What can technology bring to Graded Readers?

Try to pronounce this with a strong Spanish accent.

Ai uas eslipin kuaietli uen, sadenli, a nois uok mi ap

It’s supposed to be: I was sleeping quietly when, suddenly, a noise woke me up.

That’s the closest to English pronunciation I could manage when I was a student.

books1CDs hadn’t been invented yet. There were cassettes, but they were only used on long and, usually, expensive courses. Graded readers, at least the ones we could get, didn’t come with tapes, as the length of the audio could easily exceed a tape’s capacity. Students had to content themselves with their teacher’s pronunciation – not a native speaker in most cases.

Technology is speeding up …

When CDs arrived and started to be included with graded readers, things got much better. Audio quality improved, the cost was reasonable and you could find the beginning of the chapters. On top of that, almost everybody had a CD player.

But now even CD players are a rarity. Even the iPod has been outpaced. And this is true not only for audio – books are digital now too; they are behind a screen (touch or not) and you can interact with them. Now you can access any kind of content on a tablet, smartphone or in your computer’s browser.

…but publishers are slow

This excellent blog article gives details on the current state of graded readers. An appreciable effort from publishers can be seen in their approach to these kinds of formats but, as the same article says, it is not enough. Their products are not even close to what technology can offer.

By John Keogh under Creative Commons license
By John Keogh under Creative Commons license

In general, the publishing industry changes very slowly, but graded readers are a special case. Some of the main players are non-profit organisations, which may mean their incentive to innovate is limited. Of those with digital readers, these only form a part of their business activity and not the main product. With a high quality catalogue and an extensive range of books, the strength of a well-known trademark and the inertia of long years in the market, publishers don’t have many incentives to innovate.

Apart from games and game-books, which are conceived as a personal learning experience for the final user and, as such, not within the scope of teaching, the more daring editors haven’t gone beyond transferring the book + CD that they already had in their graded reader catalogue to ebooks in an app format. At best, they have turned graded readers into something a little better than a PDF with a play button and some comprehension exercises, multiple choice questions, gap-fills, etc.

So, it looks as if innovation has to come from small publishers.

Innovative book formats for Graded Readers

The technology is there. It exists and is widely available. Both students and teachers have access to it at school, at home and in their pockets. The issue is how to take advantage of technology for students in order to make access easier and with better use of texts and, at the same time, give teachers the tools to exploit the educational potential of texts.

Some publishers have started to synchronise audio with text, which is a move forward, but there are other formats specifically created for graded readers which go even further. I’m going to talk about the Dubbuk format, the one that eBBi Books’ publisher uses – the one I know best.

The Dubbuk format

Put yourself in the shoes of an English language student, whose mother tongue is Spanish and who accesses a literary text. Even if the text has been adapted to his level, it still contains the complex vocabulary and structures specific to literature. This student has to comprehend descriptions, the plot, themes, and make sense of what he has already read, in order to follow the plot.

With graded readers in Dubbuk format, he has the text, a translation to Spanish, the audio and a bilingual dictionary. These are integrated with several functionalities to make using them easy.

From the student’s point of view

When the student finds a sentence he doesn’t understand, he can click on it and see the translation. In eBBi Books this means an equivalent, not a literal translation — the words are different but with the same meaning. If the student needs a literal translation he can use the bilingual dictionary. He can even compare texts by displaying both languages in two columns on the page in order to go over a whole paragraph.

On the other hand, if he chooses to use the audio, a marker on the page of the book follows the words on the page while he listens to the sentence.

In this way he has his book inside an app that can be used on his tablet or carried in his pocket to listen to the audio track from the point where he left it last time, when he is going to school or on the underground, and in his browser too, embedded on the page.

From the teacher’s point of view

Let’s go to the teacher side. This format has a lot of possibilities but gives the teacher full control over how they are used. For example, the teacher can provide the reading with restrictions:

  • a first reading without translation and without the dictionary
  • only with the dictionary but without translation
  • only with audio

Or the teacher can limit the excerpt to be read and create exercises like:

  • dictation: filling sentences or words he chooses at audio playing
  • translation to English from the Spanish text
  • questions about matters that the teacher considers important or the class is studying at this moment

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In addition, the teacher can create his own exercises (with or without translation) using a web app that helps him to synchronise texts and audio. Or reuse other teacher’s content by adding a translation or a new audio track (Latin American students prefer American accents while Europeans prefer British, in our experience.)

Conclusion

None of these features require the use of much more technology than what is already available for nearly everyone right now, even in less developed countries. Some of them are available already, some are in development. Some will be adopted and successful and others won’t be as useful as they looked when they were conceived and will eventually be forgotten. But as long as reading long texts and graded readers is needed as part of the difficult process of learning a language, we should use the technology available to help students and teachers make this process more comfortable and useful.

Enrique Bernal is CEO of Cuento a2lenguas, SL the company behind Dubbuk and eBBi Books. He has a long career on developing tech projects, many of them educational, like social networks for students and multi-user educational games.

 

8 thoughts on “What can technology bring to Graded Readers?”

  1. I totally agree with this ….The technology is there. It exists and is widely available. Both students and teachers have access to it at school, at home and in their pockets. The issue is how to take advantage of technology for students in order to make access easier and with better use of texts and, at the same time, give teachers the tools to exploit the educational potential of texts.

    However, solutions like Dubbuk, moodle readers etc… are totally boring and not harnessing or tapping into student digital culture. Plus, it has to be simple. Too much functionality = too little. We got to go where students are, they’ll read, just not this stuff with horrible voiceovers and clunky translation. Let’s use the tools media they are using already, package it better and you are off to the races. The content is out there is popular culture. We publishers have to curate it and package it in a simple manner that allows student interaction.

    But do agree, disappointed with the same old dry graded reader pocket books or ereaders that just put the same onto a screen.

    Reply
    • I often wonder why publisher’s don’t team up with Buzzfeed and upworthy. Masses of content that the whole world is already reading. How hard would it be to find the appropriate posts and whip up quick lessons based on them? However, I very much see a place for stories still and Graded Readers fulfil that basic human urge for stories. There’s nothing dry about that, though the grammar exercises between chapters might be.

      Reply
  2. I am convinced that one of two things happened to graded readers- either publishers saw the potential of readers and then set out hobble them so they wouldn’t/couldn’t compete with their profitable book series or publishers never saw the potential of readers to transform language learning. Take you pick.

    Technology is not the answer to better graded readers. The most important technology for readers came along in the form of CDs decades ago. Anything since then is a mere blip on the radar. Things to make the process easier; not things that do much to alter the process.

    Here is a thought. Did anyone ever complain that the Harry Potter series didn’t have its own dictionary? Nope. Was it too difficult for many readers? Yep. Did it transform a generation of readers? Yes. Why?

    Answer that and you will know why this is not a question of technology.

    Personal note: 30 years ago I gave up on course books. Completely. No, joke. Over the years the only commercial materials I have taken into class were graded readers. I have taught students in individual classes, small group classes, and large classes. Nowhere did graded readers fail me. Recently I went though a commercial class textbook with a student so she could show me what she studied with a previous teacher. She hopped around the book like a rabbit indicating the places the teacher ignored (why? the teacher never explained). I laughed to myself as I thought, “never in the 30 years I have been using graded readers have I ever asked a student to ignore a chapter, a page or a line of text.” Graded readers stand or fall as a whole. Technology makes it easy for us to ignore wholes and think in terms of parts. If you think dividing graded readers into more parts is the answer, my experience would disagree.

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  3. In addition to what’s already been said, I think one of the biggest problems in selling graded readers is that teachers in state sectors around the world are often having to deal with quite restrictive curricula and examination systems. The main issue is often that they simply don’t know how to fit extensive reading into their work schedule. In that sense, I’m not sure whether this is a question of technology vs no technology. The grammar/comprehension exercises that Nicola speaks of- which I agree can kill off interest- are an attempt by the publishers to make GRs more palatable to teachers- to show them how they might fit them in to their programmes. It’s an unfortunate fact that many, many teachers working in state schools in a lot of countries wouldn’t a. have time to or b. know how to engage their students in Graded Readers.

    I speak of course as a passionate advocate of extensive reading. I’ve also put up a few videos of classroom ideas at : https://www.youtube.com/user/HeinleELT

    Reply
  4. Asia has always seemed the most receptive region to graded readers in my experience. There are a lot of extended/extensive reading organisations in the likes of Japan and South Korea to support reading for pleasure and for being able to push a learner’s English ability to reach the next level. It’s been pointed out that you can’t really find graded readers in foreign languages other than English and that it’s a disadvantage for those learning another language other than English. If there is a need to replace the ‘old’ reader with something more technically gizmoed, then it’s perhaps missing the point of what graded readers are intended to do. Do we want our learners to learn to read or to learn to use technology around reading? A well-designed graded reader book should be appealing enough to anyone with a desire to read in English, and there are definitely lots of great reader titles out there.

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