soon). After this challenge, you will know exactly how much valuable input you have been exposed to.
Each book must be read AT LEAST 5 TIMES***. This is because rereading is much more important than reading a text just once. Think about it, you’ve just spent a considerable amount of time looking up words and trudging through a text. You have at best a vague idea of what was going on with the plot and there are several unknowns in terms of vocabulary. You get to the end of the text and, from the summit of the nearest mountain and at the top of your voice, you proclaim….
I'VE READ IT!!!
Well, sorry to break it to you, but you haven’t. What you’ve done is trudged to the end of a text, dictionary in hand, working through each line staring at blocks of words and wondering why on earth anyone would want to read in a foreign language.
You’re not alone. I did this for years until I really started learning how to learn****. The hack is simple; reread a text and then reread it again. You’ve done all the hard work on your first way round, so what’s stopping you from reaping the benefits of your work? Your book is probably splitting at the seams with marginalia and, short of colouring in the Os with crayon, couldn’t possibly look any worse. You’ve created notes and underlined things you think are important, so why move on? I personally read a text at least ten times before I am bored enough with it to realise that I can finally move on.
So, how are we actually going to do this, then? The challenge will go something like this:
(EFR stands for Easy French Reader)
So, if you opt the Dabbler challenge and only read each book once, you will only read 1121 lines of text. At the other extreme, if you opt for the Intense challenge and read each book 10 times, you will read 49330 lines of French. That’s almost 50 thousand lines of French! Trust me, that’s a lot.
Books Needed for the Challenge:
(click HERE to access Resource Page or click on the links below):
3) Intense: All of the above
Heading back to Table 2, let's quickly look what each category means:
Selection: This refers to the reading you’ll be doing in each week of the challenge. The format is:
Reader + AND/OR Easy French Reader
So, if it’s week one, you’ll be reading either:
1) Dabbler: Easy French Reader (Unit One)
2) Serious: Histoire d’un Casse-Noisette
3) Intense: Histoire d’un Casse-Noisette AND the first unit of Easy French Reader
Lines: Refers to how many lines there are in each book. This isn’t an exact science. Usually, I take about 8 words as 1 line. The number of lines in each book is a very loose estimation. It doesn’t really matter as the goalposts require us to reach hundreds of thousands of lines. A few thousand lines out here or there is inconsequential to the main idea = tonnes of input.
Total: This refers to the cumulative number of lines that you have read in the challenge. For example, if you’ve read Histoire d’un Casse-Noisette, which has 327 lines, and then you read La Tulipe Noir, which has 420, then your total lines will be 697 lines. Lines of textual input is what counts here:
Book 1: 327 lines (total = 327)
Book 2: 420 lines (total = 327 + 420 = 747)
1) What about the exercises in the book?
Good question. Some people love them, I don’t. I can’t stand doing exercises such as filling in the gaps or joining words to other words. I guess that’s because of my personal learning style. When I study languages, I always have in mind efficiency, and for me efficiency = tonnes of input.
Exercises slow down my total considerably. When I do exercises, I feel I fumble around doing artificial tasks; it's like I having to crawl again after sprinting; friction after butter.
But please hear me out; I’m not writing them off. I haven’t researched exercises in terms of retention rate in any statistical way. It’s something I’d like to do (there’s a lot I’d like to do), but I simply don’t have the time. I’m just stating here that I have a hunch that they aren’t very productive. You may scream at me or come for my blood, but until I have conclusive proof that I am wasting my time by not doing them, I will continue to flood my brain with as many sentences of foreign language as I can! Besides, the most important thing is that I don’t really enjoy them. Learning language should be fun, so pick what works for you- and don’t let theoretical types tell you you’re doing it wrong if you love doing it!
Saying that, I am toying with the idea of doing exercises a few levels below my reading ability, so when I get to B1, I'll go back and do A1 exercises for review and writing practice. I might write an article about that one day.
2) How many sentences of comprehensible input can I read in an hour?
I try to read AT LEAST 500 lines of text in this time.
3) How much should I read?
You should read each book AT LEAST 5 times:
Step 1: Read the chapter for gist
Step 2: Read chapter again
Step 3: Read chapter again and underline any words you don’t know
Step 4: Repeat with each chapter
Step 5: Go back to chapter one. Look up words you have underlined and still don’t know
Step 6: Read chapter twice more, continue with rest of the book
That gives us five readings of each chapter. I wouldn’t stop there, though. I’d listen to the audio and read out loud along with it after I’ve read the text five times:
Step 7: Listen to each chapter a further 4 times and read aloud
Step 8: Go through the whole book again
Congratulations! That would bring your total to 10 times. This will do wonders for your reading, speaking, and listening.
So, that’s the end of the challenge! I’ll be posting updates in this series every week with notes for each book. This week, just focus on gathering resources!
*I don’t live in a mansion (actually, currently living in my brother’s spare room!) I just spend my pocket money (yes, me and my wife give ourselves pocket money) on books. Some people buy camera gear, others buy expensive fishing equipment. Me? Foreign language books!
**Knowing this kind of statistic no longer frightens me, but it may interest my psychologist.
***I’ll attempt ten if I have time
****For the tutorial on really getting the most out of readers, go to the HOW section of this article.
Please share this article if you know anyone who would benefit from it! Thanks!