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:
- 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. There are two volumes of these, with six stories each. Click here for my review of this level.
- Level 1, 初級前半 (First half of the beginner level): These draw on the same vocabulary list and grammar forms as level 0 readers, but are up to three times longer; they go from 400-1,500 characters per story (around 100 words to 550 words). They’re suitable for people studying for the old JLPT level 4 (new level 5). There are three volumes of these, with five stories each. Click here for my review of this level.
- 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. Click here for my review of this level.
- 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. Click here for my review of this level.
- 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. Click here for my review of this level.
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)
- 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 １ (Reading Collection: Graded Japanese Extensive Reading Library Level 1)
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
Extensive Reading Material Online
Free Japanese Children’s Stories and Fairytales
With over 1,000 free Japanese picture books, EhonNavi is like living next to a library! Sign up here, it’s quick and free. (I wrote a walkthrough to help with this part.) Once you’re logged in, click the link on the right that says 全ページ試し読み to see the available books; click a book and find the yellow icon that says the same thing to read it.
There are books for everyone here! The list of available books has a section where they can be sorted by age. I’ve also started sorting them by word count. The lower the word count, the easier the book. I’ve mostly focused on adding the very easy ones so far, so that even beginners can start reading.
You can only read a book once, and if there’s an error of some sort you should be able to re-access the book, as long as it’s within 15 minutes. The recommended OS is Microsoft Windows XP Home Service Pack 3, with Internet Explorer 8.0 or Firefox 3.6 and Flash Player 10 installed. It may not work as well with WindowsXP Service Pack 2 or Mac, and Chrome is not supported. I read them on a Mac with Firefox, and it works consistently for me, but I have to follow a procedure. When I open the book, the first thing I do is flip through the pages, waiting until each one loads. Once I’m at the end with all of the pages loaded, I’ll go back to the beginning and read. If the loading stops and some of the pages are still pixelated after waiting a few minutes, I have to shut the whole browser down, then open it back up again and start reading again. (Just closing the window with the book in it and trying to open that again never works for me.) Hopefully it’s not like this for everyone… Remember, you have a 15-minute window to load the pages, but once you have them loaded you can keep the window open indefinitely.
It’s a little picky, but I think this is the best resource out there for Japanese picture books, so please give it a shot!
福娘童話集 (Hukumusume’s Fairy Tale Collection)
With hundreds of fairy tales, short stories and fables, you’ll never be hurting for reading material as long as this site is around! Start with the stories that have been made into picture books. Many of the other stories don’t have pictures, making them better for more advanced readers. Try 日本の昔話 (Japanese Folktales), and if those are starting to feel like you’ve read them a billion times, try the 江戸小話 (Short Stories from Edo), or make a habit of reading 今日は何の日？ (What Day Is It Today?)
心の絵本 (Picture Books For The Heart)
Nicely illustrated short stories, mostly little folktale types of stories featuring cute animals. (They are even written in all hiragana and katakana, no kanji; this is a pain for adult readers who already know and would like to practice kanji, but it is exactly what you’ll find in a real picture book.) Click here for word counts and levels for some of the stories. (Again, the lower the word count, the easier the story.)
デジタル絵本サイト (Digital Picture Book Site).
This site has around a hundred picture books, all illustrated by children. My only problem with it is that there are a lot of compression artifacts around the text for most, though not all, of the stories, and it really bothers me, considering that actual kids books start with nice, clear, large text. If the poor quality of the text is a problem for you, start with the stories in large text — there’s about thirty of them.
The Great Chokochoko Library
A collection of reading material, sorted by level. There’s various types of material available: stories, articles and so on. It seems to be geared towards a more traditional type of reading practice, with no pictures and long wordlists.
日本昔ばなし (Old Stories Of Japan)
I would recommend the other story sites over this one because it might be too tempting to rely on the English translation; there are, however, many Japanese fairy tales available here, and my impression is that they use more advanced kanji than the other two sites, so it may be worth a look.
Japanese books from the International Children’s Library
There are only a handful of stories in Japanese, but I do like to see kids’ books from the Showa era, so I’m including it anyway.
Gakken Books for Supporting Reconstruction
Gakken has made some of their books available for free in PDF form to help support the children and families still living in shelters after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, as well as volunteers and nurses. The page is divided into three categories: picture books/reading material, games that can be played without special equipment and disaster nursing.
船 (The Boat)
This is, unfortunately, just one story, but if you are thinking about buying the よむよむ文庫 Japanese graded readers (or of course, just for reading practice in general), try this Level 1 (beginner) story, which was put up as a sample of the series.
ふぁんた時間 (Fantasy Time)
More of a listening resource than a reading resource, but that’s good to have too! Each story has a link to its corresponding Aozora entry, so you can read along while listening if you like, or read the story first if you prefer. (This may also be a good way of finding more reading material by the same authors on Aozora, which I think is a hard site for a beginning reader to find suitable content on.) Stories with a green button marked 立ち読みする have lovely illustrations and text to go along with the audio.
These are generally more complicated than stories from Hukumusume or the Digital Picture Book Site.
ゆめよみおはなし ひなたぼっこ (Dream-Reading Storytime: Basking In The Sun)
This used to be available as a podcast, but I can’t tell if it is anymore or not. It’s a mother and her son reading stories from different sources such as Aozora and 福娘童話集, and it’s really charming! There are links to all the stories, so you can read along.
Intermediate Reading Resources
青い鳥文庫 ためし読み！(Aoitori Bunko: Trial Reading!)
Aoitori Bunko is a line of classic books and original fiction aimed at children between around 3rd grade and 6th grade; I would estimate most of their books are level 6 or so. This page has previews of dozens of their books, so check it out if you are a fairly advanced reader and looking for a new book or series to try!
マジック・ツリーハウス 立ち読み (Magic Tree House: Trial Reading)
The Magic Tree House series has been translated into Japanese, and you can read around a dozen pages from each of the books here, so you can test them out and see if they’d be at your level and fun for you.
「いろいろな場面／「４こままんが」(Various Situations / 4-Panel Manga)
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I find 擬音語 (sound words) and 擬態語, (emotional state words) to be extremely hard to learn just from context, so one of my friends was kind enough to find this site for me. It presents those kinds of words in context and in comics.
青空文庫 (Open Air Library)
Aozora is similar to Project Gutenberg, with impressive amounts of public domain material freely available. As far as extensive reading goes, though, I think it’s really only likely to be of use to someone already reading at a fairly high level (level 5 and up by my classification system), and they use the ruby tag for furigana, which displays kanji readings in parentheses if you’re using a browser that doesn’t support the tag. (Chrome, Safari and Internet Explorer support it.) If you’re not yet at the level where you can read advanced material without decoding it, I think even the time spent trying to navigate this site to find something interesting and suitable to read would be better spent elsewhere. Still, if you can handle advanced material without decoding, it might be time to try some authentic literature here. You could start with 宮沢賢治 (Miyazawa Kenji), who wrote children’s stories such as 注文の多い料理店 (The Restaurant of Many Orders), or 新美南吉 (Niimi Nankichi), whose 手袋を買いに (Buying Mittens) is a classic.
近代デジタルライブラリー (Digital Library from the Meiji Era)
I suspect there is fun to be had here if you are not only a fairly high-level reader, but also patient with the interface and able to cope with unexpected things like old-style kanji and orthography and horizontal Japanese read right to left. There’s Japanese kids’ books in the 909 section (use the テーマ検索 link to get there), you could search for stories you already know like 桃太郎, or start with this page about children’s stories, from the announcement of the merging of the 児童書デジタルライブラリー (Juvenile Literature Digital Library) with this site. I can’t say I’m seriously recommending this for most extensive readers, even if there are children’s books — I just think it’s so amazing that something like this is available to the world.
News Sites for Kids
NHK NewsWeb Easy
News written in easy Japanese. Of the news sites I’m listing here, this one is the simplest. The language is simplified and there’s a pop-up dictionary for words that a reader might not know. Plus, there’s audio to go along with it, you can make any place names or names of people show up in a different color and you can follow a link back to the original article if you want to challenge yourself a little more. I wouldn’t recommend any of these to a beginning reader, but if you’re an intermediate reader and you want to start reading the news, start here!
こどもアサヒ (Children’s Asahi)
News articles written for grade-schoolers and middle-schoolers from the Asahi Shimbun’s sister paper, こどもアサヒ. There’s also a digital version of the full newspaper that you can subscribe to for 1720 yen a month. If anyone actually does this, please tell me how you liked it!
毎日小学生新聞 (Mainichi Grade-Schooler Newspaper)
Articles and so on for grade schoolers from the Mainichi Shinbun. I haven’t spent much time reading this one, but the sense I get from it is that it uses harder language and fewer supports than NHK News Web Easy, and that there’s more types of content, such as interviews and explanations of words used in the news.
I’m always on the lookout for more online reading resources, so feel free to post them in the comments! I’m particularly interested in low-level resources, because those are the kinds of things that are the most useful, but the most hard to find if you’re a beginning reader. I presume that anyone who is able to read things like the texts at the Japanese Text Initiative already knows how to find them.
I’ve been thinking about a post on Ryan Layman’s blog about how he recommends avoiding children’s books. It’s apparent I take precisely the opposite approach, but that post made me spend some time thinking about why I think extensive reading starting with extremely basic books is worth my time and that of other learners, as previously my reasons didn’t go much deeper than “This is what works for people I know, it’s currently working for me and I enjoy it!” I am all for doing whatever complements your personal learning style to gain fluency, and I’m by no means interested in insisting that all Japanese learners do exactly what I’m doing. I do think, however, that there are advantages to this method that greatly outweigh the disadvantages of being initially limited to materials meant for children and not reinforcing kanji through reading, and I would suggest that other learners consider adding it to whatever they already enjoy doing.
The most basic reason I’ve started with children’s books is that I’m mimicking what I’ve seen work for my Japanese friends who introduced me to extensive reading. In October 2009, I started using lang-8, which is a site where people write diaries in their target language and native speakers of that language correct their writing for them. I met a couple of people through lang-8 who were into extensive reading (多読 — tadoku in Japanese), and the first thing I noticed was that their English writing was admirably fluent. Keep in mind that my job is reading and evaluating essays written in English by non-native speakers for eight hours at a time, so I’m sensitive to differences in writing ability. They wrote at a high level, but in a different way from people who had lived abroad for a significant period of time, and also in a different way from people who had obviously also spent a great deal of time studying and using English, but hadn’t used the same method. I soon learned that they enjoyed reading in English and had started with extremely simple children’s books, but now were able to pick up books as advanced as the Sherlock Holmes stories and Confessions of a Shopaholic and read them rapidly and accurately.
It was from them that I learned the three principles of extensive reading that they followed:
1. Don’t look up words in the dictionary.
2. Skip over parts you don’t understand.
3. If you aren’t enjoying one book, toss it aside and get another.
These principles were created by Kunihide Sakai, a retired English professor who champions extensive reading, and loosely translated from his site tadoku.org.
I started learning Japanese because I studied Japanese literature in college and I’m a fan of Japanese video games, so my most cherished goal in terms of my language studies is to be able to read Japanese at an adult level for fun. In other words, what they had was what I wanted, and if they got there by reading nothing but kids’ books for a year, then by golly I was not too proud to read nothing but kids’ books for a year. I have always loved reading in English, so for me the idea of improving through lots and lots of reading makes intuitive sense and plays to my strengths. I’m willing to follow the path that’s already been laid out because it happens to mesh with my personality and I have evidence it works for someone who’s dedicated.
To recap my approach, I follow the three principles listed above*, I keep track of the number of words I’ve read, and I started reading with extremely simple children’s books. When I say “extremely simple” here, I don’t mean “Harry Potter” or “short stories by Haruki Murakami.” I mean “Miffy In The Tent” and “Kumako-chan’s Polka Dot Handkerchief”: books that were well below what I could actually comprehend. (Heck, according to this interview with Professor Sakai, he started students off with books where the only text was in the title. That’s pretty hardcore.)
I consider fluent reading to be reading without translation and with a high degree of understanding at a speed comparable to my English reading speed. Books within one’s fluent reading level should have between zero and four unknown words per page; more unknown words than that, and it starts to impede understanding. I personally prefer books that are just a shade or two below my fluent reading level, but books that are at my fluent reading level are all right, too; however, I avoid books above my fluent reading level. I don’t use a dictionary while reading, and it took me a while to gain the confidence I needed to do this, but after I stopped, I started seeing more benefits from my reading and enjoying it more. On occasion I will look up something after I have finished a book, but I would rather go on to the next book instead.
*There’s one exception to this: if I’m bored with a book, but it’s within my level and I’m not actually having trouble with the content, I keep reading it so I can add it to the list in hopes that the knowledge may be useful to someone else. If I wasn’t doing this sort of blog, I would happily chuck such books off to the side.
My reading skill has improved noticeably since I started extensive reading, particularly in the months after I finally broke the habit of using a dictionary and started reading more and more, so at least in my case I can say that this method is paying off. When I started dabbling in extensive reading last spring, I started off at about level 2, when I started my blog about three months ago, I had been devoting more time to reading for a couple of months and I was about at level 3 or 4, and now I consider level 5 books within my fluent reading level and Japanese I read online seems to jump into my eyes differently than it did before.
I do think it’s crucial to stay with text within your fluent reading level and not to use a dictionary while reading, because I have experience with doing just the opposite and it did not give me these kinds of results. For example, I spent hours and hours playing Japanese RPGs long before I heard of extensive reading; I was highly motivated to understand them, and there’s no doubt that they exposed me to a great deal of text. I think that, more than anything else, was what helped me understand Japanese as a flexible, living language and not a collection of set phrases and grammar rules, and I did improve my reading and my recognition of kanji while playing them: I feel, however, that in terms of overall reading skill extensive reading has been of more value to me. That is, spending a great deal of time and effort on understanding a video game that was well above my level but of great personal interest improved my ability to play that particular video game, but only helped me slightly with the next one. Extensive reading has helped me improve my basic reading skill, which makes everything a little easier, including video games.
I also tried regular reading long before I heard of extensive reading. I picked up books that looked interesting, books that looked like they should be simple and books I had already read in English, and then I spent who knows how long poring over them, looking up vocabulary words and making hopeful little flashcard sets. I rarely got more than a chapter in. I thought the problem was with me, and I just needed to practice more and stop giving up so easily, but now I can see that I was just setting my sights too high without having the broad base of vocabulary and reading experience necessary for such material.
I also spent a great deal of time using lang-8 before I even tried extensive reading, both writing diaries and responding to comments and messages in Japanese: this definitely helped my reading skill, as this kind of text was very different from video game Japanese. Before I started, piecing together the meaning of a long and complicated message in Japanese easily took me all day; after four or five months, that dropped to a few hours. However, it was still essentially decoding. I was able to comprehend the text, that is, but it wasn’t at all within my fluent reading level.
These three experiences, combined with the results I’ve seen from low-level extensive reading, make me believe that it isn’t just exposure to large amounts of interesting, but high-level text that makes the difference. I learned a lot about reading from video games, the books I tried to read and lang-8, but I think that it was reading a huge amount of text well within my fluent reading level that had the greatest effect on my basic reading skill; I perceive that it’s changed something about the way I process Japanese that doing a great deal of decoding, being exposed to lots of high-level text and even near-daily writing didn’t. Obviously I’ve been spending much of my free time on extensive reading lately, but I’ve spent much more energy on trying to read videogames, high-level books and lang-8 comments, so I don’t think the effort I’ve expended on extensive reading is the deciding factor. I think it’s just the case that successful, comfortable reading leads to improvement in one’s reading skill more than anything else does.
I should note, as well, that my own personality and what I’m trying to do with this blog affect the way I approach reading. I personally get uncomfortable if I know I’m not understanding something, so I have a tendency to read below my fluent reading level as long as I have enough material to do so. The jargon I would use, if I was writing about myself as part of a study, is “
nonexistent low ambiguity tolerance.” Others might prefer to push themselves, and that’s an equally valid approach: part of the benefit of starting with extremely simple books is that you learn what fluent reading feels like to you, so as you improve, as long as you’re honest with yourself about where the boundary between “challenging but within fluent reading level” and “too hard” lies, you’re fine. After all, rule 3 (stop reading a book you don’t enjoy) applies not only to books that are too hard, but also to books that are distractingly easy.
Also, I hope to introduce extensive reading to other Japanese learners in the area, so I feel like I have to know more about the level 1 and 2 books I have access to so that I can help even beginning learners get into extensive reading as well. If it wasn’t for that, I’d be well done with level 1 and 2 books, except for ones that are particularly fun like the ばけばけ町 books.
So I want to emphasize that starting extensive reading is not the same as sentencing yourself to easy books forever. That said, even though doing extensive reading doesn’t necessarily mean you would have to stick with low-level children’s books as long as I have, here’s why I believe they have value.
In my opinion, there are four things you can get from reading anything:
1) The sense of satisfaction you get from understanding and finishing the text
This feeling is something you might not think a well-adjusted adult would get out of reading an easy book, but when that book is in another language, it changes the entire context. Before you can read a book in Japanese, even an easy one, you have to tie together a great deal of knowledge. You have to be able to link a syllable’s pronunciation to the writing system, know how to separate words and particles, be able to quickly recall vocabulary, use grammar knowledge to understand the intended meaning, cope with non-standard uses of the language and be able to skip over or figure out unknown words from context. Not only that, but you have to learn to do all these things automatically, so you can pay attention to the story, messages and background information. Reading a book within your fluent reading level is the culmination of a great deal of effort; looking down on it as something even children can do is missing the point.
2) The actual information presented in the text
For a fiction book, this is the story, and for a non-fiction book, it’s the information about whatever the subject is, sometimes presented as a story. At any difficulty level, there are books with excellent stories or nicely presented information. Not all of them, it’s true, as Sturgeon’s Law holds in this field as surely as it does in any other. Enough, though, to make it impossible to dismiss every single one of them; enough to make it worth your time to find books that amuse you while helping you reach your reading goals.
Particularly at the higher levels – say, high level three and over – it becomes easier to find books with engaging stories. (Picture books that stand out, I find, mostly do so because of their pictures, although some are genuinely witty and pleasurable to read.) For me personally, dealing with the easier books was not a problem because I like fairy tales, stories about children and nonsensical fantasy, but even for someone with a lower tolerance for such things, I think much of what I’ve read could be interesting. I joke about reading lots of stories about happy bears baking cakes, but that’s really just a small part of what I’ve read; more memorable are the stories where I got a peek into a family’s joys and arguments or the ones about a child’s struggles with school and daily life. Also, because of this project, I’ve read about subjects as varied as daily life in the Edo period, how monkeys hang out in onsens in the winter and how Sun Tzu got a group of concubines to act like soldiers.
So when I say that it can be worth an adult’s time to read kids’ books for their content, I don’t mean that you’re somehow a better and more pure person if you can enjoy fairytales. I think that good books for children can add value to an adult perspective on life or contain useful information. “Children’s book” doesn’t automatically mean “fluffy, mindless dreck written to torment children and bore adults.”
3) Some form of improvement in your language skill
That is, reading aids in reinforcing vocabulary and structures you already know and becoming able to understand them automatically, learning new words and collocations, identifying who’s talking about what and so on. It also includes the development of high-level skills such as being able to recognize differences in writing styles, forming a sense of what constitutes good writing and bad writing and being able to complete sentences that are left unfinished. Every book within your fluent reading level that is able to sustain your interest long enough to finish it will help you develop these skills.
Reading is sometimes a more frustrating way of learning vocabulary than flashcards are, but I’ve found that puzzling out an isolated word from context makes it more thoroughly mine. If I make a vocabulary list of 100 unknown words from one book the odds are high I will only remember a small number of them, but if I read 100 books that draw on that pool of unknown words, every time the words are repeated in a different context they become a little more accessible to me and I have a better chance of figuring out what they mean and retaining them. Plus, an interesting book provides an opportunity to create an emotional connection with a word in context, making it much more likely I’ll remember it.
Low-level books also create a great environment for learning words: as you read you’re automatically and repeatedly exposed to the words used for things like descriptions of characters and places, connections between thoughts, details of the actions and movements characters make and so on. Finally, don’t underestimate what a tremendous advantage pictures are! I hardly realized this until I started reading picture books, but the pictures aren’t just there to amuse the reader: they’re there to help readers make a connection between the information they already know and the information in the story. I find that if I don’t know one pivotal word, I often don’t remember the words that support it, but once I get that pivotal word, the others just fall into place; a picture is a shortcut to realizing what that word might be.
4) Background information about the cultural context of the story
Every book is sharing messages and information with you that aren’t immediately obvious. Even the most basic kids’ book says things like “Authors, publishers, librarians, teachers and parents think that this material is appropriate, both in terms of language and content, for children” and “Children are expected to like this material and the way it is presented.” Underlying messages may be obvious in things like fables and heavy-handed kids’ books (“Bullying is bad,” perhaps, or “It’s good to be friends”) and much less of a presence in other works, where the message may be as vague as “This subject deserves attention” or “This is the sort of thing I hope will make me money.” On a higher level, each book will have linguistic information such as “Refined women talk in this particular way” or “This is how someone might reply to a question when they don’t want to answer it” as well as background cultural information such as “This is how a couple might fight,” “Children love curry rice,” “Here is how to make friends,” “It’s acceptable for a married couple to live separately because of work obligations,” and so on.
All these things are fascinating to me, and so much of it you can’t necessarily get anywhere else: even if you live in Japan, for example, you aren’t likely to have a window into the daily dynamics of a first-grade classroom unless you happen to work in a school. This may be part of why I don’t feel bored or condescended to by even a simple book: as an adult raised in another culture, I feel rather like an alien researcher at times.
I’ll be quite honest: out of, say, a hundred books that I’ve read, I would only buy about five of them. There are about ten more that I’m content letting the library store for me, if I want to re-read them at some point. The remaining eighty-five? I can honestly say I enjoyed most of them, and every single one of them helped improve my reading skill and provided me with some sort of background information, but they weren’t terribly memorable and I’m never going to read them again. To put it another way, those books were fodder. My only requirement was that they be interesting enough to keep me reading until the end, because I wasn’t reading them for their own sake: I was reading them to add what I can to the broad base of vocabulary, cultural knowledge and so on that I will need to read higher-level texts. So you could say that in terms of extensive reading I value a book for three things: its story or information, its background information and messages, and its potential to add to my language skill. I can’t think of a single book I’ve read that has failed me on all three counts.
Not everyone will want to spend their time reading a book only for the benefit of being exposed to its sentence structures and background information, which is part of why I’m writing about these books as I go, in hopes that other readers can go straight for ones that sound interesting. There are enough Japanese children’s books that it should be possible to read hundreds that not only build your skill and background knowledge but are all interesting or informative in their own right, and spend little or no time with happy talking animals if that is what you prefer. Unfortunately, as far as I know, English speakers learning Japanese don’t have the extensive reading resources that Japanese speakers learning English do, so the biggest problem with extensive reading is neither starting at a low level nor the lack of kanji, but instead identifying and gathering the required materials. This is something I will be writing about a good deal in the future. (And by now, I imagine you believe me when I say I can write a good deal about something.)
If it is genuinely so boring to read a couple thousand words of kids’ books that it hampers your overall progress, by all means don’t do it. But I think for many people, the issue isn’t whether or not it’s boring, because we as language learners are used to repetitive tasks and delayed gratification; the problem is the ego getting in the way. If you think less of yourself, or think others will think less of you, for spending time on books you wouldn’t even look at were they in English, if you get annoyed at picking up a kids’ book and finding words you don’t know, or if you don’t see the point of reading easy things and think that it would be more worthwhile to spend your time on something harder, even if it’s outside of your fluent reading level, that all will affect how you approach extensive reading. Picking up an easy book can feel like admitting, to yourself and to the whole world, that after all of your hard work on kanji and particles and advanced vocabulary, this is still the level that’s comfortable for you. I sympathize. I mean, I’m writing this blog, so I really have admitted to the whole world “I love the Miffy books!” Add that to the feeling that you might have to bore yourself with several expensive books worth of baby bunnies, and I can see why someone wouldn’t want to try it: God knows grammar is boring, too, but at least it doesn’t make you feel ridiculous. The easy books stage is, however, just temporary, and it’s in service to the larger goal of reading whatever you want.
I do agree that the lack of kanji in easier books is backwards and annoying to adult learners who have been learning kanji nearly from the beginning of their studies, and books written in all or mostly hiragana are harder than books at the same level with a generous amount of kanji. Hiragana prevents you from making those connections between words that kanji is so useful for; there has been more than one time where I’ve been reading a book and thought “I can guess the meaning of this unknown word just fine from context, but if it was written in kanji, I’d have a much better chance of remembering it next time I see it.” It also aids quick, automatic vocabulary recognition, which is a big part of reading, because it’s slightly faster to read kanji that you know than the corresponding hiragana. Also, when I’m reading a long string of hiragana with no spaces, the more unknown words it contains, the more likely it is that I’m barely paying attention by the end of the sentence, because it becomes frustrating to try to understand which word ends where. Kanji almost serves the purpose that spaces do in English, because even if you’ve never seen the kanji before in your life it at least tells you “This probably starts a new word.”
The lack of kanji just isn’t a dealbreaker for me, though, because I don’t read to improve my kanji: I read to improve my reading. Reading ability is not solely based on how much kanji you know: it’s the simultaneous application of several skills, of which kanji knowledge is just one. Not to downplay the importance of kanji, because it really is the largest barrier to full literacy in Japanese, but you also have to be able to understand complex sentences without having to stop and think about them, sort out and make use of unknown information, read long strings of hiragana, read words without depending on the kanji (as sometimes authors choose to not use kanji for stylistic reasons, or play around with differences between the expected reading and the given one), predict upcoming content, supplement the text with the cultural information you already know and summon your entire stock of vocabulary. In any case, as my reading level increases kanji starts making its way into the picture, and I predict that most of my goal words will be supplied by level 5 and 6 books, so I don’t think that I’ll be missing out on kanji practice over the long term. Ideally, kanji and reading should reinforce each other, and I personally love kanji, but if I’ve got to choose between them for now I choose to spend my time reading. There are other ways to study kanji, but the only way to improve your reading skill is to read, and in my experience reading above your fluent reading level is not as effective as reading within it.
This is slightly off-topic, but a big reason I’m writing about why I believe extensive reading is a worthwhile technique is that I cannot be the only slow language learner out there! A lot of the writing done by native English speakers about extensive reading in Japanese presumes a high level of fluency, and a lot of people who want to try reading in Japanese start with Haruki Murakami or Harry Potter or their favorite manga. If you can honestly say you read those things quickly — comparable to your English reading speed, and without translation — and you only run into two or three unknown words per page which you can figure out from context or skip over without sacrificing understanding, then that’s fantastic. But I think that this can give the impression that extensive reading is only for people who could pass JLPT 1, or that reading comes naturally to a lucky few but if you can’t understand high-level books right off the bat, the problem is with you and you should continue studying textbooks until you can read these sorts of texts. I think it’s just the other way around: even beginning students should be able to get something out of extensive reading, and if they learn basic skills such as learning to deal with unknown words and quickly reading hiragana near the beginning of their studies, I would guess that such skills combined with whatever else they do to study should help them become proficient readers.
So there you have it: an overview of why I practice extensive reading, the reasons I think that starting with children’s books isn’t a drawback and my thoughts about reading and kanji. I hope that this has been of some interest to you and, even if it doesn’t sound like your thing, that it made you think about your own tactics and approach to reading. And yes, I hope you try extensive reading and try it in this particular way, and that you love it, write excited blog posts about it and spread the word about tadoku!
If you’d like to know more about extensive reading, I suggest you start with these pages:
- “What Is Extensive Reading?” by the Japanese Graded Readers Research Group, which created and published the only extensive readers currently available for Japanese learners.
- The Extensive Reading Pages, which is mostly geared towards English teachers but has plenty of general information.
- Interview with Kunihide Sakai, which describes how he actually conducted his classes.
- The SSS Extensive Reading Method, which goes into more detail about learning English in Japan through extensive reading; on this page, you can see some of the materials English learners have access to, such as books that catalog appropriate reading material and word counts.
- tadoku.org is, as I mentioned before, Professor Sakai’s website; it’s in Japanese, but if that doesn’t faze you the message board is a great place to meet other extensive reading enthusiasts, sometimes known as “tadokists.”
- Extensive reading is known as 多読, or tadoku in Japanese. To try it, start with very easy books (ones with no more than two or three unknown words per page), and follow these principles:
1. Don’t look up words in the dictionary while reading.
2. Skip over parts you don’t understand.
3. If you aren’t enjoying one book, toss it aside and get another.
Find something to read!
Hundreds of free books and stories online
Local bookstores and libraries
Buying new and used books online
For more information, read "What Is Extensive Reading?" and "Classification System."
To learn more about Kunihide Sakai, who developed the three principles of tadoku and has worked to popularize it in Japan for years, read this interview with him.
Finally, for more than you ever wanted to know about why I believe extensive reading is worth your time, read my tadoku manifesto.
Superfluous StatsBooks read: 303
Word count (since starting the blog): 380,500
- About Myself
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