Preparing students for tests is a burden all teachers must bear. Test preparation can be taxing and take away valuable learning time from students as well as the enjoyment of learning a new language. However, learners want to know how well they are doing, and schools need to know who is making progress and who is falling behind. The problem of preparing students for tests in an enjoyable and engaging manner while also improving their language learning remains, then, a difficult issue for teachers. One tool which could help educators with this issue is the ‘Graded Reader’.
Text by: David Rogan
Commonly defined as books that contain language, grammar, and syntax that have been adjusted to specific learner levels, Graded Readers have been part of language education for a considerable length of time. Their benefits relating to exam preparation though, are perhaps less understood. It is worthwhile, then, exploring these benefits and how teachers can use Graded Readers to improve their students’ language skills, and therefore their exam performance.
In terms of benefits, Graded Readers improve the language proficiency of students who want to read them in multiple ways (though with some caveats). By reading texts which use language that is graded to the reader’s level and on topics that interest them, learners can improve their grammar and vocabulary knowledge, and their reading proficiency. Similarly, Readers improve writing and listening proficiency as well as students’ motivation for learning. However, for students who do not enjoy reading, the benefits of Graded Readers have been found to be, at times, minimal. In relation to exams, care must be also taken by teachers when using Graded Readers. Exams invariably use authentic texts (that is, texts written other than for exam purposes) of various text types adapted to suit the level under examination. Graded Readers, similarly, are generally literary texts which have been adapted to suit specific language levels – levels that may not always be the same as those used for exams. In this sense, both exams and Graded Readers contain language which might be too high for students. It goes without saying, then, that teachers should use their experience when deciding how to use Graded Readers in their classrooms.
Given their usefulness, it is perhaps no surprise a wide range of activities features Graded Readers. In ELT News on 25th November 2019, for instance, an article described potential classroom-based activities which teachers can use with Graded Readers. Its suggestions were worthwhile. However, that article did not look at how Graded Readers could be used for exam preparation. Graded Readers can be used in activities that assess important skills that are often tested in exams. For example, students could:
- Rehearse and role play specific scenes or dialogues between characters in a class Reader. These plays could include a narrator to describe the scene. Students could also record their own dialogues as an audio file or video
- Split into teams of four, listen to short extracts from the Reader (on audio or narrated by the teacher), and note down what happened just before and immediately after the extracts
- Split into teams and listen to a selection of short pieces of dialogue from the Reader. The teacher could then ask each team which character said which part
- Split in teams, then read answers to questions about an important dialogue in the Reader. The students then write the questions that go with the answers. The students listen to the dialogue (or dialogues) and the teacher then awards points to each team for having questions that are most able to produce the answers
- Complete a worksheet with a gapped summary of the Reader or an important section from it
- Answer true/false sentences based on an extract from the Reader chosen by the teacher
- Each read one chapter, extract, or paragraph from the Reader while not having access to the rest of the Reader and summarize it in their own words. Either in class or via video link, each student would then take turns from chapter one onwards to summarize the whole story.
These types of exercises not only improve students’ reading and listening skills, they also help them prepare for exams. By answering true or false statements or completing a gapped summary of a Reader, students improve their ability to understand a text as a whole and spot both correct and incorrect grammar. These types of exercises are common in language exams, such as in Reading Part 2 of LanguageCert’s IESOL exams. Getting students to think of questions to answers relating to the Reader then confirming their suggestions by listening to a dialogue will improve their listening comprehension skills. This is also true when students identify which characters said which part and what happened before or after an important extract of the Reader. Listening skills such as these are commonly tested in exams – such as in Parts 3 and 4 of LanguageCert’s paper-based Test of English (LTE) – and improve students’ language learning, also. Finally, by role-playing an important scene from a Reader or by summarizing it chapter by chapter to the class, students develop their paraphrasing and pronunciation skills: both of which are important aspects of language learning that are consistently tested in speaking exams.
In addition to these activities, Graded Readers can help prepare students when given as homework and help alleviate some of the worries teachers face. A known phenomenon amongst ELT teachers is the desire to make sure students stay on top of their learning during holiday periods. This can, though, result in teachers setting large amounts of homework. This work, while certainly useful, may not test their students’ ability to use and understand the target language in authentic situations or texts, but instead their ability to complete repetitive exercises. In an effort to avoid overloading students, teachers have moved towards preferring homework which increases student exposure to authentic forms of the language. Graded Readers can help in this area by providing students with long-term exposure to the language in a controlled manner. It might take several weeks for a student to read a Graded Reader of Great Expectations, for example, but the language the students reads will be broadly accessible to them – allowing them to experience (near) authentic forms of English.
These are just some of the ways in which Graded Readers can help students prepare for exams. They offer numerous benefits for students’ listening, reading, and writing skills which improve their overall English proficiency, and, through the correct selection of activities, Graded Readers can help prepare learners for upcoming exams in a useful and enjoyable way. In short, Graded Readers are a worthwhile addition to any language classroom, whether you’re preparing for exams or not.
*David works as an Editor at LanguageCert. He has previously worked for an international Publishing House and as an EFL and secondary school history teacher. David is from Liverpool and has a doctorate from the University of Manchester as well as four other degrees from the universities of Manchester, Warwick, and Liverpool.
 Bayram Kara, ‘The Effect of Graded Readers on Reading Comprehension Skill of EFL Students’, Language Teaching and Educational Research, 2, 2 (2019), pp. 162-63 (160-172); The Extensive Reading Foundation, “What are Graded Readers”?, online article, https://erfoundation.org/wordpress/graded-readers/ [accessed 14 July 2022]; Gillian Margaret Helen Claridge, ‘What Makes a Good Graded Reader: Engaging with Graded Readers in the Context of Extensive Reading in L2.’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 2011), pp. 9-10.
 Bayram Kara, ‘Effect of Graded Readers’, p. 169; J. Lake, ‘Curious readers and interesting reads: Developing a positive L2 reading self and motivation through extensive reading’, Journal of Extensive Reading, 2 (2014), p. 17 (13-27); Mustafa Albay, ‘The Benefits of Graded Reading’, International Journal of Social Sciences & Educational Studies, 3, 4 (2017), p. 177 (177-180).
 Warwick B. Elley, and Francis Mangubhai, ‘The Impact of a Book Flood in Fiji Primary Schools’, Studies in South Pacific Education, 1 (1981), pp. 24-25 (3-28); Atsuko Takase, ‘Japanese high school students’ motivation for extensive L2 reading’, Reading in a Foreign Language, 19, 1 (2007), pp. 12-13 (1-18).
 Lake, ‘Curious readers’, pp. 14-15.
 ELT News, Graded Readers in ELT: the benefits and ways of using them, online article, https://www.eltnews.gr/graded-readers-in-elt-the-benefits-and-ways-of-using-them [accessed 14 July 2022].