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You are learning English and you keep hearing this advice: if you want to improve your English skills, you should read books.
It’s true. Reading engages your brain more than when you watch videos on YouTube or shows on Netflix.
But when you pick up a novel and try to read it, it becomes very frustrating.
You either spend too much time looking words up in the dictionary, or you lose track of the story and become confused. It’s no fun to read a story that you do not understand.
You could turn to children’s storybooks.
Yes, these are easy to read and understand, but they are for kids. Can you really enjoy them as an adult?
To improve my Spanish, I tried reading kids’ stories, but I soon felt bored.
English is the most commonly used language in books, magazines, newspapers and web pages. All that information can be yours, but it seems to be just a little hard to reach.
Let’s see some reasons why English books are so difficult to understand. Then, we will see how graded readers can help to solve this problem.
Why are English novels so hard to read?
Perhaps you are able to read through a short newspaper or website article. This gives you the confidence to attempt a novel. Unfortunately, you find the kind of English used in a novel is quite different.
For a start, novels use a lot of specific action verbs.
For example, instead of saying that George walked down the street, a novel might say that George strutted down the street. The word strut means to walk in a way that seems you are showing off.
There are thousands of specific action verbs in English. Although novels tend to make full use of them, we do not use them nearly as much in factual articles or everyday conversation.
Novels use a lot of descriptive language that we don’t find in everyday conversation. In fact, novels written hundreds of years ago may spend hundreds of words just describing a garden! We call this flowery language.
Here is an example from the classic novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. It describes what Jane could see from her window:
“Folds of scarlet drapery shut in my view to the right hand; to the left were the clear panes of glass, protecting, but not separating me from the drear November day. At intervals, while turning over the leaves of my book, I studied the aspect of that winter afternoon. Afar, it offered a pale blank of mist and cloud; near a scene of wet lawn and storm-beat shrub, with ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly before a long and lamentable blast.”
Do you need a translation? In simple English, it says: I looked out of the window while reading my book. It was a cold and rainy day.
Some people may suggest that you read Shakespeare. If you do, you will struggle through not only flowery language, but words that we no longer use, such as doth (does) and thee (you).
As a native speaker, I also struggled with Shakespeare at school. I remember that I could understand only about half of Hamlet without my teacher’s help.
Obviously, flowery language and words like doth will be of no benefit to you in daily conversation.
Not all books are equally difficult, though. Books featuring short stories, such as the ones in the Chicken Soup series, may offer less of a challenge. The stories are only a few pages long and if you find one difficult, you can move on to the next one.
While short stories may be a little easier, they are not for everyone and you still need at least an intermediate level of English to read them.
The solution: Graded readers
What is a graded reader?
Graded readers are books that have been simplified so that they are easy to understand.
Many graded readers contain classic stories, such as Pride and Prejudice, which have been edited, shortened and updated with modern language. You could read Hamlet and actually understand it!
Other graded readers contain original stories, written especially for people learning English.
Finally, there are graded readers which are non-fiction. These are about famous events and historical figures like Martin Luther King.
What sorts of students should use graded readers?
This is the wonderful thing about graded readers – they are graded for a particular level of English. This means that you can find a suitable story for your specific level of English, no matter what age you are.
Graded readers state their intended level. For example, a particular reader may be suited to elementary level or CEFR level A2.
If you are unsure what level you read at, you could try the free test provided by Macmillan, a publisher of graded readers.
Why are graded readers useful?
Most English students wish to read in English for one of two reasons, either for the pleasure of reading or to expand their vocabulary, or a combination of the two.
Graded readers help you to do both of these things at the same time.
You can enjoy the pleasure of reading without worrying about losing track of the story.
At the same time, although the language is simplified, there will still be new words to learn, suited to your particular level.
How should you use a graded reader?
The simplest way to use a graded reader is just to read and enjoy it.
Or, you could use a more active approach. Write down new vocabulary in a notebook. Highlight interesting words and phrases. Underline any confusing grammatical structures. Later, you can use the Internet to find out more information about them.
Many graded readers come with support materials. These may be end-of-chapter questions and quizzes, MP3 files so that you can listen along, workbooks or online activities.
This gives you a lot of flexibility in the way that you use a graded reader. You could read a little in the morning and listen to the next part with headphones before you sleep at night.
You could even challenge yourself with a reader which is just slightly above your level.
How you use your graded reader is up to you, and this will help you to become an independent learner.
If your ultimate goal is to read authentic books in English, graded readers can help you. Think of them as a bridge that will help you reach your goal.
Where can you find graded readers and what are some good titles?
Some publishers that specialise in graded readers are Macmillan, Pearson, Cambridge and Oxford. You can order them online or you could look for them in a local bookshop.
Larger bookshops may have an ELT or ESL section and this is where you will find them. Otherwise, look for them in the language learning section, near the dictionaries.
If you like classic stories, why not try these:
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, a classic romance.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare, the classic story of the Danish king.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas, an adventure story set in the time of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, another well-loved story of romance.
Perhaps you prefer non-fiction to stories. Here is a short selection to get you started:
The story of Martin Luther King, the civil rights leader.
The story of Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl who kept a diary during World War 2.
Learn about the United States of America.
Read about the life of Princess Diana.
Read about Gandhi, the father of modern India.
Graded readers are a fantastic resource. They offer reading and vocabulary practice suitable for all ages and all levels.
The supplementary materials, such as quizzes, mean that you can apply active learning techniques and improve a range of your English skills.
Or, you can simply curl up on a comfy sofa with a cup of tea and enjoy the pleasure of reading.