I’m a big fan of Extensive Reading as a means of improving one’s foreign language skills, due to it providing large quantities of language exposure – particularly useful for when the language you are learning is not spoken where you are living.
I’ve collected and read many books that were written for language learners, and would like to impart my opinions and advice for others wanting to learn by reading.
The two factors to consider when choosing text to read is its difficulty and its interest for you. If you don’t find it interesting then it will be hard to continue reading it. If it is too difficult you also won’t want to keep reading.
Text difficulty has two main factors: vocabulary and grammar. Many publishers state a vocabulary size for the books in their collection. The smallest vocabulary available is about 100 words (for example, ELI primary school age series level A0), and the largest tends to go to about 3500. Grammar difficulty tends to increase with the vocabulary level, with the easiest levels sticking to present tense, and higher levels adding more tenses and grammatical subtleties.
Ideally you should know 95-98% of the words in the text you are reading, i.e., there should only be one word in 20-50 that you don’t already know. This allows you to guess meaning from context and also not be too frustrated while reading. Publishers and writers vary in terms of how well they control the vocabulary in the texts.
My recommendations amongst currently available books at the early levels are:
For English speakers wanting to learn French: Gnomeville. It assumes zero French knowledge, but good English knowledge.
ELI A0 (available in French, German, Italian and Spanish) – though beware – the same stories are in each language, so if learning multiple languages be selective. The stories by Jane Cadwallader cleverly introduce vocabulary as an integral part of the story – unlike some other stories out there that interrupt the narrative with contrived situations for vocabulary introduction.
150 words: La Spiga is cheap and fairly simple, but tends to have very little suspense.
200 words: ELI A1.1
300 words: ELI A1.2, teen readers A0 300 words
- ELI A2 primary school series. The teenage and adult series are much harder and less engaging – at least the two I’ve looked at are.
- Teen readers 400 words
Among series that don’t state a vocabulary size I recommend CLE’s Collection Découverte for French. It has 6 levels and interesting stories. Hachette also do some fairly good stories in their Lire En Français Facile series.
In German, Langenscheidt publish a range of readers. I find the Leo & Co ones a little dull, but I still read them. I like the Inspector Müller series a bit better, but my favourite German reader is Kopftuch published in the Teen Readers series.
Many readers in European languages now state CEFR levels rather than vocabulary/grammar levels. For example A2 CEFR level can have readers with vocabularies of 400-1200 and also abridged native texts (with some vocab support). This is largely due to the way the levels are defined, which is based on practical skills rather than grammatical and vocabulary knowledge. However, as learners we really want a gentle transition between levels, and that is partly achieved by progressing up slowly through different vocabulary levels (and grammar levels) in our reading. Among series that only state a CEFR level, the CIDEB series contains some good stories. I found the vocabulary more difficult than Teen Readers of the same CEFR level, however.
For readers that assume English language knowledge, the Cambridge Serie Rouge is good, as are books pubished by EMC and the National Textbook Company (eg. Aventure in Normandie). Some of these are no longer available. Likewise, my favourite easy French reader, originally published by Mary Glasgow publications: Le Chapeau Rouge: Le Chien Disparu.
Aquila publishes good readers too, but do not sell to individuals.
If you want to see my ratings for specific books, head to: Goodreads user Dr Dabbler. In the end it doesn’t matter too much what level of text you’re reading, as long as you keep reading.
What I have learnt from reading stories intended for language learners is that a good story should have suspense and seamless vocabulary introduction. I apply this to my comic books, which are going for the niche of people with English language at a native/near-native level, and are beginning to read French. I’ve taken the tip from comics like X-Men and series like Dr Who, by having a cliff-hanger at the end of each episode, to encourage the learner to read the next episode. I’ve written 3.5 episodes so far and published three of them. La saga continue!