Ford & Hicks’s Elementary New French Reader – a review

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Ford & Hicks published this reader back in 1939, with the intention of making an easier graded reader than their other book, “A New French Reader”, by using present tense to start with, and introducing the other verb tenses in later stories.

The stories are mostly interesting, with a couple sourced from books I have not encountered before (“Deux jeunes aviateurs” and “Le secret du château”). It also includes Cosette, which had me sighing “not again”, since every publisher does stories from Les Misérables. However, Ford & Hicks may have been one of the first to make a simplified reader from it, so I shouldn’t grumble. What I will grumble about is the extract from Comte de Monte Cristo. You may recall in my review of Otto Bond’s series, that the escape episode of this was a highlight, and made me want to read more.

In the Ford & Hicks version, we get the initial backstory in English before reading the scene that led to the unjust incarceration of Dantès. The story then includes more English breaks between sections of French, and given the Otto Bond version, I don’t see the purpose of these interruptions to immersive reading. The Ford & Hicks version covers more of the story, and at the end summarises the remaining plot. Then they end the summary with the statement “The interest of the story weakens after the discovery of the treasure”. Unlike Bond’s version, which had me wanting to read on, this version annoyed me with the English interruptions and further annoyed me by taking away my interest in reading more of the story.

Recent trends in language acquisition research have focused on “translanguaging”, which seems to be what I’ve done most of my life, which is mixing languages together in order to keep communicating fluently with my level of knowledge (of Dutch). There seem to be benefits to doing so, but I’m starting to think it might not be so good for reading. This is the opposite of my previous thoughts on the topic, where I supervised the building of prototype bilingual ereaders that present foreign language stories, having the most difficult parts presented in the native language of the person reading it.

What may be more beneficial is reading foreign language text that resembles the native language of the speaker. That is, using cognates, simple non-idiomatic forms of expression and sentence structures that are not too unusual. This is what happens with stories in French written for native English speakers such as my Gnomeville series (Episode 1 and Episode 2 currently available), and the books by Otto Bond, and Ford & Hicks. It also happens to a large extent in stories by non-native writers. For example, I’ve seen some English graded readers written by a Chinese author, where the English is very Chinese in style, so would not be classed as “good English”. However, as long as it is known to not be “English” English, it is probably helpful to start with for people with a Chinese-speaking background. Then there should be a transition to more English-like English at a later stage. I’m somewhat more forgiving of this idea currently than I was previously.

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Recent French Reader Reads plus Errata

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I succeeded in acquiring more classic French readers recently. One of my new favourites is Dantès from Otto Bond’s Basic French Readings alternate series. It is a simplified extract from Dumas’s Comte de Monte Cristo. The story starts with an assumed knowledge of 97 frequent words, much like Sept-d’un-coup by the same publisher, but succeeds in having a higher proportion of cognates, leading to an impressive expected vocabulary for 95% coverage of 316 (based on my word list).  This makes it the lowest I’ve seen so far, apart from my own series.

However, the important thing is also whether it was an enjoyable read. I definitely got hooked on the story, and then all of a sudden the extract ends, and I’m left wanting to read the rest of the story. That can only be a good thing.

I was less captured by the remaining stories in the five-story volume, but still enjoyed most of them.

Regarding the match between publicised vocabulary sizes of graded readers and the reality of reading them, I can say from my cursory investigations that there is not always a good match between the two. Perhaps it averages out across the books, as I only take the first chunk of text for my comparisons, but if the first few paragraphs are too challenging, then a language learner may lose interest.

I’ve developed a new estimate of readability now, which is more complex than ones I’ve previously used and seems to match the foreign language learner’s experience reasonably well. Based on this, and my more recent acquisitions, I now recommend the following as first reads for French beginners with English-speaking background.

Young children: Luc et Sophie series, or Bonjour Berthe, which I find more entertaining. Le Petit Napoléon series is also quite good, and suitable for all ages, for those who like cats.

Older children: Gnomeville, Le Chapeau Rouge, select stories from Mary Glasgow’s Bibliobus, or Sue Finnie’s Lire Davantage.

Teenagers: I quite like the Teen Readers series. Catastrophe au Camping des Roses is rated as a vocabulary of 300 words, and my estimate has the 95% coverage vocabulary at 2421, which isn’t too bad. But Dantès mentioned above is easier vocabulary-wise.

Adults: Dantès is my current favourite as a first read. Becky Tucker’s Histoires pour les grandes appears to be easy, but I haven’t read enough to know whether it is interesting. I have yet to rate other ebooks.

However, the only stories that you can read immediately in French without having studied it is the Gnomeville series. There are some minor issues with it though, as have been brought to my attention recently. There are places where I have used “de la Fantasia” that should be “de Fantasia”. I was uncertain of the rule for this, but now I have discovered it. Mostly “de” is used with a country, but “de la” is used in expressions that have a temporal sense to them, such as “le gouvernement de la France” (since governments are not permanent), or if there is an adjective applied: l’Histoire de France but l’Histoire économique de la France. Very subtle indeed and I hope I can be forgiven for getting that subtlety wrong in my comic. I intend to make a second edition of Episode 2 at some point to rectify this. Another error in Episode 2 is the use of the verb “voyage” combined with “à” (“voyage à la Place des Roses”). Voyage doesn’t get used this way and “à” should probably be “vers” to communicate this idea. The sentence will be removed from the second edition.

In other news I attended the Applied Linguistics Association of Australia 2018 conference a couple of weeks ago. It was very inspiring, and also emphasised that the important thing with language acquisition is communication, not perfection. Perfection is unlikely to be achieved, but improvement is always possible. So let’s keep improving our language skills. Read, listen, write and speak. With practice comes improvement. Until next time.

 

 

A few more French graded reader book stats

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Since my last graded reader update I’ve looked at a few more books, some of which are “classics”, in the sense they were from the “direct reading” era of the first half of the twentieth century, following the influence of Michael West’s constrained vocabulary for language teaching, the various word and idiom frequency lists created at the time, and the idea of readability. Some of these books I had already acquired earlier; but through reading some papers published at that time, I was able to compile a shopping list of other books written according to the same philosophy.

As a result, I have a new winner in terms of expected vocabulary size at the 95% threshold of reading comfort. A New French Reader by Ford and Hicks received a 95% vocabulary size of 3532, and Otto Bond’s Sept-d’un-Coup was a close second, with 3650. Bond’s book starts with a much smaller initial assumed vocabulary (97 words) than the Ford and Hicks book (523), so Bond’s book may be a better first read despite the slightly higher vocabulary score here. As seen in my first post on expected vocabulary size for 95% coverage, these are much higher scores than my Gnomeville comics, as my comics take readability criteria to the extreme.

So based on the current stats available on vocabulary, I recommend the following first graded readers for English speakers learning French.

For 6-9 year olds: Bonjour Berthe.

For 10+: Gnomeville

For adults who don’t like fantasy comics: Sept-d’un-Coup by Otto Bond – though I think there are some errors in it, and it’s out of print (and it probably counts as fantasy…).

Stay tuned for further updates.

 

It’s never as authentic as a native speaker

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I have my moments of doubt with my French comic book project. It is virtually impossible to write something that is absolutely correct French in terms of the expressions used if one is not a native speaker. Grammar is relatively easy to get right, apart from minor slip-ups, but having something sound like natural French, especially while intentionally writing in a constrained vocabulary is almost impossible.

I’ve been attempting to get Episode 3 of my comic book ready this month, spurred on by a potential launch date at the language-themed concert I’m involved with, happening tomorrow, as well as #inktober. However, before finalising my comic it was important to get it checked by a native speaker of French. This happened today, and as usual there are errors that need to be fixed, and unlike text that is free to vary without consequences, this means making decisions about whether to leave out phrases or whole sentences, find an alternative French-English cognate, or an alternative way of saying the same thing. As I also try to ensure there are a certain number of repetitions of key words, phrases, or grammatical points, further changes also need to be made. Then there’s the crossword… As a result, I will need to delay the release of Episode 3 for a bit longer.

Unfortunately, despite multiple checks by francophone proofreaders, some things do get missed. I appear to have an error in Episode 2, which has already been published. I may need to set up an errata page here, and perhaps release a second edition at some point. It’s all a little discouraging, but I’m not giving up yet.

Are some graded readers not worth reading?

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Something I have been pondering lately is the enormous vocabulary load that occurs in some graded readers that are intended for beginners. The grammar is simple but the vocabulary load is huge. Sure, things are often glossed, which speeds up the process of finding out the meaning of words, but it still prevents fluent reading.

When I first found booklets from the Bibliobus series published by Mary Glasgow, I thought they were wonderful. I only had 3 of them, at levels 6 and 8. I also loved Le Chapeau Rouge released by the same publisher. I’ve since collected more Bibliobus stories, and also acquired a collection of Lire Davantage booklets. What is clear to me, and I have been reminded of it by a friend who has been reading them lately, is that there is not much text but a lot of vocabulary load. The stories do vary a little in terms of quality and difficulty within the published levels, so some are probably of greater value than others.

In theory, these high vocabulary load stories provide language exposure that will increase a learner’s skill, since there are things that are unknown. Provided the learner can read them quickly they have some value for extensive reading. However, if there is a choice between another story with lower vocabulary load, more text and a smoother gain in vocabulary, then that would be better. It’s all down to availability. However, ultimately what matters is whether the story appeals to you enough that you are keen to read it. If not, it is best to find something else to read. As long as you are reading at least 10 minutes per day at a level that allows you to fluently read, follow the story, but not already know all the language that you encounter then you will improve your language knowledge.

Here are a couple more books/stories I’ve analysed for general vocabulary size at the ~95% cut-off, based on the first 100 words. Note that just using this figure in isolation is a bit misleading, because books like the one by Ford and Hicks use a lot of repetition and a relatively small vocabulary overall, making it possible to learn relatively easily. It just isn’t necessarily all highly frequent vocabulary. This is where vocabulary density is also a useful guide, so I’ve included this figure as well.
If the 95% general vocabulary size is high and the vocabulary density is high, it means that you may be able to read comfortably, learning the vocabulary of the given text, but its relative usefulness will depend on whether it matches the vocabulary that you need for your language goals.

Title Author Publisher/Series Gen Vocab Size at 95% Vocab Density at (n) words
Reading approach to French Ford and Hicks J.M. Dent and Sons (Canada) Ltd. 12,059 2.77 (122)
Le Visiteur Sue Finnie Mary Glasgow/Bibliobus 11,260 2.05 (123)

This follows on from my previous table of figures. When using general vocabulary rank frequency lists it certainly seems normal for graded readers to effectively use a very wide vocabulary, leading to an expected general (raw) vocabulary size of 4,000 to 12,000. To do something considerably less requires careful vocabulary control, such as occurs in my Gnomeville series, which achieves this through exclusively using French-English cognates and the most frequently occurring words. Initially it may seem a little artificial, but becomes more natural and flowing as the stories progress. A similar approach is used in Si Nous Lisions, in that a very small vocabulary is used initially, and then a new word is added every 90 or so words. While I came up with the idea independently, the concept of vocabulary control is attributed to Michael West.

At some point I’ll publish a comprehensive list of graded readers with these statistics, but I’ll first need to automate the process a bit more and get rid of a few bugs. Meanwhile, let’s keep reading at least 10 minutes a day of easy but not too easy text in the languages we want to learn.

A Lesson in Suspense

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Reading graded readers can be quite educational on how to write good stories. Previously I wrote an article about a graded reader “Hall of Shame“, in which I highlighted various problems I had observed within the genre, and then provided a summary of recommendations on how to write better graded readers. Elsewhere I wrote another summary of advice on writing graded readers (I called them Easy Readers in my earlier posts.)

In this article I’d like to talk about suspense. I think I was in my twenties when I first really thought about suspense at all when reading. A fine simple example that crystallised it for me was Dirk Gently’s Detective Agency by Douglas Adams. Two memorable simple bits of suspense occurred in it. The first is the sofa stuck in the staircase, which is explained toward the end of the story. The second, which amazed me in its simplicity was explaining two of three things, and not answering the third one until late in the book. I was reading on, wondering what the third thing was. This illustrated that it didn’t really matter what the suspense is, as long as it’s suspense. It doesn’t need to be figuring out who committed a crime, or whether the romance concludes happily. It can be pretty much anything.

The next observation, which inspired the way I’ve organised my Gnomeville comics, was the use of cliff-hangers. I was reading a collection of X-Men comics, and noticed that they always ended with a cliffhanger and unanswered questions. By never fully ending the story, people get hooked and need to read the next issue. Soap operas seem to work the same way. It struck me that this is a very good strategy for graded readers, since we want to motivate people to keep reading to improve their language skill.

I buy and read graded readers by other authors, and I was struck by the contrast suspense made between two otherwise very similar stories by the same author, Sylvie Lainé.

Voyage en France tells of an English couple who go to France, because Louis is reminded of a creative project he commenced with his best friend decades earlier, who later moved to France, and with whom he had lost contact. The project was a movie about an old man trying to find an old friend, echoing the current situation. Louis wants to see how the story will end, by finding his old friend. We read the story of Louis and Melba as they follow a series of clues to find Louis’s old friend. This suspense worked for me, as I wanted to know how the story would end. I also wanted to know whether they tried to finish the movie, but that question wasn’t answered. I read the story quickly, despite many chapters of fairly mundane travel activities, all because of the suspense.

Contrast the above story with Voyage à Marseille. This contains the same two main characters, doing the same things, that is, travelling through France to get to a destination. However, it lacks the suspense of wondering whether they will find the person they are looking for. The first bit of excitement happens quite late, the disappearance of the car, and is resolved quite quickly. There is another unanswered question that had potential as a simple bit of suspense, the title of the biography of Louis’s friend that they were visiting. Unfortunately that wasn’t answered in the final chapter. It took me a lot longer to finish this story, because there wasn’t anything I wanted to know the answer to.

So, when writing graded readers, please provide suspense. It makes a lot of difference to the reading experience.

 

 

Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve – my kind of book

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I recently noticed an article in an issue of Reader’s Digest while in a waiting room. It was discussing the vocabulary of Green Eggs and Ham, and other statistical aspects of writing. It was an extract of Ben Blatt’s book “Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve”. Since the article was about a lot of the things that I work on, I felt compelled to get the book, and immediately read it.

The book compares a set of literary classics, best sellers and fan fiction via quantitative statistics. The author used my old friend Natural Language ToolKit (NLTK) for Part of Speech tagging etc. for the text analysis.

The first chapter looks at adverbs, which are frowned upon in writing. The next looks at statistical differences in writing by each gender. Chapter 3 discusses the history of authorship attribution, as played out with the Federalist Papers. The relative frequency of different function words tends to be like a fingerprint for an author’s writing. He uses this on co-authored works to figure out who wrote what. Next up is seeing if authors follow their own advice on writing. Then comes the chapter I saw in Reader’s Digest, that discusses Dr Seuss and readability measures. In the same chapter he notes that the average reading age of bestsellers is decreasing, from grade 8 in the 1960’s to grade 6.

Next up is a comparison of UK and US writing, including an interesting comparison on the loudness of Americans compared to English people. Chapter 7 looks at clichés – another area I have researched, albeit in lyrics instead of novels. The remaining chapters look at book covers, first sentences, and text generation.

This book did a lot of things that are closely related to my own tinkerings, as well as some of my published research. The author is a journalist and statistician, and several of the chapters, if written in an academic rather than journalistic manner, would have made good quantitative linguistics papers, with the amount of research within the book possibly being enough for a PhD in the field.

I only had one gripe about the book, and that is one sentence in which he assumes his reader knows nothing about statistics and says so. It’s one thing to explain something clearly starting from scratch or to state that something is left to an appendix for those interested. It’s quite another to tell the reader that they don’t know enough statistics. While some readers may not be insulted (eg. the “for dummies” series was popular), I usually am. I may not be the world’s expert on statistics, but I have a working knowledge, and I am capable of learning. I had a similar experience when I wanted to learn about the premise behind the Zone diet, and read a book on it, only to be constantly told by the authors that I’m fat (I’m not). The moral is: explain things clearly, but don’t insult the audience.

All in all, this was a book that’s exactly the kind of thing that I enjoy.