How are graded readers best used?

JALT 2000
Granship, Shizuoka, Japan
November 3, 2000

Rory Rosszell<>
Soka University, Tokyo

Why Extensive Graded Reading (EGR)?

Here are some of the reasons;

  • to increase input (90 minutes/week is a joke)
  • to make L2 literature accessible and enjoyable (authentic reading/listening is usually much too difficult)
  • graded readers can accommodate almost any level of learner- it is semi-autonomous (all the reading in out-of-class so they control the Where?, When and How fast?), and therefore encourages learners to take some responsibility for their learning and to develop good English reading habits
  • it is easy to do out of class (possible almost anytime and anywhere)
  • incorporates a content-based approach to language learning (we discuss literary classics, social/cross-cultural/environmental/political issues, etc. with a focus on content – not English per se)
  • benefits cited in the literature include increase in: proficiency, general knowledge, enjoyment, motivation, reading skills

The best way to improve your knowledge of a foreign language is to go and live among its speakers. The next best way is to read extensively in it.(Nuttall, 1996:128)

Three Ways to Use Graded Readers

  1. Students self-select from a stratified collection
  • good as course input supplement,
  • good for helping learners to develop good reading habits
  • good for independent learners
  • some students like to be free to choose
  • can stipulate minimum page/book reading requirement
  • can require short book report
  1. Students all read the same teacher-selected class readers at the same time
  • good as core of the course
  • good for group discussions
  • good for deeper appreciation of the story
  • good for deeper understanding of the issues
  • good for (group) vocabulary study
  1. Students concurrently read self-selected and class-readers
  • the self-selected readers can really help to increase the quantity of reading that the learners do
  • the class reader can really help to improve the quality of the reading that learners do

After a number of frustrating years of trying to find a not-too-difficult and stimulating way to provide my students with large amounts of language input, I finally decided three years ago to design a graded reader program. Not knowing how the learners might best benefit from using them, a two condition extensive reading (ER) program was set up. The students in some groups selected their own titles from a library of about 400 books, and in contrast, other groups read class sets of titles that had been carefully selected by the teacher for their content. The following year a third, combination, condition was added. After having taught a number of classes under each of the three conditions, my feeling is that since graded readers are usually used as supplementary material, they remain an untapped resource. Through the use of class readers students can enjoy, understand, appreciate and learn much more from the books they read, and I can realise my goals of not only helping them to learn the language, but to stimulate them to think deeply about cultural, political, historical and social issues. I have found that with the self-selected approach, although it varies from individual to individual, the books are usually read, a report written (in my classes), the book put back on the shelf without giving much further thought to it, and quickly forgotten. The rest of this presentation will focus on my experience using sets of class readers over the past two years.

The skills required to read with depth and, therefore, with pleasure, have to be nurtured. The failure of so many class libraries can be attributed to the over expectation of the teachers that students can develop reading and interpretative skills and a pleasure from reading within a vacuum, without encouragement of guidance. Class libraries or extensive reading programmes should also be accompanied by the intensive reading activities necessary if students are to develop any interpretive ability or awareness of the possibilities available in their second language. In other words, activities to develop, foster, and practice these skills should take place in the classroom, and be supplemented by a carefully chosen, readily available class library for after lesson hours. (Greenwood, 1988:9)

Class Reader Selection

Based on the TOEFL scores of my students, I initially selected titles at the appropriate levels from the list of those for which EPER (see below) teaching guides existed (taking that as an indication of their quality), but in order to introduce the learners to as wide a range of genres as possible (classics, mystery, science fiction, etc.) I also selected other titles based on their content. (I now have 11 sets – 6 for which I have a guide, and 5 for which I don’t.)

Student Level:

I have taught this course to lower intermediate learners and up (Pre-TOEFL ITP of about >360). Although this approach could no doubt be adapted to lower level learners, and some of the comprehension questions are usually quite simple to answer, I have found that in order for discussions on sometimes fairly complex issues to be coherent, and successful, the learners’ need to have sufficient conversation skills and vocabulary to be able to express their ideas comprehensibly. Simpler questions would be the obvious way to adapt it to lower level learners, but for those teachers who consider the discussion of the issues to be an important component of the syllabus, discussions could be conducted in Japanese – with each group possibly presenting a summary in English.)


Reader Titles (3 per term) – 1 copy per student

Term 1

Term 2


Walkabout (Heinemann)

The Pearl (Heinemann)

Island of the Blue Dolphin (Penguin)

The Thirty-Nine Steps(Oxford)

The Bride Price (Oxford)

The Grapes of Wrath (Heinemann)


The Thirty-Nine Steps (Oxford)

The Bride Price (Oxford)

The Grapes of Wrath (Heinemann)

Cry Freedom (Oxford)Jane

Eyre (Oxford)

Meteor (Oxford)

Supplementary Materials (see appended examples below)

Weekly Routine

Following a general introduction to the orientation and components of the course, for homework each week, the learners read one third of a class reader, and complete either a writing or a vocabulary assignment. In the following class the learners get into small groups (3-5 members) and discuss the comprehension/opinion questions provided by the teacher, as well as the questions contributed by each member of the group (also part of their homework). For those readers for which there are weekly writing assignments, the learners must complete an Instant Report – which consists of a one-paragraph summary of the major events, a one-paragraph reaction to those events, and a least one question about the story that that person would like to discuss with his/her group. In contrast, for those readers for which there are weekly vocabulary assignments (ten words per week), the routine is a little different, and the discussion of the story is the followed by a comparison/ correction/discussion of their completed vocabulary worksheets. The balance of the class is then taken up with weekly vocabulary quizzes, biweekly reading speed tests, and activities from the conversation textbook. To provide a little variety, once a month (at the end of each reader), the learners are sent to the A/V library to select and read any two articles (those from Miniworld magazine are recommended), to complete and Instant Report on one of them, and to be prepared to discuss the content of the articles in the following class. Students are strongly encouraged to correct (as best they can) and resubmit their assignments. At the end of each term each learner participates in a (small) group conversation test involving a familiar topic – which is given to them one week in advance so each person can prepare as much as he/she wishes.

Instant Reader Section Report(See link)

On this report each student must write a brief weekly summary of the story, as well as some of the thoughts and feelings that it aroused. There is space provided for the corrected versions of each of the two paragraphs to be recopied, and for each student to write one question or comment about some aspect of the story that (s)he would like to discuss in class. After finishing the final section of each reader, they are asked to also indicate how enjoyable/difficult they found the book to be.

Intensive Vocabulary Study Routine (see the worksheet below)

The words (10 per week) are taken from the weekly readings and the way in which we study them is intended to change old translation-focused study habits, and to raise awareness of what it is to ‘know’ a word, that knowing the core meaning of a word is only the first step in knowing a word, and that the development of productive knowledge is incremental, much more difficult, and usually requires considerable exposure, use, and study. For each of the words, the learners follow the twelve-step study routine outlined below.

      1. Write down the word and its part of speech (n., v.i., v.t., adj., adv., etc.).
      2. Copy a sentence containing the word from the book or the concordance.
      3. Write what you think the word means (in the sentence you just copied from the book)
      4. Look the word up in your English-English dictionary, and then select and write the definition which best describes the meaning of the word (in the sentence from the book).
      5. Write the pronunciation, and underline the stressed syllable in words with more than 1 syllable.
      6. Write any (common) related words and their parts of speech.
      7. Write a Japanese translation (only if you find the word difficult to understand).
      8. Look in the concordance and in your dictionary for words that the word you are studying collocates with.
      9. After studying the word and looking at the sentences in the concordance and your dictionary, write your own original sentence (Don’t copy!).

In-class activities (in groups of 3 to 5 students in the following class):

    1. Compare and discuss your completed vocabulary and collocation worksheets with the members of your group.
    2. Find and correct any mistakes you made.
    3. Hand your vocabulary worksheet into the teacher.


Attendance, participation, homework completion and subsequent correction, and weekly vocabulary quizzes – with an emphasis throughout on participation and effort rather than proficiency.

Useful References

Day, R.R. and Bamford, J.(1998). Extensive reading in the second language classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Greenwood, J.(1988). Class readers. A useful collection of pre/while/post reading activities.

Hedge, T.(1985). Using readers in language teaching. London: Macmillan. A small, practical guide to using readers.

Hill, D.(1992). The EPER guide to organizing programmes of extensive reading. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh (IALS).

Nuttall, C. (1996). Teaching reading skills in a foreign language. Oxford: Heinemann English Language Teaching.

Robb, T., Website with useful information on extensive reading and the handouts given at the Extensive Reading Forum at JALT .<>

Waring, R. (2000) Extensive reading in second languages: A critique of the research. This soon-to-be published manuscript has just been made available at <>.

Waring, R.(Ed.) (1997). Extensive Reading. The Language Teacher, 21,5. This special issue is full of useful information on setting up and running an ER program (articles by Day and Bamford, Hill, Nation, etc.).

For those interested in teaching vocabulary, there are 3 very recent publications that cover the bases very well.

Nation, I.S.P. (1999). Learning vocabulary in another language. Wellington, N.Z.: Victoria University of Wellington. A wonderful follow-up to his 1990 book. Highly recommended.

Read, J. (2000). Assessing vocabulary. A new book by probably the most knowledgeable person on the topic.

Schmitt, N. (2000). Vocabulary in language learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. A very nice overview of the topic.