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.
CDs 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.
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
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.)
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.