Category Archives: Resources

Resources for language learning and for producing language learning resources

French Comics for Beginners

Most pages I’ve seen that try to answer the question “What are the best French comics for beginners?” only include comics written for native speakers. That is fine, and it is easier to follow a francophone comic than a novel, thanks to the pictures. However, if Astérix is still beyond you, there are easier alternatives to start with.

Based on the principles of extensive reading, you want comics where you know the meaning of 95-98% of the words you read, to read fluently, enjoy what you’re reading, and gain language capability from exposure to lots of text. Of course, you also need to enjoy what you’re reading to benefit from it, so if something doesn’t appeal to you, it would be better to find something else to read.

Materials written for native speakers of French will have much richer vocabularies and grammatical constructions than those written for learners. If you want to start on something written for you the learner, rather than a francophone, here are a few options to look at.

  1. Gnomeville episodes 1-3. These assume no knowledge of French and tell an entertaining tale about gnomes, a griffon and a mage going on a quest to capture a dragon. The focus is on introducing the most frequent words in French while using cognates (words that are the same in both languages, in this case, English and French) and pictures to make the story entertaining. Suits ages 8 and above. Available from Amazon as ebook or on ebay as physical comic book.
  2. have a series of comics published on-line that are written for learners. There are a few available for free to try out and the rest can be accessed via a subscription. Episodes are a page or two long, with links for difficult words, as well as other resources. Definitely worth trying if you find comics for native speakers daunting.
  3. Luc et Sophie. These are beginner comics, suited to 7-11 year olds that are learning French. I found them a bit annoying, but if you like young sibling rivalry antics, they may suit you.
  4. Mary Glasgow’s Bibliobus books and others. Unfortunately these are out of print, but if you can get them (I scored a few second hand, and also borrowed some via inter-library loan), they are reasonably easy to read. Some are quite entertaining, while others are a little contrived or annoying. The contrivedness disappears as you go up the levels, as the authors have more freedom to express themselves. My favourites are Le chapeau rouge and Le gangster et le chat. Note that Bibliobus is also the name of a series of French books for French children, so make sure you are getting what you expect.
  5. The Lire Davantage series published by Heinemann has a comic book format for many of the books. As with the Glasgow ones, some are entertaining, while others are a bit dull or contrived. Yet others are informative non-fiction. I believe these are also out of print, but seem to be available secondhand. Probably suits ages 10+.
  6. There are a few textbooks that include a comic book format story in each lesson. Ça Bouge by Michael Sedunary is one of these, aimed at young adolescents and is fairly entertaining.
  7. ELI publish a magazine for learners of various ages/levels. Each issue of series Voilà (young children), C’est facile (A1-A2), Môme (A2-B1), and Jeunes (B1-B2), contain comics. If the format hasn’t changed since I last grabbed copies, it is two pages of comic in a 16-page magazine. The rest is filled with activities, quizzes, and articles.

It’s all down to how comfortable you feel with the language you don’t know. If you are confident, then dive straight into the classics: Lucky Luke, Tintin and Astérix. Then venture beyond those based on your tastes or language goals. But if they are still at your frustration level, start with those that are written for beginners and work your way up.

Japanese language resources

I thought I’d share Theo’s post on Japanese language study. It has a great list of resources and tips for learning Japanese based on his experience. He is producing a game for learning hiragana and katakana, which should be released this year. I’m looking forward to it, since I could do with improving my katakana recognition. Apparently the game is sufficiently entertaining that even native Japanese speakers enjoy it. This is similar to my goal with my Gnomeville comics for French.

Theo’s point about the limitations of using anime is a good one. Language is huge, and it is used in different ways in different situations. He has some great suggestions for alternative, more useful resources.

I agree with Theo’s comment about flash cards and Anki. There is a difference between knowing a word (learning) and using it (acquisition).  This is why focusing on the four skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking are important, with extensive reading being the way to get maximum comprehensible input, if done properly.

One additional resource I would mention for reading in Japanese at the early stages is the Tadoku extensive reading books. I use extensive reading principles in all the languages I learn. Japanese is the most challenging of these for me, since it has a different writing system to European languages. At my current beginner level I read level 0 and 1 of the books (assumed vocabulary of 350 characters) with some difficulty, so really the books are just a little more difficult than the ideal for extensive reading, but I read them anyway. Fortunately the level 0 ones are designed so that you can follow most of the stories via the pictures, so can deduce what some of the words mean from context, especially where it is a retelling of a well-known fable or folk tale. I have a range of other books from Australian and New Zealand publishers that are easier, but less entertaining. To supplement this I have some Japanese children’s books (ehon). The Kimono Japanese textbook series for adolescents also has entertaining comics in each chapter, which can be used to supplement reading.

I certainly pick up vocabulary through the repetition of reading, despite not trying to translate everything. For example, the Tadoku books frequently use 言いました (iimashita = said), which I picked up through reading them, and the Level 0 books have several that are about daily life in Japan, providing essential phrases and cultural knowledge. The children’s picture books taught me animal names and noises, as well as some colours and expressions. Maybe they’re not as important for adults as other vocabulary, but they’re part of language nevertheless.

The best approach to extensive reading for vocabulary acquisition still isn’t clear, but it does improve language, and surprisingly, not just reading skill. One study found that it even improved speaking, more than some traditional methods of language teaching. Also, just 10 minutes per day pretty much guarantees at least some improvement, with more likely to be better. So keep reading, but don’t stress about unknown words or grammar. Look up meanings if you want to, as you will retain vocabulary better that way – especially if you try to guess the meaning first, but don’t let it slow down your reading too much.

German reading resources

On my long to-do list is to not only write the Gnomeville beginner French comics, but to also write a series in German and another in Dutch, both for which I have some preliminary drafts. Meanwhile, I have found an excellent beginner comic in German by Janine Wolf-Schindler. The illustrations are crude but effective, the language simple, and there are translations discreetly placed at the bottom of the page. This is now my recommended first read in German. That may change when I find (or write) other resources, but it is a good start.

Learn German with a Comic. John in Berlin by Janine Wolf-Schindler.

I’ve yet to think about where this comic fits in the sequence of reading difficulty of available texts in German. There are ELI and La Spiga texts that are easy. After that there are teen readers, and various krimis. I’ll leave that analysis and discussion for another day.



African stories in simple French

I came across this series a few years ago and found them a refreshing change from the usual fare of adolescent adventures, Western children’s stories, dated family stories, this-is-France stories etc. However, it seems to be difficult to get the information needed to decide which stories to buy. So here is a short guide to the series with (affiliate) links. There seem to be a few different sellers of the stories, mostly in Europe, but most stories are available via amazon, if only you know their names and levels.

The stories come from a variety of places in Africa, giving a broader view of the continent. Another feature of the series is it is possible to purchase some titles in Swahili or Rwandan, so you can use them as a parallel text for these languages if desired.

Starter Level

Starter Level 1

These are short, 100-200 words in total and simple vocabulary and grammar. The series description says that sentences are no more than 10 words long, and no more than 20 words per page. These are designed for beginner readers, rather than just beginners in reading French. It is the only level that is entirely in present tense, as far as I can tell.

Imbu et les Fruits (from South Africa).
I have Imbu et les Fruits. It is nicely illustrated, with a simple short story in present tense that uses fruit vocabulary and the numbers from one to five (without making a big deal about it). It has an unhappy ending, as I’ve noticed happens quite a bit in African stories compared to their Western counterparts.

Le Poisson d’Orama (from Malawi)

La Hyène Affamée (from Tanzania)

Starter Level 2

This series has 240-400 words, maximum 30 words per page, maximum sentence length of 13, more varied grammar, and some difficult words.

La Fête du Lion (from Tanzania)
I have La Fête du Lion. Once again the the book is beautifully illustrated and the story has an unhappy ending. Note that this level uses preterite tense (passé simple).

Onze Maillots Jaunes (from South Africa)

Neka va au Marché (from Nigeria)

La Fille Qui Connaît Les Voitures (from Ghana)

Starter Level 3

This is described as having 450-700 words, with maximum sentence length 15 and a wider vocabulary and grammar. The pictures no longer tell the story but just provide a few illustrations. I don’t have any of this level yet, but have one on order.

Femi et sa Chienne (from Nigeria)

Tout Autour de la Terre (from Kenya)


There are three levels available in French in this series, of increasing difficulty.

Level 1

This level is intended for those who have studied French for 3-4 years. The books have a vocabulary at the back of the more complicated words, which are explained in easier French.

Mzungu (from Kenya)
I have Mzungu, which has 27 pages of illustrated story – about 1000 words all up. This story tells of the arrival of a new teacher, and it’s the first white person that the children have seen. It includes preterite tense (passé simple) and some challenging vocabulary. I can’t help but notice the alliteration that the story is by Kelly Cunnane from Kenya!

Le Grand Combat

Les Ennuis de Jumeaux

En Taxi pour Johannesburg

Level 2

This level is intended for those who have studied French for 4-5 years. Like the previous level, it uses preterite past tense. The books have a vocabulary at the back of the more complicated words, which are explained in easier French.

Adefe et le Vieux Chef.
I have Adefe et le Vieux Chef, which tells of a girl who goes away from her village so that she can continue studies, since the Chief didn’t believe in educating girls. This one has a happy ending. I found the language a little easier than in Mzungu despite it being a higher level. This one includes subjunctive mood. The story is 27 pages long, has black and white illustrations on every page and seems to be about 2000 words in total.

Le Garcon qui chevaucha un lion (from Kenya).

L’usine de Monsieur Kalogo (from Uganda).

Level 3

This level is for those who have studied French for 5-6 years. The books in this level are longer, consisting of chapters, but still have some black and white illustrations in each chapter. The books have a vocabulary at the back of the more complicated words, which are explained in easier French. The books seem to be 8,000-10,000 words long.

La Valise Ensorcelée (from Uganda).

I have La Valise Ensorcelée. It is a Cinderella-like fable but set in Africa.

L’usine de la Mort (from Tanzania). I also have this one, which really packs a punch when you read it.

Les Jeunes Detectives (from Ghana).

HIV series

There are some books that educate about HIV that are available at different levels. I haven’t read any of these and I’m not 100% certain of their reading level.

Si Nous Lisions review

I finally finished Si Nous Lisions the other day, so here is my review.

This classic graded reader was published in 1930. It gradually adds vocabulary as the story progresses.
The first 5 chapters are a bit dull, being the usual themes of the classroom, families and French tourism. From chapter 6, once you have encountered about 130 words of vocabulary, there are stories, starting with the three bears, then proceeding to various interesting stories, including “la pièce de cinq francs”, which I quite enjoyed, since it matches my personal quirks.
By the end of the book you have a vocabulary of about 500 words.
If you already have at least the top 100 frequent words in French under your belt, I suggest skipping or skimming the first few chapters and starting with Chapter 6.

In terms of the amount of text, there are 15 chapters, each containing a story, plus exercises. The first page of the first chapter has ~56 words on it, Chapter 2’s first page has 88 words, and from Chapter 3 onwards there are 5-13 mostly full  pages of text with one or two illustrations per chapter. Full pages have about 300 words, so quite a bit more reading than a typical CIDEB or Easy Reader offering, which at the A1 level, can often be read within a half hour. The large amount of text doesn’t need to be daunting though, as each chapter is self-contained as a story.

Overall I rate it as “enjoyable”. Some of the later chapters I wouldn’t mind reading again in the future, if short of reading material, but I wouldn’t call any of the stories favourites.

Next up I’ll finish reading Contes Dramatiques by Hills-Dondo.

Readability Zones

I’ve just been updating my database of French readers and observing the types of books or stories in the different ranges of my current preferred readability measure.

Scores under 4 are ridiculously easy for people with an English speaking background. Currently this consists only of episodes 1 and 2 of my Gnomeville comics. Sentences are short and vocabulary is highly constrained, exploiting French-English cognates.

Scores in the 4-4.99 range are very easy: Bonjour Luc, A First French Reader by Whitmarsh, and Histoires pour les grands. They tend to be conversation-based.

Scores in 5-5.99 tend to be the short illustrated graded readers such as Bibliobus, as well as La Spiga’s Zazar for grands débutants (target vocabulary of 150). Gnomeville Episode 3 sits here due to having longer sentences compared to the first two episodes.

Scores in 6-6.99 tend to have longer sentences, including some classic graded readers such as Si nous lisions and Contes Dramatiques, as well as the 300 word vocabulary Teen Reader Catastrophe au Camping des Roses.

Scores 7-7.99 also have the more text-like graded readers, including Sept-d’un-Coup by Otto Bond, which tends to have long sentences but well-controlled vocabulary.

In the 8-8.99 range I find the first story for native speaking children, as well as more graded readers, including one with a target vocabulary of 1000 words.

The first books for adult native speakers occur with scores between 10 and 12.

Looking at the stories in the list, my own level seems to be from 7 to 10, suggesting I should continue reading more challenging graded readers in addition to stories written for French children. That is pretty much what I have been doing for a while, as well as incidental reading on the web and elsewhere.

A quick look at the relationship between stated vocabulary sizes and the 95 percentile that I have been using indicates that the required vocabulary is  roughly 1.5x  + 2600. However, I am using a token-based vocabulary whereas most would use a word family one. If I assume token vocabulary sizes are 5 times word family sizes, then the equivalence point for this model is when the vocabulary is about 770, meaning that the vocabulary load will be excessive for stated vocabulary sizes less than 770 but be ok for sizes greater than 770. That’s reasonably reassuring. Mind you this is an extremely rough estimate.

This work was based on about 100 words from the start of the text of 40 stories, but it does seem to sort things fairly usefully. The outlier based on my experience of reading the stories is Aventure en Normandie, with a score of 9.49. I don’t recall it being a difficult read.

Meanwhile I am making more progress on Episode 3 of my comic book. I decided to divide one page into three pages, as it had a lot of text and too many new language concepts for a single page. So Episode 3 will probably be 32 pages long, breaking the standard Gnomeville pattern of 28 page episodes. Hopefully it will be ready within a month.

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.


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.



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.