The benefits of extensive reading for learners of English have been well documented, and there are some informative articles easily discoverable on this blog.
The Graded Reader can play a hugely important part in developing reading skills, and OUP has a fantastic selection of them for all levels – as a teacher I used them regularly in and out of class. Occasionally, however, I would have a medium to high-level student ask what they could read in unabridged format, and when they did I often pointed them towards a novella.
This post will consider the novella: one of the more neglected fiction categories and how you can find novellas suitable for your students using lexical frameworks.
What is a novella?
At the most basic level, a novella sits between a short story and a novel, with a word count between 17,000 and 40,000 words. Typically, it may include subplots, twists and a range of characters. A novella will frequently not have chapters as you’d find in a full-blown novel and can often be read in one sitting. There are a lot of exceptions in the world of the novella so some works mentioned may be considered ‘short novels.’
The novella can be difficult to sell (Stephen King, in his collection ‘Different Seasons’, describes the novella as being thought of as ‘an ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic’), but they can also be enticing to write: Ian McEwan wrote, the novella is “… the perfect form of prose fiction. It is the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated ill-shaven giant.”
However viewed, the novella/short novel can be ideal for the Intermediate+ student.
What’s a Lexical Framework?
Very simply, a Lexical Framework (developed by Stenner and Smith III in 1989) is a method used to grade (never ‘score’) readers through quantitative methods around, amongst other things, individual words and sentence lengths to assess difficulty and readability.
Many sites online provide a full breakdown of lexical ranges. Many will let you put in a published novel or novella and give a Lexile measure. Some will let you enter your own Lexile measure and provide you with a percentage comprehension estimate of a text, and identify challenging vocabulary in it.
A simple Google search around ‘Lexile level’ will help you choose the most suitable site for your needs.
Five Novellas/ Short Novels to Consider…
I have selected five pieces of fiction to consider – all with a Lexile measure of less than 1,000 (roughly equivalent of a US Grade 5/11 year old native speaker UK). There are, of course, other issues beyond ‘difficulty’ and ‘readability’ levels in deciding upon suitability – subject matter being key. These five novellas/short novels are, in cinema terminology, no more explicit than a PG-13. Depending on your location, this will depend on who the publisher is.
- Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
At around twenty-nine thousand words (approx. 187 pages) Of Mice and Men was published in 1937. It tells the story of George and Lennie; two field workers in depression set California trying to scrape out a living until they can ‘live off the fat of the land’. The beautiful simplicity of Steinbeck’s writing makes this an easy-to-read tale with complex ideas.
- The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
The last major work published in his lifetime and probably Hemingway’s most well-known work. The story of Santiago, an ageing fisherman, and his struggle with a giant marlin off the Cuba coast is approximately 27 thousand words – which makes it 179 thousand words less than Moby Dick…
- Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Note: this is available as both a short story and short novel.
Flowers tells the story of a man, Charlie, with learning difficulties whose intelligence grows after a science experiment (some terminology acceptable of the time around mental disability are somewhat problematic today).
Written in journal format, Flowers is told from Charlie’s POV: initially almost unintelligible in its’ spelling and style but becoming increasingly lucid and intellectual as the story progresses.
- The Body by Stephen King
Taken from his collection ‘Different Seasons’ (also including the novella ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ was based on), The Body (filmed as ‘Stand by Me’) is the story of four boys who go on a hike to find the dead body of a boy with the aim to become famous. The novella is a poignant examination of youth and ideal for those who think King only writes horror.
- Lord of the Flies by William Golding
William Golding’s 1954 Nobel Prize-winning novel(la) is the longest in this list at around fifty-nine thousand words. Named by Time magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels, the book follows a group of schoolboys stranded on an uninhabited Pacific island and the disintegration of their newly built ‘society’.
You can find the exact Lexile ratings for each of these titles, and many more as well, via simple searches around ‘Lexile level’.
For a challenging reading piece – native speaker or not, you could always try A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess – its use of a slang Burgess invented for the book makes for an interesting read levelling for the native speaker or learner.
Simon Bewick has taught in the UK and Japan and worked in ELT for more than 25 years. You can find more of his writing: including fiction, resources for writers, and reviews and articles for Readers at www.bewbob.com