Currently viewing the tag: "yomuyomu bunko"

Graded readers are books written for adults or children learning a second language. Each series is split into a number of levels and the vocabulary and sentence structures used at each level are standardized, so that readers can find a level at which it’s comfortable to read. Although their language is simpler than that used in authentic material, the subjects are designed to hold the interest of older learners. There are thousands of them written for people learning English as a second or foreign language, such as the Cambridge English Readers and Penguin Readers, and many Japanese people doing extensive reading in English start out with them. At the moment, however, there’s only one series of graded readers for learners of Japanese that I’m aware of: the よむよむ文庫 レベル別日本語多読ライブラリー (Reading Collection: Graded Japanese Extensive Reading Library) series, created by the 日本多読研究会 (Japanese Graded Readers Research Group).

If you look at the information for each level, you’ll get an idea of who these might appeal to most:

Each volume includes a CD which has recordings of all of the stories it contains; those recordings are very well done, and great for listening to as you read along, using for shadowing or putting on your mp3 player and listening to them while you do dishes. There’s no English whatsoever in any of the stories, nor are there any sort of comprehension questions, activities or glossaries. Each reader includes the golden rules of tadoku — that is, starting from an easy level, not looking up words while reading, skipping over parts you don’t understand and getting another book if you’re not enjoying the one you’re reading. If this was your first introduction to extensive reading and you skipped straight to the stories, you might not even realize that those guidelines existed. (Pictures might have been helpful here.)

There are various places to buy these – Kinokuniya, YesAsia, off of the American Amazon or the Japanese one and so on, but so far, for someone outside Japan, at the moment they are consistently cheapest at White Rabbit Press. At the time I write this, they are $28.88 each, and shipping is based on the weight, your location and the delivery method you choose; you can’t estimate shipping until you check out, but for a volume shipped to me here in Washington State, standard shipping (2-4 weeks) is about $7-$9, expedited shipping (1 week) is $12-$14 and express mail service (3-5 days) is $26-$29. There are too many variables to know exactly how much you might pay for each one, but I am going to make my calculations based from the idea that each volume costs about $37 from White Rabbit Press with the cheapest shipping.

Three notes before I go on:

  • White Rabbit Press has some sort of affiliate system, but I’m not part of it. If there’s a cheaper way to buy these, I’ll happily recommend it instead.
  • You can buy them used from Amazon at times, but at the moment not all of them are available used, and at the moment even the used ones are more expensive than they are at White Rabbit Express. Still, you may as well check there before you buy elsewhere. (You also might be able to get them used from other learners: I have Lan’dorien to thank for most of mine!)
  • If anyone finds a cheaper way to buy them, or if any other places to buy them periodically have sales which would make them cheaper, by all means let me know!

So the question is: if you have a spare $37, is it better to buy one of these or to try to find a couple of authentic books at the same level?

The main advantage that graded readers have over authentic material is that they’re able to introduce the idea of extensive reading and the skills, gains in confidence and pleasure that come with it even to beginners. If you treated these readers like vocabulary lists you’d be missing the point, because their purpose is to help you learn two things: how to read quickly and automatically, and how to understand unknown words from context using the information that you already have. These are skills that are probably easier to learn with graded readers than they are with more unpredictable authentic material. Because they’re presented in a controlled way, there shouldn’t be many words or parts you don’t understand, making it easier to read quickly and to learn how to isolate and make guesses about unknown material.

They also get you used to the feeling of reading at your fluent reading level and give you the experience of being able to successfully finish and completely comprehend stories in Japanese. They also take out some of the guesswork in picking out appropriate books; even among picture books, some are quite easy, most are in a sort of general range and some of them are surprisingly difficult. If you’re a beginning reader you may not be able to tell the difference immediately, meaning that you may have a frustrating experience with a deceptively easy-looking book through no fault of your own. If you can read one level 1 graded reader, on the other hand, you should theoretically be able to read all of them. For learners who are less confident in their Japanese skills, or can’t stand not being able to understand what they’re reading, these may also be particularly helpful.

By design, they don’t last too long: after all, you’re supposed to read them at a level that feels easy for you, and if you’re not able to read them reasonably quickly, it’s a sign you’re trying to read at too high of a level. So even though the stories don’t cost too much individually, it may seem like a high expense for something that feels so fleeting, and they are only a sliver of what you would need if you wanted to pursue extensive reading as a primary learning strategy. For that reason, I think that they would be great as supplements to Japanese courses of any level or as an addition to a library’s collection, because that would make them available to more people and lessen the individual student’s financial burden. As a matter of fact, I would think that if they’re not being marketed directly to Japanese teachers they should be.

For individual students, whether or not they’re worth the expense probably depends on where you are in your studies. The short answer is that I think they could be useful for beginning to intermediate learners, as advertised, but they would be best for true beginners and people who are at the point where they could take levels 5-3 of the the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (by the new system – 4 and 3 by the old system).

If I was starting Japanese from the beginning, I would buy at least the level 0, 1 and 2 volumes, because it would be great to get some of the benefits of extensive reading that early on. At the lower levels, these graded readers are far superior to authentic material, because equivalent authentic material doesn’t exist: specialized childish vocabulary and writing styles make real Japanese children’s books less useful for beginners than they might seem, so you would have to study longer to actually read them at all fluently and not get all that much out of them, whereas these graded readers you can fully understand very early on. God knows I’ve spent more money on much less useful books, and spread out over a couple years of studying, the cost wouldn’t be so bad.

If you’ve studied for a while and would like to try tadoku, the level 2-3 volumes (possibly level 1 or level 4 depending on your ability) might be a good, low-stress place to start, but if you’re already able to read books that are level 2 by the system I use (that is, picture books), and you have a good supply of those books available to you – then maybe, maybe not. I think they generally would be useful, but you do have to consider the expense. (And, when making this calculation, keep in mind that there are a lot of things to read for free online.) Again, I think that the main value of these graded readers is that they help make you confident about reading and teach you the skills needed to read quickly. In that sense they’ll be more fun and generally provide a better experience than a lot of other things you could read, as authentic books can be pretty erratic in terms of difficulty and how interesting their content is.

If you’re studying for JLPT level 2 or have at least a first grade reading level (that is, around level 3 by the system I use) and have access to appropriate authentic material, I’d have to say that the higher-level readers might be fun and useful but wouldn’t be as valuable to you as the lower-level readers would be to beginning students; I think at this point you’d generally be better off with real books. The disadvantage is that the real material you would be using would be at a lower level with less kanji and less adult subject material, but an advanced reader might blow through even the level 4 readers and then find that authentic books that looked the same at the first glance are actually still above their fluent reading level, because those books use so much more vocabulary. Again, though, if you don’t have the skills needed for understanding words through context by this point, the graded readers might be a better way to practice those than authentic material. I think I’m about at a point where I would be lucky to pass JLPT 2, and at the time I bought these I already had practice reading and understanding things through context; although I’m glad I was able to read them, I would not have bought these for myself. (I bought them because I’m going to try to start an extensive reading group and because I wanted to review them for my blog, and I bought as many as I did because I got them used.)

Review of よむよむ文庫 レベル別日本語多読ライブラリー レベル 0 (Reading Collection: Graded Japanese Extensive Reading Library Level 0)
Volume 1: 90 pages, 535 words (est.)
Volume 2: 89 pages, 630 words (est.)

Click here for my introduction to the よむよむ文庫 series and information about graded readers.

Level 0, 入門 (Introduction): These require a vocabulary of 350 words and knowledge of the most basic structures such as the present and past tenses and asking questions. They are at most 400 characters long; around 100 words by my system. They’re designed for true beginners.

The first volume has six stories, each of which are fifteen pages long, for a total of around 535 words by my system, or an average of 90 words each. The second volume also has six volumes, which are all fifteen pages long except for one which is fourteen pages, and has a total of 630 words, or an average of 105 words in each story. So, again, assuming you buy one volume for $37, each story is a little over $6. (That’s assuming you get them from White Rabbit Press; see my introduction for more.) All of the volumes come with a CD, so you can listen along to all of the stories.

As books designed for non-native speakers, these graded readers automatically fall outside of the classification system I use for authentic material, but in spirit these Level 0 stories are closest to level 1 books, which are the most basic books available. However, for an adult learner, they’re much better than authentic basic books because they’re designed to be useful. That is, I find that well-written level 2 books can be pretty fun, with good fairytales and illustrations and so on, but level 1 books are usually so babyish that they’re a trial even for someone like me, and I’ve only read a couple that felt like they could be worth the time of an adult student. Furthermore, they’re not particularly any better for a beginning student because even though they look easy, they tie together a lot of Japanese language knowledge that Japanese kids have been exposed to from birth, but people just starting to learn the language probably don’t know yet. For example, they draw on a specialized vocabulary: lots of childish words, sound words and words that are basic, but not at all the kinds of words that beginning adult students learn. They also use grammatical structures well above what a beginning learner probably knows, dropped particles and overly conversational styles, and less formal patterns for structures a learner might already know in another guise. For example, a beginning learner might know how to ask for things with お願いします and ください, but not ちょうだい, which is the one you’re more likely to see in a kid’s book. A beginner could still perhaps puzzle out the meanings, but for tadoku, the ideal is to be able to read fluently and understand most if not all of what you’re reading quickly, without translating back into your native language. Also, there’s no kanji (which, admittedly, is a problem with authentic material that continues until you’re at about a 3rd or 4th grade reading level), even words that are usually written in katakana are often written in hiragana (which is just plain annoying) and of course the content of a book written for a 2-year old is not precisely the kind of stuff most adults would pick up for fun.

On the other hand, these most basic graded readers use a tiny amount of words and just a few grammar structures, so theoretically it wouldn’t be too long before a complete beginner was able to read these. Most importantly, their content is much more bearable for adult readers: some of the stories feel quite sophisticated despite the controlled vocabulary, and you could re-read them a couple of times without getting bored. I thought they would feel like extensions of a textbook but they didn’t feel dry to me, even as short as they are, and they conveyed some useful cultural information in a fun, accessible way. Also, they use kanji right off the bat, even ones like 靴 (shoe). That’s technically a JLPT 2 kanji, but it’s one you see in real life and there’s no downside to connecting it to くつ right from the beginning. (I don’t think there’s a need for a katakana gloss even at this level, though. Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t most Japanese learners learn katakana right from the start?)

These readers capture the good parts of level 1 books, which would be the difficulty level, use of repetition to help the reader understand or retain information and ample pictures, but they do it in a way that works for adult readers. In my experience so far, there really is no equivalent authentic material out there, so graded readers at this level would be best for true beginners interested in adding tadoku to their studies.

You can see and hear one page from seven different stories at this level online, so you can tell before ordering if they’d be at an appropriate level for you. There is also a full sample of a Level 1 story available on the Japanese Graded Readers Research Group’s website: 船 (The Boat). So if you try it and it seems too overwhelming or difficult, then go with level 0. There are two volumes of level 0 graded readers: Level 0, Volume 1 and Level 0, Volume 2. (I’m not associated with White Rabbit Press; they just have the cheapest price for these graded readers at the moment.)

As I first encountered these as an intermediate learner after doing extensive reading for a few months, I don’t have any personal experience as to what it would be like to use them as a beginner or without experience with extensive reading, although I can make an educated guess based on my own experiences with learning the language and extensive reading and on watching other people read some of them. So if you’ve used them, please leave a comment! I’d love to hear about your experience – did you think they were useful? worth the money? fun? about the right difficulty level?

Review of よむよむ文庫 レベル別日本語多読ライブラリー レベル 2 (Reading Collection: Graded Japanese Extensive Reading Library Level 2)
Total: 111 pages, 3,190 words (est.)

Click here for my introduction to the よむよむ文庫 series and information about graded readers.

Level 2, 初級後半 (Second half of the beginner level): The amount of words used jumps to 500, more grammar structures are introduced and the number of characters per reader goes from 1,500-2,500 (450-800 words). They’re suitable for people studying for the old JLPT levels 4 and 3 (new levels 5 and 4). There are three volumes of these, with five stories each.

Due to the wider variety of grammatical structures, these Level 2 graded readers start to feel more like authentic picture books, albeit very easy ones with more advanced stories than you might find in picture books of comparable difficulty. There’s five stories in all, and again, although they’re the same length in terms of pages, their word count gets progressively longer, from 絵姿奥さん (The Wife’s Picture), which is 450 words, to 一休さん (Ikkyū-san) which is 800 words. The full set has about the same number of pages as Level 1, Volume 1, but about twice the number of words. There are five 22 or 23 page stories in this volume, so, as with level 1, each story works out to about $7.40. (That’s assuming you get them from White Rabbit Press; see my introduction for more.)

These, especially the last two stories, felt more like actual books that Japanese kids might read, but they’re simplified in a way that didn’t feel condescending and still made good use of illustrations to aid comprehension. For example, in 絵姿奥さん, there’s a line about how the man hangs his wife’s picture on a branch, and although there’s already an illustration of something else on the page, they add a little picture of the action. There’s enough context there that a reader who didn’t know 枝 could guess that it means “branch,” but if that guess is then put together with the picture, then the connection between 枝 and “branch” is solidified. They also make use of words that were introduced and repeated in previous volumes. In one of the level 0 books, お茶碗 (rice bowl or teacup) is introduced by illustrations of the characters literally shoving an お茶碗 in the readers’ face five times, so I couldn’t help but smile whenever I saw it appear in a later book.

As with the others, there are one-page samples from four of the stories online, as well as a CD that comes with each volume. There is also a full sample of a Level 1 story available on the Japanese Graded Readers Research Group’s website: 船 (The Boat). So if you read that and it seems extremely easy, go with level 2. There are three volumes of level 2 graded readers available: Level 2, Volume 1, Level 2, Volume 2 and Level 2, Volume 3. (I’m not associated with White Rabbit Press; they just have the cheapest price for these graded readers at the moment.)

As I first encountered these as an intermediate learner after doing extensive reading for a few months, I don’t have any personal experience as to what it would be like to use them as a beginner or without experience with extensive reading, although I can make an educated guess based on my own experiences with learning the language and extensive reading and on watching other people read some of them. So if you’ve used them, please leave a comment! I’d love to hear about your experience – did you think they were useful? worth the money? fun? about the right difficulty level?

Review of よむよむ文庫 レベル別日本語多読ライブラリー レベル 3 (Reading Collection: Graded Japanese Extensive Reading Library Level 3)
Total: 149 pages, 7,200 words (est.)

Click here for my introduction to the よむよむ文庫 series and information about graded readers.

Level 3, 初中級 (Lower intermediate level): For these, an 800-word vocabulary is required, even more grammar structures come into play and the number of characters per reader goes from 2,500-5,000 (1,200-2,000 words). They’re suitable for people studying for the old JLPT level 3 (probably equivalent to new levels 4 and 3). There are three volumes of these, with five stories each.

There are five stories in this volume (so again, each one works out to about $7.40,assuming you get them from White Rabbit Press; see my introduction for more) with 29-31 pages each, and they go from about 1,200 words to about 2,000 words each for a total of about 7,200 words, meaning that this volume has more than twice the content as Level 2, Volume 1. Although the stories are still simplified, heavily supported by pictures and make a point of defining words that readers might not know, they start to feel like real material around this point; there’s no question that the short stories are abridged, but the version of かぐやひめ (Kaguya-hime) at this level is not so very different from an authentic, low level 3 version of the same story that I own. The real one has many compound verbs (that is, words like だきかかえる (to carry something in one’s arms), a combination of だく(to hold in one’s arms or to embrace) and かかえる(to hold or carry under one’s arm)), as well as slightly more varied vocabulary, natural dialogue and complex sentences, but otherwise it feels about the same.

My guess is that if you had been developing your confidence, reading speed and ability to figure words out from context with the material at this level, possibly supported by the previous levels, you should be able to start reading authentic picture books at this point without too much trouble. It would probably feel like a huge comedown in terms of complexity and content, but that would be balanced by the thrill of reading real Japanese books, and ideally the experience you’d gained through the graded readers would help you progress to more difficult, interesting material more quickly than if you had started with whatever random picture books you had at hand.

One thing I particularly like about this set is that there are a couple of abridged stories by famous Japanese authors: 注文の多い料理店 (The Restaurant of Many Orders) by Kenji Miyazawa and two short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, 鼻 (The Nose) and 蜘蛛の糸 (The Spider’s Thread). I bet there’s a lot of overlap between people interested in the Japanese language and people interested in the literature, but it can be frustrating to study and study, then realize that you won’t actually be reading that literature for a long time — or that you can do it if you’re willing to look up every third word and spend an hour trying to understand the meaning of a single sentence. So even though these stories are abridged, I think that being able to read them at this level is motivating. (It does remind me of the Gatsby graded reader debate, but that’s a post for another day.)

This is also where 一生懸命 (to do something with all your effort) starts to show up, which shows that the creators really did their homework: it’s the single most common 四字熟語 (four-character idiom) in authentic books at this level, so I was glad to see it reinforced not just once or twice, but as part of every story.

As before, there are one-page samples from four of the stories online, as well as a CD that comes with each volume. There are three level 3 volumes available: Level 3, Volume 1, Level 3, Volume 2 and Level 3, Volume 3. (I’m not associated with White Rabbit Press; they just have the cheapest price for these graded readers at the moment.)

As I first encountered these as an intermediate learner after doing extensive reading for a few months, I don’t have any personal experience as to what it would be like to use them as a beginner or without experience with extensive reading, although I can make an educated guess based on my own experiences with learning the language and extensive reading and on watching other people read some of them. So if you’ve used them, please leave a comment! I’d love to hear about your experience – did you think they were useful? worth the money? fun? about the right difficulty level?

Review of よむよむ文庫 レベル別日本語多読ライブラリー レベル 4 (Reading Collection: Graded Japanese Extensive Reading Library Level 4)
Total: 189 pages, 13,300 words (est.)
Total: 191 pages, 12,900 words (est.)

Click here for my introduction to the よむよむ文庫 series and information about graded readers.

Level 4, 中級 (Intermediate level): These go up to a 1300-word vocabulary, with the most complex grammar structures out of all the readers, and there’s 5,000-10,000 characters per reader (2,000 – 3,500 words). They’re suitable for people studying for the old JLPT levels 3 and 2 (probably equivalent to new levels 3 and 2). There are two volumes of these, with five stories each.

As with most of the other volumes, there are five stories in each volume (so, again, about $7.40, assuming you get them from White Rabbit Press; see my introduction for more) with 35-39 pages each, but the text is dense enough that 2,000-3,000 words are packed into each one. There’s still quite a few pictures, though. These level 4 graded readers have as many words as many books that are level 4 by my system and make use of more kanji, but because they’re thin (35-39 pages each) and have small text, they feel cheap (as in price, not quality) compared to a hard-cover authentic book at the same level. I wish there were more pamphlet-style books like these, instead of so many books with big old hard covers — they’d be so much cheaper to ship!

In terms of how complex their sentences are and the kinds of words they use, they feel very much like real level 3 and 4 books that I’ve read, so if you can read those, you should definitely be able to read authentic books at that level. Compared to the other levels, they’re much more serious and adult, and I felt, while I was reading, almost as if it was like a dream compared to reading real books. Because the vocabulary here is still controlled at 1,300 words, it is absolutely not the same as reading a real novel intended for adults or older children, who have full control over thousands of words; if you started your tadoku journey here as an intermediate student, then expected to go on to authentic books that used similar amounts of kanji and small text and read those just as quickly and easily, you might be in for a rude awakening. It’s more likely that to be able to read at the same speed and level of understanding you would have to go down in terms of content; still, if you can read these graded readers fairly easily, you should definitely be able to read authentic level 3 and 4 books without much problem. All the same, these do give you a taste of what it would be like to know enough vocabulary and kanji to be able to quickly read real, high-level material, and it feels great. It’s an artificial construct, but a fun one.

Incidentally, if you read the story in 世界のどこかで 日本のどこかで 〜本当にあった話〜 (Somewhere In The World, Somewhere In Japan: True Stories) about the 三億円事件 (300 million yen incident), be sure to join one of Sakai-sensei’s Skype chats and ask him about it sometime!

As before, there are one-page samples from two of the stories online, as well as a CD that comes with each volume. There are two volumes of Level 4 graded readers available: Level 4, Volume 1 and Level 4, Volume 2. (I’m not associated with White Rabbit Press; they just have the cheapest price for these graded readers at the moment.)

As I first encountered these as an intermediate learner after doing extensive reading for a few months, I don’t have any personal experience as to what it would be like to use them as a beginner or without experience with extensive reading, although I can make an educated guess based on my own experiences with learning the language and extensive reading and on watching other people read some of them. So if you’ve used them, please leave a comment! I’d love to hear about your experience – did you think they were useful? worth the money? fun? about the right difficulty level?