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Using Graded Readers with Young Learners: Before you Read

Young girl reading in a libraryHaving given us some advice on choosing a reader, David Dodgson, a teacher to young learners in Ankara, Turkey, now introduces us to some pre-reading activities to encourage young learners to engage with the characters and the story.

When using a graded reader as a class text, one of the most important lessons is the first one. The students need to be introduced to the characters, the plot and the theme of the story, all the while capturing their interest. This activation of their background knowledge, or schemata, is essential to ensure the students don’t read the book ‘cold’. I therefore generally spend the first session asking the students to speculate, predict content and profile the main characters, all of which helps raise their awareness both of what kind of book they are going to read and the content within.

This year, my classes have used two different readers: one based on a classic tale and one adapted from a modern animated film. My approach to introducing each was different and I will discuss how I went about it below.

Working with an ‘adapted classic’

The first reader used this year was an adaptation of Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I knew most of my students would be familiar with the story, either through a translation of the book or through the classic film version starring Judy Garland, so I started by asking them what they already knew about the story. In groups, they brainstormed the characters, the places and the events they already knew with each group comparing their findings.

I remember one of my colleagues saying “but you’re giving the plot away!”  but I didn’t view it like that – after all, most of the children were familiar with the story anyway! Instead, I found this to be a great way to get them pooling and sharing their knowledge. A lot of the vocabulary they would need to understand like tornado, scarecrow, brain, heart and emerald came up naturally within the context of the lesson as well as some important threads of the plot. Moreover, as we were working with a shortened, adapted version of the story, there were bound to be discrepancies between what they knew and what was in the book. Gathering their ideas and knowledge in this way helped form the basis for a later activity looking for those differences, which proved to be a fantastic way to get them to engage more actively with the text.

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Using Graded Readers with Young Learners: Choosing a Reader

Two young children reading in the libraryIn his first guest post, David Dodgson, a teacher to young learners in Ankara, Turkey, gives his advice on how choose a Graded Reader that is not only suitable for young language learners, but will also motivate them to read more.

Stories are undoubtedly an important part of children’s literacy development. They offer a rich source of vocabulary and familiarity with narrative structure. In the classroom, they can also add colour to a lesson and provide motivation for kids to read more. However, reading in a second language is a complex process, especially when dealing with young learners, and the stories and books we use need to be carefully considered.

Before reading on, just take a moment to consider what criteria you or your school use for choosing readers for primary aged learners (if you haven’t selected any storybooks for use in class before, think about what those criteria might be). What is your main consideration?

Ready? Good. Now, I may be wrong (let me know in the comments section if I am) but in my experience, most teachers’ first thought will be “Is it at the right level for my students?” and by the ‘level’, they usually mean the language level. An analysis of the grammatical structures in the book, the vocabulary and number of words will then follow. Increasingly, the exam level the book is said to be suitable for is also a factor as schools look to support children in preparation for tests such as Starters, Movers and Flyers.

But look at the above paragraph again and something seems to be missing, something fundamental to any storybook. That’s right – the story! While the above considerations are important, I can’t help but feel the content is often overlooked or a secondary factor. The plot, the characters and the theme should all be relevant to and engaging for the age group. If they enjoy the story and like the characters, they are much more likely to be motivated to read.

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The importance of extensive reading – “Red Dog”

Statue of Red Dog in the town of Dampier

Jenny Bassett, Series Editor of the Oxford Bookworms Library (OUP), stresses the importance of extensive reading to improving language proficiency.

The new Bookworm just out is Red Dog by Louis de Bernières, an adaptation at Bookworms Stage 2. It’s a true story about a Red Cloud kelpie, an Australian sheepdog. There’s a life-sized bronze statue to him (left) in the town of Dampier, put there by his friends after his death. When Louis de Bernières was in Western Australia, he came across this statue and felt he had to find out more about this ‘splendid dog’. So he collected all these tales about Red Dog and published a book about him. ‘But I hope,’ he wrote, ‘that my cat never finds out that I have written a book to celebrate the life of a dog.’

Red Dog was a real character – I got to know him quite well while I was retelling the story and researching the background. Here’s a bit about him from the story introduction in the book:

Red Dog front cover - Oxford BookwormsRed Dog had many names. At different times he was called Tally Ho, Bluey, the Dog of the North-West, but mostly he was called Red Dog, or just Red. Everybody in the north-west knew Red. He never really belonged to anyone, but he had many friends. He was never without a place to sleep, or a good meal, before he moved on – because he was also a great traveller. It is a hard, hot country, up in the Pilbara region, but Red knew how to get around. He rode on buses and trucks, in people’s cars, and on trains. If people saw Red Dog on the road, they always stopped and gave him a ride.

But there was one thing about Red Dog. You really, really didn’t want to travel with him in a car with the windows closed…

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Making reading on the Web more enjoyable?

Staring at a computer screenKieran McGovern writes graded reading materials for English language learners. He runs language learning website eslreading.org and blogs at This Interested Me.

I like to print articles I find online but many of my students don’t. “It’s easier to read on the screen,” they say. “And printers are always breaking down.”

True enough, though staring at a screen for extended periods is no fun either. Nor is wading through a sea of extraneous material like adverts, banners and buttons.

One solution is PDF files – but they can be a chore to produce and involve downloads, special plug-ins and other complications. What is needed is something that cuts down the work for everyone.

Step forward the deceptively sinister sounding Arc90 Lab Experiment. They’ve invented “a simple tool that makes reading on the Web more enjoyable by removing the clutter around what you’re reading.” (Source: Arc90.com)

That’s a big claim, but it’s justified. You can see how it works at eslreading.org and you can download the free Readability tool directly from Arc90.com. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this fantastic web tool.

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Bill Bowler – “Graded Readers: Exploiting them to the Max”

A short preview of Bill Bowler’s IATEFL talk on Graded Readers. Full accompanying PowerPoint slides are available below.

Listen to the full audio of Bill’s talk below:

Or download the full mp3 file (44Mb) by right-clicking here and selecting Save Link As (Firefox) or Save File As (Internet Explorer).


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