I’ve assigned graded readers to my EFL students for many years now. But I only began reading them when I started writing graded readers a few years ago. It’s something that I’d now recommend to every teacher. The practice has helped me to choose the best ones for our graded reader program. I’ve learned more about writing, too. I’ve also come to appreciate graded readers as stories and articles in their own right.
To start with, working with the librarians at my university, we’ve established a section of the library where all the readers are stored, some three thousand of them. They act as a central component of the Integrated English Program for 640 freshmen and sophomores in the English Department. To counter plagiarism from the many online sites that offer summaries of books, we ask students questions like “If you were a character in the story, what would you have done differently?” or “How does the character’s life compare to your own?” The library lends the readers to students for two-week periods and of course takes care of cataloguing the books, and of tracking them.
Writing a non-fiction graded reader, Japanese Communities Abroad, got me to explore Japanese emigration, why it occurred so late (emigration was forbidden during the Tokugawa era) and the contributions made by Japanese emigrants all over the world. The graded reader wasn’t just cribbed from the Internet, either. I was able to incorporate some original research. In 2012, my old alma mater, the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada finally recognized 76 Japanese-Canadian students who had been unable to finish their degrees because they had been interned in W.W.II. The university held a special ceremony granting them honorary degrees. It was a very moving event and you can watch it on YouTube. That the ceremony happened at all was due to the efforts of a retired Vancouver school teacher, Mary Keiko Kitagawa, and Mits Sumiya, a former student, now in his eighties, both of whom I interviewed. I’ve since heard from several people who read the book and found it a revelation. It was a history they never knew.
As for my reading, in a busy school term, I don’t get nearly enough time to read recreationally. However, I can get through some readers in a single 45-min train commute. Recently, I picked up a graded reader of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. Although not a fan of crime novels, I could appreciate Highsmith’s complex plot and her fascinating character, the highly manipulative sociopath, Mr. Ripley. Another of my discoveries was a reader based on Bette Greene’s Summer of My German Soldier. Ethics, crime and punishment, a star-crossed love, and racism in the Deep South all figure in that slim 45-page book about the romance of a young Jewish girl and a German POW.
I’m not arguing that a graded reader can be nearly as good as the original. But a good one gets me thinking, and helps me to appreciate the writer’s skill, and I can read the original over the summer. A good graded reader is like reading a short story, and certainly better than a watching film based on a book. For these reasons, if you go to the library on our campus, you might just find me perusing the shelves of our graded readers.
A professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, Gregory Strong coordinates a language program for freshmen and sophomores. His books include these Macmillan Language House graded readers: Ice Station at the End of the World, and Japanese Communities Abroad, and for other publishers, the biography, Flying Colours: The Toni Onley Story, and the edited collection, Adult Language Learners: Context and Innovation.