Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head

The future of Graded Readers

I’ve come to realise that when I think of Graded Readers I’ve personified them. And the character is that of an overlooked child, quietly sitting at the back of the classroom, whose teachers don’t see how much potential he has. He doesn’t quite manage to speak up when he should, maybe because when he tried, he was overshadowed by bigger, louder children who behaved in ways the teachers understood because most of the other children were the same.

Now, perhaps my attachment to Graded Readers is overly sentimental (I blame new motherhood) but it makes me wonder what’s going to happen to them in the future. Are they going to get the chance to grow up? And, if so, what shape could they take?

If you’d asked me the first question during the two years it took me to get my fourth** Reader commissioned, I’d have said Readers were on their way out, strangled by all the recent changes in publishing focus. But then I got the best deal I’ve found so far for a Reader and was reassured there are publishers with Readers as a priority. I was further heartened by the brilliance of Atama-ii books and their beautifully produced not-supposed-to-call-them-choose-your-own-adventure-multiple-pathway Readers. Extensive Reading, you see, is a Big Thing in Asia. And then, at the ERF Graded Reader Awards at IATEFL Manchester, there was a room full of people who are still writing, commissioning and caring about them. So I tentatively hope that they’re going to be around for a while after all, even in print. Which means that, like his course book cousins, the Graded Reader might also get to see his digital puberty.

But what does lonely child need to do to secure his digital future?

1. Kindle is key

Publishers of regular books are creating new digital first imprints and there’s a huge market for books that can be read off devices. Self-published authors can get their books into Kindle-ready format in a few hours and some are making a very nice living off ebooks. So, it seems to me like the very first thing to do would be take the Graded Reader back catalogue and set an intern to work converting the files. A quick squizz round and not all of the publishers have Readers in ebook form (or, if they do, they’re not easily findable on their websites or in their catalogues). However, OUP offer ereaders of some of their titles as do Black Cat. If there are others, I’d love to know.

I’ve not seen any of the OUP or Black Cat ebooks so I wonder if they are fully optimized for reading from a phone or only really work on a tablet. The worst thing ever is simply to have the page of the book in the screen of your phone and have to zoom in to make it big enough to read and then scroll backwards and forwards. Super annoying and kills off interest in reading after about 0.3 seconds. A regular ereader book would probably have to change the format of its illustrations so that the text can resize as needed, maybe with thumbnail pictures you can click to make bigger. Or with the illustrations appearing at the appropriate point in the text and filling the screen. I admit I am not sure how books with pictures work on a phone. And I think phone-friendly is important if you want to sell as many as possible.

Since reading from ereaders is a proven success in the way people experience books, this seems like the obvious route. Not apps because …

2. Apps are for playing not reading

Turning books into ebooks is relatively simple, cheap and fast. Turning them into apps is the opposite on all fronts. And the added problem is that when a customer buys an app, they expect either fun (think Angry Birds or Candy Crush) or lifestyle improvement (think What’s App, airline boarding pass apps or medicine trackers). And that’s just what they expect if the app is free. If they’ve parted with cash, they want all that plus guaranteed sunshine on a bank holiday, airmiles and the secret to eternal life.

iPhone Screenshot 1And that’s not the only problem. It’s not even the biggest one. The main problem is that, on the whole, people don’t go to the app store to buy books. They go to a book retailer. So how are you going to make sure they find your app in the first place? CUP may have found the answer to that as they’ll be relying on it for their recently launched iOS platform for Cambridge Discovery Readers.

This is basically an app that delivers ebooks. You download the platform, get one free book and then can buy any other title for £4.99. So far the only books on it are non-fiction which are not my area of interest. No offence to them or the writers and commissioners of them but they seem a bit like one long reading text in a course book to me. These books have lots of exercises to do and some embedded video components. So, you do read, not play them but that might mean they’re in the wrong retail spot.

OUP, on the other hand, have possibly overcome the fun vs book challenge by creating the, so far, Android accessible Gamebooks app of ten of their titles (which at £19 for all ten makes a cheap way to buy them). However, this leads to another point …

3. If you’re going for fun, better make it actually fun

I’ve always been a bit dubious about the exercises in Graded Readers. I write them when told to, just like I do whatever any project requires, but I only really personally like activities that get the reader thinking about the events and characters of the story. And I think that those are possibly best carried out in class. At the ERF Awards, Catherine Water talked about research which suggested the most effective reading was just that — reading — and to leave especially the grammar activities out. Definitely. Who needs another gap fill?

Does turning those vocab and grammar activities into games qualify as fun? I’m not convinced it does. Fun games have to be absorbing and addictive …like Candy Crush, 2048 and Flovoco (which also manages the Holy Grail of being educational).

Sh*t. I just went to the 2048 site purely for the purposes of providing the link above. Started playing and lost 15 minutes even though I didn’t understand what I was doing for the first 5 minutes. I was playing and having fun and totally hooked without even understanding the game. Those people are CLEVER. ELT that’s what you’re competing with when you put a game inside an ebook. And now I’ve extracted myself from 2048, fingertips itching to go back, I am fairly sure you can’t do it. Sorry.

Anyway, aherm …back to the task in hand even though 2048 is still open in my browser … Crapbags, I’ve been free of Candy Crush for over two years …Resolve .. grrr…OK, back to it.

Gamebooks - screenshot thumbnailThe OUP Gamebooks’ games are things like hangman, touching a picture to identify vocab, spelling out a word from a collection of letters. So they’re interactive but not necessarily that absorbing in themselves. And even if, perhaps especially if, the games in a Reader app are fun, as so riskily demonstrated above, (you nearly lost me people, nearly) they break the reading experience because they have nothing in common with reading. Without synthesis they’re just another distraction. So, what they need to do is …

4. *** Make the game part of the reading

This has already been done in print form. I remember an extension of the Choose Your Own Adventure books — role play books you played with dice to fight monsters, pick up treasures or powers and maybe run out of supplies or life before reaching the end of the book’s quest. The transition back and forth between game and book, between playing and reading was seamless and added to the reading experience.***

As happens often, mainstream products are way ahead of ELT as they’ve got bigger budgets. Children’s interactive books have an incredible array of whistles and bells but children’s books is a huge market while Graded Readers are limited to language learners. So what features that the current digital ebooks and apps have could be integrated into the reading itself?

***Audio: But not just the entire story read aloud and played at the touch of a button onscreen. I mean atmospheric soundtrack. So if the characters are sitting by the riverbank on a sunny day, the app would play birdsong and the sound of running water at that point in the reading. If a monster attacks, we’d hear roars or claws scraping, the clash of swords. If the reader touched certain lines of dialogue the character could say them live.

Illustrations: They could be animated and add extra details to what is described on the page in a similar but lower budget way than these award winning Sherlock books do.

Course books: As a sales and marketing tool. I wouldn’t sell ebooks in the app store until I’d verified that customers do look to buy books there. (I haven’t actually researched this myself but maybe the publishers have and they know this is a viable route to purchase by. I’m sceptical.) I wouldn’t rely on purchases via ebook retailers either because language students probably mostly buy books from their school or an academic book shop.

I’d market them via course books. Since publishers already spend most of their marketing energies on them already, it would mean they then promote the Readers without any extra spend and with a much wider reach than whatever it is they are doing now. I’d do it in two main ways.

Firstly, tie Readers into themes from units in the course book and include some excerpt, preferably that ends with a cliff hanger. Secondly, directly offer a discount code and ads featuring book covers inside the cover of the print course book itself, or QR codes that link directly to their buy page. And in the digital course book format, that link is even easier. I guess there’s an issue to resolve there if the tablet belongs to the school and not the student and how to make sure a child didn’t spend their parents’ money.

5. On the other hand …

Maybe reading is enough fun all by itself and doesn’t need any interactive element. The interaction is between your imagination and the words on the page. In which case ignore everything I just said except the marketing point above. Stories have been around for as long as we have and books for as long as paper in its earliest form. Kindle books are just an extension, virtual paper, so there’s no obvious reason why they shouldn’t sell if people know they’re there.

 

**My third Reader is currently RIP with the publisher whose project has been shelved for the foreseeable future.

***Episodes of 20 minutes or more lost to playing 2048

 

 

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10 comments on “The future of Graded Readers

  1. Marcos Benevides
    May 11, 2015

    Hi Nicola, interesting thoughts as always from you. I agree with much here, especially the centrality of reading itself over tacked-on activities and exercises. I’ve always thought that it takes a certain touch to make ELT materials fun and engaging, which is hard to achieve with risk-averse publishers breathing down our necks. Same goes for textbooks as for GRs, actually. Unfortunately a lot of the stigma GRs face (never mind the more game-like stories) has to do with that risk-aversion which, frankly, just makes most stories fairly boring. There are many exceptions, of course–and the LLL is usually a good indicator of quality–but until the format can grow a bit artistically, that stigma will remain.

    One place I don’t quite agree with you, though, is that Kindle is central. That is, I don’t agree yet. As Rose Bard touched on in Twitter, it’s hard to get ebooks into the classroom for a variety of reasons–Ss don’t have devices, or Amazon accounts, or credit card access, or sometimes the technological know-how, or can’t lend the book around to share, or they simply forgot to charge their batteries that day, etc etc. The issues I’ve had in my own classroom were so many that I myself went back to print GRs in my classes!

    Ebooks are great for individual readers, but I don’t think we’re at the point yet where we can count on them getting into most classrooms or school libraries. Eventually, sure, but how long is anyone’s guess. Two years? Five? Ten? That’s why, I think, most publishers aren’t rushing to digitise their libraries.

    • Nicola
      May 19, 2015

      I think I really meant Kindle for individual, non-classroom reading but I maybe do overestimate how many people have Kindles or similar … except that that market seems to be making plenty of money for some and if Readers stopped being seen as purely educational things and just easy to understand books in another language maybe the “ugh, I am studying” factor would be reduced.

  2. Hana Tichá
    May 16, 2015

    Hi, Nicola,

    I’m a big fan of Graded Readers, and, like you, I think they are somewhat neglected in language learning. We do have a small GR library at our school, and we do encourage our students to borrow and read them, but I still feel it’s not enough. Based on my observations, the biggest problem is, and I apologize for the cliché, young people don’t read very much these days. They probably would, but, as you proved yourself, they are constantly distracted by more interesting, interactive stuff.

    You’ve shared some great ideas here in your post, which may promote GRs, but also, they may motivate learners to read more. I’d highlight two of them I liked most: 1) including an atmospheric soundtrack and 2) promoting GRs via coursebooks.

    Btw, like you, I’m also a bit dubious about the exercises in Graded Readers. I don’t remember ever doing one with my students, and I doubt they’d do them voluntarily on their own.

    • Nicola
      May 17, 2015

      Then again Harry Potter, Hunger Games — when they are inspired by good books they read in their millions. I think books delivered via phone is the answer to getting everyone reading but there’s not a lot of graded stuff available. I know one of the pluses of Kindle delivered books is data can be collected of which parts are skipped (I think) so it would be good to know if no-one ever does the exercises! I suspect they’re only in their to “validate” reading even though it seems like common sense to me that reading in itself is valid.

  3. Mark Oliver
    November 11, 2015

    Hey Nicola,

    I enjoyed your article.

    I have currently set out to write a graded reader myself (225 words in) with the attention of putting it up on amazon. So I really appreciate your blog post. I was considering adding some exercises but on hindsight I think I’ll drop that idea. As you said extensive reading is the biggest benefit readers can offer. Exercises are a superfluous (and boring) add on.

    Do you think there is much of a market for self-published graded readers, lacking the promotional backing of a publisher?

    Mark

    • Nicola
      November 11, 2015

      The Atama-ii guys would be the best judge of that I think but any book marketing is tough as reaching actual users ie students is hard, and teachers don’t really buy Graded Readers. The exercises are what publishers feel lends legitimacy to the product ie to gain sales and uptake from institutions so that is their real purpose and who knows how taking them out will affect that? For students though, no point them being there!

  4. taju
    September 19, 2016

    I enjoyed your article.

    I have currently set out to write a graded reader myself (225 words in) with the attention of putting it up on amazon. So I really appreciate your blog post. I was considering adding some exercises but on hindsight I think I’ll drop that idea. As you said extensive reading is the biggest benefit readers can offer. Exercises are a superfluous (and boring) add on.

    https://simpleenglishuk.wordpress.com

    • Nicola
      September 19, 2016

      Thanks and good luck with yours! I definitely wouldn’t put exercises in if I had the control either. Atama-ii put theirs on supplementary online resources I think (or last time I saw a book they did) which is a nice way to have the option. I wonder how many get downloaded.

  5. taju
    September 19, 2016

    The Atama-ii guys would be the best judge of that I think but any book marketing is tough as reaching actual users ie students is hard, and teachers don’t really buy Graded Readers. The exercises are what publishers feel lends legitimacy to the product ie to gain sales and uptake from institutions so that is their real purpose and who knows how taking them out will affect that? For students though, no point them being there!

    https://simpleenglishuk.wordpress.com

    • Nicola
      September 19, 2016

      Yes, this is exactly the hard part of anything – selling books, selling apps. The buyer is schools not teachers or students, and that would only change if a smartphone readable version were to exist AND catch on with kids. Highly unlikely I would say! I doubt even the schools genuinely care if the exercises are there. They just think they’re supposed to care.

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This entry was posted on May 11, 2015 by in ELT, Graded Readers and tagged , , , , , , .
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