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.
In 1996 I first heard about a book written without the letter E (Gadsby, by Wright, published 1939). Then a couple of years later I met a French colleague and was telling him about my comic book in French that exclusively uses French-English cognates and one new French word per page. It reminded him of constrained writing, particularly “lipograms”, and he introduced me to the work of Georges Perec, who wrote various works with or without certain vowels. We exchanged DNA poetry. More recently I dabbled in pilish, adding the constraint of writing in haiku verses.
A recent blog post about OULIPO reminded me about my fascination with such things.
The experience of writing my comic in French is quite different to my dabblings in German and Dutch, due to the differences in cognates (similar looking words with similar meaning) in the different languages. In French it is hard to generate much text initially, but there is soon an abundance of identically spelt nouns, adjectives and verbs (albeit with slightly different endings). In Dutch and to a lesser extent in German it is possible to write 20-odd words of meaningful text entirely using exact cognates. But eventually you hit a wall where there are not many verbs to work with. I’m still figuring out how to get past that wall before I commit to drawing the (publishable) artwork for and publishing a first episode in those languages.
There has been a lot of research over the past few decades on the use of extensive reading for language learning, with Paul Nation being a prominent name in the research community. Out of all this research has come some general guidelines on how to use extensive reading to improve your language learning skills, but also how to write or adapt stories to suit language learners. Here’s my version of the basic requirements.
- Decide what your core vocabulary will be, for example 1,000 word families. You may also want to decide what grammatical repertoire you are going to include – at least for lower levels of language skill.
- Decide whether you want to teach a particular set of vocabulary in the story (eg. colours).
- Ensure that at least 95% of the text consists of words from your core vocabulary or proper nouns.
- For words in your original draft that are outside of the core vocabulary, consider changing them to ones that are within the core vocabulary.
- For the remaining out of vocabulary words that occur less than 5 times (say) in your story, provide a gloss. (Also for any idiomatic expressions.)
- For words that you want to teach, ensure they occur at least 5 times in the story, but in a way that doesn’t ruin the story. It would be better to have fewer occurrences than to make the story less entertaining.
- Use illustrations, as they help the learner retain meaning.
Here’s a vocabulary checker for stories in English.
Having finished reading yet another boring German easy reader, I thought I’d dedicate today’s post to easy readers that should never have existed.
Authors of easy readers are trying to trick language learners into learning target language while being entertained with a story. However, some authors don’t do enough entertaining, and it is transparently obvious that the story (or part of it) is just a vehicle for exposure to vocabulary or, in the case of CEFR-based books, practising common scenarios required for surviving in the target language.
So here is my list of the worst easy readers I’ve read:
- “Sur les Routes de France” by G. Colquhoun and E. Guergady, published by John Murray, (French).
Not only was this boring but it was long: 137 pages of tedium. It is basically a story of a family going on holiday in France, following their trek through different locations. I read this over a number of weeks as it took enormous willpower to finish it. Happily this is out of print. I thought that I must have the last copy in the world, but a quick Google search reveals that there are second-hand copies on the market. What amazes me is that this work, that was first published in 1959, got reprinted several times. I have a second edition copy from 1964, but I see on-line that there was a 1973 3rd edition . That means that at least 14 years of students had to suffer this text! Steer clear of this one. There are many better stories to read.
- “Lustige Dialoge” by Harry A. Walbruck, published by National Textbook Company in 1985 (German).
This contains 30 short dialogues that are “humorous”. My Goodreads review states it succinctly: “Full of annoying anecdotes involving dated stereotypes passed off as humour. I really struggled to finish the book.“
To be fair, some of the dialogues were somewhat humorous, but for the purpose of providing extensive reading material it fails, as the individual dialogues are too short, and there is no motivating reason to read the next one.
- “Deuxième Acte” by O.M. Fordham and V.L.R.Lewis, published by Harrap in 1965 (French).
This book is a sequence of letters written between members of two families. The content of the letters, as well as the dialogues in the back of the book are very mundane. It was another book that was difficult to finish, but was mercifully short (compared to no. 1) at 76 pages, including exercises that I tend to skip over. One thing that I have found too many of is stories of typical traditional nuclear families doing ordinary things, such as the mother in the kitchen or doing the shopping, the father coming home from work, blah blah. Admittedly some of these books are old, the authors of the various books probably didn’t know of each others work, and the average student wouldn’t have been exposed to more than one of these, but I’m rather sick of the genre.
- “Glück gehabt” by Theo Scherling and Elke Burger, published by Langenscheidt in 2010 (German).
There are many other books I could list that are like no. 3 in their irksomeness, but I’ve decided to go for variety rather than comprehensiveness. Langenscheidt do a good job at making their text and their audio easy. They also do well in avoiding stereotypes for their characters. For example, in Leo & Co, one of the regular characters is a single mother who is a car mechanic, working with her dad, while Leo himself is an artist who runs a pub/eatery. On the down side, the stories are a bit on the mundane side, with this particular one being the worst I’ve read so far. The story mostly follows the lead character in the act of getting a new apartment. While listening to it I kept waiting for the plot to start, but nothing really happens other than finding out about an apartment, getting it, then moving into it, with a small side story of a colleague hurting their back. Skip this one unless you’re desperate for the practice.
- “Technik und Natur” by Mike Lynch, published by Heinemann 1996.
I’ve chosen this reading booklet as an example of another problem that often occurs with supposedly easy readers. Some authors control the grammar but use far too much difficult vocabulary. This particular booklet has interesting subject matter for those interested in science and technology, but the percentage of difficult words is too high. There is vocabulary support, but text should really be written in a way that less than 5% of the words require it, since it interrupts the flow of reading.
I think that will do for now. So the moral of the story is, when writing for language language learners:
- Don’t be boring,
- Optimise the length of the text to allow a good reading session,
- Don’t inundate with vocabulary.
It is possible to do the above. There are many examples. I love some of the stories in the Découverte series, such as “Dans la Maison Bleue”, which are full of imagination, and have illustrations that complement the stories. Here’s hoping there are more interesting books in the future. I hope mine will also be enjoyed. I’ve had good feedback so far.