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.
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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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Extensive Reading Musings

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I’ve been reading some more research on extensive reading and readability lately. One paper showed gains in reading rate, vocabulary and comprehension with students reading about 150K words over 15 weeks at an intermediate level. This was contrasted with another study where learners read ~65K words over 28 weeks and failed to show improvement. I think there is probably a threshold of some kind where you need to read a certain amount per week to improve language skill. The amount probably varies with the level of skill you already have. Someone still improving their knowledge of the most frequent 400 words of the language will not need to read as much to achieve vocabulary gain (assuming appropriate graded readers) as someone reading at the 2000 word level. The study that showed gains had students reading with vocabularies of 800+.

Given the 10K words per week guide, and the typical reading rate in foreign languages often being around 150 words per minute, that equates to about an hour of reading per week, or 10 minutes a day. That’s not a bad aim for maintaining and hopefully improving your language skills.

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?

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

Free offer of Episode 1 on Kindle

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Episode 1 of beginner French comic Gnomeville, is currently available for free as a Kindle ebook. Write a positive review on either Amazon or Goodreads by Sunday 22nd October and get a free pdf of the crossword from the comic. The best review will receive a free narration audio file. https://www.amazon.com/Gnomeville-Episode-Introductions-Believe-Reading-ebook/dp/B01N5JGI7O/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1508028141&sr=1-1

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Get your download quick. Wednesday 18th is the last day (US time zone, I think).

Bonjour Berthe! Charming Beginner French Stories

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I recently bought a copy of Bonjour Berthe by Gwen Brookes, which is a beginner French reader aimed at young children. I found the book charming, and I believe it would appeal to children in early primary school.

The book is a soft cover pamphlet with glossy pages. There are 13 pages of story, with each page having a large illustration and 1-2 sentences. The font is large and the quantity of text is minimal, at approximately 80 words in total. The sentences are in present tense with simple structures. The vocabulary density is around 50%, which indicates enough repetition to allow some learning of vocabulary. However, the text is so short that the only words to get at least 5 appearances are “est” and “elle”, so many books would need to be read to provide learning purely from reading. Instead, the book includes activities (a wordsearch and a game) to improve vocabulary retention. All words are translated in a glossary at the end of the story.

If you are looking for books for early primary school aged children learning French, this series is a good choice.

Episode 2 on ebay

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I decided to put the physical version of episode 2 of my French comic book on ebay to see how that will go. Currently I just have a “seconds” small format there on auction with buyout price of $5. It has a slight mark on the inside back cover, but is otherwise in good shape. This is of the “launch edition”, which lacks the Catalogue in Print information, since that arrived after the launch date.

Here’s the link to buy episode 2 of Gnomeville on ebay. Episode 1 is available as a Gnomeville ebook on Amazon of course. I still claim that it is the easiest French book for learners with an English speaking background. You can also buy the physical copy in large format from me directly.

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Les pythons

 

Episode 2 Launch Tomorrow!

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I’m launching Episode 2 of my French language comic for beginners in the French language that have English as a first (or accomplished) language. The launch happens three years after Episode 1’s launch, and both are associated with concerts of my choir. I use appropriate choir concerts as a deadline for me to push myself to complete things. It works for me, although it does wreak havoc with my health in the short term. Last time it was a concert of music from France. This time it’s a fantasy-themed concert featuring a dragon.

The concert is The Quest, an entertaining night of music interspersed with a fantasy narrative involving a dragon. Music from my second (La Potion des Pythons) and third (La Mission) comic books will be featured in the concert. The song La Mission is also available on my third album On the Rocks.

Episode 2 (and Episode 1) will be available on the night in large format comic book, which is roughly a standard comic book size. Episode 1 is also available as an ebook from Amazon, and I’m running a special countdown deal starting on the day of the concert (Thursday 1st June), so Thursday is the best day to get your copy of Episode 1 for US$0.99.

Episode 1 provides incidental repeated exposure to 12 of the most frequently occurring words in French, but also provides gloss support and explanations of the new word of the page at the bottom of the page. Episode 2 uses the remaining 8 of the 20 most frequently occurring words in French newspapers. All the rest of the words used in the story are French-English cognates, like “dragon”, or names, like “Jacques”. In Episode 2 the amount of text in the main story reaches a level that it starts to be possible to guess the meaning of the new word of the page before checking the meaning provided in the gloss. This is considered optimal for vocabulary acquisition.

Have a look at the preview on Amazon and get ready to be entertained while reading the easiest French books you’ve seen. Then perhaps you’d like to read Episode 2.

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