How to Teach Yourself a Language: Getting to B2 with Graded Readers
Warning: The following is a ten-step recipe for achieving a very high level in a foreign language by reading.
Graded readers are, for me at least, the single most amazing resource available to a student of foreign languages who is studying alone. A good reader can be a microcosm of a country’s cultural heritage; a self-contained molecule of accessible literary beauty. But they can also be less highfalutin; a simple yarn, a wonderful tale that is tantalisingly within our grasp as moderate learners. They can be beautiful and enlightening, finely crafted by linguistic experts to introduce us to the captivating world of a foreign culture.
If graded readers are not in your regime, then I believe you should seriously evaluate why that is. If you do already use them, then perhaps you could consider other strategies to make the most out of them. Either way, this tutorial will focus on what graded readers are, why they are important, and what methods (beyond just reading them) can be applied to get more from them.
This article is one of ten featured articles on the site, which can all be accessed here.
What is a graded reader? There is so much to them that it is difficult to know where to start, but start we must, so let’s think of them in terms of three main ideas. I’ll discuss each one in turn:
1) Linguistics: Much of applied linguistics, in its broadest sense, looks at ways language teachers can apply linguistic research in a classroom setting. Concerning readers, we could ask, “How can we encourage learners of a foreign language to read more, given the limitations of their ability?” It’s obviously not sensible for an elementary student of French to read Les Misérables, but at the same time, intelligent and critical adults may not want to always read the foreign equivalent of Peter and Jane, or Peppa Pig Goes to the Supermarket. Houston, we have a problem:
1) The material available to me as an adult learner cannot sustain my interest, but 2) the content I am interested in is far too difficult.
Readers address this problem head-on by attempting to reconcile the two parts of the issue. The idea is that we can take a pre-existing story and revise it in accordance with the students’ level. That is, we take Les Misérables and rewrite it at a much simpler level so that learners can enjoy and familiarise themselves with this (astonishingly good) work of French literature*. Languages can be classified fairly objectively using a graded scheme, and while many exist (HSK for Chinese, IELTS for academic English, etc), my favourite and by far the most popular is the Common European Framework, which grades the difficulty of a text into A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, and C2, with A1 being the lowest and C2 being seriously impressive.
As there are strict guidelines for each level, the reader should be adapted accordingly. For example, the guidelines for A1 are that the learner**:
Can understand and use language about daily life, as well as simple sentences;
Can introduce themselves or other people as well as asking and answering detailed personal questions;
Can speak to a native speaker if he/she speaks slowly and clearly.
So, at A1, the learner cannot do a lot, so when adapting the original story for a new audience, these limitations must be kept in mind, as well as any possible issues involving grammar, vocabulary, sentence length, and usually book-length (although length has more to do with marketing and production than objective difficulty).
Let me give you an example. I’m reading the second installment of Simon Schama’s fabulous A History of Britain. Let’s take the first sentence of the book and adapt it for a graded reader at A1. Here's the original:
Great Britain? What was that? John Speed, tailor turned map-maker and historian, must have had some idea, for in 1611 he published an atlas of sixty-seven maps of the English speaking counties, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, loftily entitled The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine.
Phew! The third sentence is 43 words, hardly constituting our A1 requirement of “simple sentences”. But the length wasn’t all that was wrong with the sentence for our target readership; there are far too many advanced words here as well, and the modal verb + bare infinitive perfect (must have had) is far too thorny for A1. Let’s wave our magic wand and remove the language that may prove too tricky, as well as replacing difficult vocabulary to words that are more fitting for the level:
Also, let’s get rid of the particularly difficult phrase “must have had some idea” and replace it with “probably knew”. Now, let’s rewrite it:
Great Britain? What was that? John Speed, a map-maker and historian, knew because in 1611 he published a book of sixty-seven maps. These maps were of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
Actually, I don’t like the word published here for A1 and I don’t want the learner to stop reading to have to look it up. Let’s replace it with made: "He knew because he made a book of maps."
Obviously, Simon Schama’s sublime writing is lost, but the point is to convey the meaning in natural, albeit simplified, language to aid the student and get her reading as quickly as possible.
2) Polyliteracy: This is an idea created by Professor Alexander Arguilles. The idea is not only to be culturally literate in one, but many, languages. I read an explanation somewhere on the web about people who are polyliterate and how they are quasi-ubiquitous. This is probably my favourite phrase that describes my own personal aspirations. To be able to transcend time and space and grapple with the issues of humanity. To be quasi-ubiquitous really is to possess an encyclopaedic knowledge. Functioning in several languages at a very high level will really give the lifelong lover of learning a fifty-thousand-foot view.
Can you read original literature in several languages and is this your goal? If it is, then readers are fundamental to your objective. If not, readers are still essential as reading is a part of life.
3) Inter-Cultural Communication: This is related to polyliteracy, but I use it here as a subsection as I want to focus on readers that are not related to literature (in the sense of high or classical). Think of a native of a country as being equipped with cultural and literary baggage, which include the stories, the myths, and the contemporary culture at large. We take it for granted in the English speaking world that many school children have boyfriends or girlfriends and that children often argue with their parents. These facts of life, however, are social constructs that don’t necessarily manifest themselves when we peer into the worldviews of different peoples. In fact, the idea of having a love interest in many countries at such a young age would appear shocking to many, just as a descriptive scene in a Chinese story may depict a daughter giving her father a massage; a very normal occurrence in China but less so in western countries. Mine is not to judge but to inform. Reading about the daily habits of native speakers in passing is a fine way to peripherally interact with the cultural norms of a foreign country. The armchair warrior becomes the proverbial fly on the wall to witness, almost first hand, the comings and goings of a foreign land.
But what about the myths? The fables? The accumulative wisdom passed down through history in countless stories? Should it not be encouraged to share this knowledge with our native hosts? Some readers even outline the history of a particular country. You may not be interested in such topics, but it doesn’t take long to get a general idea of the broad themes of a country’s unique history. I like to think of learning a language as an exercise in existentialism. I am a citizen of that foreign country and try to acquire the level of knowledge that he/she has (or at least try to approximate it). If you want to do business in a foreign country without having at least some understanding of its history and overarching moral code, it will be very difficult. I lived in China and built my business there over a period of 15 years. I don’t think I could have succeeded if I wasn’t aware of those issues. In fact, of all my ex-pat friends out there, the least successful were those who couldn’t speak the language and didn’t understand the culture.
Readers are essential for learning so much more than the language itself.
I’ve touched on some of the more compelling reasons for using readers above (engaging in cross-cultural dialogue at varying degrees), but let me try and comment briefly on a few more:
1) Pleasure: Surely this is the most important reason of all? Accessible stories, histories, myths, fables…. reading in a foreign language is reading. Reading is wonderful. Who doesn’t like to sit down with a good story?
Foreign language readers tend to be peppered with beautiful illustrations, colourful idioms, and vivid descriptions that really help to transform the often monochromatic world of foreign language texts into wonderful reading materials.
2) Amazing Resources: Good ones may include an MP3, cultural notes, exercises, as well as notes on vocabulary and grammar.
3) Quantity: There is something for everyone. There are hundreds of volumes out there that can suit people of diverse tastes and interests and that can be enjoyed immediately.
4) Adaptations: Many of the more well-known works of literature have been made into films. Read the book and then watch the film. A great excuse to sit back and relax.
5) A Sense of Achievement: This is very real. Finishing a book in a foreign language brings about a sense of pride like no other. Pride = motivation = more reading = finishing more books = pride. It’s a positive feedback loop that propels us towards the more advanced stages of language learning (works in the original!).
6) Composition: They are generally crafted by accomplished linguists and teachers who have been professionally trained to know, almost as much as the learner herself, what is and is not appropriate reading material.
So, that brings an end to my argument for why I believe everyone should consider using readers as tools for learning and immersing themselves in a foreign language. If I have convinced you, or reinforced your previous convictions about their usefulness, please let me know in the comments!
Now for how to use them.
Now let’s look at how we might approach a set of readers that could serve as an incredibly powerful extensive reading programme in a foreign language. It’s important to note that the following table will serve as an excellent road map to getting from A1-B2. As I’ve mentioned before, learning a foreign language is a numbers game, and the amount of spaced repetition of each reader will result in approximately the following number of sentences being read for each level:
That’s 220 thousand sentences of input in a foreign language, which, by anyone’s standard should take the student to an advanced stage in their language learning. That, coupled with the other work done with Shadowing, Pacing, as well as the self-generating spoken sentences that I introduced in my article on CI Clouds, should enable the learner to begin reading original, unadapted, literature.
So, step zero is to gather resources***. You’ll need ten books for the level you’re studying.
Here’s a table of the basic steps that will take you through one level of competency (A1). I’ll go into each step in a little more detail after:
Yes, this is a formidable plan as you will read each book 5 times before Shadowing it 5 times (which basically means to read along with it out loud while listening to audio).
Here are the steps in a little more detail:
Step 0: Gather resources (10 books at your level).
Step 1: Read the 1st chapter. Don’t look up new words. You may not be completely sure about the meaning of a chapter after the first reading. This is not a problem. Read for gist.
Step 2: Reread chapter. Focus on overall meaning, which should be much clearer now.
Step 3: Reread chapter. This takes us to three readings of the chapter. Focus on both overall meaning but also meaning at the sentence level. While you’re reading, underline any words you still haven’t figured out. Don’t look them up yet.
Step 4: Continue on to chapter 2 and repeat steps 1-3. Do this with the remaining chapters.
Step 5: Once you have finished the book, reread it in its entirety. Do you now know the words you underlined? If not, look them up before you start each chapter.
Step 6: Now reread the whole book again. This will bring your cumulative total to five readings.
Step 7: Now, Shadow each book 5 times (read text aloud while listening to the audio). This will be excellent for your listening comprehension and ability in the spoken language. You have now read these books 10 times.
Step 8: Repeat steps 1-7 with 9 new books.
Step 9: Do the whole thing again with a new level (A2)
Step 10: Do the whole thing again with a new level (B1)
Step 11: Treat yourself to a holiday. Seriously, you deserve it!
Tip: What I do when I’ve finished a book is to listen to the audio while doing the chores. You’ll be surprised out how difficult it is to hang on to every word, even when you’ve read it 10 times.
Now, if you’re interested in learning how long this will take, here is an approximation:
A1: 300 hours (3 hours per reading)
A2: 400 hours (4 hours per reading)
B1: 600 hours (6 hours per reading)
Total: 1300 hours
I know this is a mortifying number to contemplate, but rather than think of the time, just think of the journey and the goal. Languages have been around for years. They’ll still be around when you get round to clocking up 1300 hours on your speedometer.
Readers are the way to get ahead in foreign language learning. They are professionally crafted adaptations of high literature, engaging stories, myths and fables, and even histories specifically designed with the limitations of the student in mind. They are not only essential for learning about the linguistic aspects of a foreign language, but also about the cultural knowledge of a shared community. Readers help create citizens of the world.
There is a copious amount of material out there suitable for every conceivable level; some of them beautifully illustrated with ample notes and accompanying audio, rendering them beautiful objects in themselves. To finish a reader engenders the learner with a sense of pride at having completed a story in a foreign language.
By following the steps outlined in this tutorial, the learner can use readers to reach a very respectable level in a foreign language in a time frame much shorter than by using traditional methods.
I can think of no reason for a serious language learner not to use readers.
Challenge: Why not participate in a reading challenge? We have a French reading challenge that is going to start on Monday, but I plan to do many more in the future.
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*I’ve only read the English translation. Reading Hugo’s magnum opus in the original is a major goal of mine.
**Translated from Chinese (at the time of writing, my nearest reader was a French copy of Beauty and the Beast which was bought in China….)
***Be aware that even though A1 appears low, the sentences and vocabulary can become quite involved and are not suitable for zero beginners. In terms of Assimil, I would recommend beginning this challenge at around lesson fifty, or even at the end of the book (although some may be too impatient to start to wait that long!)