Jeremy Harmer on Graded Readers

Jeremy Harmer PIC Jeremy Harmer

I recently put some questions to Jeremy Harmer regarding Graded Readers. Here’s what he had to say…

1. How do you go about simplifying the grammar and lexis? I’m aware of the lists provided by publishers but how does one practically put that to use?

It’s very difficult. In my case I write a story  – or jot down some ideas – trying to write ‘more or less’ at the level I think I am writing for. But then when you run what you have written through a word list you almost always find you have written too high – used words that are not on the word list! Of course Readers schemes allow for that (a certain number of ‘out-of-list’ words per page, plus contextualisation etc), but it’s still a nightmare!! The lower the level the more difficult it is.

2. Some Graded Readers include activities for students. Are there pedagogic reasons for not including them?

That’s a difficult question. The reason for NOT having activities is to reinforce the whole point of graded readers (I like the term ‘learner literature used by Day & Bamford) which is that students should read through choice and for pleasure, and that this kind of reading should be significantly different from other kinds of EFL reading. On the other hand only a few students are motivated enough to just read. So, for me, the value of activities is to give students clear tasks to motivate them to keep reading. But if you can replace activities like this with e.g. café reading groups you achieve the same effect.

I think if you ARE to have activities with learner literature they need to be qualitatively different from the kinds of activities in other reading tasks.

3. What do you believe are the main benefits of Graded Readers?

They offer students the chance to have individual fun with/in English. They suggest that they can have the same fun reading English novels (for example) as they can reading in their own language. I have to be anecdotal here! I get so thrilled when I read (non-graded) fiction in Spanish. It gives me a childish sense of accomplishment. I want students to have that sense of achievement, enjoyment, accomplishment when they read in English. And because there are books at their comprehension level, they can!

And of course reading for pleasure like this (especially if you do a lot of it) aids acquisition.

4. Is Extensive Reading enough on its own to develop learners reading ability?

No I don’t think it is. I think teachers have an obligation to help students explore HOW to read, to hold students’ hands while they are reading. The perfect combination is for teachers to help students (through guided comprehension, guided skill work) to ‘attack’ texts in the classroom, and then for students to read by themselves (hopefully for pleasure) on their own. Everything depends, of course, on students’ motivation – and what we, as teachers, can do about that.

5. Do you think there’s a place for Extensive Reading in the classroom or is it primarily an out of class activity?

I am very taken with schools I have been in where a bell rings throughout the school at a random time each week and everyone, including the teachers, has to drop what they are doing and just read for say 10 or 15 minutes. Of course that may not work for everyone, but the principle is good – that extensive reading can and should be encouraged within the classroom with special reading moment.

6. How have you used Graded Readers with your learners?

This is fairly typical of many scenarios, I think. I had a class at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. Intermediate. I took in a selection of books. Students had a bit of time to rummage around and then they chose a reader (all Cambridge readers cos I got a discount!!) they thought might look interesting. I told them to choose any level (but explained what the levels were and meant). They had to read at least one book a week and then swap their book with one other student. Each student had to fill in a very basic report form ‘Did you like it/not like it? Why?’ etc.

Once a week we had a 15-minute quite reading time.

The results were, of course predictable. One student went through the whole list of books (or would have done if everyone else had read at the same pace). But she read fast and if there was no one to swap with she went off to find other Cambridge readers from the library. You could almost ‘hear’ her English improving day by day. It was spectacular. Maybe she was in the ZGRD (the zone of graded reader development)!!! Others read a few books and seemed to benefit too. And then at the other end of the scale a couple of students just managed to read a couple and one only just finished one.

7. How do learners know when they are ready to progress to the next level of Graded Reader?

I don’t think they KNOW. But the more focused among them will realise when what they are reading is easy. That’s the sign. I think we can help them with suggestion. I think there should be provision for them to give up on a book if it’s not working and try another…

8. Do you think that Extensive Reading is an area often neglected by teachers? Why do you think this might be?

I think graded reading is neglected because it’s bothersome (where are the books? How do they make them available?); because it’s not TEACHING! Because, as I suggested above, not all students go for it; because it is difficult to measure success; because it takes a huge amount of teacher investment (in terms of persuading students to do it); because not all teachers are convinced!

9. I couldn’t resist…what do you think of my EFL Reading in Cafes idea?

I genuinely think it’s a wonderful idea. Because getting students involved in graded reading is a carrot and stick affair I think And the café sounds like a great carrot. When/if it works students get to share pleasure, talk about it and (do they?) have a good time. Tell us how it keeps going. But the reason I liked it so much when first heard about it is that it mixes socialising, acquiring, conversation, and purposeful language ‘learning’ in one activity. There is a reason why people like reading groups; graded reader reading groups sound fine to me.

7 thoughts on “Jeremy Harmer on Graded Readers

  1. Huge thanks to Jeremy Harmer for agreeing to answer my questions! I hope you enjoy reading this post.

  2. I loved this interview. Thanks so much for sharing. Now, I’ll check out the graded reader groups and see if it might be something MyEC learners could find value in. Looks like a great idea!

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  4. I disagree with Jeremy on point 4. I think a learner who enjoys reading will move steadily through the graded reading levels, being exposed to more complex vocabulary and grammar yet taking it in. I had one student who, within about 10 weeks, moved from level 2 readers up to the top levels and then to Roald Dahl, Agatha Christie and, if it is a pinnacle, Danielle Steele.

  5. @Tara. Really pleased you liked the post, thanks for your comments. Would be interested to hear how your groups get on 🙂

    @Jeremy Taylor. Thanks for your comments! I think it’s great when you can see learner’s enjoying reading and making progress. I do think it’s a long term process though, which made your example all the more interesting, how many books a week was this particular learner reading? And how did you (or the learner?) decide they were ready to progress to the next level? More importantly how was the initial level assessed?

    Regarding vocabulary development, a lot of the research suggests that Extensive Reading should be complimented with the direct study of vocabulary e.g. developing word-learning strategies, building word-recognition fluency etc. So while I fully appreciate the benefits of Extensive Reading I feel there is still a need for explicit instruction in order to maximise these benefits.

  6. Really enjoyed this interview with JH – I’ve also found that students who read casually and books one after the other do really see a vast improvement in their vocabulary and ability to communicate.

    It’s often quite difficult to convince though and with regard to activities – sometimes they feel like it takes the pleasure out of the experience, so it is a difficult thing to suggest, I think.

  7. Really enjoyed this interview with JH, too.

    Jeremy and I had a very interesting chat about graded readers at IATEFL & it was lovely to be able to pick up on some more of his thoughts about them.

    Like Karenne, I also find that the students who read for pleasure between lessons tend to progress quicker than the ones who don’t, though cost and availability can sometimes be an issue as some libraries don’t stock them, and some students simply can’t afford to buy books.

    I think your reading in cafes project is a great idea; in fact, in view of the cuts in provision slated for next year, I’ve half a mind to do something similar myself (if I can find the time!)

    Am looking forward to reading more about how you get on with your reading groups, Jez 🙂


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