Why graded readers?
After years of studying Chinese, many people ask, “Why can’t I speak Chinese? I’ve been studying for years but I still can’t speak!” Fluent speaking only happens when the language enters our “comfort zone.” This comfort only comes from experience with the language. The more times you meet a word, phrase, or grammar point, the more likely it will enter your comfort zone.
In the world of language research, the experts agree that learners can acquire new vocabulary through reading if the overall text can be understood. Decades of research indicate that if we know approximately 98% of the words in a book, we can comfortably “pick up” the 2% that is unfamiliar. Reading at this 98% comprehension level is called “Extensive Reading.”
Research in extensive reading has shown that it accelerates vocabulary learning and helps the learner to naturally understand grammar. Perhaps most importantly, it trains the brain to automatically process the language thereby leaving space in the memory for other things. As they build reading speed and fluency, learners will move from reading “word by word” to starting to process “chunks of language” at a time. A defining feature is that it’s less painful than the “intensive reading” commonly used in textbooks. In fact, extensive reading can be downright fun.
Graded readers are the best books for learners to “extensively” read. Research has taught us that learners need to “encounter” a word 10-30 times before truly learning it, often many more times for especially complicated or abstract words. Learners can read a graded reader because the language is controlled and simplified to their level, as opposed to reading native texts, which are inevitably slow, difficult, and demotivating. Reading extensively with graded readers allows learners to bring together all of the language they have studied and absorb how the words naturally work together.
To become fluent, learners must not only understand the meaning of a word, but also understand its nuances, how to use it in conversation, how to pair it with other words, where it fits into natural word order, and how it is used in grammar structures. No textbook could ever be written to teach all of this explicitly. When used properly, a textbook introduces the language and provides the basic meanings, while graded readers consolidate, strengthen, and deepen understanding.
Without graded readers, learners would have to study dictionaries, textbooks, sample dialogs, and simple conversations until they have randomly encountered enough Chinese for it to enter their comfort zones. With proper use of graded readers, learners can tackle this issue and develop greater fluency now, at their current levels, instead of waiting until some period in the distant future. With a stronger foundation and greater confidence at their current levels, learners are encouraged and motivated to continue their Chinese studies to ever greater heights. Plus they’ll quickly learn that reading Chinese is fun!