Recent French Reader Reads plus Errata


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


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


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.

A Lesson in Suspense


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.



Vocabulary Needed for 95% Coverage


I’ve been tinkering with ways of comparing different easy readers for language learners. Previous posts I’ve used a type-token ratio or vocabulary density, which gives some idea of how likely it is you might learn new words through repetition from a text. But for something to be readable, the general consensus is that you need to know at least 95% of the words that you read. This is a level that allows people to guess the meaning of the words they don’t know.

So something I’ve been messing with recently is predicting the general vocabulary size needed for different beginner stories in French, assuming people know all cognates and all proper nouns. I’ve only been working with short samples of text so far, and there are many other assumptions and issues that make it not a perfect comparison – including bugs in my code…

Given a small set of extracts, and assuming you don’t learn the words via their introduction one at a time, as in my comic books, we have the following:

Title Vocab Size
Gnomeville Episode 1 25
Gnomeville Episode 2 25
Gnomeville Episode 3 40
Bonjour Berthe 4179
Easy French Reader 5008
Martine a la Ferme 11854
Bonjour Luc 6163

Note that this vocabulary size assumes that each conjugation of verbs is a separate vocabulary item, as are plurals etc. so will be much larger than word family figures normally used.

You can see that the one text written for native French speaking children (Martine) has a much richer vocabulary than the texts written for language learners. The figures for these look worse than they seem, because there are many words that are typically taught early to allow conversation, but which feature much lower on word frequency lists. For example, “maman” was at rank 6163 in my list. In contrast, my Gnomeville comics are designed to prioritise frequent words and cognates to optimally improve reading, at the expense of conversation. Hence the very small vocabulary sizes required.

Recently I’ve been reading a 1939 paper by Tharp that looked at measuring vocabulary difficulty. He appears to have had similar ideas about measuring vocabulary load based on the general frequency of the words, as well as a measure of density of difficulty words. I also recently acquired yet another very early graded reader, “Si nous lisions”, from 1930, which attempted to introduce new words every ~60 running words, in the style of Michael West, who seems to have been the first to use the approach. However, I have a graded reader published in 1909 in my collection, which was intended for “rapid reading”, and was part of a series that  commenced with short easy texts. I’m not sure if they methodically introduced words at specific intervals as was done by West and others following his example.

In searches on-line, I found a French adapted reader from 1790, so we’ve been at it for quite a while. I’d like to say we know more about how to write graded readers these days, but I think West had it fairly right. The only thing we can do now is make them more interesting and relevant.

Here’s one from 1800 published for those with a German background. There seem to be quite a few published in the 1800s.

Anyway, I’ll finish off here with the usual things: we need 95% coverage to read comfortably (on average). To do that with native texts requires quite a large vocabulary. But vocabulary increases as you read more. So we should read as much as possible at the level that is right for us and of reading material that interests and motivates us. My Gnomeville comics are ideal first readers in French for those with an English language background and a good vocabulary in English. The Berthe and Luc et Sophie series are reasonable alternatives for children that are possibly too young for Gnomeville, as are the ELI A0 series. Until next time…


Mots fréquents français


I recently came across a new word frequency list for French words, which I’m placing here partly for my own benefit. This one is like some others that combine all conjugations of a verb together, which is not helpful for all applications. Typically present tense is much easier than other less frequently used tenses, particularly for irregular verbs.

Anyway, the list is still useful. It was created by Étienne Brunet, a statistical linguist, based on a corpus of written French.

Here are the top 20 words. Interestingly, compared to the newspaper corpus list I used for designing Episodes 1 and 2 of my comic, this corpus has first person singular (je) occurring much more frequently, as well as “have” (avoir). “ce”, “son” and “elle” also occur in this list higher than “au”, and were not in the newspaper list. “avoir” may be higher because of all conjugations of it being grouped together.

1050561 le (dét.)
862100 de (prép.)
419564 un (dét.)
351960 être (verbe)
362093 et (conj.)
293083 à (prép.)
270395 il (pron.)
248488 avoir (verbe)
186755 ne (adv.)
184186 je (pron.)
181161 son (dét.)
176161 que (conj.)
168684 se (pron.)
148392 qui (pron.)
141389 ce (dét.)
139185 dans (prép.)
143565 en (prép.)
127384 du (dét.)
126397 elle (pron.)
123502 au (dét.)

List of frequent words in French.

Book review: Easy French Stories by Sylvie Lainé

As someone who reads and writes books for language acquisition via extensive reading, I look with curiosity at any that are available. Today I came across books by Sylvie Lainé on Amazon.
The books aim to support language acquisition via extensive reading, and provide extensive glosses to prevent the need for consulting a dictionary. The stories are written by a native French speaker who has studied applied linguistics. Her biography on Amazon seems to indicate that she is unaware of the long history of graded readers for language learners, including those in French, published by both English publishers, such as Oxford University Press, as well as French publishers, such as Hachette. Or perhaps she was only referring to those available as ebooks when saying there were no suitable stories available. Nevertheless, it is great that she has published stories for learners of French. Given the amount of reading a learner should do, the more good stories of low to moderate difficulty available the better.
My assessment in this review is about the suitability of these stories for extensive reading. For this purpose, there should be at least 95% vocabulary coverage for fluent reading. That’s only 1 in 20 words that should be unfamiliar. This is difficult to do well for beginner readers. It took me years to come up with the initial story for Gnomeville, which takes a learner from zero French to a small vocabulary of common words and French-English cognates. Episode 1 of the comic doesn’t achieve the 95% coverage figure consistently until page 12 of the story, but maintains a 1 new word per page until then, with illustrations providing essential parts of the story. So the first few pages could be classed as intensive reading, rather than extensive. After that, and for all future episodes, the story has the 95% coverage level consistently, allowing people to practise guessing the meanings of words, with a reasonable chance of success, and still having a gloss to check guesses, for optimal vocabulary retention.
Let’s see how Sylvie Lainé‘s stories do. For this study I have assumed that the unglossed vocabulary is known, and that glossed vocabulary is unknown. To be generous in the analysis, I assume that a glossed multi-word expression is a single unknown vocabulary item, but still count the individual words of the expression when determining the total number of words read. This is a manual calculation, so I am using the first and last chunk of the free sample, where a “chunk” is a section of text that is followed by a set of glossed words. I do both of these chunks, as it is possible that the known vocabulary would be greater as the story progresses, as is the case with Gnomeville.
First up is Voyage en France. The first chunk has 16 glossed words out of 74, making a coverage of only 78%, which is very low, even when reading stories written for native speakers as a foreign language learner with a vocabulary size of 1000.
The second chunk is much better, having 92% coverage, but still a bit low.
Second story is Le Pendentif, which is actually the first volume in the series. This is truly simple French, and if we make the same assumptions of vocabulary knowledge as above, has only 2 glossed words for 74 words, giving a 97% coverage, which is perfect for extensive reading. The final chunk is a little low at 3 glossed out of 38, making 92% coverage, but overall, this story does seem to be a suitable beginner story.
Voyage à Marseille goes from 93% coverage to 91% at the end. Based on these three stories, I’d say that you can expect an average of 92% vocabulary coverage from the series, assuming your knowledge matches the assumption of the author. Comments from reviewers indicate that people reading these stories still need to consult a dictionary for some words, so these coverage figures are an over-estimate for some people.
So in summary, I believe that Le Pendentif (t. 1) should be a fairly comfortable read for beginners after a few lessons of French, and is good for those who are after stories written in authentic French for adult beginners. The other stories would be slow reads due to the vocabulary load, despite the glosses, so it would be better to come back to the series after reading other stories with a better-matched vocabulary level. Apart from my own comic that assumes zero vocabulary, there are series that go from vocabularies of 150 words onwards. Looking at my database of graded readers for French I can see that most beginner ones are indeed targeting children or adolescents. If you can’t face those (I quite enjoy some of them), there are some excellent simplified classics published by CLE International for vocabularies of 500 or more. Two of my favourites so far are Jacquou le Croquant (vocabulary = 600) and En Famille (vocabulary = 500).
A disclaimer for my review of these stories is that I haven’t read beyond the preview chunks available on Amazon, so I can’t comment on how they progress, or how entertaining they are. If you find them very interesting, then you may have the willpower to read on despite the vocabulary load. The Amazon reviews are mostly favorable.
People sometimes say “you can only have two” of the three for things. I think the original was probably the [good:cheap:fast] for projects, and I’ve seen [good grades:social life:enough sleep] for college life. I’ve also seen the somewhat dodgy [pretty:intelligent:sane] for girlfriends. The equivalent for graded readers seems to be: [easy:authentic:interesting]. The more authentic it is, the less easy it will be. The easier it is, the less interesting it’s likely to be. The more interesting, the more difficult, etc. So as authors of graded readers, we try to balance these three things. I also try to include a fourth element, related to “easy”, and that is, perhaps “effective”, in that I try to ensure that the stories are constructed in a way that ensures vocabulary growth, by using all the outcomes from extensive reading research:
  • 95%+ vocabulary coverage,
  • focus on very frequent words (eg. “le”/”the”) to give best coverage sooner,
  • repetition of new vocabulary,
  • glosses,
  • images to enhance recall,
  • high interest story (I hope).
Anyway, that’s all for this review. I recommend Le Pendentif, based on extensive reading criteria. The others may be useful for more advanced learners.