Following up on what I’ve earlier written about the differences between intensive reading and extensive reading, it’s now time to talk about reading materials. For higher level students, this isn’t so big of a problem. For students with, say an IBT TOEFL of 70 (525 on the paper based version) or an IELTS band 5.5, there are numerous interesting extensive reading options. If your students are already at that level, then I suggest the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series. If your students aren’t yet at that level, then this article is for you.

Lower level students pose a real difficulty for extensive reading teachers. In the extreme case, extensive reading just isn’t possible at all. However, it is possible for students to start reading in bulk far sooner than most educators would believe. I’ll assume that your students have learned at least 1000 words (not counting each conjugation or form of a word as a separate entity). Here are the usual stumbling blocks:

  1. Many educators feel that it is important to give children “authentic” material designed for L1 speakers.
  2. Authentic material is entirely incomprehensible to EFL learners who only know a couple thousand words.
  3. While those materials could be glossed, and vocabulary lists provided, that would no longer be extensive reading.
  4. Authentic materials that are comprehensible to low level students are written for toddlers, and therefore not very interesting to EFL students.

Assuming that we’re convinced that extensive reading is worth the effort, and we aren’t going to give up, giving the students dictionaries and sending them off with difficult authentic reading materials is not an option. That leaves two choices, children’s literature and non-authentic reading materials.

Children’s Literature

In my essay about extensive reading I mentioned that one potential barrier to implementing extensive reading is the preconceptions of the learners. Many learners (and educators) feel that foreign language materials have to be difficult and involve slow dictionary intensive labor. Otherwise, they feel, it isn’t real learning. I can assure you that it is just those students who will complain reading children’s books. It’s all about ego. I myself, felt happy to write about and post the old Chinese poem from which the Chinese search engine mogul, Baidu, gets its name. My study from the 國語日報, a daily news paper for children, never made it into any of my articles. It just doesn’t feel that cool to be reading things meant for 7 year old children.

However, once people can get by the initial embarrassment of reading children’s books, they can be useful in a number of ways. First of all, it is almost impossible to read children’s books extensively without learning something about the culture of the people for whose children the books were written. Many learners have claimed that reading children’s books en masse helped them develop a strong interest in and affinity for the target culture. Affinity for the target culture is an extremely important trait for language learners in the long term, according to many prominent linguists.

Perhaps the largest difficulty of all with children’s literature is that for L2 learners who are adults, the books aren’t that interesting. Obviously, things that interest young children and things that interest adults aren’t necessarily the same.

Graded Readers

Graded readers are the other major option for extensive reading classes, besides children’s literature. Graded readers are categorized based on the size of the vocabulary needed to read them. Usually, the vast majority of words in a graded reader will be high frequency words. However, there are also usually a small number of low frequency words in each reader as well. For example, a science fiction story set in space can be written very simply, but no matter how simply it’s written it will need a few low frequency words such as “planet” or “space ship”. There really isn’t any way to avoid a few words like this and still tell interesting stories. These low frequency words are usually glossed and translated at the back of the book. The number of vocabulary words in the book, not including these low frequency words is totaled up, and the result is the number of “headwords” in a book. When deciding how difficult a book to give an EFL learner, it’s best to use the cloze test method I described previously. Generally speaking though, the following guide can be used to determine the number of headwords a student can handle.

Level

Number of headwords they can handle

Students’ TOEIC score

Level 1

400

under 250

Level 2

700

310

Level 3

1000

380

Level 4

1400

450

Level 5

1800

520

Level 6

2500

750

The “levels” in the above chart refer to those used by what I feel is the best graded reader series around, the Oxford Bookworms Collection. My students have made very good progress with their selections and have responded very positively to the books as well. From levels 1-4, each book is about 50 pages long. Books from levels 5-6 can get quite a bit longer. Some books are adaptations of classics, and others are literature created specifically for learners. A few are actually unmodified stories that happen to use suitable vocabulary. The important thing is that these books, as a whole, are actually interesting to read.

Where to Buy the Materials

Considering that on average, Taiwanese people spend over 20% of their disposable incomes on learning English, either for themselves or their children, it is murderously difficult to find graded readers in Taiwan. Do date, I’ve gone to over 40 bookstores, including the gigantic one inside 台北101, and I’ve only found one store that sells them. The same store also has a decent selection of children’s literature and some books for foreigners learning Chinese! It is the Caves Bookstore in 台北 on 中山北路 near MRT雙連站. To get there, go to 雙連站 and then take the exit towards Mackay Hospital. When you get to the first light (中山北路), cross the street and take a left. In less than 5 minutes you’ll get to the Caves Bookstore, right next to a Subway sandwich shop. If you get to a KFC, you’ve gone a little bit too far.

Update: The bookstore mentioned above has closed. The best option now is the Neihu branch of Caves Bookstore, near Cosco.