Category Archives: Reviews

These articles review books and language resources.

Function word frustrations

I recently re-watched Dilili in Paris, which is a fabulous animation movie for children, with French dialogue that is slow enough for French language learners to follow. I originally watched the movie during the Melbourne French Film Festival and considered buying the movie later so I could try watching it without English subtitles.

Frustration 1: Memory

There is a frequently repeated phrase when Dilili meets new people: “Je suis heureuse de vous rencontrer”. It was semi-humorous, and certainly designed to be remembered, to teach how to be polite when meeting someone new. However, what I actually remembered after a week or two was: “Je suis heureuse __ vous rencontrer.” Despite being exposed to many occurrences, the function word was lost. Function words don’t provide semantic content and therefore appear to be harder to retain. There is certainly research evidence that concrete nouns are easier to remember than various other types of words. This movie brought that home to me in a big way.

Frustration 2: Resources

(Not really about function words…)

I bought the DVD of the movie, and then when viewing it, discovered that the subtitles could not be switch off, and that the only subtitles were in English. I don’t know who makes these decisions when preparing DVDs for sale, but perhaps they don’t really consider their audience carefully enough. A French movie sold in Australia would have various audience segments: French ex-pats – possibly including some French people who are hard of hearing, Australian francophiles, Australians learning French. To me, movies and TV episodes are highly useful for practising comprehension of the spoken language. Ideally it can be done at three levels of difficulty (with the example given for L2 referring to the language being learnt and L1 referring to the native language):

  1. L2 audio with L1 subtitles,
  2. L2 audio with L2 subtitles,
  3. L2 audio without subtitles

I even do this with DVDs that were originally in English. I’ve watched two entire series of Perry Mason with French audio, which was quite illuminating. If you are short of practice material, check your DVD collection for audio in your target language. You may be pleasantly surprised to find a good selection amongst your favourite shows.

Frustration 3: Vocabulary Size

(Function words are frequent words…)

One of the excellent things about some graded readers was that they were designed for a specific vocabulary size. For me, vocabulary makes all the difference between a readable text and an unreadable one.  CLE International used to publish books targeting a specific vocabulary size. For example, Niveau 1 had vocabularies of 400-700 words. Through extensive reading, I have successfully moved from 300-word vocabulary books to 700-1000 word ones, and I hope to continue to progress through further reading. However, as with other publishers, the publications have now been converted to CEFR levels: A1, A2 etc. and as far as I can tell, the subtleties of vocabulary size have been removed from the book information.

I have completed a CEFR B1 in French, yet I’m most comfortable reading A1 texts (and texts with less than 1000 word vocabularies) and with few exceptions they are not easy apart from the grammar, which is too easy for me, but the books are still sometimes challenging vocabulary-wise. What frustrates me is that A2 covers such a wide range of vocabularies, depending on the source material, from readable to incomprehensible. Published vocabulary sizes for A2, where they occur at all, vary from 400 to >1200 words. The level of frustration with some of these graded readers is the same as for texts written for native speakers. I oscillate between A1, A2, native texts and back again. The original memoirs of Céleste de Chabrillan are as easy and more exciting than many A2 texts.

CEFR is designed, as far as I can tell, to describe a person’s practical skill in a language, and for that it is useful. However, the jumps between levels are quite large, so that the defined levels are not very useful for the learner themselves. Some publishers solve this by dividing up levels. ELI uses A0, A1, A1.1. The Danish Teen Readers/Easy Readers also divide up the levels, and still appear to quote target vocabulary sizes. Indie publishers tend to ignore vocabulary size in their writing. However, writers and publishers should remember that:

  1. Extensive reading is at its best if learners are reading at a comfortable level while not being familiar with all vocabulary. Ideally learners should know 98% of the words in text they are reading.
  2. Readability of text largely consists of grammar and vocabulary components.
  3. The more readable AND interesting reading material is, the more learners will read, the better their vocabularies will become, and the better their skill in a language will be.
  4. Publishing vocabulary levels required for 95-98% coverage of the text will assist learners in finding materials of the right level for them at any point. Vocabulary levels should be (loosely) based on general word frequency.

This is why I write my comic books for language learners. This is why I research extensive reading, readability and language acquisition.

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.

 

 

Longmans’ Modern French Course Part 1 – review

I recently read through all of Longman’s Modern French Course Part 1 by Bertenshaw. This is another classic language book, published in 1923. The book provides short reading passages coupled with grammatical lessons that have been illustrated by the passages. Each of the 40 lessons also has illustrations relevant to the reading material. In the first two lessons the illustrations illustrate the relative position of the people and items under discussion. Another useful feature is that liaisons are marked to assist pronunciation. I presume that only the obligatory liaisons are shown, since forbidden liaisons are not illustrated or discussed.

The first passage is about 80 words long. Based on my rough readability calculations, the first 100 words are very easy, with a vocab score of 35, making it fit between my Episodes 2 and 3. Likewise, the sentences are quite short, leading to a rough readability score of 4.62, which places it after my first two episodes and slightly before readers such as Bonjour Luc, Histoires pour les grands, and A First French Reader by Whitmarsh.

The useful aspect of this book is its concise illustration of grammatical points. The stories are mostly not interesting, although there are a few tales and non-fiction passages that are a bit more appealing.

I thought I’d find out a bit about the author of this book. His full name was Thomas Handel Bertenshaw, he was born in 1859 and he died in 1929. In addition to publishing books on French, and edited French stories, he published work about music theory, also under Longmans. Once more, music and language appear to go together.

 

 

Contes Dramatiques – Review

I promised to review Contes Dramatiques at some point, which was recommended to me via social media a while ago and I eventually acquired a copy of it. I finished reading it a few weeks ago.

On the plus side, it is a graded reader that starts relatively simply and then progresses as you work through the stories in the book. On the down side, they were the kind of stories that annoy me and until you get near the end of the book they are very short. The result was that it took me a long time to finish this book. However, that is just me. If you are a fan of Maupassant (not actually in the book), leprechaun trickery and other such stories, you may like this a lot more than I do. I will say in its favour though that the first story is a lot more interesting than the first stories of many other graded readers. It’s just that there was a sameness across the set of stories that made it tedious for me.

From a readability perspective I give it a 6.7 (based on the first ~100 words), which sits with various other graded readers including some A1 teen readers on the scale. So it is suitable reading for A1+ learners.

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.

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

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.

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.

 

Are some graded readers not worth reading?

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.