Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head
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 they have. They don’t quite manage to speak up when they should, maybe because when they tried, they were 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 their course book cousins, Graded Readers might also get to see their digital puberty.
But what does lonely child need to do to secure a digital future?
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 …
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.
And 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 …
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.
The 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 …
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.
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