Readability (and the lack of it) in graded readers

difficulty reading

At the JALT Pan-SIG conference a few weeks ago (my favourite conference in Japan) I attended two extremely thought-provoking lectures, back to back. Both of them were talking about something very similar, something that has also been coming up in conversations with students this week.

The topic was readability of graded readers, or why some books are easier to read than others.

Marcos Benevides has a great blog post outlining the content of his talk. It’s well worth taking a few minutes to read that now.

Amanda Gillis-Furutaka, from Kyoto Sangyo University, talked about her fascinating research into the specific problems students have when reading English text. Her findings were echoed by my students when I talked to them about their reading in extensive reading classes this week. If you have the chance to attend one of her presentations on this topic at JALT or elsewhere, please consider doing so.

So what makes books difficult for students (focusing on students reading texts up to around 1000 headwords, ie beginner to lower-intermediate readers)? In short, the following:

-number of characters (the more characters the harder it is to understand the story)

-the complexity of the language (modal verbs and allegory are a real barrier to understanding)

-literary devices such as changing between different perspectives, changing from the present to the past suddenly, or unexpected plot twists

While these insights are perhaps most useful to authors and publishers, they can also help teachers recommend books for students (and know which books to put off until later!). Really interesting stuff, and I’m looking forward to reading Ms Gillis-Furutaka’s research when she publishes it.

Readability isn’t a property of the text but is socially constructed between the reader(s) and the text. A clear factor that you didn’t mention here is simple interest. If a reader becomes engaged in a text, they’ll stick with it longer, even if it’s difficult. Another reader might give up.

There are all kinds of things teachers can do to create environments that encourage further reading — have students reading the same books talk to each other about them (and even construct a graphic organizer of some kind to help them keep track of characters and plot, if those are complicated), Provide notes and summaries from previous readers to help current ones. Encourage re-reading. Lots of ways to create environments that encourage students to read more and continue reading when they are challenged.

Thanks Bill! The holy grail of reading: an emotional connection with a text šŸ™‚

I try not to lose track of that (my own presentation at pan-SIG was about students’ reactions to reading) but I was really interested to think about what features of readers seem to trip up students. I think it might be really useful for me when thinking about texts to recommend.

4 Jun 2013, 8:07pm
by Rob Waring


Of course. But just because the only metric teachers see is headwords (and sometimes a grammar syllabus), doesn’t mean that’s the only thing going on behind the scenes. Authors and series editors do take these into consideration when we review stories before they are contracted and as they are in development.

Thanks Rob. Good to hear from the craftsman side of the business!

I was most interested because my students were saying exactly the same things yesterday and today in class, and it’s something I really haven’t been very aware of so far.


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