Three Fool-Proof Ways to Know a Graded Reader When You See One

Three Fool-Proof Ways to Know a Graded Reader When You See One

I recall the first time I heard the term “graded reader”. I was talking to an English teacher who was an extensive reading evangelist. He went on and on about how graded readers were essential to extensive reading but I scarcely had any idea what he was talking about. Even after it was explained to me, it was some time later that I finally understood exactly what is a graded reader.

Simply put, graded readers are “easy reading” books used to support the extensive reading approach to learning a language. They can be adapted from films, classics, biographies, or they could be original stories. Graded readers are “graded,” or leveled, within a series according to difficulty, based on the words used. Seem like a pretty broad definition? It is, so I’m going to lay out for you the real secrets of a graded reader so that you will know one when you see (or read) one.

Is this book a graded reader?

1. The Language is Selective


A Word Cloud from “The Secret Garden“. See any words you know?

This is perhaps the most important feature of a graded reader. The writer of a graded reader attempts to use only words that you, the reader, is most likely to know. The trick is to figure out which words you are likely to know. This question can be best answered using a linguistic technique known as “corpus analysis.” A corpus is a large collection of natural language, spoken and written, which can be analyzed to identify the most commonly used words. For any respectable corpus analysis, a minimum of one million words is essential.

However, when writing books for non-native speakers, one must not only pay attention to the most commonly used words in the language, but also pay attention to words that the learner is most likely to know. Because we often learn from textbooks and in classrooms, it is also important to analyze words that learners are being taught, not just the words that are used in everyday speech. I’m sure every language learner has had the experience of coming across something very simple and common for native speakers that was never taught in class. This happens because the language that natives commonly use and the language that is taught from a book doesn’t always match up perfectly. Therefore, a good graded reader series will analyze both sides to ensure the most optimal words are being used. That’s not to say that new or more difficult words are not used, it’s just that they are selectively used.

2. The Language is Controlled

controlIf you were to talk with a five-year old child, the words that you would use would be much different compared to how you might speak to a college professor. To a child, we would speak in much simpler terms, use simple grammar, and avoid subjects which may be too complex.

For everyone who is learning Chinese, five-year old Chinese kids have a leg up on all of us! How much more important is it then for learners to have the language controlled so we can begin to comprehend it. This means ensuring that we not only pay attention to the words being used, but we also control the grammar that is used, simplify or avoid complex ideas, and be careful about introducing too many new words too quickly. This requires careful writing, reviewing, and editing. Graded readers have been through this rigorous process so that learners at the designated levels are actually able to comfortably read them.

3. The Book is Long Enough


Got to make sure that story is long enough!

If you are going to learn any language, you will need to see the same words repeated enough times in different contexts before you can remember and know how to use them. Research shows that we need 10-30 or even 50 or more meetings of an average word before it is truly learned. Graded readers must be long enough and provide enough repetition for learning to take place.

For example, if a reader claims to be using approximately 500 characters, it should probably be at a minimum 5,000 characters in length for there to be any significant amount of repetition. Unfortunately, there are some books which call themselves “graded readers” which claim to use a vocabulary of 500 words in multiple stories, each 100-150 words in length. Obviously, as the math shows, if every word was used only once (which would be impossible to do) then it would need to be at least 500 words in length.  Basically, the more words used in the book, the longer the book should be in order to provide enough repetition.

What is Not a Graded Reader

To be clear, it’s also important to note what is not a graded reader.

  • A collection of short articles
  • Kids books
  • Text books
  • Books/articles intended for learners that pay little to no attention to grading the text
  • Short articles in a text book
  • Newspaper/magazine articles with dense subject matter
  • A story too short to provide enough repetition

All of these materials have their time and place, assuming they are at the proper level for the reader. Have we all come across these? Yes, it’s pretty much inevitable. However, when given a choice, one should choose true graded readers in order to reap the benefits of extensive reading.

For English learners, there are over 3,500 graded readers on the market, but for Mandarin there is only a very small fraction in comparison (less than >1%). Keep your eyes on Mandarin Companion; we’re just getting started!

Shop Chinese Graded Readers Now


  • Nancy Wang Posted April 2, 2014 10:17 pm

    Yes, I am waiting for your 500- and 750-word level readers! I’ve enjoyed what you’ve done so far. Thank you!

  • Mike Butler Posted April 4, 2014 3:49 pm

    In fact your statement above is technically incorrect:
    “The writer of a graded reader attempts to use only words that you, the reader, is most likely to know.”

    The writer of grader readers use an established Corpus as their writing guide. These corpus are based on which words appear most frequently in a given context- spoken speech, written speech, University textbooks, etc.

    The words a single, particular reader is likely to know is not typically at issue as individual readers vary in terms of their needs and characteristics and where they studied English.

  • Terry Waltz Posted April 10, 2014 12:47 am

    We do true graded readers at the 200-300 character level.

    • Jared Turner Posted April 10, 2014 12:35 pm

      Awesome! The world needs more of them.

  • John Peifer Posted July 13, 2014 5:16 am

    Hi Jared, I just started learning Chinese and I know about 10-20 characters. At what point should I start trying graded readers? And should I just continue studying the characters and grammar until then?

    • Jared Turner Posted July 15, 2014 4:57 pm

      Hi John, congratulations! You’re on your way! It exciting to begin comprehending Chinese characters. I would suggest at the very least you try to get a couple hundred characters under your belt before you try a graded reader, otherwise the book can become too laborious and demotivating. If at anytime what your reading becomes frustrating or too difficult, stop! Come back at it later when you are closer to the level.

      If you are interested in fast-tracking your way to the Mandarin Companion series, you can start using the word lists on Skritter to learn the words and characters. Although Skritter is not free, it’s a great learning resource. Keep going! 加油!

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