Book review: Easy French Stories by Sylvie Lainé

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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.
onlyhavetwo_noteasy
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.
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Challenges of Representation in a Language Comic Book for Beginners

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I often reflect on the content of my comic book, and how I have unconsciously absorbed the default story of a white male character (in my case a group of white male characters) on a quest. In addition I have a wise (white) female character (Chantal), who is an oracle that intends to change the likely outcome if the quest continues as it normally would.

I’ve been made aware that people of colour want to see more people like themselves in stories and movies. I must admit that I have yearned for more female perspectives in literature and movies at times, which is as close as I can come to imagining how people of colour feel about being left out of mainstream media. Similarly for people who are queer, obese or disabled.

The difficulty with comic books is that the illustrations are often caricatures that exaggerate features. It would be tricky to create a PoC character without it seeming racist. There is no opportunity in a comic book for beginners in French, which has an extremely constrained vocabulary, to make things nuanced. I think the best I can do is have a variety of skin colours across the cast of characters, and not make the bad characters the dark-skinned ones. Having a queer character _might_ be possible (more likely a queer couple, as that’s easy to do visually without resorting to stereotype appearances). Given it’s a fantasy world, I could potentially do a genderqueer character that magically goes back and forth between genders all the time. After all I have a python that can make itself look like a dragon and a large gnome. Theoretically, the same could happen with skin colour.

I received only one star from one reader on Goodreads for Episode 1, without explanation. I can only guess why, but my guess is it’s to do with it being an entirely white male cast in the first episode – apart from the griffon, which is a mixture of white, blue and brown. This is partly due to unconsciously absorbing this default – even though my various influences (mainly fairly tales, Astérix, Smurfs, and Uncle Scrooge) do have more female characters than I do in Episode 1, partly as an artifact of being a slave to word frequency lists and my rules about what to include in each episode. In Episode 1 I only use French-English cognates that look identical in both languages. As such I only use adjectives that are either identical for both genders, such as “visible”, an exact spelling for masculine nouns only, such as “certain”, or exact for feminine nouns, such as “complète” (first occurs in Episode 2). I also chose to use a very limited palette in the drawings, roughly equivalent to a typical 12-colour set of coloured pencils, crayons or felt pens.

I think my comic books will evolve to have more diversity through the series. Episode 1 is already published, so it is what it is. Episode 2 at least introduces a main female character, who, like me, tends to work on her own to solve problems – at least at this stage in the plot. Episode 3 includes new characters, but since they’re not “good” characters, I won’t make them PoC. I haven’t written the Taxi and La Question du Moment for Episode 3 yet, so there is a bit of scope there to increase diversity. At least now I’m more aware of this, and can consider it in my writing/drawing process. Stay tuned for Episode 3… Meanwhile, here is a first attempt at a PoC for my comics – a recolouring of a panel from Episode 2. Is it OK?

g2croppedp17excerptrecoloured

Recoloured panel from Episode 2’s La Question du Moment. I think this is ok. Let me know if it isn’t.

What is the target age range of your writing?

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In writing my Gnomeville comic book series, I was mainly focused on making an entertaining story that used French-English cognates and highly frequent words like “le”. As it was a comic book format I seem to have automatically written and drawn in a style that is similar to the main comics of my childhood: Donald Duck, Asterix and the Smurfs. Perhaps that is why people believe it to be targeted at children.

When my fellow French students at the Alliance Française read a draft of Episode 1 of my comic book I heard the occasional chuckle. These were all adults. A recent customer said “BTW, my 11yo read your book and I saw him giggling.” so I guess it works for at least some 11-year olds. It certainly is a general audience work at the very least. It does, however,  include a few challenging words for the very young. such as “matérialise”, which led one native French speaker to rate the book as more difficult to read than other French children’s books. Though in my experience, children have fewer hang-ups about unfamiliar vocabulary than adults do.

In the world of readability measurement, a reading age is often calculated. This is usually based on vocabulary and grammar measures, often approximated by average word length and sentence length. Some vocabulary difficulty measures are based on a set of words that are generally known by children. These measures don’t directly capture conceptual difficulty or age-appropriate content. I may know quite a bit about readability research, but my knowledge of age-appropriate content is purely based on personal experience.

Generally speaking, stories for children tend to be full of fun, adventure, magic, mystery and silliness. Stories for adolescents start to include relationships as part of the plot, and then stories for adults have more of the complexity of the adult world, such as politics, law, medicine, finance, ethics and bureaucracy. Having stated that, it makes it clear that my stories are written for children without me realising it. While that isn’t a bad thing, I guess it makes sense. It is difficult to express complex and subtle ideas with a small vocabulary.

In other news, my Episode 2 comic book launch was a success. Episode 1 is still available as a countdown deal if you are in one of the few lucky countries that can enjoy those deals on Amazon. The next phase for me will be converting Episode 2 into an ebook.

Reader Levels: Thoughts as I do another Tadoku month

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Level 0: Single-word nouns or adjectives – if the book is nicely illustrated in a way that makes the words identifiable, not too long, and maybe has some punchline equivalent at the end, as some do, then these are good for practising an unfamiliar alphabet such as hiragana and katakana.  The words are typically not high priority words, but tend to recur in stories anyway.  I have had enough repetition of certain animal words that I know them, even though they are not very useful for me when communicating to others.

Level 1: Repeated sentence structure – as above, these are excellent reading practice, and can help people learn some basic grammatical structures, while a story of some kind is told via the repeated sentence having different substituted nouns that are identifiably illustrated.  The LOTE series by Nelson Price Milburn are very good in this regard.  If they were longer than they are, then they would be tedious, but there are about 6-7 repetitions with minor variations, followed by a punchline of some sort.  The books by Evrat Jones, published by PCS Publications, are not as good, largely because of the illustrations.  Maybe I’m biased against old-fashioned repetitive images that look like dorky Grade 1 readers from the sixties, but their lack of appeal makes them more of a chore to read through.  They would also benefit from a glossary at the back.

Level 2: Small vocabulary and a small set of grammatical constructions.  Here is where the typical vocabulary-controlled reader fits into the scheme of things.  Within this level are all the stages of most published reading schemes, taking readers from around 300 words of vocabulary to 2,000, and from present tense to all the normal grammatical constructions.

Level 3: Native text.

Reading at levels 0 and 1 for the past week or so has me thinking there is a niche for books at these levels for adults.  Given an adult’s greater world knowledge and sophistication, it should be possible to create a more interesting narrative with these levels than is currently seen.

Children’s Books

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In my French reading, partly to continue using extensive reading, and also partly research for my writing of comic books in French, I’ve started reading more children’s books.  The J’Aime Lire series from Bayard was an excellent place to start.  They publish for specific ages: 6, 7, 8, 9, etc.  While the difficulty for a foreign language learner varies sometimes, the books for 6-8 year-olds mostly work for me, and seem to match a ~1000 word vocabulary or A2/B1 level.

One thing I found with reading children’s fantasy novels is that they are very vivid, and it is easy to become engrossed in this fantasy world, with a feeling of wonder.  I had the same experience when reading the first volume of Harry Potter (and as a child when reading Enid Blyton).  My comic book also has this vividness about it – partly because it is a brightly-coloured comic book.  I’m not sure if it is the fantasy element, the illustrations or a property of the writing that makes it so.  In the case of Harry Potter it can only have been created via the text, as I read it before seeing any movies of it.

Thoughts on Up Goer Five and Constrained Vocabulary Writing

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When I first saw the Up Goer Five comic by xkcd, I loved it.  It epitomised what I do with my comic book and my research, and is a convenient example to show people, when explaining the idea of constrained vocabulary writing.

Fans figured out that the 1,000 words used by xkcd for it were the contemporary fiction list, shown in Wiktionary.  This frequency list is based on over 9 million words of on-line contemporary fiction.  It combines plurals and simple verb forms into one listed word (lemmas), which is a good choice, since if the root word is known, then the plurals with s, and simple verb forms are usually also understood.

As someone who writes using lists generated based on frequency, I’ve noticed that several problems arise.  One is that, typically, male pronouns and nouns occur at higher frequencies than female ones.  The Wiktionary list is not overly biased in this way, possibly because it is based on contemporary fiction.  “he” is ranked at 8, “her” and “she” at 12 and 13 respectively, and “his” at 16.  However, we find “man” at 163 and “woman” at 452, but “girl” is at 133 and “boy” at 217.  This hints at what has been termed the systemic “infantilization” of women in society.  The figures are probably quite different due to the common pairing of “guy” (at 178) with “girl” in colloquial speech.  Google’s auto-suggest, which is also based on frequency, has occasionally come up with phrases that are considered racist, sexist or otherwise problematic – and it is purely a reflection of what we as a society tend to write.  When writing in a principled manner for language learners, it may be important to balance what word frequency lists tell us, with what is a more equitable representation.  I didn’t really think very much about this when I started writing Gnomeville years ago, but have become more aware of these issues thanks to some of my friends who are more knowledgeable in them.

Another issue that needs to be considered is what is culturally appropriate to write for the target audience.  For example, I have recently been made aware that it is inappropriate to use words referring to alcoholic beverages when the audience is Islamic.  Obviously for work intended for children (or for experimental subjects) it is customary to exclude expletives.  For this reason, several words on the list would need to be excluded.  There seems to be an expressive set of expletives in the list.

For the method of writing I employ in the Gnomeville story, I  introduce one new high frequency word per page of story, and somewhat less frequently I introduce a grammatical pattern.  Sometimes I’ve changed the order in which I add words due to the story.  This happened in episode one, in which I introduced “se” very early instead of after about a dozen other words.  Also, I recall that “le” was added before “de”, even though their ranks are reversed.  Having said that, my first 20 words were based on a corpus of newspaper articles.  Every corpus gives a different ranking of words.  There are some similarities across corpora however.  For example, if the corpus is large enough, the frequency of the word “the” is likely to be about 7% for English text.

Anyway, back to Up Goer Five.  The upcoming book “Thing Explainer”, as well as the text uploaded to the up goer five text editor provide some good practice at reading for people still consolidating their first 1000 words of the English language.  If going beyond that, the writing should have less than 5% of words outside the vocabulary set to be suitable for improving language skill while fluently reading for comprehension.  A text editor with more flexibility is the OGTE Editor, designed for writing English text for different language learner levels.

Children’s books

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While searching for books that are simple enough for me to read in Japanese, I’ve been musing about the attributes that make these suitable for language learners.
If starting from scratch you need repetitious text with obviously illustrated nouns. This describes some of the books I purchased. The downside of the simplest books is that they become an illustrated list of nouns (or adjectives like colours), and therefore have no narrative.
In Japanese you have the added complication of the writing system. Beginner books use hiragana only. Then there are some that have katakana with hiragana transliterations. Then there are a few that use both the alphabets without guides. At the next level kanji are included with hiragana guides. The level of support for kanji varies.