Readers: a bit of history and a look at the present


Graded Readers are one of the most motivating ways of encouraging learners to practise their English – there’s no better way of persuading learners of whatever age that they need the language than making them want to turn the page because they have to know what happens next.

There’s a long history behind the Macmillan Readers series going back more than thirty years. I have to confess to a personal reason for my attachment to the series, having started my publishing life as the assistant editor in the Readers team and having loved the job. I felt that it was a great step – to move from a teaching life in which I had come to believe that encouraging a love of reading was one of the most fruitful things an English teacher could do to publishing the books teachers could use in order to encourage reading.

I was fortunate enough in that early job to work with John Milne, the founding editor of this series. It was good to hear at first hand his passion for making available great literature, familiar stories and newly written stories to learners whose knowledge of English was limited. His inspiration for the creation of the series had come from his experience as a young teacher of having to teach a curriculum to teenagers which included the requirement for them to read Charles Dickens’ famous novel Great Expectations in the original! He’d very quickly realized that there were insurmountable problems caused by unfamiliar grammar and vocabulary, by the unknown culture and by the bewildering array of characters brought into such a long novel. But he’d also realized that the learners loved the story when he made it accessible to them. This was his starting point. He developed the language grading so that there was a number of different levels of difficulty. He took into account the vocabulary load – which words could a learner be expected to know at a particular language level and which ones would need to go into a glossary? He considered ‘information control’ – how much detail could a learner deal with in a story? Too little and it became boring. Too much and the learner became swamped and couldn’t understand what was going on. He also and very importantly considered how much of what the author expected the reader to understand wasn’t language but culture. What is implicit in Dickens’ writing, for example, is that the reader understands the culture of nineteenth century England – something far removed from most of the learners of English around the world. So a good Reader has to hold all these threads – of an appropriate language load, of the flow of ‘story information’, of explaining cultural references – and still convey all the excitement of the story and the characters in it so that the indefinable something which makes someone want to turn the pages of a book still remains.

But why am I writing about Readers on a blog which deals with using online resources and technology in teaching? Take a look at Owl Hall for the reason; this is a new Reader which comes from the culture of our times for today’s learner. It’s a multi-media, multi-channel experience. There’s an audio serialization on onestopenglish, a website and a Reader.

The audio serialization works as a standalone version of the story; it’s told in thirteen episodes and each episode comes with an accompanying lesson plan, which includes student worksheets, audio transcripts and answer keys. Episode 1 is free to all onestopenglish users, and you can also read Lindsay Clandfield’s article on getting more out of Owl Hall, which gives lots of extra suggestions for using Owl Hall in the classroom. The other route into Owl Hall is via the Owl Hall Reader; learners can read the book supported by a CD recording, a Glossary, ‘Points for Understanding’ questions and extra exercises. The Readers website provides answer keys for teachers and worksheets.

The main character, Kara, accesses the Owl Hall website throughout the story, and students are encouraged to refer to it whether they are coming to the story via the audio serialization or the book. As the story develops, students will come across the blog that Kara writes and the video she films on her mobile phone during her time there. Learners can interact with the story by leaving comments on the blog.

This is a new type of Reader for the culture of today’s learners – using media John Milne could never have predicted when he started the series all those years ago – but I’m sure that he would have approved!

Check out the Macmillan Readers website for more information about the whole series:

Also check out Christine Nuttall’s invaluable book, Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language, in the Methodology Database in MEC.



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