Reading lower level stories with advanced students?

Do you still enjoy reading children’s books? Even picture books? It is surprising how many adults love reading and even collecting children’s books. Is there a book you like revisiting from your childhood even if you know the rhymes, the characters and the storyline by heart? Are there novels from your teenage years you like rereading even if you are all too familiar with the plot? The language of children’s books is often playful, packed with puns and rhymes that equally fascinate little and big readers. Their illustrations either calm or energize our minds, sometimes even inspire us to think more creatively.


What is the situation with lower-level graded readers in an advanced classroom? If we don’t mind reading ‘below’ our level in our first language in our free time, can we do the same in the English classroom? What are the benefits of reading ‘below level’ for a language learner?

9783852723020_500One of my students, who had taken a B2 (upper-intermediate) language exam several years ago, asked me if I could give her some books to read. First our objective was to read adaptations of classics at her level, or even go for original stories. We started browsing my collection of graded readers, and she decided to make her choices based on the literary genres and topics she was interested in, without thinking too much about the language level. This is how she chose a A2-B1 level reader (Dracula by Bram Stoker) and a B1 level reader (Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad). When we sat down to discuss the novels, she said she was amazed how entertaining it was to read these stories, even if the language structures in them were below her exam certificate level. I started thinking about why they were such great successes, and then experimented with other students, too. They all enjoyed reading these stories, and some students even read young readers designed for kindergarten and primary school children. The young readers mostly functioned as picture books for adult learners, and they brought back positive me9783852727653_500mories from their past.

When we began collecting the reasons for the success of this approach, these were the responses we got.

  1. It guarantees entertainment while reading.
  2. It boosts the readers’ confidence. They feel positive and satisfied reading in a foreign language.
  3. Reading ‘below your level’ helps students switch off while being in contact with the English language. They don’t have to think much about language structures, but can still practise English.
  4. The stories are powerful and they take you to places and let you explore situations you would not normally experience in your everyday life.
  5. They contextualise phrases, expressions, sentences in a memorable way.
  6. The power of storytelling and classic literature works on the graded level experience just like it works with picture books.
  7. Since all of the novels focus on different topics, you can be sure that they will contain unknown words for every reader. These words are repeated several times in the story so you cannot avoid them and you can definitely remember them by the end of the story.

The Beauty and the Beast cover.indd
The power of literature is probably the most evident reason for the success of lower-level readers with advanced students. Our students are often not familiar with classic British or American literature so they will have an intriguing reading experience. The editorial principle of not limiting the author-adaptor of the story with strict vocabulary lists supports the creative process you need when you are fabricating stories, while using context to maintain level and guarantee understanding. Only the linguistic structures are limited at each level (you can find out about these in Reading Matters written by Alan Pulverness, the Helbling guide to using graded readers in the classroom). This way your students will not be confused by complex grammatical or syntactic structures, and will be able to enjoy the feel of the novel.

You can run your own experiment in class. If you would like to let your students experience the pure pleasure of reading in class, even in a 15-minute reading session, ask them to choose any book that interests them, even if it is below their course or exam level. They will have some fun, learn some new vocabulary, and then they can go back to reading higher level books and set new challenges for themselves.

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