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.)

5 Responses to Introduction to 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

  1. Cosmo says:

    Looking at those pages of the level zero, I am at like a -2 my katakana and kanji are not functional at all and I have a vocabulary of only like 50 words or something if it is in hiragana. I am trying out a version of AJATT so I am still slowly plowing through RTK and trying to immerse myself. Should someone like me interested in tadoku wait to get more vocabulary after finishing heisig or start with word books similar to Richard Scary’s word books? Are there word books with CDs?

  2. Liana says:

    The problem I’ve found with even the most basic word books for native speakers is that they introduce words that just plain old aren’t that useful for language learners at the most basic level. That’s because the little Japanese kid learning to read already knows most of those words and is connecting what he or she knows to the written word, but the learner is getting both the new vocabulary and the reading practice at once. I’ve seen a lot of picture books based around the hiragana syllabary, and since the authors have to choose words that start with the desired hiragana, are ones that kids know and that are easily illustrated, they end up having a lot of rather advanced nouns. I’ve even seen one picture book that was nothing BUT a single hiragana character and a picture to go with it on each page (that is, the picture wasn’t labeled). It might seem like it couldn’t possibly get any simpler than that… but at least half of the pictures were cultural-specific words that a Japanese kid would know immediately, but a language learner wouldn’t.

    I also think that just a little context helps you retain a word and remember how it’s used, too, so even just putting a word in a super simple sentence in a super simple story is probably better than having it alone on the page, scattered among a bunch of other single words. Dictionaries or illustrated encyclopedias often seem to me to have a sort of information overload problem, and of course it would be likely be a pretty specialized kind of information. At that level, you could probably re-read the book multiple times, kind of like what a kid might do, but it seems to me like a more structured vocabulary study would be more efficient for a learner at that level.

    With that said, I haven’t read very many books that are that basic — maybe about a dozen. I’d like to spend time looking at more, maybe there are some good ones that would be worth the money (and there might be some on EhonNavi for free?)

    I think tadoku with authentic materials is, unfortunately, not accessible if you don’t already have a fairly wide base of vocabulary; most of the Japanese tadokists I know or read about have had a fair amount of exposure to English through their education (although many if not most of them report that they disliked English and weren’t good at it before tadoku, they still did probably have some latent vocabulary). They also have the benefit of access to a lot of graded readers, many even simpler than the level 0 Japanese graded readers linked to here; those things just simply don’t exist in English yet. If they did, it’d be a different story. As it is, I’d say that if you’re interested in tadoku, start with the kind of basic vocabulary you’d need if you wanted to study for the lowest JLPT level.

    Good luck! I will keep thinking about it, too.

  3. Liana says:

    I did start taking a look at some of the books on EhonNavi – there do seem to be a couple that could be read without much prior vocabulary. There’s もこもこもこ which is all onomatopoeia, and あいうえおべんとう, an alphabet book centered around food. (I guess the right term wouldn’t be “alphabet”… Heh, I’m tired ^^;; Will figure it out later.) I’ll write reviews of the books I read — EhonNavi is a great resource, but since you’re only supposed to be able to read them once, it’s even more important than usual to know if you’ll get anything out of it!

  4. Zach Sarette says:

    Hey! Great news! I found the graded readers here in Korea! They are made in Korea too! They are about 11,000 won 13,000 won (maybe $8 – $10?) which is actually super cheap compared to the prices you see elsewhere. I didn’t go to Japan yet to check out the prices of them there. Maybe they are at a similar price or maybe they are more expensive. There were only a few levels at the book store so I bought all that I could. They were just missing a few parts from the series.

    I can see for a complete beginner this would be a bit hard to read. But after a few beginner textbooks and learning some of the basic characters, one should be able to attack the level 0 and 1 books.

    I read a few level one books on the bus ride home from the bookstore. They are so cool! I really like reading these! It’s so enjoyable it’s embarrassing! The “女の子” book is pretty creepy and sad, but it has a happy ending.

    I was skimming through one of the level three books and level 4 books and was pleasantly surprised I could understand a lot. Not everything, and not at a fluent pace. But still. I have more confidence now than before.

    That’s all for now. Time for a bit more reading before bed.