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.