Sue Leather on Graded Readers

SueLeather PIC Sue Leather

1. For those teachers/students new to Graded Readers, can you explain what Graded Readers are?

Graded readers are books especially written for language learners. They help learners to read systematically in easy language before they move to more difficult language. You can think of them as a bridge to the reading of books intended for first-language readers. They can be original stories, like mine, or stories which have been simplified from existing books.

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

They allow learners to access extensive pieces of text, written with the aim of providing reading for pleasure. Stories, in other words.  If they’re at the right level, learners can just read and enjoy them , without having to struggle. Being able to read a whole book gives learners great confidence.

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

I think it’s probably the single most important thing they can do. If the input is comprehensible, and they’re enjoying it, the research indicates that they improve their reading-and other aspects of their language learning.  If you think about how much we have picked up from reading as native speakers, you have to admit that it’s pretty  incredible.

Of course, when it comes to language learners, we have to stress again the comprehensible input element- the whole thing does rely on the graded reader being pitched at the right level. The other element is enjoyment.

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

No, I think it can also be done in class. Why not?  ‘DEAR’ (Drop Everything and Read) time is a very good activity and a fine counterbalance to some of the other things we do in the classroom.  We can also do a lot of the motivational work in the classroom, getting students to really want to read the book at home.

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

I’ve done activities where all the class read a single book and then done various activities with it. I’ve also had a class library, with students reading different books and telling each other about them, writing short reports, doing presentations. Lots of different things.

I’ll give you a concrete example. My Oxford University Press reader, Desert, Mountain, Sea has three stories about adventurous women in it. I split the class into three and got each group to read one of the stories at home. I then did an information exchange in class in which students had to talk about their story and give some key information about it to the students who hadn’t read it, trying to ‘sell’ their story.

6Do you think that Extensive Reading is an area often neglected by teachers? Why do you think this might be?

Maybe it’s hard to know exactly what to do with readers sometimes. Teachers find it difficult, especially if they don’t have access to lots of graded readers. Also, sadly, many of our education systems are so geared towards testing, and testing extensive reading skills is thought of as more challenging than testing grammatical knowledge or vocabulary.

I think the main problem ,though, is that those teachers haven’t had access to the ideas around using ER . But in fact there are lots of great ideas around!  For example, the British Council website, Teaching English has lots of activity ideas, as well as good links.

7I hear that you’re currently developing a new set of readers with Heinle/Cengage. How will these readers be different from what’s currently available?

One big difference is that our series- Page Turners- is twelve levels instead of five or six. That means that each stage is more closely graded. The books also include additional non-fiction reading related to the story, so that teachers can do different kinds of work on the themes  in the classroom.

In addition, our stories are all originals, high concept stories with lots of action that are fun and easy to read.  Like some other series of originals, we cover different genres, like thrillers, romance, science fiction, human interest etc.  Of course the series has all the usual worksheet downloads and audio elements too.

8. What advice/tips would you have for teachers who are having problems promoting ER with their students?

I think that enthusiasm is infectious. Probably one of the best things you can do is to read a few good readers yourself and start talking about them. It helps if you’re a reader, generally, because it’s hard to convince others to do something you don’t do yourself.

The other thing is to help students to find something that really interests them. Personally, I don’t read much science fiction, for example, and if you made me read it I’d probably be pretty fed up. But give me a good thriller and I’m very happy. Ideally, all students would get a choice of what to read.

9. You’ve clearly written a lot of readers. What is it that you enjoy so much about writing these books? I’m a huge fan of Graded Readers but the idea of writing one sounds like a nightmare!

I love creating characters and stories. It’s the most wonderful feeling, to know that these characters, this story, belongs to you.  There’s an emotional connection there that’s very important, and I think that’s the thing that makes the writing good, when it’s good.

When writing is going well, it makes me feel really happy. Sometimes it’s harder, but that’s the way with writing, any type of writing. The thing you have to know is that writing is quite hard work, but like any work, if you love it, it will ultimately go well.

10. The lower level readers, while considerably shorter and with far fewer headwords, have to adhere to strict word lists which I imagine can be very difficult to stick to. However, most of your books in the Cambridge series of readers seem to be at the lower levels. Do you have a natural knack for this simplification process?

Writing at the lower levels does require knack perhaps, but also hard work.  Someone said that success is 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration. Well, it’s the same with writing, I think. My first low level book was extremely hard work for me, a real challenge.  But I managed to do it because I worked hard at it – and I also had the help of a very good story editor.   Now I find it a lot easier.  The only way you really improve at writing is by writing.

11. Some people have suggested that by simplifying texts, they no longer represent authentic language. What would you say to that?

I don’t agree. What does authentic really mean? Authentic to who? I think that the best writing of learner literature is very authentic.  Authenticity seems to me about the connection between the writer/the writing and the reader.   I rather like Henry Widdowson’s definition of authenticity. He says ‘’Authenticity is a characteristic of the relationship between the passage and the reader and has to do with appropriate response.”   (Teaching Language as Communication, Oxford University Press, 1978, p.80)

This final question is from my learners in one of the reading groups.

12. “Your stories take place in many different countries all over the world. Have you been to all of these countries and did they inspire you to write the books in any way?”

Yes, I’ve been to all the countries. I travel a lot for my work, and for pleasure. Going to different countries, different places, really fires my imagination and helps me to create interesting new contexts for my stories.  How do the different places inspire me? Well, I suppose it’s about ‘spirit of place.’ I get a strong feeling about a place when I’m there, and then later the idea for a story comes to me, set in that place. Characters appear somehow, though they may not have been originally linked to the place.  It all usually happens some time later, in the recesses of my imagination.

12 thoughts on “Sue Leather on Graded Readers

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this interview Jez and Sue. I have a daughter who learned to read very early and it was through watching and teaching her that I began to understand more about the importance of learning a language through reading. Some of my English learners have started reading Anne of Green Gables together (I’ve recommended Stepping Stones version). I wonder if there is a graded reader version ?

  2. Hi Tara, I found a graded reader version of Anne of Green Gables by Penguin –

    Do your learners enjoy reading simplified classics? That’s great if they do…mine can’t stand them though and opt for original fiction every time…so I tend to use Cambridge readers…which are fantastic! I’m also looking forward to seeing Sue Leather’s ‘Page Turners’!

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  4. Thanks for the link! The simplified versions are never great, but it’s a nice way to discuss a story together. We are all reading at different levels. My daughter (6) just read a really easy version of Anne of Green Gables and loved it. She is now struggling through the classic and loving it too. Since she knows the story and the movie, it is much easier for her to read the classic now. Some of the advanced learners are doing the same.

    I’ll be watching out for ‘Page Turners’.

  5. It`s been a real pleasure to read this interview. I had a discussion with teachers (at the Uzbekistan British Council`s Teachers` Club) about Graded Readers and how to use them and this interview will be the excellent addition to teachers` knowledge… Thanks to Sue and Jez.
    By the way, I use Macmillan Graded Readers for teaching…

  6. Hi Kamol, thanks for your kind comments, I’m pleased you’ve found this post helpful. I’ve got plenty more of these interviews coming!!! 🙂

  7. Hi sue.
    I realy like your books and the way you write . I find them so interesting . The first books i read were Hotel Casanova and Dirty Money , now one year later i’ve just ordered ‘Death In The Dojo which is Level 5!
    Thank you so much for writing such wonderful books !

  8. Dear Ms Leather,
    I have enjoyed reading several books of yours – Just Like a Movie, Bad Love… I am going to read Hotel Casanova and Desert, Mountain, Sea. I love graded short story collections so I am really looking forward to it.
    I like the Page Turners series because there are brand-new stories to read (no classics). I am sure this series will be loved by students all round the world.
    I am listening to your book – Come Home. It has a great plot, very enjoyable story-line!
    I have to say I really appreciate that the publisher provides the audio files so the students can learn the correct pronunciation of vocabulary.

    There is one thing I don’t understand – why the speed of reading is so fast. There are no breaks after each sentence. No break when the paragraphs end. The reading is too fast and monotonous. It is so sad because the story is fantastic but the lady’s reading is little bit boring and not easy to understand. Why is she in a hurry? I’m sorry to say that but elementary students won’t probably understand the level 200-400 because of the speed of speech.

    And a personal question: Will you write a book set in the Czech Republic? Prague?
    😀 please, please!

    PS: I hope this message reaches you.

  9. Dear Nika

    Thank you so much for your kind comments on my books. It’s great to hear that you enjoy them.

    I’m also glad to hear that you like the Page Turners series and enjoyed Come Home. Regarding the speed of the audio, I’m sorry you found it too fast. I’ve passed on your comments to the publisher and let you know what they say.

    Lastly, I love Prague and hope that one day it will feature in one of my stories:)

    All best wishes

  10. Thanks a lot for your swift answer and passing the message to the publisher.

    What do you think about the “modern” graded readers – interactive CD-ROMs, kindle e-books etc.? In my opinion, nothing compares to joy of reading the “old-fashioned” printed book and listening to the audio… The smell, the sound of turning the pages eagerly… 😀

    Will the students read only online / kindle / on computer in the future? Will the future readers be much different to the present ones?

  11. Hi Nika, it’s an interesting question about printed books and ebooks… There have been quite a few opinions on this very topic posted on this blog… just have a look at the top of the page and you’ll see the heading ‘The E-Book idea: will it kill reading or enhance it’ … feel free to add your thoughts 🙂 …

    Best wishes

    Jez Uden

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