[London, UK: Usborne Publishing, 2017. Starter level p. 24. Level 1 p. 32. Level 2 p. 40. Level 3 p. 48. Individual books ¥970. ISBN: 9781474927826.]
There are levels of the Usborne English Reader series available: Starter (six titles, low A1, 300 headwords), level 1 (twelve titles, A1, 500 headwords), Level 2 (twelve titles, A2, 800 headwords), and level 3 (eleven titles, B1, 1,200 headwords). All of the titles are adaptations of mythology (King Midus, Robin Hood), classic stories (Romeo and Juliet, Alice in Wonderland), and fairy tales (Cinderella, Snow White). Each reader is fully illustrated and comes with activity pages, a word list with concise definitions, downloadable grammar resources (above starter level), and a QR code link to an online audiobook version in both American and British English.
It may be argued by some in higher education that graded readers do not have a place in academic courses and in academic contexts. However, as Day et al. (2011, p. 10) stated, extensive reading (ER) “is an approach to teaching reading whose goal is to get students reading in the English language and enjoy it.” It was beliefs like this that piqued my interest in ER and why I decided to critique the Usborne English Reader series.
There are three main ways of approaching ER. (1) A class reader: This is teacher led, with the teacher choosing appropriate titles. All the students read the same book and the teacher holds a mini lesson around the book. (2) A class library: This is “pure”, student led, ER where learners can choose any title they like and the only input from the teacher is encouragement to read more. (3) Students’ own reader: Students can choose what book to read, keep a written record of what they read, and then in class, share what was read. It was this third type of ER that we decided to experiment with.
The Usborne English Reader series was trialled in a weekly reading class. Once a unit (every three weeks) the students were asked to choose a book from the library to read, make notes of what they read, what they learnt, and if they would recommend it. The students would then share their experience at the start of the following lesson. Even though the students had a plethora of graded readers to choose from, the Usborne books continued to be very popular. The student feedback for this ER trial in an EAP context mirrored that of Macalister’s (2008). Students enjoyed the task, found it useful, recognised the need to read more, and more importantly, read for pleasure.
Due to shifting classes online as a result of Covid-19, the students had been unable to access the department’s ER library. To provide them (particularly the freshmen) with more input, we made the QR codes for the Usborne audiobooks available to the students through our university Moodle page. Results from the end of semester survey carried out in July 2020 showed that 19.5% of the freshmen cohort thought that the audiobooks were “fun and interesting”. Although 19.5% may sound low, it was a purely extensive listening activity meaning students had the choice whether to listen to the books or not.
The students were all aged 18 to 22, on a non-English major at a private university in Japan. The most common negative feedback we received about the Usborne books was that they were not interested in these types of stories. It has been stated that adult students are generally more interested in non-fiction graded readers (Lien, 2017). This could explain why certain students were not so taken with these titles, due to the age range of our learners.
Having said that, even though the titles in the English reader series are all non-fiction and not to all learners’ preferences, the most popular Usborne books (which are some of the most popular titles in our library) are culturally relevant and hugely popular in Japan (Rapunzel, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, etc.). I suspect that the link to pop-culture could encourage reluctant readers to pick up a book and get into the reading habit (Bowler, 2006).
To conclude, titles from this graded reader series could make visually stimulating, engaging, and welcome additions to any young learner, university, personal graded reader library, or ER programme. Furthermore, the QR codes in the books can provide students with valuable extra extensive listening opportunities and exposure to different world Englishes they may not have had exposure to previously.
Bowler, B. (2006). Graded reading. English Teaching Professional, 43, 54-56.
Day, R., Bassett, J., Bowler, B., Parminter, S., Bullard, N., Furr, M., Prentice, N., Mahmood, M., Stewart, D., & Robb, T. (2011). Bringing extensive reading into the classroom. Oxford University Press.
Lien, H.Y. (2017). EFL college learners’ perceptions of self-selected materials for extensive reading. The English Teacher, 39, 194-204.
Macalister, J. (2008). Implementing extensive reading in an EAP programme. ELT Journal, 62(3), 248–256. https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/ccm021