Using Martine by Marlier for French Extensive Reading Practice


The Martine series was recently recommended to me for children learning French. I managed to purchase a couple of books from the series from FNAC. My review is of course biased by my own preferences in reading (and writing), and clearly I am not in the 5-12 age range for whom they were recommended, but hopefully it will be useful nevertheless.

I read Martine à la ferme, which is one of about 60 books in the series, which tell the adventures of Martine, a young girl. This particular book is about Martine visiting a farm with her friend Lucie.

From a story perspective, there is no driving narrative. It’s just a bunch of twee pastoral scenes with text. It is beautifully presented, and for children who love animals and dream of interacting with them, it may be an enjoyable experience. I found it dull, however.

From a language perspective, the series can be quite useful. It is authentic French in present tense, so great for learners to get reading practice without getting bogged down in passé simple. Plus, with 60 volumes to go through, that’s a good amount of practice at the level of the books – if you enjoy the genre.

There are 18 pages of illustrated text to read in the book, with about 60 words per page, making approximately 1000 words per book. The vocabulary and language appear to be sufficiently generic to be useful, and easier than other French children’s books I have seen in that regard. Sentences are fairly straightforward, and rarely longer than 15 words in length.

Vocabulary will be the main difficulty for foreign language learners. A sample of the first ~130 words had a vocabulary of 94 (including names and apostrophe’d words as separate words), making a vocabulary density of ~72% (unique words divided by total words). To put this into context, here are some vocabulary densities on the first ~100 words of other texts.

Consuelo 76%
Le Petit Prince 74%
Minnesota spoken corpus 68%
Gnomeville Episode 3 (not yet released) 58%
The French Bible 52%
Gnomeville Episode 2 46%
Gnomeville episode 1 43%

Basically, any normal native French text is likely to have a vocabulary density of about 75% in a sample of ~100. (The density typically drops a little as the length of the text sample increases.) Conversation (eg. Minnesota corpus) seems to be lower, and translations may also be lower. To get lower than that requires stories that are intentionally written with a small vocabulary, such as the Gnomeville comics listed above, and some Dr Seuss stories (in English) – especially Green Eggs and Ham.

So, in summary, if you are after authentic French text that has easy grammar, then the Martine series will be very useful for those who enjoy the genre. The books are also fairly short, allowing children to feel a sense of achievement in finishing them sooner than for a longer work like Le Petit Prince. Personally I would prefer to read more books that are specifically written for language learners until my vocabulary was large enough to read books that are more entertaining. The J’Aime Lire series of books for French children is much more entertaining and written for the 7-11 age group. The difficulty of the text does vary quite a lot though, depending on the author, so expect to occasionally struggle or skip stories. My current recommended sequence for primary-aged children is:

  1. Gnomeville series (for English-speaking background only)
  2. Mary Glasgow series (English-speaking background)
  3. EMC’s À l’aventure! Readers (English-speaking background)
  4. Aquila’s readers (English-speaking)
  5. CLE International’s Collection Découverte
  6. La Spiga Grand Débutant series (150 word vocabulary)
  7. ELI for children
  8. Martine or J’Aime Lire books

These are not a strict reading sequence, since the various series overlap in levels of difficulty (except Gnomeville). There are other series out there, such as CIDEB, Edition Maison des Langues. There are more books for adolescents, such as Teen Readers, and the adolescent FLE series by Hachette.

I will publish more detailed up to date lists as I become aware of more books and series. Stay tuned.




Green Eggs and Ham


Continuing my articles on easy readers, today’s post is dedicated to Dr Seuss.  His first constrained vocabulary book was The Cat in the Hat, which was released in 1957.  It had a vocabulary of 236 words (though other sources state slightly different numbers) , and yet was entertaining.  Dr Seuss then went on to write other books with a reduced vocabulary, including Green Eggs and Ham, which has only 50 different words.  Wikipedia lists the words used as: a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you.

These books are truly brilliant, in that they make children want to keep reading, while being easy for them to read.  A 50 word vocabulary is an amazing achievement.

Green Eggs and Ham has been translated into many languages.  We have a copy in Italian: “Prosciutto e uova verdi”.  However, once translated, the number of distinct words increased to about 127.  A translator has to somehow convey the original story as well as the rhyme and rhythm.  I’m not sure if the translator considered the goal of using the smallest vocabulary possible, as 127 for a text length of 620 words seems quite high.

I’m reminded of a section in the book “Gödel, Escher, Bach: an eternal golden braid” by Douglas Hofstadter, which looks at German and French translations of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky poem.  The original has many made-up words that hint at meanings due to their phonetic similarity to other words.  For example “slithy” hints at “slimy” and “slither”, among other words.  It is translated to “lubricilleux” in the French and “schlichten” in the German version.  Combining made-up words with rhyme and meter makes it a very difficult translation challenge.

But back to easy readers.  While it may be useful to translate an easy reader to another language – particularly when they are as entertaining as those of Dr Seuss –  I think the best work can be achieved by exploiting the quirks of the original language.  Design your easy reader for your specific target language.